“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
‒ James Joyce
How cool would it be to have your book published on your birthday? Well, that happened to James Joyce. His masterpiece, Ulysses, was first published on February 4, 1922, on the Irish author’s fortieth birthday. Sylvia Beach, famous for her cult bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris, was, not surprisingly, brave enough to publish Ulysses.
However, the novel was soon banned in the US, England, Ireland, and Canada after mass-burnings proved ineffective. The ban in the US was lifted only in 1933 after judge John Woolsey spent a month reading Joyce’s novel and concluded: “I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes ‘Ulysses’ is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive though normal person to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses of the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”
It might be interesting to read the first reviews of Ulysses.
Edmund Wilson wrote a long review for the New Republic on July 5, the same year:
Yet, for all its appalling longueurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge – unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction – or in inventing new literary forms – Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old – as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. Ulysses has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy. Since I have read it, the texture of other novelists seems intolerably loose and careless; when I come suddenly unawares upon a page that I have written myself I quake like a guilty thing surprised. The only question now is whether Joyce will ever write a tragic masterpiece to set beside this comic one. There is a rumor that he will write no more – that he claims to have nothing left to say – and it is true that there is a paleness about parts of his work which suggests a rather limited emotional experience. His imagination is all intensive; he has but little vitality to give away. His minor characters, though carefully differentiated, are sometimes too drily differentiated, insufficiently animated with life, and he sometimes gives the impression of eking out his picture with the data of a too laborious note-taking. At his worst he recalls Flaubert at his worst – in L’Education Sentimentale. But if he repeats Flaubert’s vices – as not a few have done – he also repeats his triumphs – which almost nobody has done. Who else has had the supreme devotion and accomplished the definitive beauty? If he has really laid down his pen never to take it up again he must know that the hand which laid it down upon the great affirmative of Mrs. Bloom, though it never write another word, is already the hand of a master.
On the other hand, The Sporting Times concluded:
Ulysses appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses… James Joyce is a writer of talent, but in Ulysses he has ruled out all the elementary decencies of life and dwells appreciatively on things that sniggering louts of schoolboys guffaw about. In addition to this stupid glorification of mere filth, the book suffers from being written in the manner of a demented George Meredith. There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity intended for humour.
With which review do you agree? Did you know that the whole book, a monster around 600 pages long, takes place in only one day? And that day is June 16, 1904. Which is the date when James went on his first date with Nora. What a way to mark the first rendezvous with the love of his life!
Of course, it’s not only that. Ulysses is original, intelligent, ironic, amusing, brilliant just like the author.