The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses excerpt

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses

By Kevin Birmingham

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © 2014 Kevin Birmingham
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1594203367


Now, my darling Nora, I want you to read over and over all I have written to you. Some of it is ugly, obscene and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual: all of it is myself.




Dublin wasn’t always like this. In the eighteenth century, aristocrats walked the paths of St. Stephen’s Green and the spacious new avenues on the city’s north side. Mansions and town houses with terrace gardens lined Rutland and Mountjoy Squares, and the clubhouses and ballrooms radiating out from the squares hosted salons and masquerades. Dublin had its share of elegance. It was, after all, a seat of power—the second city of the British Empire and the fifth largest city in all of Europe. Four hundred members of the Irish Parliament and their families supported fashionable shops, a professional class and a proud enclave of civilization.

But the Irish Parliament had become a nuisance, and after thousands of rebels and British soldiers died in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a new law from London simply dissolved the Irish assembly to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. On January 1, 1801, the aristocrats and power brokers departed, followed by the professionals and the shops and the masquerades. Dublin’s Georgian grandeur evaporated from all but a few streets lining the squares, and even there the remaining wealthy families seemed more like stubborn survivors with roots too deep to be removed. The larger properties became hotels, offices and almshouses, and the rest were divided up into tenements that were left to molder and decay. By 1828, a third of Dublin’s houses were worth less than £20.

The city’s population swelled in the nineteenth century as people from around the country came looking for jobs. Then the famine struck, and the refugees who escaped mass starvation in the countryside found themselves crammed in a squalid city and still hungry. Slaughterhouses were scattered among tenements sheltering dozens of people in airless rooms that bred dysentery, typhoid and cholera. The sewers, where they existed, emptied directly into the River Liffey, and the tides washed the waste back through the city so that the stench blended with the rich smells from brewery chimneys, streetside manure and waste heaped in tiny backyards. In some neighborhoods, children were more likely to die than see their fifth birthday, and still-rotting bodies were dug up from graveyards to make more room for the dead. Ireland’s industries—shipbuilding, ironworks and textiles—were channeled northward to Anglo-Irish Belfast while Catholic Dublin remained stagnant longer than anyone could remember. By 1901, as Europe crossed the threshold of the twentieth century, Dublin stood as the overflowing wreckage of a bygone era.

In 1901, James Joyce was nineteen years old and ready to declare his antipathy toward his country. He wrote an essay for the Royal University’s literary magazine attacking the Irish Literary Theatre for refusing to stage the best European drama. The Theatre was the primary institution of the Irish Renaissance, which had emerged in the 1880s as an expression of nostalgia for the days before the famine, when agrarian life dominated Irish culture. After the famine, one in four people were either dead or gone, and for Ireland’s reeling survivors, the revival of Celtic folklore, countryside life and the Irish language became a form of nationalism without bloodshed. And yet Joyce considered Irish nationalism a provincial fantasy. The writers of the Irish Renaissance themselves (Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats, John Synge, Sean O’Casey, George Russell, George Moore) were all wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestants mining Irish peasant themes.

Joyce’s essay “The Day of the Rabblement” insisted that a century of decline made Ireland hostile to artists, so instead of Tolstoy and Strindberg, the Theatre produced mediocre plays that flattered the Irish public—it was, as Joyce put it, a “surrender to the trolls.” For Joyce, being an artist meant storming the barricades of an entire society built on lies—no one had the courage to write what life in Dublin was actually like—but attacking the Irish Literary Theatre was possibly the most ill-advised thing an aspiring Dublin writer could do. The Theatre dominated Ireland’s small literary ecosystem, and alienating it meant alienating the people who could help him the most.

The university banned Joyce’s essay, which should not have been surprising. In the place of Irish writers, Joyce celebrated apostates, including a heretic burned at the stake for insisting that God could be found in an atom. Joyce gravitated toward writers who turned art into an embattled faith, writers like Henrik Ibsen, the provocative Norwegian playwright who thrived on contempt. “To live,” Ibsen said, “is to war with trolls.” Joyce’s essay was, in fact, partly inspired by Ibsen—he learned Dano-Norwegian to read the playwright in his native tongue and to write to him as he was dying. To carry Ibsen’s spirit onward, Joyce and a friend printed eighty-five copies of the censored essay (the most they could afford) and distributed them around Dublin themselves.

Joyce’s contempt for the trolls was a nineteen-year-old’s preemptive defense against literary society’s rejection: instead of evading that rejection, he courted it. One night in 1902, Joyce knocked on the poet George Russell’s door uninvited. They began talking about literature, and Joyce expounded on the shortcomings of the Irish Renaissance into the early morning hours. William Butler Yeats, Joyce insisted, was pandering to the Irish, and Russell himself was not a very good poet at all. Joyce read some of his own verse and recited Ibsen in Dano-Norwegian. Russell was impressed, and he wanted Joyce to meet Yeats, Ireland’s most important writer. “He is an extremely clever boy,” Russell wrote to Yeats, “who belongs to your clan more than to mine and still more to himself.”

Like most of Ireland’s writers, Yeats was living elsewhere, but he returned to Ireland to stage a play just as Joyce was graduating from the Royal University in 1902. After Russell arranged a meeting, the two writers sat in the smoking room of a restaurant on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare. Yeats thought the young man had a disarming vitality. He was intense and soft-spoken, almost timid. But when Yeats asked Joyce to read some of his poems, the younger man replied, “I do so since you ask me, but I attach no more importance to your opinion than to anybody one meets in the street.”

Yeats listened to Joyce’s lyrics and prose sketches and decided he had “a very delicate talent,” though he wasn’t quite sure what the talent was for. Yeats explained that he himself was shifting from poems of beauty to experiments in Irish folklore. “That,” the younger writer said, “shows how rapidly you are deteriorating.” When Yeats protested that he had written his plays rather easily, Joyce said that made his deterioration quite certain. He stood up to leave, but turned back to Yeats. “I am twenty. How old are you?” Yeats said he was thirty-six, one year younger than the truth.

“We have met too late. You are too old for me to have any effect on you.”

JOYCE LEFT DUBLIN for Paris a month after his graduation ceremony. He planned to enroll in the Ecole de Médecine, support himself by giving English lessons to Left Bank professionals and earn the medical degree his grandfather once held but his father failed to complete. He would be both a doctor and an artist, and with his first paycheck he would buy his mother a new set of teeth. A medical career was the least he could do for the family. The meager income his father earned when he had a job was siphoned away from the younger children and given to his promising eldest son for his education.

But Joyce was unprepared for Paris. The medical school demanded his enrollment fees up front and rejected his university degree before granting him, reluctantly, a provisional pass to attend chemistry lectures. He went for one day and quit. Living in Paris without friends, a career or a decent coat, Joyce fell into a rhythm of reading, writing and walking. He barely sustained himself by the fees he earned teaching English to his two students, desperate money orders from home and small payments for writing the occasional book review for London or Dublin papers.

Joyce measured the winter of 1903 by the hours he spent without food. Twenty hours today. Forty-two hours last week. Once, when the food finally came, he vomited. He developed a cruel toothache that made chewing painful. He would pass by the cafés near l’Odéon before giving his three sous to one of the women in wooden clogs selling steaming bowls of chocolate on the sidewalks. He used his tie to conceal the stains on the shirt he couldn’t afford to launder. His mother sent nine shillings when she wrote to him in March. “How are yr clothes and boots wearing? and does the food you eat nourish you?”

It was in Paris that Joyce’s life as an artist began in earnest. He threw himself into Aristotle, Aquinas and Ben Jonson at the Bibliothèque Nationale. When the library closed, he worked in his room at the Hotel Corneille by the flickering light of candles burned down to nubs. Joyce was working out the fundamentals of his craft. He wrote sweeping definitions of comedy and tragedy next to budgets and calendars in his penny notebooks. The notebooks were also filled with small scenes he called “epiphanies,” flashes of intensity that focused on a moment or an object. They were his first tentative steps from poetry to prose. One of his epiphanies was about the prostitutes of Paris walking along the boulevards. He described them as “chattering, crushing little fabrics of pastry, or seated silently at tables by the cafe door, or descending from carriages with a busy stir of garments, soft as the voice of the adulterer.” An epiphany was not a miraculous dispensation from above but, as Joyce defined it, an insight into “the soul of the commonest object.” Epiphanies were everywhere. Illuminations came out of small things, like God from an atom.

The challenge Joyce confronted was combining the ever-diminishing scope of his prose with his ever-increasing artistic ambition. Joyce wanted to distill an order out of history’s chaos. He wanted to write a book that would usher in a new era. He wanted, as he later put it, “to pierce to the significant heart of everything.”

On Good Friday, Joyce received a disturbing letter about his mother’s health. In the early evening he crossed the Seine, stood in the back of Notre Dame Cathedral and observed his favorite mass of the calendar. The priest snuffed out the candles one by one, a shiver of awe swept across the darkening nave, and in complete darkness, the priest slammed his Bible shut to symbolize the Lord’s death. When the evening service was over, Joyce walked for hours along the vacant boulevards before returning to his room on rue Corneille, where he found a telegram slipped under his door. He tore the seal open and folded back the sides.


JOYCE BORROWED MONEY from one of his students and returned to Dublin to be at his mother’s deathbed. Mary Joyce lay in the front room of a two-story brick rowhouse on the north side of Dublin. A doctor diagnosed her with cirrhosis, though it was probably liver cancer—she was vomiting green bile. For Easter, she asked her oldest son to go to confession and take communion in her final attempt to coax him back to his faith. Joyce’s objections to the Church had multiplied over the years, and her impending death did not dissolve them. Joyce stood next to his Aunt Josephine in the darkened room, with the acrid smell of his mother’s sickness around them, and refused her request.

His mother’s death throes went on for months, and her mind deteriorated through the summer of 1903. His father, John Joyce, hadn’t held a steady job in years, and he returned drunk at unpredictable hours to a home of ten children. Four had already died. Nevertheless, Joyce’s return from Paris provided comfort. Every now and then the children were cleared out of the front room so he could read sketches of his writing to their mother. Once while he was reading to her, he found his sister May, the quiet one, hiding under the sofa so that she could listen to the stories. Joyce told her she could stay.

The Joyces were a family in decline. John Joyce squandered a respectable inheritance by the time Joyce finished primary school, but they had reason to be hopeful that their oldest son was destined for success. Joyce devoured books and won school prizes. It was his honor to carry the family portraits under his arms from one house to the next whenever they were evicted. Their father would agree to move when the current landlord gave him a false receipt for rent paid in order to satisfy the next landlord. The family would pile their dwindling belongings onto a cart pulled up the street by a sullen horse, and Pappie, as his children called him, would sing defiantly cheerful songs while the neighbors and their children gathered to look at the Joyces outside. They migrated to eleven addresses in ten years. That was how Joyce learned about Dublin.

On a Tuesday in August 1903, Mary Joyce fell into a coma. The family gathered at the house and knelt down at her bedside. At some point, their uncle John turned around, saw Joyce standing in the middle of the room and gruffly gestured to his nephew to kneel. Joyce remained standing. While the other children prayed aloud, their mother’s eyes suddenly opened, darted about and briefly made contact with her intractable son. Then it was over.

Her body was washed and clothed in a brown habit, and the mirror was draped with a sheet to keep her spirit from being trapped inside its reflection. Just before midnight, Joyce woke up his sister Margaret to see if they could catch a glimpse of their mother’s departing ghost. They couldn’t. He waited until everyone in the house was asleep, and then James Joyce, motherless, cried alone.

Mary Joyce’s death stripped away the last vestiges of the family’s middleclass stability, and Joyce sensed that doors were being closed on him. He wore his debonair tie and felt hat from the Left Bank, and he ambled through the streets of Dublin with a thin ashplant cane, but neither his attire nor his obvious literary talent could eclipse his circumstances. Joyce never drank during his university days, but after his mother’s death the floodgates opened. First it was sack, then Guinness and then whatever was at hand. He usually drank with Vincent Cosgrave, one of his more listless former classmates, and Oliver St. John Gogarty, who belonged to one of Dublin’s esteemed families. Three generations of Gogartys were physicians, and Oliver would be the fourth in a country where Catholic doctors were rare. The family had two Dublin homes, and Oliver wasn’t bashful about his circumstances—he regularly sported a yellow vest with gold buttons. Gogarty and Joyce bridged their social differences with poetry, alcohol and irreverence. They spent long nights reciting Blake and Dante, holding forth on Ibsen and the Irish Theatre and singing French songs through the streets while most Dubliners tried to sleep.

Once, Joyce’s drinking got him into a one-sided fight in St. Stephen’s Green. He approached a woman who he did not realize was accompanied, and Cosgrave simply walked away while the man beat the would-be writer senseless. As Joyce lay bleeding in the dirt, a stranger, a reputedly Jewish Dubliner named Alfred H. Hunter, lifted him up and brushed him off. He steadied Joyce by the shoulders, asked the young man if he was all right and proceeded to walk him home just as a father would have done. Joyce never forgot it.

Joyce and his friends often ventured into Dublin’s redlight district. Nighttown was a collection of shabby eighteenth-century houses crumbling into tenements near the Great Northern Railway terminus and the fetid horse stables on Dublin’s north side. Painted facades with motley lamps in the windows were scattered among the tenements. There were dozens of brothels in Nighttown—more here than in Paris, actually. It was one of the worst slums of Europe, and the police had given up trying to enforce the law. Gogarty and Joyce would drink until they were “arse over tip,” as Gogarty put it, and proceed to the more economical houses on the far end of Tyrone Street.

The walls of the brothels displayed pictures of the saints and the Blessed Virgin. In secret alcoves behind the sacred images the prostitutes hid hefty pieces of lead pipe in case someone started trouble, but Joyce was not a troublemaker. He paid with the money he earned writing book reviews, and his good humor made him popular in Nighttown. One of the women, Nellie, quite liked him. “He has the fuckin’est best voice I ever heard,” she said. She even offered to loan him money—his poverty made him all the more endearing. Nighttown was an escape from the miserable Joyce household on St. Peter’s Terrace, where the family managed to stay for more than a year. Their father’s gravelly voice bullied the children relentlessly. “Ye dirty pissabed, ye bloody-looking crooked-eyed son of a bitch. Ye ugly bloody corner-boy . . .” John Joyce would reach for the nearest threatening object—a tin cup if they were lucky, a pot stick if they were not—and launch it blindly at whoever happened to be nearest. After their mother died, Joyce, Stannie and Charlie took turns guarding their sisters. “I’ll break your heart! I’ll break your bloody heart!” John Joyce recycled the threats he used to issue to his wife.

Hardship inspired Joyce. His first fiction publication, in 1904, was “The Sisters,” a story about the death of a syphilitic priest as seen through the eyes of a boy. Father Flynn dies after erratic behavior and paralysis, though no one will name the cause, and the boy is left to guess at the truth beyond the halo of silence. Joyce thought of Dublin as a massive den of syphilis, metaphorically and literally. Europe as a whole was a “syphilisation,” he would later joke, and the disease accounted for the continent’s manias. He planned a collection of short stories capturing the syphilitic paralysis at the core of Dublin’s moral life. He wrote about the city’s petty thieves and political hacks, its laundresses, abusive fathers and boardinghouses. He called the collection Dubliners, and he would write it in fits and starts over the next decade.

One day he began composing elaborate sentences that barely settled into images and scenes. Rather than a story for Dubliners, he was writing an overwrought announcement unmoored from his careful epiphanies. The speaker prophesies the overthrow of old orders and aristocracies and proclaims the rise of a new conscience. Joyce wanted to reveal multiple eternities to unborn generations. He wrote the eight-page piece in one day and called it “A Portrait of the Artist.” When the editors of a Dublin magazine rejected it as incomprehensible, Joyce decided to turn his sketch into a novel—rejection inspired him even more than hardship. He wrote eleven chapters in two months.

Since Paris, Joyce had been searching for an epiphany in a person. He thought the world’s radiance could emerge from an erotic connection with a woman who became in his mind an amalgam of women he had seen in Paris and in Nighttown, and the fact that she didn’t exist made it easy to sentimentalize her. “Thy love,” he wrote, “had made to arise in him the central torrents of life. Thou hadst put thine arms about him and, intimately prisoned as thou hadst been, in the soft stir of thy bosom, the raptures of silence, the murmured words, thy heart had spoken to his heart.” Contempt for the trolls was no longer enough. Joyce believed he would achieve true artistry only if he could find a companion.


Excerpted from The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. Copyright © 2014 Kevin Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.
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