Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Brutal Early Reviews of 20 Classic 20th-Century Novels

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1998, the Modern Library polled its editorial board to determine the 100 best novels published that century. While these classics are adored with the benefit of time and hindsight, they weren't universally loved when they were first published. Here are 20 harsh reviews of some of the best novels of the 20th century.

1. Ulysses – James Joyce

Joyce’s magnum opus redefined literature and was a major event upon its release in 1922. Some bought into its radical structure, but others didn’t—including fellow modernist Virginia Woolf. In her diary she called Ulysses “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating ... never did any book so bore me.”

2. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby (1925) Dust Jacket Illustration by Francis Cugat, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cited by many as the Great American Novel, Fitzgerald’s inimitable The Great Gatsby remains a staple in classrooms and on bookshelves the world over. Critic and journalist H.L. Mencken, however, called it “no more than a glorified anecdote,” and that “it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise [Fitzgerald’s debut novel].” In her review for the New York Evening World, critic Ruth Snyder said, “We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day.”

3. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

First edition of Lolita cover, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nabokov’s novel about a literature professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl wasn’t without controversy when it was published in 1958. Orville Prescott’s review in the New York Times listed two reasons why Lolita “isn't worth any adult reader's attention.” “The first,” he said, “is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” Later in the same review, he called Nabokov’s writing “highbrow pornography.”

4. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Cover art for the book Brave New World by Leslie Holland, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ritualistic and drug-filled dystopian world created by writer Aldous Huxley may have been too much for some when it was first published in 1931, but the New York Herald Tribune may have missed the point of the book altogether when their review called Brave New World “A lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.”

5. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22 original cover, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Heller’s satirical novel about World War II is so popular that the phrase “Catch-22” has become a ubiquitous modern idiom meaning a type of no-win situation. Heller was in a no-win situation, according to critic Richard Stern, whose New York Times review called the book “an emotional hodgepodge.” He added, “No mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.”

6. Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano first edition cover, fair use, courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

Lowry’s novel—about an alcoholic British consul in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration on the eve of World War II—has both dazzled and frustrated readers since its debut in 1947. The New Yorker only reviewed it in its “Briefly Noted” section, saying, “for all [Lowry’s] earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.”

7. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse first edition cover, fair use, courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

The New York Evening Post’s cleverly snide review of Woolf’s highly abstract Modernist masterpiece managed to praise her and shoot her down all in the same sentence: “Her work is poetry; it must be judged as poetry, and all the weaknesses of poetry are inherent in it.”

8. An American Tragedy – Theodore Dreiser

Dust jacket for Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, by Boni & Liveright. Courtesy of the New York Public LIbrary Digital Collection

This sprawling tale of love and deceit's influence has been made into an opera, a musical, a radio program, and more. When the novel was first published in 1925, the Boston Evening Telegraph called its main character, Clyde Griffiths, “one of the most despicable creations of humanity that ever emerged from a novelist’s brain,” and called Dreiser “a fearsome manipulator of the English language” with a style that “is offensively colloquial, commonplace and vulgar.”

9. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man published by Random House, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, cementing its reputation as one of the most important books about race and identity ever written. In its 1952 review, however, the Atlantic Monthly thought it suffered from “occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.”

10. Native Son – Richard Wright

First edition cover for Native Son, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Richard Wright’s Native Son is another classic American novel about the African American experience, but the New Statesman and The Nation found the book to be “unimpressive and silly, not even as much fun as a thriller.”

11. Henderson the Rain King – Saul Bellow

First edition cover of Henderson the Rain King, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bellow’s uniquely comic and philosophical novel about an American millionaire who unwittingly becomes the king of an African tribe was the author's personal favorite. But it wasn’t a favorite for critic Reed Whittemore. In his review for the New Republic, Whittemore posed this question to himself: “The reviewer looks at the evidence and wonders if he should damn the author and praise the book, or praise the author and damn the book. And is it possible, somehow or other to praise or damn, both? He isn’t sure.”

12. Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio First Edition Cover Published by B W Hubsch, Fair Use, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The interlaced short stories that take place in the fictional Ohio town that gives this book its name were based off of author Sherwood Anderson’s recollections from his childhood hometown of Clyde, Ohio. The veracity of those memories and the town were called into question in The Nation’s review of the book: “We sympathize with Mr. Anderson and what he is trying to do. He tries to find honest mid-American gods. Yet either he never does quite find them or he can never precisely set forth what he has found. It seems probably that he caricatures even Winesburg, Ohio.”

13. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Lord of the Flies first edition published by Faber & Faber, fair use, courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

Another book that will most likely be forever a part of high school and college literature class curriculum, Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s tale of the savage hearts of man told through the story of a group of British school children stranded on an uninhabited island. To some, it is a brutally honest portrayal of the depth of the human spirit, but to the New Yorker it was just “completely unpleasant.”

14.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises first edition, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hemingway’s debut novel about masculinity and the Lost Generation typifies the sparse and powerful writing style that his subsequent work would become known for. Some critics still believe it is his most important work. His mother Grace, on the other hand, did not. In a letter she wrote that Hemingway kept all his life, his mother said, “What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in loyalty, nobility, honor and fineness in life … surely you have other words in your vocabulary besides ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’—Every page fills me with a sick loathing—if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more—but pitch it in the fire.” It would seem that mother, in fact, may not know best.

15.  Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

First edition of Tropic of Cancer, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Miller’s Modernist touchstone is known mostly for its candid portrayal of sexuality and the obscenity trial it stirred up in the U.S. decades after its first publication in Paris in 1934. While writers like George Orwell praised Miller and his book, saying he’s “the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years,” Time magazine described Miller and the book’s autobiographical main character as “a gadfly with delusions of grandeur.”

16. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer

First edition The Naked and the Dead, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Norman Mailer's debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences with the 112th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines during World War II. It made many readers feel like they were actually there, but other readers, like the the New Republic's critic, didn’t agree: “For the most part, the novel is a transcription of soldiers’ talk, lusterless griping and ironed-out obscenities, too detailed and monotonous to have been imaginatively conceived for any larger purpose but too exact and literal to have been merely guessed at … This doesn’t mean to deny Mailer his achievement. If he has a taste for transcribing banalities, he also has a talent for it.”

17. Portnoy’s Complaint — Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint Cover, Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ask someone for a list of the greatest living American writers and chances are you’re going to hear the name Philip Roth pop up. His 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint—comprised of one continuous sex-filled inner monologue told to a psychoanalyst by the book’s protagonist, Alexander Portnoy—really put him on the map. America magazine turned their noses up at it, though, saying, “…it is finally a definitive something or other. I regret that it is not a definitive something.”

18. On the Road – Jack Kerouac

First edition On the Road, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation have inspired countless writers since they galvanized American literature in the '50s and '60s. Many loved the hedonistic spontaneity of Kerouac's On the Road, but Ben Ray Redman of the Chicago Tribune chided the freewheeling hipster, saying, “He can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words. His best, however, makes it clear that he is a writer to watch. But if this watching is to be rewarded, he must begin to watch himself.”

19. Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

First edition Catcher in the Rye, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Salinger tapped into just what it’s like to be a confused and volatile teenager with his protagonist Holden Caulfield, cementing his novel’s place in the pantheon of important American literature. But such honesty rubbed some people the wrong way, especially the prudish reviewers at the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, who said, “Recent war novels have accustomed us all to ugly words and images, but from the mouths of the very young and protected they sound peculiarly offensive … the ear refuses to believe.”

20. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Front cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, fair use, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To Kill a Mockingbird is author Harper Lee’s sole published book to date, and it is an undeniable classic. You think you'd be hard pressed to find negative comments about such a ubiquitous and beloved book, but oh how wrong you’d be. In a letter she sent to writer Caroline IveyFlannery O’Connor said of Lee’s Mockingbird, “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.”

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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12 Facts About James Joyce
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June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.

1. HE WAS ONLY 9 WHEN HIS FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WAS PUBLISHED.

In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.

2. HE CAUSED A CONTROVERSY AT HIS COLLEGE’S PAPER.

While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.

3. NORA BARNACLE GHOSTED HIM FOR THEIR PLANNED FIRST DATE.

By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.

4. HE HAD REALLY BAD EYES.

While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.

5. HE TAUGHT ENGLISH AT A BERLITZ LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.

6. HE INVESTED IN A MOVIE THEATER.

There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)

7. HE TURNED TO A COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED PUBLISHER TO RELEASE HIS MOST WELL-KNOWN BOOK.

The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.

8. ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS HIS DRINKING BUDDY—AND SOMETIMES HIS BODYGUARD.

Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"

9. HE MET ANOTHER MODERNIST TITAN—AND HAD A TERRIBLE TIME.

Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”

10. HE CREATED A 100-LETTER WORD TO DESCRIBE HIS FEAR OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).

11. HE’S THOUGHT OF AS A LITERARY GENIUS, BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

12. HIS SUPPOSED FINAL WORDS WERE AS ABSTRACT AS HIS WRITING.

Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce

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