The Most Dangerous Book; The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

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Reviewed by Max Dunbar

This study of how James Joyce’s Ulysses came to be published and set in type is almost as essential as the book itself. The odds were against it, to say the least. Experimental novels face commercial scepticism in any age and time. Try to sell a 265,000-word novel with a complex circadian structure  in which nothing much happens and pages fly by without break or punctuation. What exactly was so special about Ulysses?

A middle-aged Irish-Jewish man gets up on a morning and goes out into the city of Dublin. This man, Leopold Bloom, is being cuckolded by a local character, Blazes Boylan, but the drama ends there and Bloom does not seem much bothered by this humiliation. Instead he ambles around the city, has a drink, chats to his friends, and that’s about it. The real revolution was in the prose. It is ill-informed, to put it kindly, to say that there was no experimental fiction before the Modernists (hello, Tristram Shandy?) but Joyce pioneered what was simply a new way of seeing. Kevin Birmingham quotes a passage from Stephen Dedalus looking out onto the sea:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane.

There are no quotemarks, no flag to separate thought from narration: Joyce inhabits a man’s mind and knows how people think. Your head, at a given moment, is going to be a ticking cacophony of image, fantasy, argument, worries, regrets, memory, confused and arbitrary flashes and associations. Martin Amis, in his novel The Information, when he says that the protagonist ‘was thinking’ he adds in brackets that ‘and we now do the business of extracting these thoughts from the furious and unceasing babble that surrounds and drowns them’. It is a nod to Joyce, for Joyce lived in the unceasing babble. To Joyce’s enemies (there were many, and more on them soon) Ulysses did not just offend their sense of patriotism or decorum. It offended their sense of reality. The poet Alfred Noyes denounced the book in 1922: ‘The lack of any conviction that there are realities, standards, and enduring foundations in literature has had a deadly effect.’

‘He had a point,’ Birmingham concedes.

Narratives are the way we make sense of the world. We parcel existence into events and string them into cause-and-effect sequences. The chemist comparing controls and variables and the child scalded by a hot stove are both understanding the world through narrative. Novels are important because they turn that basic conceptual framework into an art form.

Ulysses was the equivalent of an LSD sheet dropped into the public water tank. It was liberating and scary. Birmingham argues that ‘narratives weren’t the only way to create order. Existence could be layered. Instead of a sequence, the world was an epiphany. Instead of a tradition, civilisation was a day. The chaos of modernity demanded a new conceptual method to make sense of the contemporary world, to make life possible for art. And that is what Ulysses gave us.’ Still, the general reader, confronted with all this, might have sympathised with George Eliot, when she wrote in Middlemarch that ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’

Yet most of Joyce’s censors – you can’t really call them ‘critics’ – did not tackle such ontological conundra. While writing Ulysses, Joyce was living in the middle of a warzone, with a wife and kids he couldn’t support, hopping from one dreary pension to another, living hand to mouth, and suffering from a truly frightening eye condition called ‘iritis’ for which he endured numerous painful and complex medical interventions. If a man suffered for his art, Joyce was that man. (Think of him every time you hear some tedious mid-lister complaining about e-books and Amazon pricing.)

But Joyce also lived in the golden age of the censor. Pedants and authoritarians of all kinds must look back at the early part of the twentieth century and think ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’ The 1873 Comstock Act (named after a bombastic puritan who could have swaggered straight off the set of Boardwalk Empire) banned any ‘obscene, lewd or lasvicious book, pamphlet, picture, paper, print or other publication of an indecent character’. Homes could be tossed upon one man’s suspicion. The mailing of an ‘indecent’ book could lead to a jail sentence of ten years. States adapted the Act with variables, and the consequences could be amusing. Prosecutors trying to ban Ulysses weren’t able to quote offending passages because the relevant laws forbade the very ‘utterance’ of obscene material. Comstock’s successor, William Lamar, told a journalist that ‘I am after three things and only three things – pro germanism, pacifism and high browism.’

Joyce was highbrow, had no time for nations (‘You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets’) and in Ulysses was as frank about sex and scatology as he was about everything else. Copies were burned, and the records of those burnings were burned. The BBC wouldn’t mention the book’s title on air. When F. R. Leavis requested a copy for his seminars, the bookseller rang the Home Office. The Dublin Review claimed that to read the novel was ‘a sin against the Holy Ghost’ – the only crime beyond the limits of God’s mercy. The Post Office was turned into the 1920s equivalent of the NSA Prism programme. Moral offence was part of the air breathed. Printers automatically cut out offending words. It was difficult to win obscenity cases because even if jurors didn’t have a problem with the article in question they had to vote by the Hicklin Law, coined by a British judge in 1868: ‘I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.’ The yardstick was set by a hypothetical reader, and the hypothetical reader was always an angry man in a trailer park who writes his complaint letters in crayon.

But literacy was leaving the censors behind. Print was becoming a mass medium, and the masses did not necessarily want to read what they were told. I don’t want to portray Joyce’s victory as purely cultural. Writers, artists and bohemians rallied around Joyce, offered him food, paid his bills, risked jail time. A drifter called Braverman smuggled copies across the Detriot River every day for a month. Random House execs exploited complex legal loopholes to get the novel on sale in the States. Travellers from Europe cut pages out of the book, glued them into the insides of newspapers, then painstakingly reassembled the novel when they had cleared US customs. The Most Dangerous Book is the story of thousands of individual acts of heroism, kindness and fellowship – all seeming to revolve around Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, at once shelter, soul kitchen, function room, open mic, activist base and refuge.

‘The battles over Ulysses didn’t end literary censorship,’ Birmingham writes, and yet a casual and careless optimism pervades his work none the less. ‘You do not worry about your words being burned because of what happened to Ulysses.’ Really? You think? For the censors are still out there, and not without power, even in free societies in the digital age. The censors have all politics and none, all faiths and none, they come from state secret police and tiny political groups and residents’ associations, they hang out on RSS feeds and Facebook threads and in indignant meetings in hired community centre rooms, their motives range from the basically well-meaning to the paranoid and psychotic. Close your eyes and you can see tons of little twenty-first century Joyces out there, scribbling in bedrooms in house shares all over the land, writing articles and short stories and blogs – and, every so often, looking over their shoulders for the sound of the knock at the door, and the police in different voices.

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Max blogs at Max Dunbar

Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, (Head of Zeus, 2014), 432 pages.

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