Ultimately the legacy of the classic modernist novel may reside in how attentively and scrupulously it concentrates on the music of tentative, shambolic, open-ended urban lives.
In 1919, an excerpt from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) was being prepped for magazine publication. Confused by the unorthodox syntax, diction, and punctuation, the editor sought clarification from the author, who unhelpfully compared its layout to that of a late medieval contrapuntal song — adding that his fiction articulates “the seductions of music beyond which Ulysses travels.” That fugue-like musical prototype — which arguably spans the entirety of the novel’s 700-plus pages — remains its most underestimated subversion, underpinning a radicalism that extends into the novel’s fearless exploration of taboos around class, politics, money, sexuality, marriage, gender, colonialism, religion, ethnicity, and even language itself.
Born in 1882, Joyce, an avid reader and polyglot, was drawn to melancholic tales derived from the oral tradition, and to modern writers who trafficked in symphonic realism, like Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy. As novelist Colm Tóibín writes in One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses (Pennsylvania State University Press/The Morgan Library & Museum, 2022), public life in Dublin during Joyce’s youth was saturated with musical and vocal performances; this often filled a vacuum for a citizenry whose civic engagement was disallowed by their status as colonized British subjects.
Joyce observed this link between music and yearning at home, too. His father, a gifted tenor, gradually failed at business, and after completing undergraduate work in languages at University College Dublin, Joyce looked beyond Ireland. He abandoned medical studies in Paris to write fiction and, newly married, resettled in Trieste, Italy, in 1905. There, he began writing Ulysses while teaching Berlitz-method language courses and taking singing lessons at the Adriatic city’s Conservatorio Tartini. He also attended musical performances featuring the work of Europe’s leading composers: Wagner and Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, Donizetti and Mascagni.
Plotted on a single day in Dublin — June 16, 1904 — Ulysses draws on topographical rhythms from The Odyssey, that ancient sonorous epic about exile and waywardness attributed to Homer, which existed for centuries solely as a verbal-musical recitation by Greek poets. Though the pages of Ulysses teem with countless historical bits of trivia and philological lacunae that have fueled scholarly labor for generations, in its overall, unifying drive it breaks with Edwardian realism’s linearity to render what poet Seamus Heaney calls, in another context, “the music of what happens”: the cacophonous drama in a city’s public spaces, the furtive chamber music unfolding behind closed doors, and the many aria-like inner languages that play to an audience of one in the secret auditoriums of individual psyches — especially those of Joyce’s protagonists: Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Bloom’s wife, Molly.
This year Ulysses’s centenary has generated important cultural events for new and previous readers alike, including three newly published editions of Ulysses. The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes (Cambridge University Press) is a mammoth but tidy volume that contains Joyce’s schemata, a biographical context, timelines, city maps, and a 16-page index of recurring characters, supplementing a full facsimile reprint of the novel’s first edition. And from Johns Hopkins University Press is The Guide to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ by Patrick Hastings, the creator of UlyssesGuide.com.
Dispensing with secondary text, Ulysses: An Illustrated Edition (Other Press) resets the 1922 edition into new, large, and elegant typeface and intersperses 134 color illustrations and 200 black and white artworks — vibrant collages, drawings, photomontages, and watercolors — depicting the novel’s dramatic scenes, its characters, and the innumerable everyday objects that appear in its pages, created by the late Spanish painter and graphic artist, and self-professed Joyce fanatic, Eduardo Arroyo.
On the curatorial side, One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses at The Morgan Library & Museum, curated by Colm Tóibín, is an immersive look into the novel’s tortuous route into mainstream culture. The exhibition’s rare Ulysses-related artwork — photographic portraits and paintings of Joyce, as well as his family and supportive friends — punctuate the display of manuscripts, letters, galleys, and legal filings, building its case that Ulysses’s ultimate achievements resulted from an international avant-garde collaboration led by intrepid individuals (nearly all women) who believed in the novel’s greatness when almost no one in the world did.
When American editor Margaret Anderson, with encouragement from her partner Jane Heap, began serializing Ulysses in 1919 in The Little Review, American postal authorities seized and burned issues of the magazine on the grounds of purported subversive content. Unintimidated, Anderson continued to serialize it until her press was slapped with a charge of pornography by New York State, a case she pressed and lost in 1921.
At that time, American and British book publishers balked at even considering the novel, so Joyce’s friend, the Paris-based American expatriate Sylvia Beach, bankrolled its first limited edition publication in February of 1922 while, across the channel, Harriet Shaw Weaver soon followed suit through her Egoist Press.
For more than a decade, Ulysses circulated only illicitly in the UK and US through second-rate pirated editions until, in 1932, Random House publisher Bennett Cerf deliberately broke the law by mail ordering an original edition from France. This led to the book’s seizure by customs officials and triggered a test case against its ongoing censorship (USA vs. One Book Called Ulysses); Cerf prevailed following a landmark ruling for free expression in 1934. Ulysses was commercially published and, stoked by cutting-edge publicity campaigns around its recent censorship, became an unlikely best seller. For the first time in his life, Joyce, forever borrowing from others, earned a substantial income.
The rest, the Morgan exhibition suggests, is history. But that history isn’t over. Nor did it end, as the show implies, around the 1950s. The Morgan sidesteps relevant questions that loom large regarding the novel’s impact across this last half century. For instance, how has Ulysses’s formal experimentation altered the conventions and expectations for novel-writing around the world?
Burning political questions are left unaddressed, too, that flow from the legal battles waged for Ulysses. With government-led book bans recurring in US schools and libraries, and following the attack on novelist Salman Rushdie, the exhibition missed an opportunity to examine how creative writers and book publishers in the last half century have either followed in Joyce’s audacious footsteps by bringing forth challenging stories or how fiction has retreated from cultural boat-rocking through tacit self-censorship, or, perhaps, through the homogenizing and repressive effects of today’s corporatist book-publishing industry.
Ultimately the legacy of Ulysses may reside in how attentively and scrupulously it concentrates on the music of tentative, shambolic, open-ended urban lives. In the right hands, those qualities take on operatic magnitudes, even in comic, droll, and pedestrian settings, like the novel’s infamous “Nausicca” passage, a prime focus in its bygone court battles, built around a prolonged erogenous duet internally vocalized by two strangers on a beach. As the liturgical organ music and responsorial chants from a nearby mass fill the air and fireworks screech and explode overhead, Gerty McDowell notices Leopold Bloom staring at her lasciviously as she extends her legs and arches, congenially revealing herself to her admirer’s gaze as he clandestinely pleasures himself.
As it does throughout Ulysses, Joyce’s narrative weaves together radically distinct characters’ overlapping consciousnesses within this perverse moment, writing like a conductor presiding over woodwind and string, and producing a peculiar, reciprocally empathic and forlorn melody:
[…] she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirtdancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages […].
One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses continues at The Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through October 2. The exhibition was curated by Colm Tóibín.