Tomorrow – 16 June – is Bloomsday, an annual international celebration of Joyce’s most famous work Ulysses. The significance of the date is that is the day in which the action of Ulysses is set, yet an equally important date for Ulysses – i.e. its first publication as a novel – is, would you believe, his 40th birthday on 2 February 1922.
Speaking purely in numbers, at age 40 Joyce had already produced the majority of his works – Chamber Music (1907), The Dubliners (1914), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and a play, Exiles (1918)…but the two behemoths that would confirm his reputation for subsequent generations – Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake – were still to come, making the work of the post-40 Joyce every bit, if not more, important as that which proceeded it. Though in the case of Ulysses its date of writing is…a little broad. The idea first came to Joyce in 1906, he began writing it in 1914 and he finished the full draft in 1921, with three months of editing to go before a self-imposed deadline of his 40th birthday. The work had already appeared in an earlier form through serial publication in The Little Review, beginning in early 1918, and in the interim had already provoked a great deal of controversy. In 1920 the magazine was prosecuted in the USA for obscenity thanks to Joyce’s story, and the notoriety this raised meant that both the USA and the UK banned publication of the subsequent novel until the 1930s. This means that even though Joyce was working on the novel form of a published series, he was by no means under no guarantee that it might ever get published in that format, although by now this was a familiar experience to an author who had already had to fight against the rejection of early works.
For a novel so inherently bound in the topography of Dublin it is particularly surprising to learn that Joyce was writing Ulysses in Paris, having moved there in 1920 with his wife and daughter after what had already been 16 years of self-imposed exile from Ireland, during which time there had been but a few, brief, returns to his home city.. This meant that he was reliant on a combination of his own memory, a book, and frantic messages to friends still living in Dublin to ensure that his book was completely accurate, to the point that he boasted it could be used to rebuild Dublin should the city ever be destroyed.
Today of course, as Bloomsday stands testament to, Ulysses is hailed a classic, a cornerstone of literature, which makes the doubts and fears it initialled prompted seem trifling, but it is important to strip away that safety net of hindsight and realise how close Joyce, aged 40, stood to making or breaking his reputation. The claims of obscenity in Ulysses (to be fair, it was about a passage in which a character masturbates), and the subsequent banning of the book could have condemned it to obscurity and Joyce along with it. Joyce was taking a great risk with this crazy, complicated, multi-layered work that could easily have not paid off. Whether or not life begins at 40, for Joyce his literary reputation certainly got a healthy shot in the arm.
Joyce at Buckingham: Joyce is a key figure on the modernism course, with both The Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man having been taught on the course in previous years. Last Bloomsday in the department Dr Pete Orford took the challenge of reading the whole of Ulysses in one day – you can read about his experience here.