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“Ulysses”: An Endlessly Open Book Of Utopian Epiphanies

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Today Random House is one of the leading publishing houses of the world. Its origin, though, can be traced to the Modern Library that was founded in 1917 by Boni and Liveright. It was reborn when Liveright, needing the money (he had bought off Albert Boni), sold the Modern Library to one of his employees, a 27-year-old vice-president who wanted to go into business for himself. The new publisher was Bennett Cerf.

Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer set up the Modern Library, Inc., on August 1, 1925. Two years later, finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, “at random,” other books that interested them. It soon was a publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.
Ever since the “100 Best” story first broke in The New York Times on Monday, July 20, 1998, all kinds of opinions about the list—and theories about the Modern Library’s purpose in concocting such a contest of sorts—emerged.

The Modern Library says on its website that the purpose was to get people talking about great books. The readers’ poll for the best novels published in the English language since 1900 opened on July 20, 1998 and closed on October 20, 1998, with 217,520 votes cast. The difference between the choice of the Board and the readers makes for an interesting comparison that can be accessed in detail on the Modern Library website.

Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce were the top three novels decided by the Board. The readers went for Ayn Rand and four of her books found a place in the top ten. She stayed on top of the non-fiction pile as well in the readers’ choice. The Fountainhead was at number two and Atlas Shrugged claimed the number one slot according to reader votes. Ayn Rand could not find a place in the top 100 novels decided by the board. I would take The Fountainhead in the next post and the choice of the Board here.

Declan Kiberd says in his introduction to the standard Random House/Bodley text that first appeared in 1960: Ulysses is ‘an endlessly open book of utopian epiphanies. It holds a mirror up to the colonial capital that was Dublin on 16 June 1904, but it also offers redemptive glimpses of a future world which might be made over in terms of those utopian moments.’

The Sheila Variations is a storehouse of information on the works of Joyce; her being Irish adds to the intimate way in which she has discussed the book. Joyce said: “[Ulysses] is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners, fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book—blast it!”

“The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it,” Joyce said. The publishing history of the Ulysses is fascinating and can be accessed through this link.

Joyce never felt he was writing about ‘the extraordinary’—he didn’t believe writers/novelists should focus on that—“that is for the journalist”. He wanted to focus on “the significance of trivial things”—thoughts, stream-of-consciousness, sensory reality, dream-spaces, the way the world looks through a particular set of eyeballs … to be INSIDE the character rather than outside. This is why much of Ulysses can be quite challenging to read. There is no narrator. No one interjects himself and tells you, “Here is what is happening here.” It is a purely subjective book—and we are inside Stephen Dedalus and we are inside Leopold Bloom. We see and hear only what they see and hear.

The statement about the mundane affairs of daily life is the art of the novel. If a writer wrote just for his time then it is not literature. Literature is not dated in any essential sense and its beauty springs from exploring the timeless human condition with all its daily joys, sorrows, conflicts and miseries. Joyce wrote the book between 1914 and 1921; when he was here and there during the raging war in Europe. “Ulysses” has survived bowdlerization, legal action, bitter controversy and the test of time. It is an undisputed modern classic.

Sheila, my guide, says that the story of Ulysses could not be simpler. Stephen Dedalus, our hero from Portrait is now a college student. His father is kind of useless. So he, unconsciously, is looking for a father figure. Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Ireland, married to Molly—who is having an affair—is at a loss how to keep his wife happy. He feels Irish, but he’s also Jewish … which makes things complicated. Through the long meandering course of one day—Dedalus and Bloom keep missing each other through the streets of Ireland … but you get the sense that they need to meet. Leopold Bloom will be the father figure for Stephen. Finally, near the end of the day, they meet. They go to a brothel. They go out for a meal late at night. They walk home to Bloom’s house. They talk. Dedalus staggers home. Bloom wonders if his wife upstairs is awake. The book ends (of course) with the 40 page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed. All roads lead to the female. The female ends the book.

Joyce said, “With me, the thought is always simple.” The structure is complex, but the thought behind it is simple. “Once you get that… the whole thing is not only quite easy, but a ton of fun. To treat it like a big serious tome is to completely miss the point of the book—which is rather silly, most of the time … and has to do with what people eat, and how they chew, and what it’s like in a brothel, and the people you meet on any given day: windbags, sirens, patriotic nimrods, pious righteous folks, old tired teachers … whatever.

“It’s a cornucopia of personality. And I think Joyce was onto something when he said there’s not a serious line in it. ..It’s an important book—yes. Its place in literary history and the history of the 20th century is pre-eminent. Nobody tops him. But the book itself is a rollicking jaunt through one day—June 16, 1904—Joyce wrote it as a tribute to his wife Nora.

They had gone on their first “date” (a walk thru Dublin—with probably a sexual encounter in a back alley) on June 16, 1904. He wrote to her later that on that day she “made him a man”. And so Ulysses was a tribute to her. And to that first day they shared together. Damn. Imagine someone writing a tribute to you and then having it turn out to be the greatest book of the 20th century.”

My guide has encouraged me with her simple explanation and after years I have finally mustered the courage to get past ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…’ and hopefully would reach the 40-page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed.

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