The Penguin Press 2014
James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of those books that is hard to separate from its reputation. At one time that reputation would declare the book obscene; today the reputation is of a book that is obscure and difficult. And yet, despite the fact that it remains largely unread, it is a book that is cited as the great literary achievement of the twentieth century.
Kevin Birmingham’s history of the great struggles Joyce went through to write it — grinding poverty and years of painful trouble with his eyes — and the protracted and courageous efforts of his supporters to get it published, is an exhilarating and deeply informative read. It puts Ulysses in its historical context, right at the heart of modernism, which was, at the time of the First World War, a motley and disconnected insurgency of suffragists, anarchists, socialists and various types of artists. The flag-bearers of all these movements were small magazines devoted to their own particular causes, be those causes literary, feminist or political, and it was in these small publications that Joyce’s work first appeared. The Egoist, edited by Ezra Pound and later by Harriet Shaw Weaver was the first magazine to print excerpts from Ulysses and were among the first to publish T.S. Eliot. Later, The Little Review, based in New York and edited by the redoubtable Margaret Anderson — and with Ezra Pound as foreign editor — took up the cause and continued publishing the book in serial form. But Ulysses was deemed obscene in the US under the Comstock Act and under the Obscene Publications Act in Britain. (The book, contrary to legend, was never banned in Ireland but because the British publishing industry dominated the Irish market it meant that the book was only ever clandestinely available.) Eventually Morris Ernst, a lawyer and co-founder of the ACLU, forced the issue to trial in the US. He imported the book from France, with glowing reviews from intellectual authorities pasted into the cover. He alerted the US authorities of its arrival by steamship. He claimed it from customs when it wasn’t confiscated and forced the authorities to press charges against the book. Random House publishing group also managed to import a copy under the 1930 Tariff Act, citing a loophole and claiming the book as a modern classic. Thus the stage was set for the argument that, yes, Ulysses was obscene in some parts (a very small portion of the book) but that the book itself had such merit that it outweighed the importance of the objectionable material. The resulting ruling by Judge John Woolsey was that Ulysses should be allowed into the United States. He saw Joyce’s work as an honest attempt to portray the real thoughts of his characters and if some of those thoughts were sexual and discomfiting, well, Joyce was being loyal to his technique. (It’s interesting, too, that the first amendment was never even considered as an argument for the publication of Ulysses. Until the middle of the twentieth century it was considered that the first amendment was to do with political speech.)
I’ve been a fan of Ulysses for many years and will admit that it’s not a book that gave up its pleasures very readily. I had a couple of false starts, flailing about trying to find a handrail by which I might find direction and feel reassured that I was understanding what was going on. Oddly enough, it was after I’d read Finnegans Wake that I went back to Ulysses and was able to navigate without running too far aground. Finnegans Wake taught me not to worry too much about sense and to immerse myself in the language and the impressions that it created. Thus was I able to approach Ulysses and let it wash over me without needing to be guided by some omniscient narrator. Sense started to become apparent in time and I just had to trust that Joyce was not being deliberately arcane or difficult. He was trying to say what he needed to say in the way he needed to say it. I would, however, suggest that if you decide to read it — there’s a New Year’s Resolution for you — that you might want to use Harry Blamires' book The Bloomsday Book or some other such guide. The Blamires is something of an icon in Joyceana and a fine introduction.
This is not to say that one reading will give you all that there is to be gotten from the book. My father thought that it should be read every year and that every year new understandings of the book and of oneself would present themselves.
I have a little shelf in my library devoted to things Joycean. The Most Dangerous Book will take its place there and will probably be re-read soon. It’s a fine book.