Read Joyce—Sing in the Adventure of Ulysses
By Andrew Becker
Only but 100 years ago this month did an American literary magazine known as The Little Review begin its serialization of what would soon become, perhaps, the most notorious book of the whole 20th century. To this day, James Joyce’s Ulysses retains its status as a pinnacle example of modern literature—even though it may very well be the most celebrated novel that no one ever seems to have read, or even heard of, outside of the university’s English department.
Lambasted by scores as pointlessly obscure, turgid filth and plotless gobbledygook—yet celebrated and admired by others, such as myself, for both its ambitious vision and precision of style—Joyce’s Ulysses has earned itself a reputation for gyrechurning the melting, literary pot.
During initial publication, the novel was placed on trial for obscenity in the United States; a few publishers and critics were called upon to defend its literary value before a judge in a court who couldn’t even make heads or tails of Joyce’s dense, metaphoric language, nor the ideas within it. The judge at one point asked a person testifying on its behalf to “speak in a language that the court can understand.” The debate itself focused on one of the book’s most straightforward parts.
You see, Joyce’s fiction challenges readers to reimagine their modalities of thought and perception, causing us to rethink the act of reading altogether: as Joyce once said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” Many have since then, as Joyce has become the second-most written about writer behind Shakespeare (and Shakespeare had a good few centuries head start).
At the time, though, there was hardship.
The Little Review’s publishers were fined $100 for their beliefs on art, nearly ending its run, and copies were destroyed in the United States of I thought there was such a thing as free speech. If you’re anything like me, though, all this nonsense just serves to make Ulysses more enticing. However, the first edition of a completed Ulysses wouldn’t appear until 1922; this time in Paris, where Sylvia Beach, founder and then owner of the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, published the book out of her own pocket (God bless her soul) on James Joyce’s 40th birthday.
The book was still banned in the United States and Britain until the 1930’s. In the U.S., intercepted novels sent by mail were burned under Comstock laws by that most wretched, vile, pernicious, and downright evil branch of sinister state power: The United States Postal Service.
Despite the 451˚ realities, Joyce’s few readers managed to sneak copies overseas, and it would go on to influence more writers than I could ever possibly list; aside from me.
The book itself comes across as both daunting in its scope and slightly pedestrian. Several hundred pages in length, the book focuses on a single day in the lives of various people living in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16th, 1904—now celebrated around the world as Bloomsday.
The novel’s kaleidoscopic form—an amalgamation of frequently changing narrative styles, the most famous being stream-of-consciousness—shifts from perspective to perspective, through colorful idioms, hilarious puns, bawdy songs, blasphemous jokes, a cavalcade of both ancient and modern languages, a hallucinatory play staged in a brothel, a catechism, and some of the craziest sentences in literature (together, its last 8 sentences, unpunctuated, can span 40 pages).
All of this can feel overwhelming on first impression. The first time I ever read a bit of Ulysses, I thought my professor was trying to play some form of cruel jest. Incomprehensible was how I would’ve described it then. But its Siren song sang out to me again and again, and I soon found myself fully immersed in the endless seas and streams of Joyce’s masterful prose. So, after I ask you this next question, I need you to repeat the following quote alive and aloud. Now: will you soon start to read this unbelievable masterpiece of literature?
“. . . yes I said yes I will Yes.”