Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Portrait of "Ulysses" as a Young Novel

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

In all of my reading experience (and I am talking about literally thousands of books under my belt), somehow I have managed to miss out on the unique experience that is James Joyce's Ulysses.

Now, having read Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book, I still may not have the urge to dive into Joyce's stream of consciousness, but I certainly have an understanding of what makes it one of the most important books of modern (and modernist) literature.

Discussions of literature often treat the work as somehow separate from the context in which it was written, and often as separate from the author himself. Birmingham treats us to more than just a critical analysis of Ulysses, of which scores have already been written. Dangerous Book is equal parts history, biography, and literary criticism; it places James Joyce and his work in the context of contemporary events, the work of other authors, and Joyce's personal struggles. Rather than looking at Ulysses as a thing apart, he takes us between the covers of the often troubled mind of Joyce, and the often troubled times he lived in.

As Birmingham show us, Ulysses becomes more than just the prototypical modernist novel, more than just a controversial and banned book. In no small way, Ulysses is the story of James' own journey as an author; the journey of his crowning work from scattered notes to the printed page is no less an epic voyage.

The interplay of life and art that is revealed here is astounding in its complexity. Ulysses, that most dangerous book, scared censors not just for what it tells about the characters in the story, but for what it tells us about ourselves. Kevin Birmingham draws us a portrait of a man, his book, and the world around them, and shows us how they all fit together to bring Ulysses home.