Ulysses by James Joyce is one of those books you either hate or really hate. There are a few people who must love it, since it consistently ranks high on 100 best lists for fiction, from Modern Library’s to the New York Times, but I don’t think I’ve actually met anyone who’s raved about it, let alone liked it that much. Even Virginia Woolf once remarked that she was at first amused, stimulated, and charmed by it, but soon was “puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” (223) Even though Woolf changed her view a few years later, at this point, Ulysses seems more admired than beloved.
I’ve only dipped into Ulysses on occasion, not going much further than 50 pages or so. Which for me is odd because I think of Joyce as one of my favorite authors, having read Portrait of an Artist as Young Man several times, along with being in awe of the mastery in Dubliners. I even like his poetry. And even though I haven’t finished Finnegan’s Wake, I find it much more pleasurable prose to dive into. But Ulysses has eluded me somewhat, just simply bidding my time to figure out a way into that world.
With Kevin Birmingham’s new study, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle of James Joyce’s Ulysses, has given me a few new ways in how to approach Joyce’s impenetrable brick. In fact, after finishing Birmingham’s history, that reads more like an intellectual thriller, I’m bit excited to try out Ulysses once again.
A combination of biography, history, literary insight, and political commentary, Birmingham brings to life the world of Modernism at the turn of the last century, covering much, from censorship, anarchist movements, little magazines, and World War I witch hunts to such legendary characters such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, and of course, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. He traces how Joyce’s stature and reputation built over time and when Ulysses finally saw the light of day, how a growing group of dedicated readers defended and disseminated his work under the threat of great personal cost.
[Sylvia Beach] would issue the single most difficult book anyone had published in decades. It would be monstrously large, prohibitively expensive and impossible to proofread. It was a book without a home, an Irish novel written in Trieste, Zurich and Paris to be published in France in riddling English by a bookseller from New Jersey. Joyce’s readership was scattered. The book was at turns obscure and outrageous, its beauty and pleasures were so coy, its tenderness so hidden by erudition, that when it did not estrange its readers it provoked them. Ulysses was not even finished, and already it had been declared obscene in New York and burned in anger in Paris. (203)
Why divisive? Why groundbreaking? First off, despite it’s high minded literary intricacies, the book contains enough vulgar and disgusting details that many took offense. It went so far in some people’s view that the Dublin Review asked the Vatican to put the book on the Index Expurgatorius, in which “merely reading Ulysses amounted to sinning against the Holy Ghost, the only sin beyond the reach of God’s mercy.” (221) First thing I thought was: really? But Ulysses apparently did provoke a tremendous amount of emotion, both political and religious.
Nearly a century later, the reactions of Ulysses can feel overblown – like hype from like-minded friends and bombast from journalists trying to sell papers. These days, Ulysses may seem more eccentric than epoch changing, and it can be difficult to see how Joyce’s novel (how any novel, perhaps) could have been revolutionary. This is because all revolutions look tame from the other side. They change our perspectives so thoroughly that their innovations become platitudes. We forget what the old world was like, forget even that things could have been another way. And yet they were. To understand how thoroughly Joyce broke conventions, it helps to remember how stringent they were. (224-225)
I’ve known Ulysses was censored for a period of time, but I really didn’t know the details or how that played out in the culture at large. And even though I knew Ulysses included the profane along with the sacred and mundane, I guess it certainly couldn’t have been that terribly offensive. Having not read far enough into the novel, I missed out on those dirty bits, but after finishing Birmingham’s study, let me tell you dirty bits they certainly are. In fact, for a man my age, I’m not easily shocked, but even I had a figurative blush cross my face a couple times while reading The Most Dangerous Book.
But is something that is vulgar or disgusting the same as legally obscene? That’s the question. Birmingham provides an excellent history of censorship in the US and Europe, which is worth reading the book just for that. This history culminates in the 1933 trial of The United States of America v That One Book “Ulysses,” in which Judge Woolsey made Ulysses legal to sell and trade in the US and effectively changed obscenity law for decades to come. From the decision:
In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of a mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers…when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?
Joyce has attempted – it seems to me, with astonishing success – to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in the penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. (328-329)
It’s that last part of Judge Woolsey’s decision that probably brings us back around to why people dislike Ulysses so much: it’s damn bloody difficult reading. It’s not a normal narrative or story in any sense of the word. As Birmingham points out,
Narratives are the way we make sense of the world. We parcel existence into events and string them into cause-and-effect sequences…Novels are important because they turn that basic conceptual framework into an art form. A beautiful narrative arc reassures us that the baffling events around us are meaningful – and this is why Ulysses appeared to be an instrument of chaos, an anarchist bomb. To disrupt the narrative method was to disrupt the order of things. Joyce, it seemed, wasn’t devoted to reality. He appeared to be sweeping it away. (226-227)
And dissecting this disruption is where Birmingham’s book truly shines. We know that Ulysses has its dirty bits, and if one starts reading it for that sole pleasure, you will likely find yourself sorely unfulfilled. But Birmingham provides enough literary insight and cultural context of the broader impact of Ulysses that I started finding a foothold on what the book is doing that I didn’t quite understand before.
But this book is not just about Ulysses, it is about the man James Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle. Having never got around to reading the standard Richard Ellmann biography of Joyce, many of these personal stories and moments were fascinating, and definitely more blush-worthy than Ulysses itself. Let’s just say some of Joyce’s letters to Nora is some of the most extraordinary vulgarities I’ve ever come across, coupled with a tremendous pathos and intellect. Another part of Joyce’s life that is explored is the development of his eye disease and how it affected his writing and relationships – it was harrowing to say the least. For Joyce to have gone on and written the far more difficult yet more humorous work Finnegan’s Wake under the shadow of blindness and debilitating pain, puts his art in the face of pain and death into stark and haunting relief.
So, is Ulysses worth reading despite it difficulty? I think every reader can find a why in if they want to. Some people can pick it up and enjoy the hell out of it. Others, probably most, walk away confused, bored, or both. But that is no reason to give up. Some of the most rewarding experiences tend to be the most challenging. Birmingham’s own manifesto for Ulysses inspires one to try the challenge, providing a path to its multiple pleasures.
It’s tempting to think of Ulysses as a book about how feeble life has become in the modern era. The warrior King of Ithaca is reduced to a lonely, cuckolded ad salesman, and the defiant genius who penned the novel was reduced to a rueful figure tapping his cane down foreign streets… Even a book like Ulysses, we consider essential to our culture heritage, might never have happened – might have ended in a New York police court or with the outbreak of a world war – if it were not for a handful of awestruck people. Joyce’s novel, with its intricacies and schoolboy adventures, with each measured and careful page, gave them what it gives us: a way to sally forth into the greater world, to walk out into the garden, to see the heaventree of stars as if for the first time and affirm, against the incalculable odds, our own diminutive existence. It is the fragility of our affirmations – no matter how indecorous they may be – that makes them so powerful. (342)