Several years ago I was teaching some good students at a bad university. I became aware that there were rumours circulating about James Joyce’s Ulysses: someone knew someone who had read it. So-and-so claimed to be about to read it. The English department in which I worked only added to the mystery, lecturing on modernism but not assigning its works, which were deemed too complicated for twenty-year-olds (notwithstanding that when Joyce began Ulysses he was hardly a magisterial age).
Ulysses is a monument, sure: of tragedy, comedy, of art. But a literary monument isn’t like a statue: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Any writer wants to be read. Joyce wanted, desperately, to be read by the whole world, so he wrote the one book which contains the whole world, and we should all return the favour by reading it. It’s only a book – and that’s what is so great about it. You can go into a shop, buy it and read it. And then your life will be different. It’s a great system.
Books about Ulysses are many, and a lot of them aren’t very good. But Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is a riveting account of just how difficult it was to bring Ulysses into the world, and how many people didn’t want it here, and who the hell they were. Their reasons now seem hopelessly antique and vapid, precisely because Ulysses was eventually born to us and helped us.
Ulysses was a hero, Joyce was a hero, Leo Bloom is a hero. Molly is one of the great heroines of literature. Birmingham’s book is a book of heroes, too, if not of saints: you reel from the sheer number of very bold men and, crucially, women without whom Ulysses wouldn’t have happened. The first was Nora Barnacle, the frank and witty woman who inspired the book and stood by Joyce through poverty and illness, exasperating though he was: when he was nearing the end of his task, she told him ‘You’re as dumb as an oyster now.’
The Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach was a godsend to Joyce, and eventually the first publisher of Ulysses, though in the end he bullied her, like many, into a sad retreat. Harriet Weaver gave Joyce money for many years and attempted to bring out the book in Britain, wandering London in search of a printer brave enough. Jane Heap and Mary Anderson ran the Little Review in which Ulysses started to appear in 1918. Anderson said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives’. A few years later it was banned, and burned.
Ezra Pound, taking umbrage at the novel’s many rejections, said in 1916, ‘Why can’t you send the publishers’ readers to the Serbian front and get some good out of the war?’ The book pirate Samuel Roth turns out to have been a (troublesome) hero of Ulysses by constantly threatening to publish a corrupt edition. One marks with deep admiration Maurice Darantière, the plucky printer of Dijon, typesetting by hand a huge book in a language he didn’t know and weekly tearing his hair out. When he thought the galleys were finally finished he got a telegram from Joyce with just one more word to add: ‘atonement’! And there’s a fascinating guy aptly named Barnet Braverman, who smuggled lots of copies of Ulysses across the U.S./Canadian border. In his trousers.
There are stories both horrid and funny associated with such a cultural earthquake. Birmingham is quite dauntingly surgical in his descriptions of Joyce’s medical troubles: chronic eye disease due to syphilis, and most of the infirmities of poverty. Ulysses, he notes, is the great novel of the human body, and the pain Joyce suffered in his own was transubstantiated for us all in the book.
One of the great escapades concerns Morris Ernst, the brilliant lawyer hired by Random House in 1931 to bring Joyce’s novel to trial, yet again. The publishers had to get a copy of Ulysses confiscated by customs so the fracas could officially begin – but the book arrived on a hugely crowded boat and the inspectors were just waving everything through. So Ernst went back to the customs shed the next day, suitcase containing evil book in hand, and opened it. ‘Aha!’ he said, ‘a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce!’ The officers thought he was crazy, but eventually allowed themselves to seize it.
One of the better known champions of the novel was John Woolsey, perhaps the only federal circuit judge who could have found in favour of Ulysses, and he did. His opinion was stirring and eloquent: ‘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?’
Ulysses bothers people. That is one of its many beauteous functions. It bothers people because it is earthy, but more because of the way it’s written: with an insistent, uncompromising, revealing humanity. After reading Ulysses you’ll never be able to escape from yourself. And if that isn’t an attractive offer, how about this: when you buy The Most Dangerous Book, you’re entitled to a free download of Ulysses! (Applause.)
This review appeared in the Herald, 16 June 2014