When The Little Review edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Yale University Press, became available on NetGalley I knew I had to read it. Although, my review would not be from a scholarly viewpoint, but as a writer and as someone for whom this book has been an intermittent companion for around forty years.
As a writer, I have a fascination for exploring the development of a work to see how, through the editing process, it changes shape until it achieves its final form. I have, for example, a facsimile of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land with Ezra Pound’s annotations (Pound is also responsible for editing The Little Review Ulysses). The recent publication of Raymond Carver’s work Beginners, before Gordon Lish applied his expertise, also provides a fascinating insight into a ‘before and after’ when the two versions are read side by side. For me, the comparisons add value to the text as I try and weigh up what the process of editing has brought to a work and whether it is something I can use in my writing. To read different versions of the same text is like watching an archaeologist uncovering layers of sediment to reveal all the details of the narrative of past history, providing a glimpse into people’s lives. This viewing of a work through the passage of time is also why I wanted to see the first literary outing of Joyce’s Ulysses, because the book has followed me though my life. When I read it I feel my own layers of time peeling away, back to when I first encountered Ulysses at the age of twelve. I can smell the bread from my grandmother’s weekly bake and hear Maria Callas climbing the octaves as Ciocio-san laments the loss of Pinkerton to another woman. My grandfather sits in his armchair sorting through his record collection.
It was the type of day when I would be given access to the inner sanctum of my grandparent’s special books; the ones in the glass-fronted bookshelf in the sitting room. The books stored there, for one reason or another, were meaningful to them, so had to be treated with respect. Being entrusted with the treasures of this bookshelf made reading each book feel as if I were about to embark on an adventure. My career in science had already been plotted out, but my grandparents were responsible for exposing me to a regular dose of ‘culture’, outside of the reading I had to do for school.
Ulysses belonged to my grandfather, although my grandmother would have known it by reputation. The same reputation as the other novel they had in the bookshelf, but in a place that would have required me to climb onto the arm of the substantial chair nearby in order to get to it. Lady Chatterley’s Lover underwent a similar drubbing as Joyce’s Ulysses. When it was finally allowed to see the light of day in 1960, D H Lawrence’s notorious book was snapped up by anyone seeking sensation or those who up to that point had been deprived of its literary merit. My grandfather was the latter. He was not an academic, but from an era where books and learning were valued. When he was younger, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) had become a force to be reckoned with. It offered people like my grandfather, unable to go to university, an affordable means of extending their education. It was an era where many working men and women wanted to ‘better themselves’, my grandfather among them.
You might ask why a responsible adult allowed a twelve-year-old to read a book that many put on a par with Lawrence’s. The answer is, because my grandfather knew it was an important milestone in literary history, but also that I would not get as far as the first infamous scene of Leopold Bloom reading his newspaper in the outhouse. Sure enough, after a few pages I gave up. The rapid fire banter between two grown men in the Martello tower was something I could not absorb or relate to; although the description of the sea had piqued my interest. Even for an adult, it is Joyce’s style of writing more than anything else that makes Ulysses a taxing read. It is one of those books everyone starts with the best literary intentions and never finishes; why there is so much literary criticism for and against its text. Despite knowing how quickly I would give up, my grandfather also knew something else. The book would not let me go. I did indeed keep dipping in an out of it over a period of time, trying to make sense of it, until years later I inherited the contents of my grandparents’ bookshelf, and my reading of Ulysses began in earnest.
At time, the reading of it was more a need to stir memories than engage with the contents. Every time I looked at the cover I was taken back in time to not just to the sights and sounds of my grandparents’ domesticity, but also the sweet display on the counter of the village shop at the hub of the community and long walks in the countryside where my grandfather would occasionally let slip a little more information about his time in North Africa and the bombardment at the Anzio bridgehead. It was, however, the first I made considerable inroads into the work, but was still left feeling I was not quite getting it. Believing that understanding the text would be the answer, I bought an annotated version of the 1922 edition. It did help to a certain extent, but stopping every few words to read the annotations made for a slow and fractured read. Once again I gave up.
A few years further on I saw a narrated version of the book and bought it thinking this would help me get to grips with what had become the bête noire I could not leave alone. It did help, to a point. As an abridged version, it picked out some key scenes and gave life to them in a way my silent reading had not. When I got back to the book again and reread those scenes I began to get a sense of immersion into the world of Bloom and was able to appreciate the details of his observations without them overwhelming me.
My final breakthrough came with the chance to take a part-time BA in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Nottingham. The process of the degree hinged around a great deal of reflection, not only of other people’s writing, but also my own. This was when I finally recognised Joyce’s Ulysses for what it really it was; his laboratory where the words were his lab rats coursing through intricate mazes of his design. Joyce wrote when such experimentation was new, but even by today’s standards, it does sometimes feel as if Joyce is seeing just how far he can go before the words, coming thick and fast, fall off the page. They are so full of concepts and descriptive detail it is like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, while reciting the alphabet backwards; too much to take in all at once. The only way to absorb the novel properly is by taking a breather every so often to let it all sink in. This is where The Little Review Ulysses is helpful, because it is presented in its original serialization. Although there are still sections that bemuse, such as the shift from first to third-person as Stephen Daedelus appears to enter a stream of consciousness. This was changed in the 1922 version published in France by Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, as were many other sections. This was also the first time the work was presented in its entirety. You will also need to detach your inner proofreader on reading ‘The Little Review’ version. The errors have been deliberately left in by the editors in the Yale University Press edition to keep the work preserved as it would have been originally seen by ‘The Little Review’ readers. However, it does beg the question whether ‘The Little Review’ editors were all too aware of the need to get the magazine out in a hurry before the censors closed in.
As for the material that might offend. It is tame by comparison to much of today’s writing. I feel that the way Joyce plays with the narrative is of far more interest, because there is so much of the style echoed in novels of all different genres today. Like DNA passed down through authors over the years there is a great debt modern writers must owe these trailblazers for the wonderful variety of narrative now available. This is why the obscenities trial should be pushed into the background when reading Ulysses and it is what Joyce was trying to do with the prose that should be appreciated. Although the same in many sections, The Little Review Ulysses exudes more than a whiff of raw energy and may be the closest to feeling Joyce hurl words onto a page in a furious orgy of writing.
I did read the sections of it side by side with my grandfather’s Penguin version, and the Oxford University 1922 text, where there had been some notable changes (indicated in the commentary at the end of the ‘The Little Review’ edition). This made it possible for me to appreciate the differences between them. There is certainly some literary archaeology to be uncovered there, but also a sense of delight in getting close to the first words that came out of Joyce’s head.
Over the years, I began realise that an uncluttered reading with no distractions is the best way for me to approach this work. The Little Review Ulysses allowed me to this, providing additional explanatory material on the history of the book and editing process before and after the body of the novel, which meant I could move between each at the beginning of every chapter if I wanted to. Being able to see how the chapters were divided into the ‘The Little Review’ instalments created a natural pause that is not felt in other editions I have read. This edition has made it possible for me to stop and think before moving on through the text. I have accepted that Ulysses is a book to be savoured and not to read through from start to finish in one sitting. Being able to view the words as a writer also adds value to it. So I am prepared to take some time and see what more I can glean with repeated readings.
The Little Review Ulysses is certainly a book I intend to acquire as a hard copy and add to my collection so that I can spend more years digging even deeper into the text. Although I suspect I may from time to time become distracted by the phantom smell of baking bread. And who knows, there may be another generation of my family who might pick this edition from my bookshelf and begin a journey of their own.