100 Years Ago Today James Joyce’s “Ulysses” Was Born
By Stuart Mitchner
Documenting the birth of Ulysses in James Joyce (1959), Richard Ellman suggests that the day of publication “was becoming, in Joyce’s superstitious mind, talismanic.” If anything, there was more of the manic than talismanic in Joyce’s insistence that his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, absolutely had to coincide with the birth of his creation. As the day approached, he fired off letters and telegrams and made frantic phone calls to Sylvia Beach, his publisher (formerly of Library Place in Princeton), and to Maurice Darantière, the printer, who was based some 300 kilometers from Paris in Dijon.
On February 1, Darantière said that the package would “surely arrive by noon of the next day.” Pressed by Joyce, who claimed to be in “a state of energetic prostration,” Miss Beach told the printer that this method “was too uncertain,” and so Darantière made heroic haste, personally bringing the precious package to the conductor on the Dijon-Paris express, who delivered it into the midwife’s hands early on the talismanic morning, whereupon she rushed the newborn by cab to its proud parent.
The Man in the Macintosh
Several decades after Joyce’s death on January 13, 1941, I spent the better part of a rainy summer afternoon in Zurich searching for his grave. Ellman’s transformative biography had only just been published and nobody knew where he was buried. One person said, “You mean the English writer?” Finally, a girl in a bookshop told me to take the tram to Fluntern Kirche and look for the zoo. I found the graveyard but couldn’t find the grave. I was drenched and about to give up when a man in a macintosh appeared out of the dense mist. Complaining in heavily accented English about the “foul weather,” he showed me the way to number 1449 and vanished, leaving me to stare at a flat black tombstone, engraved James Joyce, 1882-1941. That was it. No flowers (they’d have been drowned), no sign of wife Nora and son Giorgio, who in time would be buried nearby. For now, the father of Ulysses was on his own.
Later that day I took imaginative advantage of my mysterious guide, merging him with the “man in the macintosh” who is seen by Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s funeral. When I got home I expanded the encounter for the amusement of English major friends who, like me, were at play in the fields and on the streets of Ulysses. We debated the figure’s significance. In the Cyclops episode the man in the macintosh “loves a lady who is dead.” In the dream world of Nighttown, he “springs up through a trap door,” pointing accusingly at Bloom. Was he an anti-Semitic shade? Or a stand-in for the man who put the manic in talismanic? The most significant connection from my point of view is with the Macintosh I’ve been writing on for the past 20 years. This is what Joyce does. He puts everything in play.
“Not a Single Serious Line”
In Ellman’s chapter on Joyce’s anxious pre-publication state of mind, he quotes from an account by Nightwood author Djuna Barnes, who met him during that period “fairly often.” She recalls Joyce looking “both sad and tired.” During a conversation at Les Deux Magots, he told her, “The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse, they may take it in some serious way, and in the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.”
Not a single serious line? Right away I think of the early, densely allusive Proteus chapter in which Stephen Dedalus ponders the “ineluctable modality of the visible” on Sandymount Strand. The seemingly impenetrable seriousness of Ulysses was the selling point in an ad appearing in the New York Times Book Review some years ago, wherein the Teaching Company of Chantilly, Virginia, offered intimidated readers a way to “Examine the Multilayered Pleasures of James Joyce’s Modern Epic … in 24 Vibrant Recorded Lectures.” Should you feel intellectually challenged by “a book whose pleasures you have always wanted to savor, but never quite worked yourself up to reading,” the lecture series “presupposes no special knowledge of literature or James Joyce.” In fact, Joyce’s novel is a “surprisingly accessible work that offers near limitless rewards to its readers.” The ad’s red-lettered come-ons — “Act Now!” “Order Today!” “Save Up to $185!” — would no doubt amuse an ad canvasser like Mr. Bloom, who shares his creator’s eye for such things.
Mutely Craving to Adore
How is it that so notoriously difficult an author could create a character as approachable (if not downright lovable) as Leopold Bloom? There he is on the morning of June 16, 1904 (another “talismanic” date says Ellman), in which he feeds a cat, brings his adulterous wife breakfast in bed, and pays a productive visit to the outhouse. You feel the man — how he thinks, sees, reacts, dreams, “mutely craves to adore.” I’m thinking now of his first encounter, with the cat that walks “stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high” and utters the first sound (“Mkgnao!”) recorded in the massive soundscape comprising Bloom’s share of the narrative: “O, there you are,” says he, as he watches “curiously, kindly the lithe black form,” thinking: “Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.” Bending down to her, his hands on his knees, thinking: “They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.”
And as the cat gives a louder meow, there’s the pleasure of Joyce’s prose: “She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milkwhite teeth. He watched the dark eyeslits narrowing with greed till her eyes were green stones.” After pouring a saucer of milk, he “listened to her licking lap” and “watched the bristles shining wirily in the weak light as she tipped three times and licked lightly.” Thinking: “Wonder is it true if you clip them they can’t mouse after. Why? They shine in the dark, perhaps, the tips. Or kind of feelers in the dark, perhaps.” The sequence ends with an exchange. “The cat mewed to him. ‘Miaow!’ he said in answer.”
Imagine a City
Do you have to be a devoted student of literature to take on Ulysses? I’m thinking of the tourists who walked forth smiling and stimulated after visiting the extraordinary 100th anniversary Bloomsday exhibit at Dublin’s National Library in 2004-2005. Perhaps it’s enough simply to scan the immensity of the book, the way you might look down from a safe vantage point onto some labyrinthine bazaar. Better yet, think of it as a city. If you were reading Manhattan would you start at the Battery and plod uptown, street by street? When you visit New York, you may spend all your time below 23rd Street. People talk about their favorite neighborhoods. Lovers of Ulysses stroll around in their favorite passages.
Ulysses in Brooklyn
My relationship with the book dates back to my late teens. I still have the third printing of the Random House edition I found at a Fourth Avenue bookshop. In its current state, nearly every one of its 768 pages has underlinings and marginal notes, ranging from the ballpoint scrawl of a careless 18-year-old to the lighter, more subdued pencilings of a 27-year-old graduate student in English.
When I set out on my first journey through Ulysses I had a summer job in the office of a hiring hall in Brooklyn. Most of the men I saw every day were Irish American New Yorkers, including Pat, the self-proclaimed “dirty old street cop” who stopped by every day to join the gab fest and always said “top ‘o the mornin’.” That running joke was part of the daily sitcom. During the 40-minute subway ride home, with all that office banter echoing in my ears, I felt as if I were emerging from the lost chapter of a pirated edition of Ulysses.
Who Is Buried Here?
Joyce was buried in Zurich’s Fluntern cemetery on January 15, 1941, “a cold, snowy day,” in Ellman’s account. As the coffin was lowered into the grave, “a tiny, deaf old man” asked one of the undertaker’s helpers holding the rope which went under the coffin, “Who is buried here?” The undertaker said, “Herr Joyce.” The old man did not understand and asked again. “Herr Joyce,” the undertaker shouted, “and at that moment the coffin came to rest at the bottom of the pit.”
According to Richard Ellman, when Joyce’s mentally ill daughter Lucia was told of his death, she could not believe it. “What is he doing under the ground, that idiot? When will he decide to come out? He’s watching us all the time.”
On the last page of my copy of Ellman’s great book, still the best biography I ever read, I wrote, “Finished Feb. 2, 1960, Joyce’s birthday.”
“Open Secrets: Ulysses at 100,” the Robert Fagles Memorial Lecture by Fintan O’Toole, will be presented online via Zoom webinar on Friday, February 11 at 4:30 p.m.