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A Letter from Louis Gillet
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A Letter from Louis Gillet

“Oui. Finnegan’s Wake [sic], quel désastre!” Louis Gillet, letter to Ernst-Robert Curtius, 27 August 19391

To those who can read between the lines, as most Joyceans must surely have learned to do, Louis Gillet’s true feelings about Joyce’s last opus will not come as a complete surprise. It was nevertheless quite a shock when I discovered a letter from Gillet addressed to the famous German critic and philologist Ernst-Robert Curtius, written after they had both received their first copies of the work no longer in “pregross” (FW 284.22).2 On the eve of the international conflict that would make communication nearly impossible between them, Joyce’s great defender and faithful French friend wrote to the pioneer credited with the introduction of Joyce’s work in Germany, and the letter opens with the words: “Finnegan’s Wake [sic], quel désastre!” Gillet is utterly disappointed: “I am appalled. Dismayed even,” he writes, and later, “I am flabbergasted” (literally, in the idiomatic French phrase used by Gillet, “my arms are falling off me”).3 He surmises that Curtius must feel the same, yet protests that Joyce is his friend and cannot be told the truth.4 Interestingly, when Curtius is mentioned in Richard Ellmann’s biography or in Joyce’s correspondence, it is often to say that Joyce attempted to justify his new project to him and enlist his support for Work in Progress.5 From the tone of this letter and Gillet’s apparent conviction that Curtius was of the same mind as he was, it seems Joyce had not succeeded in making his point.

Gillet pursues this criticism over one long paragraph. Most of it has to do with his sense that Joyce has wasted his time and immense talent: “Seventeen years to write this monumental ‘failure.’ . . . So much knowledge, wit and genius, to render oneself insignificant and unintelligible.”6 Echoing Curtius himself, who, at the end of his 1929 essay about Ulysses, had spoken of Joyce’s “metaphysical nihilism” and ventured that the book was “sterile,”7 Gillet even calls Finnegans Wake a “painstaking, monstrous ‘miscarriage.’”8 And it is not only Curtius’s public views that are echoed in this private letter but Gillet’s as well: the reproaches he voices are not fundamentally different in content from what one can read in the essays written by him before and after this letter, although the tone is clearly not the same. Whereas [End Page 745] the letter complains about “that verbalism, that rhetoric, that dreadful virtuosity! . . . that deluge of polyglot concetti,9 Gillet’s articles praise Joyce’s linguistic skills and the richness of his multilingual wordplay, quoting and analyzing several examples.10 Even though he admits finding some passages in Finnegans Wake opaque,11 he always remains, in appearances anyway, fully complimentary about Joyce’s “babble of a Babel.”12 He does, however, advise publishing a sort of bilingual edition in which would be found, on one side, what he calls the “original text” and, on the other, all the “interlace, paraphs, ornaments,” which must have been added subsequently to an at-first perfectly intelligible text.13 In the letter to Curtius, he also bemoans the lack of characters, the absence of organization or descriptive qualities, the reduction to “a game of [empty] generalities” that reminds him of Scholastics.14 Clearly Gillet expected, with the eventual publication of Finnegans Wake, that the complete picture would suddenly leap out at him from the page and all the apparently disorderly bits fall into place, that he would be able to identify a well-defined, organizing design, on the model of the schema for Ulysses, which he had praised, for instance, in his 1931 article.15

At the end of the paragraph, Gillet mentions what he identifies as the medieval quality of Finnegans Wake.16 This is perhaps not an unexpected feature in a letter addressed to Curtius, the author of the renowned European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.17 Gillet specifically mentions two minor medieval genres (“le quiproquo, le coq-à-l’âne”) as well as two minor authors (“Merlin...