Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

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Pennsylvania State University Press
ISBN 9780271092898

Reviewed by Daniel Mulhall

James Joyce’s Ulysses is full of history, has quite a history and is now part of history. There are not many novels that warrant, or attract, the kind of celebratory surge Ulysses has prompted this year. Even at the ripe age of 100, Joyce’s novel will not be ignored. It bedazzles legions of scholars who have created an impressive constellation of books, essays and conferences lighting up every crevice of Joyce’s writing. The Joyce industry shows no signs of entering its sunset phase, but appears abundantly capable of renewing itself. That is because its subject matter, propped by Ulysses, is so seductive, kaleidoscopic and adaptive.

The novel’s hundredth birthday seems like the right time to discuss its own rich history, which is the focus of One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an offshoot of an outstanding exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library, which I had the privilege of visiting shortly after it opened in June 2022. This book, lavishly illustrated with images from the exhibition, delves into Joyce’s life during the years he spent at work on Ulysses in three continental cities. Joyce wanted us to know where (Trieste-Zurich-Paris) and when (1914-1921) his novel was written and inserted those details on its final page as a coda just after Molly Bloom’s soliloquy roars to its affirmative conclusion, ‘yes I said yes I will Yes’.

The introductory essay by the book’s editor, Colm Tóibín, meditates on Ulysses as ‘the music of the future’, a line from Ulysses that refers not to some imaginative aural realm but to Leopold Bloom’s down-to-earth enthusiasm for tramlines!

Tóibín’s essay reminds us of the musical strands that run through the novel and that musicality was an important part of Dublin life during the age of Ulysses.

I like to think that Seamus Heaney’s words, ‘the music of what happens’ (or happened) capture the essence of Joyce’s history novel with its symphonic exploration of early twentieth-century Ireland.

Tóibín also parses one of the outlandish names that pepper the ‘Cyclops’ episode, lieutenant colonel Tomkin-Maxwell ffrench-mullan Tomlinson, who conjures up both Madeleine ffrench-Mullan, a participant in the Easter Rising, and Sir John Maxwell, who presided over its aftermath and the execution of its leaders. This suggests that Joyce, while writing about 1904, had half an eye in the direction of what was happening in Ireland after 1916.

If Ulysses took seven years to write, its publication was an even longer saga, stretching over a sixteen-year period between 1918, when its first episodes were published in the New York-based Little Review, and 1934, when an American edition finally appeared (a first British edition followed in 1936). A revised text was published in 1960 and a ‘corrected text’ appeared in 1986, the work of the German scholar, Hans Walter Gabler. His textual labours came in for much criticism and led to what became known to the initiated as ‘The Joyce Wars’ in which, happily, no lives were lost, but academic reputations were certainly put to the test. Ulysses was banned in 1921, unbanned in 1933, and copiously idolised and reviled before achieving iconic status as the twentieth century’s most famous novel, but certainly not its most-widely read.

The influences on its composition consume four chapters of this collection, each making the case for Dublin and for one of the European cities where Joyce put pen to paper. Anne Fogarty, touching on the paradox of Joyce the exile obsessed with the city he left behind, points out that he wrote as an insider with a limitless knowledge of Dublin and its citizens, but also as ‘a scabrous outlier and a cold-eyed émigré’.

John McCourt, author of ‘The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1921, argues that multicultural Trieste had a major influence on Joyce’s vision, providing him with elements he incorporated into the character of his master creation, Leopold Bloom. Joyce had a fondness for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, which he saw as ‘a ramshackle affair’, but also ‘wished to God there were more such Empires’. It was, he said, ‘the country for the peaceful man’, which could well serve as a description of Bloom. Joyce was happy in Trieste until ‘history’ in the form of the First World War sent him packing, fleeing to the refuge provided by neutral Switzerland.

Joyce’s sojourn in Zurich is less well-known than his life in his two other continental abodes except through the magical imagination of Tom Stoppard in his play Travesties. Ronan Crowley makes a valiant case for Zurich’s influence on Ulysses, pointing out that the first twelve episodes were completed there, and observing that ‘periodic upheaval and new settlement’ exposed Joyce to ‘a much wider, much richer variety of material than any single, prolonged residency could have’.

Berkeley-based Catherine Flynn, editor of the mammoth Cambridge Centenary Ulysses (2022), writes about Joyce’s experience in Paris, which she judges to be ‘perhaps the only city in the world where Ulysses could have come to fruition and find publication’. The background to the novel’s fraught appearance in print is brought to light in another essay, by lawyer and literary scholar Joseph Hassett who lucidly traces its legal woes and ultimate vindication at the hands of three enlightened judges, John Woolsey, Augustus Hand and his cousin, Learned Hand. The majority opinion in the Court of Appeals judged Ulysses ‘to be sincere, truthful, relevant to the subject, and executed with real art’. The novel’s afterlife is explored in chapters devoted to its manuscripts and other memorabilia held at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York.

Joyce’s many years living in continental Europe and the cult-like devotion he inspired in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s obscured the extent to which Ulysses is studded with some of the grand themes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish history. In its opening episode, ‘Telemachus’, we are introduced to the complexities of Anglo-Irish relations as the Hibernophile Englishman, Haines, believes that England has treated Ireland ‘rather unfairly’ but concludes that ‘history is to blame’. For his part, Stephen Dedalus, sees himself as ‘the servant of two masters’, the ‘imperial British state’ and ‘the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church’. He regards ‘history as a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. Let’s call history a bottomless puzzle, a wake and an elegy in tribute to our collective pasts.

In the ‘Aeolus’ episode, Joyce takes aim at the windy rhetoric of Ireland’s speechifiers, while in ‘Cyclops’ he lampoons the excesses of the Irish Ireland nationalism of the early twentieth century. He has Bloom express a regard for Arthur Griffith and the Sinn Féin movement he founded based on ideas he had set forth in his book, The Resurrection of Hungary. Joyce has fun with Bloom’s Hungarian background by having John Wyse Power suggest that Bloom had given Griffith the idea for his political tract. From what we learn about Bloom, had he been a real character his dutiful imagination might well have come up with the idea of abstention from Westminster as a political stratagem.

It is important to remember that, while Ulysses is set in 1904, it was written before and after the First World War, when the nightmare of conflict was rampaging across Europe. That violent backdrop seems to me to impinge on Ulysses and I see the target of Joyce’s assault on narrowly-configured nationalism as not just the Irish Ireland excesses of ‘the citizen’, but also the imperial nationalisms of World War I. Bloom is, in his quiet way, a stubborn critic of those who are guilty of ‘perpetuating national hatred among nations’. When challenged about his nationality by those in Barney Kiernan’s pub for whom his Hungarian-Jewish background makes him suspect, Bloom replies that his nation is ‘Ireland. I was born here. Ireland’. Thus, Joyce presents Bloom as an exponent of a pragmatic, liberal definition of nationality at a time when homogeneities of race, religion and language tended to define national identity.

In the ‘Cyclops’ chapter Bloom, for the only time in the novel’s 800 pages, asserts himself and hits out at ‘the citizen’ stating his case that ‘Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life’. This epitomises Bloom’s and Joyce’s humane political outlook and their middle-of-the-road nationalism.

In the ‘Eumaeus’ episode, Bloom brushes up against separatist nationalism, represented by the proprietor of the cabman’s shelter near Butt Bridge who is reputed to be ‘Skin-the-Goat’ Fitzharris, a member of the Invincibles who killed the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Frederick Cavendish, and his assistant, Thomas Burke, in the Phoenix Park, in May 1882, the year of Joyce’s birth. Fitzharris, or whoever he may be in an episode full of uncertainties, trots out the grand litany of grievance against England. Ireland, he insists, is ‘the richest country in the world bar none’, but has been over-taxed, with ‘all the riches drained out of it by England’.

Like many advanced nationalists, Skin-the-Goat yearns for ‘a day of reckoning’ for ‘mighty England’ and hopes that the Boer War (1899-1902) offered a foretaste of future frailty. Ireland, he predicts, will be England’s Achilles’ heel. Ever the moderate, Bloom pooh-poohs these views and favours incrementalism—‘A revolution must come on the due instalments plan’. We learn from Molly that her husband had a fondness for home rule and the land league, and for what she calls ‘Sinner Fein’. Molly suggests that Bloom may once have harboured ambitions to stand for parliament and in the hallucinatory ‘Circe’ episode we get a euphoric account of him as lord mayor of Dublin and ‘the world’s greatest reformer’, with an urge to usher in ‘the new Bloomusalem in the Nova Hibernia of the future’. Bloom’s imaginary manifesto calls for ‘the reform of municipal morals’ and ‘three acres and a cow for all children of nature’ (which might imaginatively be seen as a city dweller’s nod to the Wyndham Land Act of 1903).

No work by Joyce would be complete without some treatment of Parnell and in the ‘Eumaeus’ episode, what Joyce elsewhere called ‘The Shade of Parnell’ surfaces with a wild yarn about Parnell being spotted in South Africa, the Chief allegedly having changed his name to de Wet, the Boer general. Bloom, evidently wanting to move beyond Parnellism, thinks that his return to the fray would, even if it were possible, be ‘highly inadvisable all things considered’ because times move on. When Joyce completed Ulysses, in January 1922, things had indeed moved on in Ireland and Griffith, Bloom’s ‘coming man’ (although Molly says he doesn’t look it), had truly come into his own as president of Dáil Éireann. The symbolic handover of the reins of government to the leaders of the fledgling Irish Free State happened at Dublin Castle just weeks before, in Paris, its publisher, Sylvia Beach, on 2 February, Joyce’s fortieth birthday, handed over the first, freshly printed copy of Ulysses to its author, modern literature’s ‘coming man’.

A former Irish Ambassador in Berlin, London and Washington, Daniel Mulhall is currently Global Distinguished Professor of Irish Studies at New York University and 2022/23 Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His latest book is Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey (New Island Books, 2022)


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