I spent enough time in academia to be inundated with literary criticism about James Joyce’s Ulysses from all sides (feminist, linguistic, postcolonial, deconstructive, and on and on), but I never really got tired of the book or all the brouhaha surrounding it. I genuinely think that Ulysses merits that level of attention, because it affects the literature that follows it in such a foundational way. I’ve written about some authors (mainly Celine) who I think are important for various reasons, but Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses is singular in that he sets the stage for the modern novel in one fell swoop. He reinterprets so many tropes through his subjective and almost obsessively character-centered lens (the hero, the homeland, the son, the ideal mate, the oppressor/oppressed, and on and on) that everything from that point on was pretty much fair game. Other authors, of course, took stabs at doing this, and it’s not as if Joyce is the only author from that period with enduring influence, but I think it’s difficult to find any one author who had such a large effect on so many different aspects of literature.
And yet, I still hesitate to recommend Ulysses to friends who are curious about it. It’s not that it is too hard for non-academics to read (far from it)… with some effort, anyone can understand it, and there are books upon books explaining the plot for anyone who has trouble. It’s just that (and this is a decidedly non-academic point of view here, one which I am proud to have cultivated in the last few years), it’s not that good of a read. My favorite books are ones that totally engulf me, ones that display the full and raw power that literature can have (something that goes beyond simply having an engaging plot). And while Ulysses is an achievement of the highest order, and a work of art whose complexity is on a level almost completely untouched by other authors, I feel like the emotional power of the narrative gets buried under all the linguistic games. I love reading Ulysses for the artistic aspect of it, and I like thinking about the themes and characterizations, especially in terms of how they fit in to the history of Western literature, but the two don’t meet on the page, so to speak. The thematic force of the novel is a level removed, being reconstructed in my own head after reading articles and books and writing papers about it.
So, I have an ambivalent relationship with this book; it’s one of my favorites at the same time that I don’t really like it that much. An interesting sidebar about Ulysses, however (well, not a sidebar if you’re a First Amendment lawyer), is that it defined the test for obscenity in the US until Burroughs’s Naked Lunch necessitated a new test in the 60’s. Because of the raw subject matter (shitting! jerking off! nudity!), the book was outlawed in the US, although it eventually survived a court challenge (I can’t remember off the top of my head what the actual standard they used was, but it focused on the artistic merit of the book. The Burroughs test that came later had to relax this standard, since the stodgy court justices had a more difficult time finding artistic merit in places like Hassan’s Rumpus Room than they did in Joyce’s Dublin). Materially focused as I am, I really like early editions of Ulysses, because I feel like there’s a lot going on, from a historical perspective. Literary history is being made. US obscenity and censorship laws are being rewritten. The greatest novel of the next 86 years (at least according to the Modern Library) is sitting in a bookstore in a trade edition, for anyone to buy. Something about that really gets me.
Predictably, early editions of Ulysses aren’t cheap. I used to know the publishing history of it, but I’ve forgotten some of it. It was originally published in France in a paperback with turquoise covers, and those go for thousands of dollars. It made it to the US in a plain-looking hardcover with a dustjacket. Since the original trades, there have been countless special editions by pretty much every publisher who ever published special editions of “great books”. I remember seeing an artist’s edition of the book in the Heritage Bookshop in LA (aka the Heritage Museum of Shit You’ll Never Be Able to Afford) that was a reproduction of the original paperback edition, only 5 times the size ($20,000). They also had a signed copy of the actual original edition, although they didn’t list the price for it. The one edition that I really want is the Limited Editions Club version that came out in the 30’s. I used to be big into collecting Limited Editions Club books when I first got into book collecting, but they seem kind of boring now (although that is probably due to my tastes in literature changing more than anything else), and Ulysses is the only one I still really want. It is illustrated (and signed) by Matisse, limited to 1500 copies. I have another, unrelated book illustrated with line drawings and sketches by Matisse, and I really like these types of illustrations when they’re done well. Chagall is another artist who I think pulls them off especially well. But, the kicker with Matisse’s illustrations of Joyce is that he didn’t illustrate Joyce’s novel. He sent back his sketches so quickly after he received the manuscript that the publishers asked him if he had even read the book… he hadn’t, and he had thought he was illustrating Homer’s Odyssey. So you get sketches of Odysseus slaying the cyclops while you read about Bloom circumnavigating Dublin.
Copies of that edition go for around $4000 to $10000 (unless you find one signed by Joyce as well), so that’s not high up on my priority list. However, (we’re finally getting to the title of this entry, after 1000 words) I did find a beat up copy of the first US edition at a bookstore in Chicago for $10 back when I was in college. Like I said, the first trade editions of Ulysses really intrigue me as historical objects, so let’s just say I was excited when I found it. Plus, the condition isn’t that bad… For $10, I’d expect the binding to be falling apart, pages torn, that type of stuff. This one is still fairly tight, although it has no dustjacket, and there are some pretty ugly stains to the cover, as well as holes in the cloth that expose the boards. But still… $10? Out of all my books (excluding those with sentimental value because they were given to me by someone close to me), this one is by far the most important “cheapie” on the shelf.
PS- where I said we were getting to the title after 1000 words… The word “words” is literally the 1000th word in this entry. I planned the whole thing like that, because I’m incredibly smart.