Celebrating Bloomsday and all things Ulysses’

Kevin Birmingham and Maya Lang at the Free Library

3 minute read
James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 1920.
James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co., Paris, 1920.

The Free Library of Philadelphia hosted a Ulysses themed night, which prompts the obvious questions: Why? Who cares? The book is over 90 years old, promises all the thrills of a lecture given by a professor tenured in the Ice Age, and usually signals the most pretentious guest at any party. So why Ulysses? Out of all the books ever written, how did this tome get its reputation — and its own holiday (June 16)?

The answer starts with Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Birmingham introduced his work as “the biography of a book instead of a person” before previewing his vivid account of history.

It begins with an underdog, a radical artist battling against the prudish, narrow-minded constraints of the “civilized” world. Uncompromising in his ideals, Joyce refuses to surrender in the face of poverty, censorship, a war-torn Europe, and acute eye problems that require painful, debilitating surgeries.

Interwoven in the drama is the iconoclastic Sylvia Beach. Disgusted by Red Cross bureaucracy, Beach finds solace in the mythic Left Bank of Paris among the greatest artists of her generation. But sitting next to genius is not enough — she must prove herself. So with reckless ingenuity, Beach publishes a novel so controversial it was banned before it was even completed; a novel that eventually travels across the Atlantic Ocean and into the private library of Judge John Woolsey. Progressive and scholarly, the judge has a track record for lifting bans on books. But how will this esteemed gentleman from New York react to “the grey sunken cunt of the world”?

It’s a magnificent story, and Kevin Birmingham writes it beautifully, so beautifully that people might actually enjoy his book instead of starting, stopping, restarting, cursing, skimming, procrastinating, and dreading it until her PhD program forced her to finish.

An homage from a non-fan

That was Maya Lang’s relationship to Ulysses. Her new novel, The Sixteenth of June, has its origins in James Joyce’s classic but follows the lives of three characters in Philadelphia. Notably, Lang opted not to read a section of her novel. Instead, the self-described “mom that snuck the veggies into the brownies” took the role of a priest absolving fans of their Joyce guilt. “Essentially, I couldn’t stand [Ulysses],” admitted Lang. For her, Joyce’s constant drive to confound university professors and secure a place in history made the book largely unreadable.

Lang, of course, is the rule, not the exception. And within this ambivalent fandom lies the loving absurdity of it all.

Take my Ulysses experience as another example. I read each chapter with my laptop so I could Google almost every other word. Then, when I finished a chapter, I would look up the section on Sparknotes to understand what I had just read. Now, almost two years later, I celebrate the most difficult homework I ever gave myself by heading to Philadelphia in honor of a novel set in Dublin that was written in Trieste and Zurich by a drunken private tutor with an eye patch. Go ahead and laugh; this is my life.

Why should anyone read, much less celebrate, Ulysses? Any article that starts with questions should end with answers, preferably one answer. And I think there is an answer — maybe — in everything written above. Unfortunately, those are “body paragraphs.” Unfit to stand alone, they require a great "summing up" — a place where all of the accumulated experiences condense into one, unyielding, resolute answer. And I have such an answer:

The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.

What, When, Where

Kevin Birmingham and Maya Lang, The Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia, June 18, 2014.

Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Penguin Press. Available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook editions.

Maya Lang, The Sixteenth of June: A Novel. Available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook editions.

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