There are books about books — a special genre — and within that, there are books about specific novels, biographies of novels. A recent favourite is Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, which centerpieces The Portrait of a Lady, and in doing so tells you all you really need to know about the man and the world he inhabited, exterior and interior (“he lived in a world of second thoughts”). Not all books, no matter how landmark, necessarily merit biographies. Often, an annotated text serves the informed reader’s interest well enough.
Not James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Kevin Birmingham, who teaches at Harvard, does such a fantastic job detailing the novelist and the novel’s context — the revolutions it set off in literature and publishing, the liberation it helped bring in what could be written and, equally, what could be disseminated in printed form, its modernism pushing the boundaries of the canon so far and challenging the censor’s free hand — that you wonder why such a book has not been attempted so far. Titled The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, the book highlights the cumulative role of a range of characters who helped make Ulysses what it is, in playing a part in bringing what would later be declared the novel of the 20th century to readers. Birmingham writes: “So much has been written about what’s exceptional within the pages of Joyce’s epic that we have lost sight of what happened to Ulysses itself.”
The barebones of the saga are familiar to almost everyone with even a passing interest in the Joyce’s book — the ban on the book, the heroic role played by Sylvia Beach of the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, meeting place for Lost Generation expats, by the journal Literary Review in getting the novel to readers, the championship of Joyce by literary figures of the day, the eventual challenge to the American Post Office’s creeping power to determine what could be circulated and what not. The story is, of course, recounted here of how Beach’s first encounter with Joyce at a welcome dinner in Paris, under Ezra Pound’s patronage, at which Joyce famously kept his wineglass turned upside down because he refused to drink before eight in the evening. Hearing about her store, he landed up the very next morning, “wearing a dark blue serge suit and a black felt hat”, taking a subscription to her lending library for a month, which was all he could then afford. It was the start of a partnership in which Beach would publish Ulysses and get the book to the US, till the time the legal battle was won.
As Birmingham sums it up: “When the Ulysses case came before Judge Woolsey in the fall of 1933, Nazi book burnings had taken place only four months earlier, which is why owning Ulysses without ever reading it was not an idle gesture… continued…