“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” James Joyce once explained to Jacques Benoist-Méchin, the translator of the French edition of Ulysses, “that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
The first of those centuries has reached an end: Ulysses was published 100 years ago today, on its author’s 40th birthday, Feb. 2, 1922.
Professors continue to argue over what Joyce meant, to analyze those puzzles and enigmas, and as he predicted, his immortality seems assured. It’s all but certain that scholars and academics will scrutinize, study and debate Ulysses for at least another hundred years. But will Ulysses continue to attract new readers – readers with no motive or desire other than to enjoy the experience of reading a book?
“Who reads it?” Martin Amis asked seriously, in the 1980s. “Who curls up with Ulysses? It is thoroughly studied, it is exhaustively unzipped and unseamed, it is much deconstructed. But who reads Ulysses for the hell of it?” While inarguably Joyce’s masterwork, the towering literary achievement, Amis argued, “is not reader-friendly,” and is indeed difficult to read, “in the readerly fashion, from beginning to end.”
Ulysses is a work of genius. But its very genius seems to scare readers off: Ulysses the fearsome, the formidable, the ever daunting.
The circumstances of its publication contribute to its rarefied air. The Little Review, the literary magazine in which the novel was first serialized, faced obscenity charges over its content as a result of complaints filed by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. A first willing publisher, Pelican Press, declined to publish the completed manuscript; a second, Ovid Press, backed out after deciding it would be too costly an undertaking. Cash-strapped and increasingly desperate – and facing the serious possibility that the book he had spent the previous decade of his life writing was unpublishable – Joyce accepted an offer by Sylvia Beach, owner of the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, to print an exclusive, “deluxe” edition of 1,000 numbered volumes, to be sold for a 350 francs apiece (the equivalent of about $234 today).
The high cover price, combined with the limited number of copies available, placed the book firmly in the domain of France’s cultural elite. This had the immediate effect of amplifying the general public’s impression of Ulysses as obscene because they could not afford to read the book themselves to see what all the fuss was about. And because Ulysses appeared just as English literature was becoming a popular field of academic study, it quickly cemented its reputation as a major (and recondite) work of high modernism – a “peculiar curse and blessing,” Declan Kiberd observed in Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece, that whisked the book into the canon at the same time the broader reading public was being cut off.
For Kiberd, this was antithetical to Joyce’s true intentions. His greatest ambition for the novel was as wide and appreciative a readership as possible. Ulysses was at heart a book about ordinary people, about a day in the life of two regular Dubliners, and the essence of the mundane it so exquisitely captured, Joyce hoped, was pleasure every reader could savour.
“A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by them,” Kiberd writes. Is the book heady? Full of arcane references? Willfully obscure? Yes, but it was Joyce’s dream that readers might find the novel’s complexity edifying, not repellent. It “was designed,” concludes Kiberd, “to produce readers capable of reading Ulysses.”
One of the most famous anecdotes about Ulysses takes place on the day of its publication. Joyce, wanting to celebrate the book’s arrival, invited Beach out. As they were leaving his apartment, the author pointed to the concierge’s young son, who was entertaining himself on the building’s front steps. “One day,” Joyce said, “that boy will be a reader of Ulysses.”
Lawrence Rainey, in his book Institutions of Modernism, calls Joyce “laughably naive” for this proclamation. But if this centenary is occasion to celebrate anything, it ought to be the hope that Joyce, after all, was correct: that there is a Ulysses reader in each of us. We can read it, in the readerly fashion; we can curl up with Ulysses. And in so doing we can carry Joyce’s immortality forward, well into the centuries to come.
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