Review of Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book”

The Most Dangerous Book -  by Kevin Birmingham

The Penguin Press, New York, 2014

Joyce wrote Ulysses through a world war, financial uncertainty, the threat of censorship and a serious, recurrent illness. A life in pain shaped the novel that Joyce called “the epic of the human body,” and the nature of that pain has never been fully explored. (page 14)

This is a quote from Birmingham’s Introduction to The Most Dangerous Book. When you complete the book you have to wonder not only how Joyce completed it but also how it ever got published at all. It is a story of pain, stubbornness, persistence in the face of unbelievable odds and also some good luck. It is also a story of the many people who believed in Joyce and his work and helped guide him and the book to its final place as a modern classic.

That final place can be dated to December 7, 1933 when U.S. Judge John Woolsey pronounced that the book Ulysses was, in fact, not obscene and “may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.” Here is what Time magazine said about the decision a few days later:

“Watchers of the U.S. skies last week reported no comet or other celestial portent. In Manhattan no showers of ticker-tape blossomed from Broadway office windows, no welcoming committee packed the steps of City Hall…Yet many a wide-awake modern-minded citizen knew he had seen literary history pass another milestone. For last week a much-enduring traveler, world-famed but long outcast, landed safe and sound on U.S. shores. His name was Ulysses.”

It had been more than 11 years since the full printed first edition of Ulysses had been published in Paris by Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company: February 2, 1922.

Birmingham tells it all. The really horrible trauma and pain associated with Joyce’s persistent iritis (swelling and spasms in the iris) is described in some detail and gives one a sense of the terrible pain he endured on dozens of occasions. Joyce would often be struck with pain and fall to the street. A sample of what he went through: “The surgeon held Joyce’s eyeball with fixation forceps so that his eye, riveted in surgical light, watched the blade advancing like a bayonet. The cornea resisted for a moment before the blade pierced the surface and slid into the eye’s anterior chamber. Exudate flowed over the incision….” (page 101) The passage continues with more excruciating detail. This operation was in 1917 and there were many, many more until, in the 1930’s Joyce was practically blind.

In spite of this, however, he carried on and kept writing his book in various rooms and houses until it was brought to fruition in 1922. His style of writing was seemingly chaotic: scrapes of scribbled notes, dozens of revisions and then after the galleys came back – dozens more changes, deletions, additions. It drove the printers crazy. And, of course, he kept delaying the completion of the book by weeks, months and even years. It was serialized in The Little Review (operated by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap) and the Eogist Press and before finally being printed in 1922.

Naturally, Birmingham gives the reader a huge amount of detail on the many and varied plots, intrigues, successes and reversals that were endured during the printing and suppression and the book. At one point Ernest Hemingway is enlisted by Ezra Pound to get the book transported into the U.S.A. via Windsor and Chicago in 1922. Hemingway had just arrived in Paris and had been working on contract to the Toronto Star.

The list of people that were involved in helping Joyce is impressive and included many important and key women. Another quote from Birmingham: One of the ironies of Ulysses is that while it was banned to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers, the book owes its existence to several women. It was inspired, in part, by one woman (Nora), funded by another (Harriet Shaw Weaver), serialized by two more (Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap) and published by yet another (Sylvia Beach).

But there were many other important patrons, advisors and helpers including the important New York lawyer John Quinn. Ezra Pound was an important advisor and reader of the drafts of Ulysses while Morris Ernst and Bennett Cerf, the co-founders of Random House ensured that it got a wide publication in 1933 and beyond. Great detail is given by Birmingham on the legal struggles and problems of importing the book in the 1920s.

Of course, central to the book is the notion of censorship. Birmingham spends a lot of time discussing the issues and gives us a sense of how the 1920s generation would react to this new way of no-holds-barred writing. As he says, we now think of the restrictions imposed then as quaint and rather silly. Dirty words like “fuck” were never seen in proper books. As the reviewer Arnold Bennett stated at the time, referring to Joyce: “He says everything – everything. The code is smashed to bits.”

Mr. Birmingham comes to the core of this issue – that the code was broken – in this quote.

The code that Ulysses smashed was conceptual. For beyond liberation from silence, Ulysses offered liberation from what we might call the tyranny of style: from the manners, conventions and forms that govern texts almost without our realizing it… The contextual armature that helps the reader make sense of events is gone. Clear distinctions between thoughts and the exterior world are gone…In the place of style we are left with borrowed voices and provisional modes, all of which are fleeting, all of which, as Eliot told Woolf, reduce style to “futility.”

In the final analysis Ulysses would never have seen the light of day had Joyce not had an enormous support system that he could call on. This included patrons, publishers, lawyers, proofreaders, close friends and devotees of modernism. Above all it would not have happened without Nora who cared for him through thick and thin and, in the end, never even read what she called his “dirty book”!

For all admirers of James Joyce, and modernist writing, this book is a must read.

Dave Schurman, Chair

Festival Bloomsday Montréal

October 2014

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NEW STATUS

As of today Bloomsday Montreal has become a non-profit organization called Festival Bloomsday Montréal. We will be independent of the McGill School of Continuing Studies (SCS) and of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning (MCLL). However, McGill and MCLL as well as Concordia, will continue to be major sponsors as they have been from the first festival in June 2012. In addition, our traditional partners in the last three years will continue supporting this endeavour: Atwater Library, Jewish Public Library, McCord Museum, Irish Embassy Pub and others. The new status means we have lots of work to do but also full control of all aspects of Bloomsday.

We are putting together a Bloomsday Montreal Board and will be revamping this blog and developing a new website very soon. We are also in the process of soliciting sponsors and donations so that we will be able to bring you a super Bloomsday Festival in June 2015.

Keep in touch and send us any ideas that you think could be of help.

Dave Schurman, Chair
Festival Bloomsday Montréal

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Point St. Charles Walking Tour Infromation

For those people who were on the walking tour of Point St. Charles with Ruth Rigby yesterday here is a document that gives you lots of great information about the area with links to other websites…

Handout Walk Tour of Pointe St Charles

 

 

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BLOOMSDAY HAS ARRIVIED!!

OK FOLKS! THIS IS THE REAL DAY AT LAST: 110 YEARS AGO ON THIS DAY (JUNE 16, 1904) LEOPOLD BLOOM SET OUT ON HIS TREK THROUGH DUBLIN IN THE NOVEL “ULYSSES” BY JAMES JOYCE.

HERE ARE THE EVENTS WE ARE OFFERING ON THIS IMPORTANT DAY:

Monday, June 16th, 2014
12:30-4:30
Bloomsday Live: Annual Bloomsday Readings from Ulysses –
Westmount Library
4574 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Westmount
Admission: free

A tradition occurring in dozens of cities around the world on June 16th- the event that started it all. Come out and hear Montrealers, well-known and not, read from Joyce’s masterwork “Ulysses”. Come for an hour, stay for the afternoon! Readings in English, French and Italian.

Monday, June 16th, 2014
6:00-7:30
Storytelling Event with Chris Joyce and Other Montreal Storytellers
Librairie Paragraphe Bookstore
2220 McGill College Avenue, Montreal
Admission: Free

Our closing event this year is held at Bloomsday’s official bookstore and will feature Christopher Joyce, great grand nephew of James Joyce now living in Montreal. Joyce will recount tales of growing up Joyce in Ireland and how the family has maintained the Joyce legacy and been instrumental in the inception of the original Bloomsday. Several other notable Irish Montreal storytellers will regale the audience in the traditional seanchaí tradition. A reception will close out this unique event and our festival for the 2014 season.

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BLOOMSDAY MONTREAL EVENTS FOR SUNDAY JUNE 15TH

Sunday, June 15th, 2014
10:00-12:00
Walking Tour with Ruth Rigby
Pointe Saint-Charles
Meet at Charlevoix Metro 9:45am
2600 rue Centre, Montréal
Admission: $10.00

Local historian Ruth Rigby returns as tour leader of this popular event. This year she will bring participants on a journey through Montreal’s history and Irish heritage in the Pointe Saint-Charles neighbourhood.

Sunday, June 15th, 2014
2:00- 3:30
Documentary Film and Lecture
“Votes for Women” (2014, Keith O’Grady, in English and Irish with English subtitles). Introduced by Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh
Bombardier Theatre, McCord Museum
690 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal
Admission: $5.00

The story of how Irishwomen obtained the vote is a story of organization and bravery in the face of ignorance, indifference and hostility. In this decade of political anniversaries in Ireland it provides a very different understanding of Home Rule, World War I and the Irish revolutionary period. The film will be introduced by Concordia Irish language scholar Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh, who will speak about the state of the Irish language in the time of Joyce.

Sunday, June 15th, 2014
5:30-6:30
Dramatic Reading and Pub Supper
Kathleen Fee as Molly Bloom
Irish Embassy Pub
1234 Rue Bishop, Montréal
Admission: $10.00

An annual Bloomsday tradition, celebrated local actress Kathleen Fee reads the “Penelope” chapter that closes “Ulysses” as the irrepressible Molly Bloom. Enjoy a pint or a pub supper during or after Fee’s lively performance.

Sunday, June 15th, 2014
7:00-8:30
Pub Quiz
Hosted by Larissa Andrusyshyn
Irish Embassy Pub
1234 Rue Bishop, Montréal
Admission: free

Test your knowledge of all things Irish in a convivial atmosphere. Beer, prizes, and team spirit with award-winning local author and quiz master Larissa Andrusyshyn.

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BLOOMASDAY MONTREAL EVENTS: SATURDAY JUNE 14TH

Saturday, June 14th, 2014
10:00-onward
Bloomsday Irish Breakfast
EVOO Restaurant
3426 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montréal
Price: Prix-Fixe Restaurant Menu $23.00
(Call EVOO for reservations, Bloomsday Irish Breakfast prix-fixe also available on Sunday)

For the second year in a row, EVOO in Saint-Henri is your Bloomsday weekend host for a traditional Irish breakfast. Dublin-born chef Peter Saunders will have a meal fit for a Bloom on offer all weekend. Call 514-846-3886 for reservations.

Saturday, June 14th, 2014
1:00-3:00
Annual McGill Interdisciplinary Academic Dialogue
Bombardier Theatre, McCord Museum
690 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal
Admission: Free

One of the hallmarks of the always interdisciplinary and creative Bloomsday ethos, this annual lecture brings together ascademic from diverse disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy, creative writing to sociology, all to discuss Joyce and his works from creative new pathways.

Saturday, June 14th, 2014
3:30-4:30
Documentary Film and Lecture: “The Irish Pub” (2014, Alex Fagan), introduced by Concordia English professor Adam Lawrence.
Bombardier Theatre, McCord Museum
690 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal
Admission: $5.00

A recent hit on the festival circuit, “The Irish Pub” takes both a whimsical and serious look at the pub as institution in Irish life, and at the consequences for traditional culture from its decline in an increasingly globalized world. Dr. Adam Lawrence will introduce the film with a discussion of the pub in the works of Joyce- not least the “Cyclops” chapter of “Ulysses”.

Saturday, June 14th, 2014
7:30-9:30
James Joyce: A Musical Gala
Victoria Hall
4626 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Westmount
Admission: $20.00

Bloomsday 2014 celebrates the musical life of James Joyce in style. As Joyce was immensely passionate about all things musical, this concert celebrates the musical inspiration in his life and works. This exciting event will be “hosted” by Mr. Joyce himself. Join him as he discusses his musical interests, shares stories from his life and presents an eclectic mixture of exciting performances- including the one and only musical composition he himself composed. Featuring The Bloomsday Chorale, the acclaimed Montreal Celtic folk band Solstice, this evening will also include stellar performances of Elizabethan lute songs, Italian opera arias, Irish dancing, and some good old Irish songs by some of Montreal’s top musical talent. Directed by conductor/pianist Kris Epps, this will be the gala of galas for all literary and music lovers area-wide!

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Video: Meet Chris Joyce and learn more about Bloomsday Montreal

 

View this short video about Bloomsday and meet Chris Joyce:  the great grand nephew of James. As well there are some brief insights into Ulysses by Dr. Michael Kenneally the principal of Concordia’s Canadian School of Irish Studies..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24KeJuOfiag&feature=youtu.be

 

 

 

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