James Joyce’s father once commented on his son: "If that fellow
was dropped in the middle of the Sahara, he'd sit, be God, and
make a map of it."
In this rumination on the Joycean mindset,
John Joyce wasn't talking about the novel
Ulysses—he had few words of praise for
that book—but he might very well have
been describing the process which led to
his son's imposing literary map of Dublin.
And the senior Joyce may have played a
part in this process too. He shared James's
interest in the byways and notable locales of the city, and perhaps
even inspired it with their shared walks, during which John Joyce
pointed out Dublin's literary landmarks—the home of Jonathan Swift,
the birthplace of Oscar Wilde, the places where Joseph Addison had
strolled before them, and other such sites of interest.
The Many Lives of James Joyce
Revisiting James Joyce's Dubliners
The Finnegans Wake Toolkit
But nowadays anyone looking at a literary map of Dublin will see that
it has been rewritten since that time, and mostly by James Joyce
himself, whose most famous work involves a stroll around the city that
many of the author's admirers emulate, often on June 16—the date on
which Ulysses takes place (picked by Joyce because this was the day
of his first date with his future wife Nora)—but on other occasions as
well. Even in his lifetime, Joyce celebrated this anniversary, and heard
from readers of Ulysses who also commemorated 'Bloomsday', as
it has come to be called. In the mid-1950s, Bloomsday showed the
first signs of turning into a kind of Dublin-based Mardi Gras, with a
recreation of Leopold Bloom’s stroll, in period costume, starting from
the character's home on Eccles Street, and following an itinerary that
included McConnell Street, Parnell Square and the Martello Tower.
But like St. Patrick’s Day, Bloomsday has become a celebration in
which everyone gets to be Irish for 24 hours—it is now commemorated
in at least sixty countries, as well as virtually on the web.
A real life stroll that Joyce took in 1904—not on Bloomsday, but four
days later on June 20—may have served as the initial spur that led to
Joyce's later writing of Ulysses. Well, not really a stroll, more like a
stumble. For this author, so fascinated by fallen characters—Humpty
Dumpty, Adam, and Finnegan all show up in his books—came to his
most famous work via a couple of falls of his own.
Joyce was often chided about his drinking by his brother Stanislaus,
who feared that he would destroy his considerable talent by his
dissipated ways. On that June evening, Joyce had so much to drink
that he first caused a scene at the premises of the Irish Literary Theater,
where he collapsed on the floor near the entrance, and others had to
step over the promising young author, who was sprawled in his own
vomit. But Joyce had another fall in store for him before the night was
over, even more painful than the first. After rising from this first stupor,
he got into an altercation with a soldier. Joyce was badly bruised in the
encounter—his later thumbnail summary was: "black eye, sprained wrist,
sprained ankle, cut chin, cut hand"—but the future author of Ulysses was
rescued that evening by a person who was almost a complete stranger.
Alfred H. Hunter, a slight acquaintance of Joyce's father, found the
young writer in some distress, and brought him back to his own home
to sober up and recover from his wounds.
Joyce was impressed by Hunter’s unexpected intercession, and also
by the character of the man who had played the role of Good Samaritan.
Hunter was Jewish and allegedly a cuckold—in both ways a prototype
for Leopold Bloom—and the incident planted a seed that would later
'bloom' into Ulysses. Two years later, on September 30, 1906, Joyce
sent a letter to his brother in which he announced that he was planning
on turning this encounter into a story, probably a short work akin to
those he had already written for Dubliners. In another letter, from
November 13, he mentions the idea again, and now it has a name:
"I thought of beginning my story 'Ulysses', but I have too many cares
Clearly the connection with Homer's Odyssey
was already in Joyce’s mind. And if Hunter
would turn into Bloom, who would represent
Ulysses, Joyce already had a real individual
and fictional character slated for the part of
Telemachus, Ulysses's son: the author himself
and his literary alter ego Stephen Dedalus.
By November 1907, Joyce had changed his
mind of the scope of the work, and now
began describing it as a novel. His brother
Stanislaus writes in his diary on November
10: "Jim told me that he is going to expand
his story 'Ulysses' into a short book and make
Dublin a 'Peer Gynt' of it….As it happens in
one day, I suggested that he should make a comedy of it, but he won't."
Even though Joyce, as these comments make clear, had already decided,
at this early stage, to embrace the Aristotelian unity of time—which limits
the span of events to 24 hours—his ambition to create a Dublin-based
equivalent of Homer's Odyssey demanded a much larger scope than
any he had previously attempted. On June 16, 1915 he told his brother
that he envisioned 22 episodes in his Ulysses, but by May 1918 he
had scaled back his plans and told Harriet Weaver that there would be
seventeen. The finished work had eighteen episodes, and amounted
to a massive 350,000 word novel—more than twice as long as
Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man combined.
Yet almost every detail, incident and character in this sprawling book
was first experienced by Joyce himself or collected from the real-world
accounts of others before getting processed and transformed into the
form of fiction. Sometimes the connections are complex—at least a
half-dozen different women contributed in some degree to the character
Molly Bloom—but the various lineages invariably link back to actual
people and circumstances. Joyce may have gained fame as the writer
who pushed fiction the furthest in modern times, but in another way he
can be seen as the author who took the fewest liberties with his subject.
He did not create ex nihilo but rather ex materia.
Even the character in Ulysses who seems to occupy the opposite
end of the spectrum from Joyce / Dedalus, namely Leopold Bloom,
also reflects aspects of the author, or at least his idealized image of
himself. The high profile of a Jewish protagonist in the great Dublin
novel is neither a departure from the book's Irishness nor a detour
from the autobiographical essence of the work. Joyce saw himself
as an exile from Ireland, both rooted in his homeland and at odds with
it—an attitude that made him especially sympathetic to the plight of
Irish Jews. (In Finnegans Wake, the hero appears to be a Protestant,
so the contrast with the pervasive Catholicism of Ireland is echoed in
the later book too.) But this convergence was more than a matter of
Joyce's psychological leanings. The era during which our author
came of age was a time of Irish diaspora. Already in 1890, when
Joyce was just eight-years-old, two out of every five persons of Irish
descent in the world were living outside of Ireland, and the exodus
continued non-stop for decades to come. True, the Irish—unlike the
Jews at the time—possessed a homeland; but even at home, the Irish
lacked sovereignty. The country would not gain independence from
Britain until 1922. Joyce often commented on the similarities between
the Irish and Jewish temperament, but just the brute facts of history
supported his insight that Leopold Bloom of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry,
could serve as a suitable emblem both for an ambitious Irish author
and his long-suffering fellow Dubliners.
Joyce thus had two levels of meaning with which to launch his grand
novel, a personal, autobiographical one and a Homeric epic one. And
he also saw each of these stories as representing a larger cultural
history—drawing on parallels between Irish and Jewish destinies.
But in time, other levels of signification were woven into the book.
Each chapter, as he saw it, could 'embody' a different organ of the
body. But he also wanted to use the book to showcase a litany of
different ways of writing. Joyce later defined "the task I set myself"
as "writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as
many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow
tradesmen." The end result was a novel that infuriated many, amazed
others, but—love it or hate it—stands out as one of the most ambitious
projects in the history of literature.
The construction of this book, for all its challenges, was only a prelude
to more obstacles to come. Finding a publisher posed a different set
of problems. And the publisher needed to find a printer who was not
afraid of criminal prosecution, given the book's content and the
obscenity laws of the days. And even after it was published, could it
be distributed without customs agents seizing and burning the books?
And if it made its way into a bookstore, could it be sold without drawing
a response form police and prosecutors? At every step of the way,
Joyce faced potential stumbling blocks.
Thus James Joyce had his own perilous odyssey ahead of him, and
his project took almost as long as Ulysses's own in the Homeric epics
to complete. Homer tells us that Odysseus spent ten years fighting
the Trojan War and another ten years in his much delayed journey
home. For Joyce, the timetable is even more protracted. Ten years
elapsed between the 1904 events that inspired the book and the
commencement of its writing. Eight more years transpired before
Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach in Paris. Joyce needed to
wait another eleven years before the court decision that allowed sale
of the book in the United States. Almost thirty years after Bloomsday,
in January 1934, the first US edition was released. The first UK edition
did not come out until 1936.
In fact, someone could write a book about the making of Ulysses, and
base it on the Odyssey as well. We have all the ingredients here—angry
rivals at home in Ithaca (or Dublin, in the case of Joyce), and foes and
obstacles in other farflung settings, everything conspiring to prevent the
protagonist from fulfilling his destiny. But achieve it he did. Along the
way, Mr. Joyce proved—in more ways than one—to be the hero of his
own story. This was the one layer to Ulysses that Joyce never intended
to add. It was forced upon him by circumstances, most of them arising
after the book was written. But I can’t help but find it fitting and proper
that, in an age in which art became increasingly self-referential, the
most avant-garde of novels proved so maddeningly true-to-life.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published on May 6, 2013
|The Making of Ulysses
by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
|Homer's Ulysses spent twenty years
trying to complete his heroic task, but
it took Joyce even longer to complete
and publish his most famous novel