One small scene from the annals of heroic modernism is the moment when, in the winter of 1921, the French novelist and critic Valery Larbaud gave the world’s first-ever talk on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, at Shakespeare & Company, an Anglophone bookstore and lending library in Paris, run by a young American woman called Sylvia Beach. The book had still not been published—and Joyce was not well known. No critic had examined his work in depth, and not many of even the most literary people in England or America had heard of him. But in the last two or three years, Larbaud explained, Joyce had acquired an “extraordinary notoriety”—he had become the literary equal of Freud or Einstein. His name was an alluring rumor. Those who had read his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and especially those who had managed to read his new novel Ulysses, as serialized in the New York magazine The Little Review, all agreed.
And yet, Larbaud had to admit:
If you ask a member of the (American) Society for the Suppression of Vice: “Who is James Joyce?” you will receive the following reply: “He is an Irishman who has written a pornographic work called Ulysses which we have successfully prosecuted when it appeared in the Little Review in New York.”
For what had happened to Flaubert and Baudelaire, said Larbaud, had happened to Joyce. His art had been deemed obscene. Larbaud’s proposal, therefore, was to “try to describe the work of James Joyce as precisely as possible.” And then he began his lecture, using notes prepared by Joyce himself.
“All men should ‘Unite to give praise to Ulysses’; those who will not, may content themselves with a place in the lower intellectual orders,” wrote Ezra Pound a few months later, after the novel was finally published—by Shakespeare & Company, in its first venture as a publishing house. But you can only truly praise something you understand, and no one was quite certain what Ulysses was. Joyce’s novel created a vast transatlantic tremor of anxiety. Pound called it a “super-novel,” and even Joyce had problems of definition. In a letter to another of his supervised interpreters, Carlo Linati, he called it an “epic,” an “encyclopedia,” and most charmingly a “maledettissimo romanzaccione” (fucking novelosaurus). Only the gargantuan proportions were sure.
Should it have been so difficult? This novel has a story, after all. The date is June 16, 1904. The setting is Dublin. And the hero is Leopold Bloom—a devoted husband to his wife Molly, with whom he has one daughter. Jewish by race, Christian by baptism, and atheist by inclination, Bloom is really a believer in reason and science: he is the everyman of the democratic twentieth century. He works in the newspaper world as an advertising…
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