Beneath its modest drab red cover, tucked between volumes of poetry and art books on the shelves of the University of Otago Library’s Special Collections, is a very famous, scrutinized and censored novel by an author Irishman who was once called ‘the bomb man who would blow what’s left of Europe into the sky’: James Joyce’s colossal, modernist masterpiece Ulysseswhich celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
Ulysses documents a single day structured as an Odyssian quest, following Leopold Bloom, a Jewish-Irish publicist, as he wanders the city of Dublin.
Since it was first published in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company of Sylvia Beach in Paris, much has been written about the importance, the difficulty, the obscene and the grandeur Ulysses is.
It struggled to get published, and once it was, it was praised, panned, banned, smuggled, confiscated, and burned.
It now tops lists of all-time great novels, a work so important that it inspired an annual celebration, “Bloomsday,” on June 16, the only day in 1904 on which the novel is set.
What do we know of its journey to our shelves here in Otepoti? Well, we do know that our copy is from the 9th printing by Shakespeare and Company in 1927, and it has come down to us through the quiet fervor of collecting and the subsequent generosity of Charles Brasch; part of his personal library of 7,500 books held in special collections.
There’s a lot more we don’t know, like when Brasch acquired it.
His diaries, his memoirs Indirectionsand the fantastic of Otago University Press Landing archive does not mention it. Brasch sometimes inscribes his books with the date of purchase, but unfortunately there is no such date in Ulysses.
His copy of Joyce Pomes Penyeach, however, published the same year, is dated “April 1928 London”. Brasch acquired Ulysses at that time, while studying at Oxford University?
If he did, was it before or after he was declared “obscene” in Britain? Or perhaps he bought it from Shakespeare and Company himself, while visiting Paris at that time.
The cover and binding raise further questions: biographer Richard Ellman suggests that Joyce choose the particular blue of the first edition cover to match the Greek flag, and when it proved difficult to get it right , Joyce asked painter Myron Nutting to mix this particular shade.
Brasch’s copy, however, was bound in a simple dull red full cloth binding, with the original wrappers preserved inside. While this type of binding is not unusual for the time, it is hard not to wonder if Brasch deliberately concealed the striking blue and white cover to avoid attention to the text within.
Ulysses may never have been outright banned in Aotearoa, but access was restricted until 1950: only “members of the teaching profession and other bona fide students of literature” could purchase it.
With its editorial management of Landing from 1947, Brasch would have had a legitimate reason to own a copy, but it shows how “dangerous” this book was considered.
In an intriguing parallel with Ulysses‘ careful attention to everyday experience, the last words of Brasch’s copy come from a handwritten note enclosed inside the back cover addressed to “Douglas”, asking him to call the music department and check if he’s staying for dinner.
Brasch’s diaries indicate that it is probably the composer Douglas Lilburn, and the note is probably from the late 1950s. Ulyssesit even ends with a yes!
Events marking the great literary anniversary of Ulysses take place around the world this year. The Dunedin Public Library recently hosted a series of information panels visited by the Irish Embassy, and that same exhibit is housed in Special Collections in July alongside Brasch’s copy of Ulysses.
Alexander Ritchie is Special Librarian, Special Collections, University of Otago Library.