When I first visited Paris as a young man I was overtaken by a raw instinct that compelled me to make my way to the Left Bank, and find, approximately one block from the Seine River, a quaint, hidden-away bookstore with a storied past called Shakespeare and Company. There I purchased a hardcover copy of a novel called Ulysses first published in 1922 by the very publishing company that was part of the bookstore.
What I did in purchasing that book on that day was about as informed and as thinking an act as a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. I hardly entered the store and once there hardly looked around when I told a clerk what I was looking for. He went to the back of the bookstore and handed me a hardcover edition. I immediately left Shakespeare & Company with the book in my greedy hands. Sweaty hands, too, for I knew I was holding an illicit work rumored to capture the longings and passions of human sexuality.
"Unexpurgated" was such a sexy word in those days.
I must have been dreaming. I was dreaming. In my dream purchasing that book at that bookstore was partaking in a forbidden, sinful ritual that I found both tremendously liberating and exhilarating. I was committing a revolutionary act that I strongly identified with in ways I could not begin to explain had anyone asked me. No one did.
Dear reader, those among you who believe that current events portends an all-out cultural Armageddon between the forces of good and evil, right and left, listen up! This is not the first time such a catfight loomed on the horizon or been engaged with such furiously fierce determination and a sense of crusading righteousness on both sides.
About one hundred years before Trump threw his hat in the ring, an at-the-time rather obscure Irish writer by the name of James Joyce penned a tome called Ulysses. When he completed the writing of it soon after the end of World War One (1919), he found that his novel had been born into a world that could not have been more divided over its literary value.
Joyce's Ulysses was viewed at the time and is still thought of today as the very essence of modernism itself. As author Kevin Birmingham writes. "The book that many regard as the greatest novel in the English language and possibly any language was banned as obscene, officially and unofficially, throughout most of the English-speaking world for over a decade. Being forbidden is part of what made Joyce's novel so transformative. Ulysses changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law."
The Most Dangerous Brook tells the story of Ulysses as it immerged from Joyce's imagination, and how "its 732 pages took shape in notebooks, on loose-leaf sheets and on scraps of paper in more than a dozen apartments in Trieste, Zurich and Paris." It then goes on to describe how the advocates of Ulysses fought with every resource they had against the establishment forces bent on censoring and banning the work out of existence.
Those crusaders found the book so filthy that in some cases they dared not read it themselves for fear that they might catch some decadent, degenerate germ that might corrupt their artistic sensibilities. The book's supporters saw Ulysses as the supreme artistic triumph. And they saw Joyce as an artist describing his world in innovative ways, what finally became accepted as the ultimate modernist statement.
Modernism is all about liberty of form, content and style. It's not surprising that a liberated mind might wonder into areas many establishment figures might consider sinful, evil or corrupting. "Dangerous" was the word they liked to use at the time.
Birmingham again: "The transgressions of Ulysses were the first thing most people knew about it. A portion was burned in Paris while it was still only a manuscript draft, and it was convicted of obscenity in New York before it was even a book. Joyce's woes inspired Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate running a small bookstore in Paris [called Shakespeare & Co., by the way], to publish Ulysses when everyone else (including Virginia Woolf) refused. When it appeared in 1922, dozens of critics praised and vilified Joyce's long-anticipated novel in unambiguous terms. Government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic confiscated and burned more than a thousand copies of Ulysses … because Joyce's big blue book was banned on British and American shores almost immediately… Over the course of a decade, Ulysses became an underground sensation. It was literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents. Most copies came from Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach's Paris bookstore where, as one writer remembered, 'Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar.' It was the archetype of a modernist revolution. It is, in fact, the primary reason why we think of modernism as revolutionary at all."
This is the story that Birmingham's book tells that all the hundreds of academic, critical works written about Ulysses never tell. For me The Most Dangerous Book contains a treasure trove of stories about Joyce, about the writing of his book and the way the world received it. These stories helped me re-approach the work itself with fresh eyes, and with new information and understandings, which was exactly what I needed.
Why did I need that?
When I returned to my Paris hotel after purchasing the most dangerous book, I found the actual reading of the book to be a slog, difficult to get into, difficult to read. It's the book I'm not afraid to say I've put down as often as I've given up eating chocolate. And, by the way, that's how many times I've gone back to it, as well.
While I still haven't gotten all the way through Ulysses, I still have that hardcover copy I purchased at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and I still remember my moment of rather easy revolutionary triumph when I, as a young wannabe writer, swam upstream to spawn. (Only artistically speaking, of course.)