The Summer of Ulysses – Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book and Arroyo’s new illustrated Ulysses

Two books that I made my way through this summer were the newly illustrated Eduardo Arroyo edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Kevin Birmingham’s biography of the book itself, The Most Dangerous Book.

While I have read Ulysses several times in this lifetime, I am always looking for a new excuse to pick it up and have a different experience with one of my favorite books of all time. The text is widely spaced in this large, heavy edition, and while I couldn’t pinpoint where it seemed that in order to make the book fit the dimensions and the illustrations, there were some editorial cuts throughout that didn’t affect the book itself but made it seem a little unfamiliar to me. Arroyo’s illustrations were meant to be the centerpiece, however, and the large format of the book (as clunky, difficult to handle, and heavy as it was) seemed to facilitate the best presentation of the vibrant mixed media and tempera paintings scattered throughout. Some of the smaller, black and white sketch style illustrations appeared to repeat several times, but overall, the sheer volume of Arroyo’s dedication to illustrating the entire text over his lifetime is unmistakable. The paintings and drawings are somewhat clownlike at times, overlapping and metamorphosing over one another at times to reflect some of the more dreamlike passages. Wading through the text in this way allowed for a bit of self-forgiveness as these road signs captured the more elemental portions and helped point the way to a dreamlike destination that added to the experience. I felt like the faces were clownish, but fit Arroyo’s overall dramatic style of mod figure drawing. The one thing that I wish Arroyo did in his work that I felt was missing that is somewhat elemental to Joyce’s work is the fact that every episode in Ulysses is written in a different form, but Arroyo seemed to me to be relatively conservative, and predictable between episodes save for one of them. This was perhaps the biggest of the mistakes in the artwork to me, but perhaps it isn’t as translatable to the visual arts and illustration if one is a visual artist and illustrator – if I was, I would have attempted to vary the style of each episode’s artwork to reflect the way Joyce wrote them. Overall, a beautifully printed and prepared volume that does a great deal of honor to Arroyo’s life work in attempting to illustrate one of the greatest works of literature of all time.

As I reread Ulysses, I also decided to dive into Kevin Birmingham’s beautiful and expansive biography of the book itself, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce’s Ulysses. Birmingham touches on so much in this thick volume, yet it is a surprisingly breezy, fascinating read that I flew through it and enjoyed it a great deal. There are several threads that make this piece so fascinating, and Birmingham expertly weaves them together chronologically to showcase the wild ride this book took to make it to publication and worldwide acclaim. The book is part biography of James Joyce, Norah Barnacle, Sylvia Beach, Harriet Shaw Weaver, and Judge John Woolsley (who spent much of his life in Petersham, MA, a place I have frequented a great deal and had no idea his connection and contribution to that sleepy town). It is the story of its origins, how it came to be written and rewritten as Joyce navigated his relationship with Barnacle and their children, and the legal battle the book faced in the supreme court, the United States Post Office, and the public eye (and how so many copies were smuggled into the United States from Paris). It is also the story of the evolution of book marketing, editing, and censorship as a whole in the United States – and the ways in which the world was affected by the laws before it and the laws afterward. I was fascinated by so much Birmingham presents, from the obvious fact that there really weren’t any practical reasons the book was deemed obscene to the amazing fact that book blurbs and review quotes being introduced to book jackets were solely part of the smuggling of the book into the United States to build a legal defense of the literary merit of the novel (a defense that it didn’t even need after judge Woolsley read it himself and found it to be one of the most genius things he had ever read even though he admitted that he didn’t completely understand it).

For me, this was a wonderful summer of Ulysses, and I was as happy as ever to make my way through these two great books – one for the first time and the other for the, who knows how many’th. Both of these are great ways to experience Ulysses regardless of how close you are to the text; in fact, I could see this illustrated version being great for a beginner’s reading. Highly recommended way to dive back in, regardless.

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