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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