Reading and pleasure
The two go together naturally, and always in the mood for more of both, I find myself constantly returning to books that once won me over, however long ago. But the past is just that, and living authors are what I want.
That said, my first pick revolves around James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that satisfies in every sense, so I was intrigued when I came across Kevin Birmingham’s debut The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Joyce’s Ulysses(Penguin Pr., Jun.), an exquisite account of the 15-year struggle over the book’s publication. Told in an informed and readable narrative style, this biography of a novel wends its way through historical events, beginning with June 16, 1904, the first night Joyce spent with Nora Barnacle, which serves as the genesis of Ulysses and, to use Birmingham’s words, “hovers over everything” that happened thereafter. By 1922, when Shakespeare & Co.’s Sylvia Beach finally published the first edition, Joyce had turned the literary and art world on its head, infuriated governments across continents, and penetrated readers’ consciousness in a way unprecedented.
Birmingham shows how unprepared the world was and how grueling the book’s journey to emancipation. “We take our freedoms to read and write books for granted, and I want readers to see how difficult—and how recent—the fight for literary freedom has been,” Birmingham explained in an email, continuing, “Ulysses is canonical partly because it was contraband. Its legalization made so many things possible for the writers who followed.” “The story is important,” Birmingham said, “because of the way it changed modernism and literary freedom, but the long research process is thrilling because of a thousand illuminating details—Ezra Pound’s childhood letter to Santa Claus, a radiograph of Joyce’s bad teeth, the books, maps, and upholstery in the library where Judge Woolsey read Ulysses.” For the professor of history and literature at Harvard University, what made Joyce’s epic so maddening, even to tireless supporters such as Ezra Pound, was the sense that Joyce had lost control—a development that the world would ultimately come to appreciate. It’s not necessary to have read Ulysses to enjoy Birmingham’s battle on behalf of a genius, but those who are familiar with the work will sense the pulse of Joyce, the political exploits that impacted 20th-century censorship laws, and the revolution of art that redefined the cultural and moral fabric of a time. (See an author Q&A at ow.ly/sFi6A.)
If focusing on the events surrounding one novel isn’t enough, or is too much, Michael Schmidt (poetry, Glasgow Univ., writer-in-residence, St. John’s Coll., founder and director, Carcanet Press; Lives of the Poets) offers an eclectic variety in The Novel: A Biography (Harvard Univ., May). At 1,160 pages, this hefty volume features 350 novelists from Canada, Australia, Africa, Britain, Ireland, the United States, and the Caribbean and covers 700 years of storytelling. But Schmidt does something different: while the book is arranged chronologically, the chapters are theme-based (e.g., “The Human Comedy,” “Teller and Tale,” “Sex and Sensibility”) and follow no specific outline, blending author biographies, interviews, reviews, and criticism into fluid narratives. Schmidt’s discussion of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre not only offers an understanding of the Gothic Romance genre but also reveals lesser-known facts about Brontë’s life. In this way, Schmidt fulfills Brontë’s wish to be judged “as an author not as a woman.” This is a compelling edition for writers and other readers alike; a portrayal that is aligned with Edwin Muir’s belief that the “only thing which can tell us about the novel is the novel.”—Annalisa Pesek