Thursday, June 16, 2016

Today is the birthday of a day


Almost a century ago, there appeared James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the tale it tells of a man wandering the streets of Dublin, Ireland on June 16, 1904.

Nora Barnacle was the great love of Joyce’s life, and he settled on their first date as the day through which his book Ulysses  would pass. A recasting of The Odyssey as a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Dublin ad salesman, Ulysses took Joyce seven years to write. An American literary magazine, The Little Review, serialized it from March 1918 to December 1920. When Joyce was unable to find a publisher, the American expat Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach undertook publishing the 265,000-word manuscript.

The US Postal service sued to ban it for obscenity (citing a passage involving masturbation so metaphorical it sailed right over most readers’ heads) and won; the book was banned from 1921 until a Random House court challenge overturned the decision in 1934.

Complex at best- filled with metaphors, jokes, puns, shifts of narrative style and all manner of wordplay- Ulysses, as published, was a hard read. A French printer typeset the manuscript, a jumble of typed pages and longhand edits, introducing all sorts of errors. Joyce compounded the challenge by rewriting 90,000 words of the story on the galley proofs in his cramped, semilegible hand, and without proof-checking it against the rest of the book. This introduced more errors and contradictions, and launched the Joycean scholarship industry, still thriving nearly a hundred years later. Subsequent editions, over decades, have struggled to deliver a definitive text.

T. S. Eliot thought the book obscure, but brilliant: "the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape." Virginia Woolf called it “a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster."

Joyce gave the first printed copy of Ulysses to Nora, but she tried to sell it to a friend visiting from Dublin. She only read 27 pages of the book, including the title page. She once asked Joyce, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

Carl Jung wrote of it, "What is so staggering about Ulysses is the fact that behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the drama of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course."

Ulysses has been called "the most prominent landmark in modernist literature", a work where life's complexities are depicted with "unprecedented, and unequaled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity". That style has been stated to be the finest example of the use of stream-of-consciousness in modern fiction, with the author going deeper and farther than any other novelist in handling interior monologue. This technique has been praised for its faithful representation of the flow of thought, feeling, mental reflection, and shifts of mood. Critic Edmund Wilson noted that Ulysses attempts to render "as precisely and as directly as it is possible in words to do, what our participation in life is like—or rather, what it seems to us like as from moment to moment we live."

Joyce uses metaphors, symbols, ambiguities, and overtones which gradually link themselves together so as to form a network of connections binding the whole work. This system of connections gives the novel a wide, more universal significance, as "Leopold Bloom becomes a modern Ulysses, an Everyman in a Dublin which becomes a microcosm of the world."

Though the project nearly bankrupted her, and she got nothing in return for her labor and expense, Sylvia Beach met her promise to deliver Joyce a copy of the first edition on his fortieth birthday in 1922.

The Writer’s Almanac sums up the book’s significance:

On June 16, 1924, the 20th anniversary of Bloomsday, Joyce wrote in his notebook, “Twenty years after. Will anyone remember this date?” Today, it is a national holiday in Ireland. People will celebrate the book by reading passages aloud, visiting all the places mentioned in the book, and eating the favorite foods of the character Leopold Bloom. It’s one of the only holidays in the world that’s based merely upon a date in a work of fiction.

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