restricted access The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” by Kevin Birmingham (review)
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Reviewed by
Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses”
(New York: Penguin, 2014), 417 pp.

Ernest Hemingway, who met James Joyce in Paris, “kept a rabbit’s foot in his right pocket.” Judge John Woolsey’s argument allowing Ulysses to be imported into the United States came to him as he “glanced above his lathered face in the mirror” and “rushed to his desk, grabbed his pen and began writing his decision with a dripping razor in his left hand.” Sylvia Beach, who founded the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris and helped to publish Joyce’s book, slept in a small back room of the store “against a barred window that looked out to the courtyard’s water closet.” Facts such as these are effects. Behind every effect is a cause; and each cause, in itself caused, is but a link of a never-ending chain of cause and effect, its terminus receding endlessly into time and space. If one were to argue, as Kevin Birmingham does, that the free publication and circulation of Ulysses were impeded for years by the US Post Office, and if the Post Office was itself in league with the General Intelligence Division of the United States, and if the latter organization were later to become the Federal Bureau of Investigation, why not probe further backward into the inner workings of the General Intelligence Division and discover, as he does, that its files were “methodically catalogued and cross- referenced by the division’s ambitious young director, J. Edgar Hoover”? Thus does the focus of this book again and again slide, not toward the book in question but, from distant angles obtuse and acute, toward matters only remotely related to Ulysses, its substance, and its literary force.

Who would disagree that these little realities, as well as countless others, every cause linked to its effect, all causes leading to the totality of all effects, produced the world in which Ulysses must be seen? Why exclude Hemingway’s rabbit’s foot? Given the constraints of time and word count, the answer must be that Birmingham’s patient notation of every minute grain of circumstantial reality occupies space that otherwise could have been given over to understanding Ulysses as a literary entity. When Joyce’s book does, intermittently, put in an appearance, it emerges oddly misshapen, less than it is, and curiously misunderstood. How, for instance, are we to come to terms with the book’s difficulties? Birmingham’s answer: “Ulysses is difficult because Joyce was lonely. He was sentimental, prone to fantasy as well as rumination, and he beckoned readers onward though teases written into the book inch by inch.” So much for Joyce the realist, employing his scalpel of truth to eviscerate both sentimentality and fantasy. So much for the Joyce who, dispensing with “teases,” cared not to “beckon” to his readers but, insofar as he thought of them, believed that they should seek him out. How, for instance, should we come to terms with the alleged obscenity of this “most dangerous” book, which bedeviled its publication for years? Birmingham’s [End Page 336] answer is that Joyce knew the book was obscene and, in the face of the censorship of the “Nausicaa” episode, “decided to make the episode filthier.” So much for Joyce the artist who simply did not believe that anything is “filthy” but just a part of life in its fullness.

Birmingham’s reluctance to approach the book as a work of art, preferring instead to chase after facts outside its covers, does not prevent him from adding, here and there, frothy impromptu apostrophes to the way Ulysses has played upon his mind (“[Joyce’s] thoughts were the only life raft in the rising tide of pain, and the pressure pushing out from the inside of Joyce’s eyes expanded the seconds. To read Ulysses is to feel time’s dilation”). The unmistakable value of this book rests not on such literary analysis but on two areas of biographical and medical interest: the strong likelihood that Joyce was a victim of syphilis and the clinical history of his deteriorating vision. Here Birmingham...