Thursday 22 February 2018

Books: A portrait of the battle to publish Ulysses

Kevin Birmingham Head of Zeus; hdbk, £20 stg, 432 pages

Engrossed: Marilyn Monroe reads a copy of ‘Ulysses’ in 1955
Engrossed: Marilyn Monroe reads a copy of ‘Ulysses’ in 1955

Brian Lynch

Which of these statements by Kevin Birmingham is true? James Joyce had syphilis. Sean O'Casey was a wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestant "mining Irish peasant themes".

American Kevin Birmingham is a scholar with a PhD in English from Harvard, where he teaches. This book, his first, which was published to mark Bloomsday on Monday, tells what his publisher calls "the extraordinary story of Joyce's 15-year battle to publish his masterpiece," how it was "conceived, written, rejected, published, slammed, and excoriated before taking its place as a masterpiece".

In particular, this book covers the legal wars that followed publication – at one stage Ulysses was so scandalous that the BBC would not allow even its name mentioned on air. Birmingham tells us his book is "the result of years of research involving hundreds of books, articles and newspaper accounts." He also thanks authorities and editors (mainly American) for reading his manuscript. Did none of them know that, far from being a wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestant writing about Irish peasants, Sean O'Casey was a working-class socialist famous for writing about life in Dublin's slums?

It's one thing to make mistakes of fact – and there are quite a few in this book – but it's another thing entirely to get the tone wrong, which the author also does. When Birmingham says, "Nine decades of biographies have failed to capture the degree to which adversity (and persecution) inspired Joyce", the implication is he himself has now done the job. But that claim is foolhardy in the extreme. Joycean scholars, who are fanatically devoted to their master, have teeth like sharks and will, I suspect, tear him to shreds for his impertinences.

Birmingham claims his book "incorporates unpublished material in 24 archives housed in 16 institutions from London to New York to Milwaukee. The archives contain troves of manuscripts, legal documents, unpublished memoirs, reports and countless letters". Archives usually do contain that, but how much of it is relevant to Joyce is debatable.

Consider Birmingham's treatment of John Woolsey, the judge who unbanned Ulysses in the US in 1933. We learn that when Woolsey decided what he was going to say in his judgment, he was not only shaving but could see the sky in his mirror: "He scraped away the unmaidenly stubble from his face and glanced from the lathered razor back to the blue sky. It was a kaleidoscope of impressions. Judge Woolsey rushed to his desk, grabbed his pen and began writing his decision with a dripping razor in his left hand."

I'm not sure how a man's stubble could be anything other than "unmaidenly", or how a blue sky could be "a kaleidoscope of impressions", but I'm sure that prose as drippy as this deserves the razor.

One reason for reading Birmingham is his eye for peripheral material. He sees connections between the banning of the magazine that serialised Ulysses in the US and the anarchist Emma Goldmann – the editor of the magazine was "captivated by her brio". Emma was a tetchy sort. She wanted to know, "why someone didn't shoot the governor of Utah before he could shoot Joe Hill?" It is amusing to find a link between 'The Ballad of Joe Hill' and Ulysses, even if it is tenuous.

As for syphilis, Birmingham insists Joyce had the disease, but on inspection, his certainties wobble. He says that in 1928 Joyce refused to

take Salvarsan, not because of the side-effects – death in some cases – but because its "gravest threat" was to his eyesight. Never mind that death includes blindness. Birmingham doesn't seem to know the drug was taken off the market in 1912 and replaced.

Birmingham also says Joyce was treated with a drug called Galyl. He doesn't seem to know that an American Medical Association report issued in 1922 described its use as "irrational and a detriment to rational therapy".

The mistakes in tone and facts are bound to irritate Joyceans, but even they will find that Birmingham excels in the vigour of his descriptions. This for instance: "Dr Borsch asked for the back-toothed iris forceps and slid them into the incision. The tiny teeth bit into the iris near the edge of Joyce's occluded pupil ... ." And so on, agonisingly, for half a page.

But even here one has one's suspicions. Where has Birmingham found the details of this operation? The answer is, nowhere. He knows Joyce had his eyeball slit with a scalpel and uses a textbook of surgery to recreate the experience. Is that ethical? I would say it is, but Birmingham should be upfront about it.

There are many quotations here from Joyce's pornographic letters to Norah Barnacle, as well as references to her replies, now lost. The letters are certainly relevant to the material that made Ulysses such a scandalous book, but Birmingham is not satisfied to let the Joyces speak for themselves – he has to join in: "The thin arcs of the cursive f soared above her writing's gentler slopes and plunged down below them. It had the symmetry of a bow on her blue chemise with one of the ribbon ends pulled toward the upturned vowel." And so on. It's all a like not knowing Sean O'Casey was a Red: good fun but blush-making.

The blurb with the book refers to the author's obsession with Joyce and how, when he was 20, it led him to Ireland "where he bartended in a pub featured in Ulysses for a day before being fired". Maybe if he had lasted longer he might have learned a bit more about O'Casey – and Joyce.


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