Monday, June 15, 2015

The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

As a girl I was not able to understand the attraction of Joyce’s Ulysses. Just as Birmingham tells us, lawyers defending Joyce on charges of indecency used the defense that young girls would neither understand nor be much interested in Joyce’s supposedly great work, and therefore he was not corrupting them. As far as I was concerned, that was true. I never got to the “good bits.” I just didn’t understand what the heck he was talking about. He was crude, he was blunt, and he was clear enough for me to know that if I wanted to hear jokes about farts I could listen to the adolescents on my block.

Now, however, with this enormously detailed and beautifully read book on the genesis and development of the works of Joyce, I finally have a better idea why he was considered such an important author. In the process of explicating Joyce’s work, Birmingham also touches on the life and works of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Bennett Cerf and any number of important writers and publishers of the time in Europe and America during the 1910s through the 1930s.

Joyce suffered from a malady of the eye, iritis, which he first experienced while he was in his twenties. It continued his entire life, with surgeries and administered drugs unable to cure it. Joyce died in 1941. Illness played a huge part in his life, according to Birmingham, though Joyce’s Wikipedia entry does not mention it. He was in the process of going blind most of his adult life, which must be one reason why in photographs Joyce’s eyes look so unfocused. Sadly, the underlying cause of the iritis may have been syphilis, which was rampant in Dublin when Joyce lived there. Joyce also called Europe a "'syphilisation'…and the disease accounted for the continent’s manias.”

This is a big book about one book, really, so if you find yourself short on time, pull up a chair and read Chapter 26. It not only tells one the outlines of what Joyce was doing in Ulysses, but what he meant by the very style of his writing and why Ulysses was considered so groundbreaking. Chapter 26 is the one in which a 10+ year legal battle was resolved in the United States concerning the “greatness” of the work as opposed to the “filth” of the work. It became the longest criminal court case in U.S. history with ninety-eight witnesses and a fifteen-thousand-page transcript. The judge hearing the case was particularly interesting in the text of his opinion.

Judge Woolsey, a U.S. federal judge in New York City, had read the entire work, not just the bits conservatives were hoping would condemn the book, and concluded that the dirty words used by the author were not used merely to shock or corrupt but because lower-middle class Irish folk actually talked and thought like that. Whether or not that is true is kind of beside the point. Enough people “thought like that” and “acted like that” to show the judge that obscenity can’t be something we feel and do but hide—it has to be something completely outside the normal experience of human endeavor.

But Woolsey understood more of Joyce than the dirty bits and he helped me to get a grip on what was going on:
Joyce has attempted—it seems to me, with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.”
John Keating narrates Penguin Random House Audio production of this book and his accents, pauses, and breaks allow us to hear the greatness of the language. Ulysses charts the course of man across centuries, and collapses it into a single day, tying together the past and the present and the future. Joyce takes the heart of human life—sex—and shows us its relish and life-giving qualities. He does not allude to sex. He talks about how it is conducted frankly, openly, with exuberance and appeal. Ulysses is both funny and real, and like Birmingham and Judge Woolsey point out, in the end, it is several characters and their layers of consciousness all giving voice at one time. That may be why it makes such great theatre.

This book started out with Joyce as a young man meeting Nora Barnacle, the woman who would become his wife, confidant, and the one who, through letters and otherwise, expressed many of the exquisite sexual pleasures explored in Ulysses. Judge Woolsey also mentioned that it is the voice of the woman, Molly Bloom, who remained in his mind after the book was closed, not those of the other main characters: Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, or Leopold Bloom.

I highly recommend the audio edition of this book, though the Random House print copy has some great photographs and is beautifully printed. If at first you wonder at Birmingham's lavish praise of Joyce you will be won over by the end.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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