We read biographies in order to find out about extraordinary lives in extraordinary times, and they all follow the same formula at their heart: birth, life, and then death. What is smart about Kevin Birmingham’s marvelous new work The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses is that it is not a straightforward biography of a person. Rather, it tells the tale of one landmark book — Ulysses — its birth and still-vital life and what it meant for modernism, publishing, copyright law, and obscenity trials.
Characters flow in and out of this book, enough real-life heroes and villains to populate a baker’s dozen of biographies: Joyce, his wife Nora, Shakespeare and Company’s Sylvia Beach, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Margaret Anderson, Virginia Woolf, John Quinn (lawyer and art collector, who defended Ulysses at trial), Random House’s Bennett Cerf and ACLU co-founder Morris Ernst, and Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice. Where Birmingham starts is someplace simple, the dirty old town of Dublin, home of 19-year-old James Joyce, raring to make something of himself and falling for a chambermaid, Nora Barnacle. There is adroit writing on the Joyces’ passion, and the great dirty letters that came out of it.
The charms of Joyce’s prose are acutely observed: “He wanted people to read novels as carefully, as ardently and as sleeplessly as they would read dirty letters sent from abroad. It was one of modernism’s great insights. James Joyce treated readers as if they were lovers.” Birmingham follows Joyce’s trail across Europe, landing in Paris, where he is able to sum up why modernism — or, as he describes it, “a loose connection of small cultural insurgencies driven by a broad, sometimes inchoate discontent with Western civilization” — mattered and how it was born.
Birmingham brings valuable social, political, and economic context to an age that birthed tiny magazines — from The Egoist to The New Age to The Little Review — that left a gigantic footprint. He shows that even if the “Lost Generation’s” time in Paris is idealized and seen as a magic space, it was still a space where writers were struggling with poverty and how to pay the rent. Writers like Hemingway make amusing cameos — did you know that he played a role in smuggling copies of Ulysses to Canada? Ulysses, ever-so-slowly, gets published in a small print run, and eventually, 12 years later, arrives in America, where it’s the center of an obscenity trial.
Ulysses can be an alienating book. It’s difficult, complex, and so completely its own form that it’s easy to shrug off, if you’re so inclined. But Birmingham’s wonderful history does something great with Joyce’s masterpiece, showing how the literary pirates and courtroom battles, all stemming from one man’s dirty mind, played an important role in the history of modernism and art in the early, tumultuous 20th century. Ulysses feels current and important in Birmingham’s book, and it’s a fantastic read about James Joyce, Ulysses, and why we celebrate Bloomsday, 110 years after the novel’s initial publication.