The impenetrable magic of ‘Ulysses’: the most influential novel in world literature turns a century old | Culture

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An original manuscript of the chapter 'Circe', from the novel 'Ulysses', by James Joyce.
An original manuscript of the chapter ‘Circe’, from the novel ‘Ulysses’, by James Joyce.Lorenzo Ciniglio (Sygma via Getty Images)

Next February 2 marks the centenary of the publication of the Ulises, by James Joyce, considered the most important novel ever written in the English language and one of the most influential in world literature. It is a book that few manage to read. When it fell into his hands, Borges wrote: “I don’t think anyone has read it. Many people have analyzed it. Now, as far as reading the book from cover to cover, I don’t know if anyone has.” In an essay published in The New York Book Review On January 13, the anniversary of the author’s death, Anne Enright, a writer and professor at University College Dublin, where Joyce studied, confessed: “I have never managed to finish the Ulisesthough my eyes have seen all the words in it.”

An aura of prestige and mystery surrounded the book even before its publication, when Joyce published individual chapters in independent magazines. The Ulises It saw the light of day in a Dijon printing house owned by a typographer who knew no English on February 2, 1922, the day its author turned 40. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company, a legendary Paris bookstore, had ordered an edition paid for by subscribers.

Overwhelmed by the demands of Joyce, who never tired of adding emendations and corrections to the text, the printer threatened to suspend the edition, but finally relented. Wrapped in the shadows of the early morning, he went out into the street like an exhalation and personally delivered two copies to the conductor of the Paris-Dijon express. At seven in the morning they were in the hands of Sylvia Beach, who was waiting impatiently on the platform. Out of his mind, Beach went to the Joyces’ home, handing them the first copy, an edition riddled with misprints. Joyce’s wife sold it. Beach exhibited hers in the window of her bookstore, but was immediately forced to lock herself in the back room with it, frightened by the threats of the subscribers who indignantly demanded their copy.

Sylvia Beach at the door of her iconic Parisian Shakespeare and Company bookstore, in 1959. Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, James Joyce passed by...
Sylvia Beach at the door of her iconic Parisian Shakespeare and Company bookstore, in 1959. Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, James Joyce passed by…Getty

It was a glimpse of the strange fascination the book was meant to have on all sorts of people. The published chapters had aroused unusual attention in literary circles in Paris, London, and New York. Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, two of the most important writers of the time, were the first to sound the alarm. Mysteriously, the Ulises it became an object of worship for people entirely outside the realm of literature.

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How to approach such a text? Faulkner advised approaching the Ulises “in the same way as the preachers who do not know how to read the Bible: with faith.” In the 100 years since its appearance, the book has managed to arouse the interest of all kinds of followers. As Borges pointed out, many critics and academics have analyzed it. Joyce declared that his intention was to have them occupied for 300 years. He has two centuries left of laughing out loud in the grave. The industry generated by Ulises it has reached exorbitant heights: the translations and editions in all languages ​​are innumerable, the books dedicated to the analysis of the novel number in the hundreds and the articles, theses, essays and other studies, in the thousands. In Spain, the passage into the public domain of the work has triggered the number of editions of Joyce’s titles.

Ezra Pound visits the grave of James Joyce in Geneva in 1967.
Ezra Pound visits the grave of James Joyce in Geneva in 1967.ULSTEIN PLUG

The phenomenon is exhausting but it is justified. Since the publication Quixote, no novel has had such an impact on universal culture. Pound and Eliot were not exaggerating when they stated that the appearance of the Ulises marked the beginning of a new era. One hundred years later, his power of seduction is still intact. From a qualitative point of view, the greatest impact is the one it has had on the writers. The Ulises forever changed the rules of the art of novel writing. This does not mean that he has not had detractors, no masterpiece lacks (remember Nabokov’s invectives against the Quixote). Virginia Woolf, whose genius is equal to Joyce’s, believed that the Ulises it was a failed book (which did not prevent him from making many of the Irishman’s findings his own).

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What makes of Ulises a separate case is his ability to seduce outside of literature. Much has been written about its influence on musicians, filmmakers, artists and creators in all disciplines, including science. Of course, there are contemporary works of the Ulises whose merit is comparable, as In Search of Lost Time or some Virginia Woolf novels. What differentiates the Ulises one of these and other masterpieces is its ability to reach all kinds of people. No one dresses up as a character from a novel and takes to the streets to celebrate Woolf, Dickens or Proust as Dubliners do en masse every June 16, the so-called bloomsday, date on which the action of the novel takes place. Apart from Dublin, Leopold Bloom Day (the protagonist of the book) is celebrated in many cities around the world. The anomalous thing is that most of the participants have not read the Ulises.

Five women walk through Sandycove in Dublin at a Bloomsday celebration.
Five women walk through Sandycove in Dublin at a Bloomsday celebration.ASSOCIATED PRESS

But we are talking about a book, and books are written for people to read. The problem posed by Ulises is that there are many who try without success, defeated by the impenetrability of the text. Others do not pass to take a look. Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, whom he Ulises owes its existence, falls into this category. By his own confession, he read “27 pages including the cover.” Edna O’Brien tells it in her biography of Joyce. Of course, the best biography of the writer is that of Richard Ellmann, absolute master of the genre. O’Brien’s is very brief. She wrote it on request, on the occasion of the celebration of another centenary: that of Joyce’s birth, but the great Irish writer glimpses something that Ellman missed: that the Ulises it is a work of feminine sign.

O’Brien reminds us that Joyce frequented brothels. To him they were the most interesting things in any city. Thinking about the object of her biography, Edna O’Brien wonders how it is possible that a genius like Joyce shared the depths of his feelings and thoughts with someone intellectually so inferior to him, someone incapable of understanding his literary project. The question remains unanswered, but it is Nora Barnacle who inspires the spirit that guides the novel, projecting her personality over large areas of the text, transferring her voice to it, guided by Joyce’s prose. One of the biggest problems faced by the Ulises it was the accusations of obscenity, which led to bans, lawsuits, and the sequestration and burning of entire editions. The epistolary exchange between Joyce and his wife, of a directly pornographic obscenity, is the basis of the most scandalous fragments of the novel. This language appears transfigured at numerous moments in the last chapter, Penelope, the most celebrated Ulises. Molly Bloom is an unfaithful Penelope (which Leopold magnanimously accepts).

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Nora Barnacle (left) and James Joyce (centre) walk around London with their solicitor on July 4, 1931, the day they were married.
Nora Barnacle (left) and James Joyce (centre) walk around London with their solicitor on July 4, 1931, the day they were married.Photo: Getty

Without Nora, without whom Joyce was unable to find her bearings in life, figures as complex and contradictory as those that appear under the mythical guises of Circe or Nausicaa would not have emerged on the page. The chapter titled Circe, the most extensive and labyrinthine of the book, has a brothel as its setting and it is the prostitutes who take the lead (literally and figuratively). It is difficult to summarize what happens because everything is part of a hallucination, masterfully configured by the prose, although some moments are worth highlighting. Joyce disrupts Leopold Bloom’s masculinity, making him change sex, giving him a uterus and vagina, and making him give birth to eight offspring.

Androgynous, male and female, or if you prefer, transsexual, Bloom is possessed by the brothel manager, Bella Cohen, who also changes gender. Joyce wrote for the future. In a scene that couldn’t be more shocking today, a women’s choir accuses Bloom of sexual misconduct, shouting “I also! I also!” (literally). It is nothing more than a sample of the prophetic power of Joyce’s prose and the worlds that he manages to create with it in a changing way in each chapter: a watchtower facing the sea, a pub where the gravediggers of a cemetery meet, the canopy of night over the waters of the bay, a maternity hospital, the labyrinthine streets of Dublin with its offices and establishments, a hotel dining room, a newspaper office, the whorehouses of Nighttown, a nocturnal dive where the lost souls of the city tell devastating stories… They are worlds that the pages of the book tear from reality to return to it, transfigured. That is the impenetrable magic of Ulises.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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