One small scene from the annals of heroic modernism is the moment when, in the winter of 1921, the French novelist and critic Valery Larbaud gave the world’s first-ever talk on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, at Shakespeare & Company, an Anglophone bookstore and lending library in Paris, run by a young American woman called Sylvia Beach. The book had still not been published—and Joyce was not well known. No critic had examined his work in depth, and not many of even the most literary people in England or America had heard of him. But in the last two or three years, Larbaud explained, Joyce had acquired an “extraordinary notoriety”—he had become the literary equal of Freud or Einstein. His name was an alluring rumor. Those who had read his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and especially those who had managed to read his new novel Ulysses, as serialized in the New York magazine The Little Review, all agreed.
And yet, Larbaud had to admit:
If you ask a member of the (American) Society for the Suppression of Vice: “Who is James Joyce?” you will receive the following reply: “He is an Irishman who has written a pornographic work called Ulysses which we have successfully prosecuted when it appeared in the Little Review in New York.”
For what had happened to Flaubert and Baudelaire, said Larbaud, had happened to Joyce. His art had been deemed obscene. Larbaud’s proposal, therefore, was to “try to describe the work of James Joyce as precisely as possible.” And then he began his lecture, using notes prepared by Joyce himself.
“All men should ‘Unite to give praise to Ulysses’; those who will not, may content themselves with a place in the lower intellectual orders,” wrote Ezra Pound a few months later, after the novel was finally published—by Shakespeare & Company, in its first venture as a publishing house. But you can only truly praise something you understand, and no one was quite certain what Ulysses was. Joyce’s novel created a vast transatlantic tremor of anxiety. Pound called it a “super-novel,” and even Joyce had problems of definition. In a letter to another of his supervised interpreters, Carlo Linati, he called it an “epic,” an “encyclopedia,” and most charmingly a “maledettissimo romanzaccione” (fucking novelosaurus). Only the gargantuan proportions were sure.
Should it have been so difficult? This novel has a story, after all. The date is June 16, 1904. The setting is Dublin. And the hero is Leopold Bloom—a devoted husband to his wife Molly, with whom he has one daughter. Jewish by race, Christian by baptism, and atheist by inclination, Bloom is really a believer in reason and science: he is the everyman of the democratic twentieth century. He works in the newspaper world as an advertising salesman. Calmly he goes about his business on this sunny day in June—cooking breakfast, attending a funeral, having lunch, negotiating with a client, sitting on the beach—wandering in Dublin, just as Ulysses once wandered in the Mediterranean during his long journey home.
The difference is that this Ulysses is avoiding his home: for he knows that Molly has an appointment that afternoon with the dapper Blazes Boylan—ostensibly to discuss a singing tour, but probably to consummate their flirtation. And so he pauses in pubs and bars, encountering a cast of kibitzers and schlemiels that includes, in particular, Stephen Dedalus, student of philosophy, with dreams of literary glory, whom the avant-garde reader would remember from A Portrait of the Artist, just as that reader would recognize many characters from Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories.
It’s true that a story that takes place over one day, without the usual sequence of grand events, was not an obvious genre. But this was the new avant-garde invention. It was not so arcane. As early as 1914, Ezra Pound had praised the stories in Dubliners precisely for this refusal of plot: “Life for the most part does not happen in neat little diagrams and nothing is more tiresome than the continual pretence that it does.” But then, the absence of plot was not the only problem. There was also the craziness of the technique.
Joyce’s novel employed the largest range of styles—a series of rapid innovations—ever seen in a single novel. Its first impression on the startled reader was a kind of intellectual blur. Most notorious was Joyce’s lavish use of the technique that became known, following Larbaud’s lecture, as interior monologue. This kind of thing:
A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last. He stood by the nextdoor girl at the counter. Would she buy it too, calling the items from a slip in her hand. Chapped: washing soda. And a pound and a half of Denny’s sausages. His eyes rested on her vigorous hips. Woods his name is. Wonder what he does. Wife is oldish. New blood. No followers allowed.
All the usual demarcations—between dialogue and thought and description—were now jumbled. (Joyce appropriated the technique from a minor nineteenth-century novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés, by Édouard Dujardin.) However, the technique could be gradually understood by the patient reader. True, one episode, set in a newspaper office, was interrupted with headlines, and a later episode, in a saloon bar, where songs were being solemnly recited, came with its own overture, but the committed reader could cope. Late in this day’s afternoon, however, a flamboyant range of styles took over: sports journalism, sentimental fiction, and even a sequential historical pastiche of English prose style. “I understand that you may begin to regard the various styles of the episodes with dismay,” Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, his most devoted patron and editor of The Egoist, which had serialized Portrait,
and prefer the initial style much as the wanderer did who longed for the rock of Ithaca. But in the compass of one day to compress all these wanderings and clothe them in the form of this day is for me only possible by such variation which, I beg you to believe, is not capricious.
And this manic variation culminated in a final chapter where Bloom’s wife Molly, lying in bed, thinks to herself, with almost no punctuation, in a free flow of domestic, dirty associations: “I know every turn in him Ill tighten my bottom well and let out a few smutty words smellrump or lick my shit….” This was the extra problem with Ulysses. Joyce’s stylistic one-man band included a linguistic obscenity that had not been used before so casually or comprehensively in literature. This not only upset the critics; it upset the lawyers, too.
And of course it’s easy to laugh at the critics, just as it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. Look at them handle this masterpiece! At the end of 1922, Sir Archibald Bodkin, the director for public prosecutions, wrote a legal opinion explaining why Ulysses was to be banned in Great Britain. He had only read the last chapter, and was “entirely unable to appreciate how those pages are relevant to the rest of the book, or, indeed, what the book itself is about.” And yet, he concluded, there was “a great deal more than mere vulgarity or coarseness, there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity.”
Yes, it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. But what if the lawyers were right? For the question that still needs to be answered, I think, is whether the arguments over the novel’s obscenity and obscurity were just temporary historical effects or whether they point to the essence of Joyce’s originality. Or at least, that is the question raised by Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham is a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, and he has written a detailed account of the gestation, publication, and legal battles of Ulysses—a compendium of raw materials that can also point toward why Ulysses, nearly one hundred years later, is still the romanzaccione of the future.
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