A member of the Royal Irish Constabulary was killed in Killarney by the IRA on February 2, 1922, a month after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was passed in the Dáil and a Provisional Government set up to oversee the transfer of British rule. This can be seen as marking the start of a new wave of violence that would become the Irish Civil War.
Earlier in the morning of that same day, a woman named Sylvia Beach was standing in the Gare de Lyon in Paris waiting for the arrival of the express train from Dijon. She wasn’t looking for a passenger, but rather the train driver and a package entrusted to him. It contained two advance copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book for which Sylvia Beach had to borrow and beg for money to pay the printer. It reached him just in time for the agreed deadline – the author’s 40th birthday.
James Joyce was living in Paris at the time, and after Beach gave her a boxed copy in her apartment, she placed the other in the window of her bookstore.
The book’s presence in the window of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop marked a change in the history of literature, as significant in its own way as the shootings at Killarney which marked the beginning of a violent new period in history. Irish.
People came to stare at the book in the window of the Beach Bookstore – its title in white letters on a bright blue background – because it had already achieved infamy. Ulysses had been partially serialized in an American literary publication until an obscenity suit led to a fine from its editors and the burning of the magazine by the authorities. In 1923 an attempt to import copies of the book into Britain resulted in another massive fire and, although self-censorship did not necessitate its banning in Ireland, it was not readily available in the country. before the 1960s.
The history of the book is made of pirated editions, smuggling, scholarly disputes, controversies, legal actions and, at first, indignation. A British newspaper warned of its “impure follies”, and an Irish critic spoke of its “diabolical soaking”, advising the Vatican to place it on the Index Expurgatorius so that Catholics would be prohibited from reading it.
However, it didn’t take long for the beating to be forgotten and replaced with universal acclaim. Joyce’s surviving grandson, Stephen, became very protective of the rights he held to Joyce’s estate, a situation that only changed in early 2012 when European law allowed the right to be waived. author 70 years after the death of an author.
Ulysses’ status as a defining work of modernism remains intact, and the anniversary of its first publication is celebrated around the world. Penguin Classics released a beautiful, compact, cloth-bound edition, while Other Press released a gloriously illustrated edition with images by Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo. It’s a beautiful coffee table-style book that bears eloquent testimony to Ulysses’ inexhaustible ability to inspire others.
The illustrated edition’s illustration should help new readers who begin the novel with good intentions but become bogged down in its difficult third chapter. This section could be skipped and it would not be a crime to delay the reading of the first three chapters entirely, starting instead with the scene in Leopold Bloom’s house in Eccles St – where the first word does not come from a human but of a cat (“Mkgnao! ‘) – as he prepares breakfast for his wife Molly who is in bed upstairs. The opening chapters can be skipped when the reader wants to know more about the young man, Stephen Dedalus, whom Bloom will eventually meet at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles St. The novel’s other significant encounter, Molly Bloom’s subpoena with another man, takes place off the page, but it occupies the spirit of her husband throughout the day.
Ulysses isn’t a beach read, despite a photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading her in a bathing suit, but neither is it inscrutable. Monroe wasn’t a “dumb blonde”—the photograph wasn’t a publicity stunt—and she kept the book in her car because she liked reading it. She admitted it was difficult at times, the simple truth being that anyone who sets out to read the novel sometimes needs a helping hand. Sylvia Beach gave Joyce carte blanche to make changes to proofs from the printer – he was still receiving corrections at the end of January – and a third of the novel was written that way, adding new layers of meaning and references that make it so multifaceted.
The Ireland that Odysseus embodies and gives to several voices was a colony of the British Empire, and on the day around which the novel is built – June 16, 1904 – the viceroy, representative of British domination, set off on a cavalcade through the capital inaugurate a bazaar. It was not a big deal for most Dubliners, as the novel makes clear, but its presence in Ulysses is just one example of Joyce’s abiding anti-imperialist concern for the colonial relationship between Ireland and England and the nationalist politics it engendered.
It is the subject of a candidate for the most important book on Ulysses – Joyce’s Revenge by Andrew Gibson – an account, conducted with the precision of a pathologist conducting a post-mortem examination, of how Joyce examined the language of colonial domination and the nationalist response, Ulysses, mixing the political with the personal, is also a book about marriage and the famous “yes” at the end of the novel tells how Molly and Leopold Bloom successfully negotiate sex, secrets and the sublime side of theirs.
It is also, Gibson argues in Joyce’s Revenge, an anticipation of the progressive possibilities opened up by the end of the Revolutionary War. Joyce wrote his last chapter in August 1921, just after the truce between the IRA and the British army. By early the following year, the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty had narrowed the possibilities, and Joyce’s hopes were derailed. But, as with all birthdays, the course of what happens next cannot be known, and February 2 was a joyous occasion when Joyce unwrapped his present and saw in print the book he had spent seven years on. work in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.
It was, and still is, a time to rejoice.
The centenary of its publication usefully produces some guides to the complexity and richness of the book’s allusions. Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey has just been published by the current Irish Ambassador to the United States, David Mulhall. Having had Irish literature in his diplomatic baggage for four decades, as he puts it, Mulhall is good at introducing the book to new readers, and his commentary on the novel’s eighteen episodes is a reassuring and comfortable read. Mulhall’s guide and RTÉ’s faithful dramatization of the novel are a good way to launch into a reading of Ulysses.
The map guide by Ian Gunn and Clive Hart, now freely available in pdf format, is also very useful. Joyce worked with a map of Dublin, and the geographical accuracy of the novel is rightly legendary, making the city itself a character in the novel.
Reading Ulysses can be addictive, and getting addicted involves consulting second-tier guides. There is a new edition of Terence Killeen’s Ulysses Unbound and Sean Sheehan’s Joyce’s Ulysses: A Reader’s Guide. The ultimate guide to the novel’s encyclopedic detail is a scholarly new tome, Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which will hopefully be available in public libraries while insatiably curious readers of the novel await an affordable paperback edition.