The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyces’ Ulysses
Author: Kevin Birmingham
James Joyce’s acknowledged masterpiece Ulysses, is a book which regularly tops polls as the greatest novel ever written. It’s also a book that thousands of English literature students have ploughed through with gritted teeth, sometimes defeated by its labyrinthine structure and dense, dizzying prose, but grudgingly aware of the genius that lay behind it. Formerly one of the latter, I was intrigued by the premise of “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyces’ Ulysses”, and author Kevin Birmingham’s attempt to unravel the history of the book itself, and fascinated by what I read.
Ulysees was a labour of love, not only for the author himself, who wrote it over an 8 year period, plagued by poverty, a tempestuous family life and ailing eyesight. The painful eye operations that Joyce submitted to treat the agonising bouts of iritis – and the revelation behind its cause – are some of the most difficult to read passages in this book, and increase the readers awareness of the extreme dedication Joyce had to his sprawling masterpiece. This dedication was not alone though, and it’s intriguing that for a book often accused of misogyny, its greatest defenders- without whom it would never have been published- were women. From suffragette Harriet Weaver in London risking the alienation of her family – not to mention imprisonment; to the publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris, Birmingham paints a vivid and inspiring portrait of these women who were prepared to risk everything to bring Ulysees to a public who at first at least, didn’t know what to make of this extraordinary book.
The efforts that the US justice system made to block publication were extraordinary. We learn that the US post office had powers of censorship which it deployed mercilessly to supress the distribution of Ulysses, and of the extreme measures that its supporters were driven to- such as transporting the iconic text concealed in cars over the US-Canada Border, methods more commonly associated with bootleg liquor than novels.
In an age where the internet makes most texts readily available, the risks and subterfuge taken to allow Ulysees to reach its loyal readership sound absurd, as does the court cases where passages of the book are not even allowed to be read aloud for fear of corrupting the innocent. From a distance of nearly one hundred years, it can be hard to appreciate quite how extraordinary Joyce’s work was, and how incendiary and dangerous it was considered to be. Its perhaps fitting that at times in this book Joyce himself seems to recede into the distance – a myopic figure not only literally but also personally, seemingly unaware of the furore his novel was creating in the wider world, and at times appearing startlingly unappreciative of the risks that others were taking with their personal liberty on behalf of he and his work.
In a world which was plunged into Hitler’s burning of books just a short time later, “The Most Dangerous Book…” makes us appreciate the dedicated group of men and women who fought to bring Joyce’s book to public view even more, and Birmingham’s book underlines just how much of a turning point Ulysses was not only for literature, but for the perception of literature and its relationship with its public itself.