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How ‘Ulysses’ came to bloom

Kevin Birmingham has written the “biography” of a modernist standard-bearer that on publication was banned and burnt because of its revolutionary sexual explicitness.

James Joyce’s Ulysses “destroyed the whole of the 19th century” and “showed up the futility of all the English styles”, said TS Eliot. It was “a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape”. Arnold Bennett marvelled that “he says everything – everything” and reckoned “the code is smashed to bits”. You call it “the most dangerous book”. Why?

Ulysses seemed to be an attack upon literary tradition, which many people considered part of society’s foundation. Attacking tradition seemed especially dangerous in the aftermath of World War I, when people were apt to think of civilisation as fragile. Beyond that, Ulysses emphasises the sexuality of women like Molly Bloom and Gerty MacDowell, and the censorship regime wouldn’t tolerate this. It was, they thought, a direct threat to monogamy, to families and, in turn, to society. Female characters were supposed to be punished for having extramarital sexual lives – or even thoughts. Joyce broke that crucial rule.

You calculate there are roughly 300 books devoted, partly or entirely, to the novel. What does yours add or do differently?

It’s part of a rapidly growing genre: the biography of a book. I recount the remarkable life of Ulysses from Joyce’s first inspiration to his many years of writing, to the book’s publication, its banning and burning and smuggling and, finally, its legalisation after more than a decade. Biographers and scholars naturally focus on people or on interpreting the final text. The Most Dangerous Book treats Ulysses as the main character in a story that involves an array of remarkable people. Books involve much more than their authors.

One thing you do is provide an explanation for Joyce’s sickliness and failing eyesight: syphilis.

Joyce had decades of “eye attacks”, and for decades syphilis has been a suspected cause. Of course, a post-mortem diagnosis is inherently problematic, but I’ve identified a drug Joyce was given in 1928 as a drug doctors only used to treat syphilis.

The novel’s extreme modernism and sexual explicitness became entwined – by implication and sometimes overtly – with fear of the era’s radical political movements, especially anarchism.

It’s one of the fascinating aspects of this story. Joyce declared himself a non-violent anarchist in his mid-twenties, and several reviewers (perhaps perceptively) declared that Ulysses was literary anarchism. The novel first caught the attention of the US Government because it was being serialised in a New York magazine called the Little Review, which was being monitored during and after World War I because it had “anarchist tendencies”.

Smuggling, pirated editions – you talk about “bootlegged” copies at one point, and there is indeed something of the spirit of Prohibition about parts of the story.

Prohibition in the US began and ended at almost exactly the same time as the US Government’s actions against Ulysses. Controlling books and alcohol were ways of controlling an increasingly urban population. Both policies stemmed from the fear that society was on the brink of collapse. We don’t worry about books and alcohol any more, but that fear among some people seems perpetual.

There was sinister censorship in the UK, including when FR Leavis tried to buy a copy to discuss in a lecture course.

The British Home Office directed Cambridge police to dig up information on Leavis, and the director of public prosecutions threatened Cambridge University with criminal prosecution if they found anyone circulating Ulysses – he didn’t even want the book to be discussed in lectures! The logic of censorship is that silence kills.

If it were today, Joyce would have self-published it as an e-book and before he knew it would have had a Fifty Shades of Grey on his hands.

I’m not sure what Joyce would have thought about e-books or self-publication. He would have loved the freedom of it – no editors or publishers to worry about – but he loved the physical book and I think he’d prefer reaching small numbers of highly interested readers.

Is it fair to say EL James can date the freedom of sexual expression she enjoys back to Joyce?

Any sexually explicit book owes something to Ulysses. The 1933 case didn’t single-handedly dismantle censorship, but it marked the beginning of a decades-long erosion of literary censorship in US and British courts.

You write about a British government official telling Ezra Pound that war censors were convinced Ulysses instalments published in the Little Review were an elaborate spy code, so bewildering were they. Even today, the novel remains a high-tide mark for modernism, doesn’t it?

Modernism was fragmentary, but sooner or later even disputatious rebels want a standard-bearer. Plenty of modernists didn’t like Ulysses, but people began thinking of it as permanent – something more than a lively experiment.

james-joyce-book coverWhat do you remember of first reading Ulysses yourself? You must have read it many times since. What draws you back?

My first memory is of sitting in a seminar room during my first year at university. The professor hadn’t arrived yet and someone, in hushed tones, asked if anyone knew what was happening in the third episode. None of us did. So I remember that collective confusion, although I also remember discovering funny and tender passages, as well as moments of intense clarity. I knew there was so much more waiting for me, and that’s what draws me back.


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