Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review of "The Most Dangerous Book" by Kevin Birmingham - The Story of The Struggle to Get James Joyce's "Ulysses" Published

The writing of James Joyce has always been a bit off-putting and problematic to me.  As part of the accepted canon of Western literature, his works have always been books I felt I should be familiar with.  "Ulysses" has consistently baffled me.  Having read this new work, I am slightly less baffled by "Ulysses."  With this meticulously researched work, "The Most Dangerous Book,"author Kevin Birmingham sheds very helpful light on Joyce the man, Joyce the writer and Joyce the cause célèbre.

The main point of the book is the story of how the attempt to print "Ulysses" and to sell it in the U.S. and UK was a 20 year journey fraught with many difficulties and twists.  Along the way, we follow Joyce from his native Dublin to exile in Zurich and Paris.  We feel his deteriorating health and eyesight, his long-term relationship with his common law wife and muse, Nora Barnacle, who stuck to him like the creature that was her namesake.  We become intimately acquainted with those who stood by his side and those who fought to suppress his "obscenity."  The book is filled with a rich cast of characters from history - some very familiar - Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bennett Cerf - and some obscure.

Fans of Joyce and of "Ulysses" can purchase Birmingham's book in time for this year's "Bloomsday" celebrations on June 16.  But one need not be a fan of Joyce to enjoy this book.  It sheds light on the history of publishing, the changing tastes in literature and in culture, and on the always timely topic of what topics are appropriate for public discourse.

The following short quotation sums up concisely the point of this book and of the struggle over the right to publish "Ulysses."

"Joyce's belated victory did less for him than it did for us.  The legalization of  'Ulysses' announced the transformation of a culture.  A book that the American and British governments burned en masse a few years earlier was now a modern classic, part of the heritage of Western civilization." (Page 335)



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