Does anyone read James Joyce’s Ulysses now?
American-born writer Janet Tyler Flanner (1892-1978) lived most of her life in Paris. She arrived in 1921, a year after Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941) made Paris his home for twenty years. Janet was described as a ‘narrative journalist’ who was the Paris-based correspondent for The New Yorker magazine from 1925 to 1975.
In her 1972 book Paris was Yesterday 1925-1939, Janet Flanner wrote about the publication of James Joyce’s 1922 book Ulysses. The novel had been serialised in The Little Review from 1918 to 1920, but, for the first time, Sylvia Beach, owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, published the entire novel.
Here is Janet Flanner’s account:
The publication in toto of Ulysses in 1922 was indubitably the most exciting, important, historic single literary event of the early Paris expatriate literary colony. Through portions of it that we had seen in New York printed in their Little Review by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, many of us in Paris knew the scope of the opus – that chaotic fictional masterpiece–mixture of single Celtic genius, of Angican erudition, of Irish character analyses and Dublin night-and-day thoughts and events, culminating in the final revelatory concupiscent monologue by Molly Bloom, linear ancestress for the merely monotonous permissive lubricity that has been printed in our time in the recent 1960s. It has been commonplace to say that Ulysses was the great isolating novel in the English language that was published in the first segment of our twentieth century, an isolating novel in that it was itself isolated from all other great fiction in our tongue. In its unique qualities, in 1922 it burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like a gift of tongues, like a less than holy Pentecostal experience. Over the years, Ulysses, though read only in its early fractions, has established itself as part of our literary life to come, when and if eventually completed and published. Thus, long before our eyes had seen Sylvia Beach’s entire printed text in Paris and before our hands had ever lifted the full weight of its 730 pages, Joyce’s Ulysses had become part of the library of our minds. As we learned by listening to and watching Sylvia in her bookshop, to accomplish her publishing feat she became Joyce’s secretary, editor, impressario, and banker, and had to hire outsiders to run her bookshop.
Janet Flanner outlines all the work and expenses that Sylvia Beach outlaid during the publication of the book, and afterwards. She had to endure financial constraints while James Joyce lived luxuriously in Paris.
As Sylvia herself apologetically said, ‘There was always something a little shabby about Mr. Joyce.’ She thought him handsome, with his deep-blue eyes, one badly damaged by glaucoma, which had half blinded him. The strain of proofreading his almost illegible handwriting helped ruin her eyesight, too.
Janet Flanner concludes the section with the sentences:
Does anyone read Ulysses now, read it entire, word by word, with the impetus we did fifty years ago? I wonder. And I disbelieve.
Well, Janet’s question is now about a century-old publication. Ulysses is set in stone, written, and unchangeable, but Paris is forever evolving. Ulysses will always be Ulysses and Paris will always be Paris.
Photographer: Martina Nicolls