Ulysses is one of the great novels of all time, and its story is one that many of us think we have known.
I thought I knew the story, sort of, for I once wrote a thesis on Samuel Beckett, who was a friend to Joyce and a reader for him in Paris when Joyce’s eyesight was failing. So of course I read a lot about Joyce and Beckett, back in the day, including Richard Ellmann’s acclaimed Joyce biography. Ellmann discusses the Ulysses trials only in passing, however, in about three pages.
There was always more to know, and Kevin Birmingham’s book is the one that shows me how little I really knew. It tells us the story in detail, and it provides the cultural and political context within which we can appreciate it. And it does all that compellingly, like a page-turner.
Until I read The Most Dangerous Book (The Penguin Press, 2014), I didn’t know quite how difficult were the conditions under which Ulysses was written: the political circumstances—during World War I, in Trieste, an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the family circumstances of an impoverished Irish family in exile, dependent mostly on Joyce’s uncertain income from teaching English as a second language.
I didn’t really understand quite how harrowing the medical circumstances were, with Joyce undergoing eye surgery repeatedly, without anaesthesia. I didn’t appreciate how dire the legal circumstances were, either, in a world in which it was a criminal offence to write, publish, or print any material, even a sentence or two, that the law deemed “obscene.”
I knew that Leopold Bloom was a Jewish gentleman, but I didn’t know—or I had forgotten--about the Jewish gentleman who helped Joyce one night in Dublin and became a model for Leopold Bloom. I certainly didn’t know much about Joyce’s publishers, short though the list of publishers is. I didn’t know how influential T. S. Eliot was in promoting the virtues of Ulysses. And I didn’t know which publishers declined to publish Joyce's work. That’s a long list that includes just about everyone, from Duckworth to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.
I didn’t know that most of the novel’s early, intrepid publishers were women. I didn’t know the anarchist and suffragist context that gave these women the daring they needed to publish Joyce. Above all, I didn’t appreciate the audacity involved in writing and publishing this most dangerous of books.
Mostly, though, Kevin Birmingham’s book reminds me what really matters, when it comes to writing and publishing. Not the flavour of the month. Not a telegenic look. Not marketing might and advertising dollars. Not a big publisher. What matters is quality. What matters is integrity. What matters is daring.
I didn’t appreciate the love involved in the writing of Ulysses, either. For Ulysses is for Nora Barnacle, the Galway girl who was Joyce’s lover and the mother of his children. The novel is a monument to their first evening together, in Dublin, on June 16, 1904, 111 years ago today. We call it Bloomsday.
Ulysses was inspired in part by the erotic letters that Joyce wrote to Nora. As Birmingham writes, in some ways Nora “became a model for every reader Joyce ever wanted. He wanted people to read novels the way they would read erotic letters. He treated readers as if they were lovers.”
© 2015, Linda Leith
This text was presented at the closing event of the Bloomsday Festival at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal on June 16, 2015.