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On 100 years of Ulysses by James Joyce

As the world gets more nationalistic, the universal appeal of James Joyce’s seminal work is a moment of celebration

Publisher Sylvia Beach with author James Joyce
Publisher Sylvia Beach with author James Joyce (Getty Images)

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One of the many inspiring sites in Paris is a simple plaque at 12 Rue de l’Odeon which says, En 1922 dans cette maison Melle Sylvia Beach publia “Ulysses” de James Joyce (In 1922 in this building Miss Sylvia Beach published “Ulysses” by James Joyce). To commemorate a building from which Shakespeare and Company (the bookshop which published Ulysses a century ago) has already moved may seem like a quaint quirk. But Ulysses was path-breaking for two reasons: one, what it achieved as a work of literature, and two, what the book meant for freedom of expression.

Later this year is the centenary of another literary masterpiece, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which turned the idea of narrative poem on its head, using words from a range of languages (including Sanskrit). And like Ulysses, it broke conventions to bring literature into the modern age.

When Ulysses was published a hundred years ago on 2 February, James Joyce, the weak-eyed Irish author in exile, was 40. He had squeezed an entire universe into a single day—16 June 1904—and followed the quotidian life of an advertising salesman called Leopold Bloom in Dublin, the city Joyce had left for Paris.

Joyce had begun writing Ulysses in 1914 in Trieste, ending it in 1921 in Paris. He was writing about a tranquil Dublin when that city was going through convulsions of Irish nationalism and the world, as he knew it, was at war with itself. Joyce himself had to flee to Zurich and avoided being interned in Austria. Ireland was on the verge of separating from the empire, unsure of the identity it would embrace. In the novel, Joyce does not grapple with those large questions but makes crucial political points through the identity of Bloom—he is neither Protestant, nor Catholic; neither loyal to the British crown, nor wedded to Irish nationalism. The only time Bloom comes close to making a political point is at the pub, Barney Kiernan’s, where he describes a nation as “the same people living in the same place” but then includes “also living in different places”, making room for diaspora.

Ulysses follows Bloom like a slow-moving camera, noticing and narrating everything. Bloom was married to Molly, a Catholic singer, and carried the burden of grief—his infant son had died, and the couple no longer had sex. But Bloom fantasized about sex and got excited by glimpses of it.

Sex is not the only risqué topic in Ulysses—so is religion. INRI on a cross stands for Iron Nails Ran In, for example. It is irreverent about some hoary Irish traditions and it defies the conventions of Irish fiction of the time by being set in a city, and not the countryside. It makes light of death. In bringing what was considered taboo and unsayable to make it acceptable in literature, Joyce was pushing the limits.

The English-speaking world wanted none of it—America wouldn’t allow it on its shores since its “obscenity” would upset morals. British publishers too turned it down, and in 1922, UK’s director of public prosecutions called Ulysses “filthy”. A consignment that arrived at a port with the book was seized and all 500 copies were burnt (the US finally published it in 1934, and the UK in 1936).

The cover of a first edition copy of Ulysses by James Joyce
The cover of a first edition copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (Wikimedia Commons)

The Paris in which Joyce lived was filled with expatriate writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who met and befriended one another. They drank together and fell out, carrying grievances about one another in their minds, and assembling at the salon of Gertrude Stein or at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. Certain about Ulysses’ genius and convinced that the world must read it, Beach published it, and the world is richer for it.

Beyond the principle of freedom—that a literary work should appear in public; that if it provokes readers to look at the world differently, it has served an important purpose; that if it offends the readers, they have the liberty to avoid reading it—Ulysses stimulated debate and elevated literature to a different plane.

Recognising that our mind is never at ease, that ideas seep into one another and mingle and our minds consciously hold several thoughts at the same time, Joyce gives that stream a voice, the stream of consciousness. Outwardly chaotic, there is an internal rhythm to those streams, and Joyce creates music out of that. By “owning” the language, by re-imagining the rules of grammar, by composing prose and ideas as they emerge without disciplining them into syntax or an order, and by creating its own internal rhythm, the innovative architecture of Ulysses broke new ground. Its narrative flow followed the path of Homer’s Odyssey, about man confronting mystifying and audacious challenges. But Joyce inverted the notion of what was ordinary and what was extraordinary.

Bloom lives with Molly’s infidelity and remains lonely, the suicide of his father never far from his mind. He has turned away from faith and has a profound, sad recognition of the gloomy here and now. The characters are vivid—Molly and Leopold, of course, but also the flirtatious Gerty MacDowell who arouses Leopold, and Stephen Dedalus, perhaps a stand-in for Bloom’s son, whom Bloom will save from a fight towards the end of the novel (at one point Dedalus says history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake). Joyce takes us into each mind, allowing us to understand each character better than we understand other fictional characters, better than the characters know one another.

In the end, Ulysses is a game, a puzzle, where each reading takes the reader down a different alley. Joyce once said, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant....” He saw this as a way to ensure his immortality.

In that, he was prescient. Ireland did not know how to deal with him and his fame. Ireland did not ban the novel; it ignored him during his lifetime. But go to Dublin on 16 June and you will find many people in Edwardian attire, carrying a copy of Ulysses, retracing Bloom’s steps, reliving what is now called Bloomsday. The streets of Dublin are now paved with markers pointing out the spots Joyce writes about. Multiple editions are planned for publication this year. And the novel that was once spoken about only in whispers, wrapped in brown paper covers to hide its title, with librarians looking around before getting you your copy, is now ubiquitous, available in many forms, with annotations and readers’ guides, film versions, and even as a graphic novel.

It is not an easy novel to read: how many readers who start it end up finishing it is a different question. But as the world gets more nationalistic and xenophobic, the universal appeal of Ulysses is a moment of celebration, in bringing in modernity, and in reminding us that we are our own nations, not those marked by borders, and our shared humanity inspires courageous acts that will pull us through. For, in the end, Ulysses embraces life. At the end of the chapter called Circe, Stephen Dedalus tells Private Carr: “You die for your country, suppose…. Not that I wish it for you. But I say: let my country die for me. Up to the present, it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!”

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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