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November 26, 2004

James Joyce and Ulysses at the National Library of Ireland

Posted by Christie Davies

James Joyce and Ulysses at the National Library of Ireland
National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2
June 2004 - March 2006
Monday-Wednesday 10am - 7.45pm,
Thursday and Friday 10am - 4.45pm,
Saturday 10am - 12.30pm

Joyce's Ulysses is important to Dublin, so much so that although the centenary of Bloomsday fell on 16th June 2004, the exhibition at the National Library of Ireland, where part of the action of Ulysses took place, is set to run for over a year. That is not an excuse for delaying your visit to a fascinating exhibition in the very building where the episode Scylla and Charybdis was set.

On entering the exhibition you are confronted by a large picture of Joyce's father, John Stanislaus Joyce (1849-1931) commissioned by Joyce in 1923, painted in Dublin by Patrick Tuohy and sent to Joyce in Paris. It is a troubled face with startled blue eyes and a look of horror, a portrait of a tense old man trying to hold himself together with the familiar waxed moustache and clamped clasped hands. This is the father whose appearance readers of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man have long imagined to themselves. The fall of Parnell and rising debt have left their mark.

Here exhibited in the library are the raw materials of Ulysses, the small initial pocket notebooks, the school exercise books, the strips of paper in pockets on the wall of Joyce's tiny room, the drafts, the typescripts typed by amateurs, the drawn out proofs still being amended mere days before publication. A third of Ulysses was written as additions to the proofs. As with Proust, the editors' nightmare has been our gain. Much of the material may also be seen in an interactive computer where can you see a manuscript scrawled through with scribblings, then cut them out, magnify it to see the detail more clearly, switch to the text, look at the commentaries, all done at the poke of a finger. I am unable to tell you anything more since taking notes in the library is strictly forbidden. You will have to go there and fail to take your own notes.

However, I was able to transcribe sections from a wall of cuttings from the years between 1904 and the publication of Ulysses. Inter alia a proclamation from the IRA tells its soldiers that they must keep the rules of war, wearing uniforms recognizable at a distance and carrying their weapons openly. If you dress in civilian clothes and kill, the proclamation warns, you will be a common murderer and deservedly treated as such. No comment.

Alongside it is a wonderfully racist little song about David Lloyd George entitled The Conscripts Chorus which I can quote since it does not seem to be covered by copyright or indeed originality:

Lloyd George no doubt
When his life runs out
Will ride in a flaming chariot
And will sit in state
On a red hot plate.
Twixt the devil
And Judas Iscariot
Ananias that day
To old Nick will say
My precedence here now fails
So move me up higher
Away from the fire
And make room for the lawyer from Wales.
It is all most interesting but it is difficult to see quite what bearing these items have on Ulysses but this is Dublin.

Much attention is given to the difficulties Joyce faced in publishing Ulysses. Ulysses may, for all I know or care, be obscene. Indeed the Janus-faced prints on sale in the Martello tower showing a bowler-hatted, unbreeched Bloom being caned by the less than fully clad brothel keeper Bella Cohen stress its potential in this direction. This held up publication. Printers in England were fearful of being fined and the U.S. postal service and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice realised that Ulysses was literature, something strictly forbidden in America. The etchings by Matisse, who illustrated an edition of Ulysses without having read it, may not have helped.

Only in 1933 on America's German day when Daniel C. Roper, Roosevelt's secretary of state for commerce received shouts of Heil Hitler and salutes from 20,000 enthusiastic New Yorkers was Ulysses allowed into America. In the meantime one Samuel Roth, an American pornographer had pirated it and advertised it alongside a work called The Vices of Women: young girls seized by a Sapphic aberration. An accompanying illustration shows two girls embracing on a divan. This breach of a foreigner's copyright caused a degree of outrage worthy of Dickens. Einstein, Pirandello, Unamuno, and a long list of the high-minded all signed a petition in 1927 denouncing Roth. Roth is now forgotten except for this crime and survives reproached like Kafka's father. Disgrace has triumphed over oblivion.

We are much indebted to the bookaholics of Kildare Street, the descendants of the Hamleteering Lyster, Best and Magee for assembling this diversity and shaping it. Joyce would have loved it and turned it all into something else. The light shines for ever on the baldness of the Quaker librarian. Only the public library of Aberdarcy where two once played with uncertain feelings, can rival this building.

2004 is also the centenary of the birth of Patrick Kavanagh, born on 21st October 1904 and there is also a collection of photographs exhibited in the entrance hall to the library as a tribute to him. Halfway between 1904 and 2004 Patrick Kavanagh decided to celebrate Bloomsday by making a pilgrimage from Sandycove to Night-town with his friends, each playing a part from Ulysses. They had no Jew, so had to rope in A. J. Lowenthal, Registrar of Trinity College to be Bloom. The excursion became a pub crawl with "several urinary emergencies". The tradition of publicising and chronicling "urinary emergencies" is maintained in the library's gentleman's convenience below where a notice warns "please note that these premises are monitored by closed-circuit television with continuous video recording".

When you go to see Joyce, do not forget to pay your respects to Kavanagh.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, a study of Irish as well as British morality. For more James Joyce related reviews by Christie Davies see James Joyce and the centenary of Bloomsday and In the footsteps of Leopold Bloom: Portraits from Jewish Dublin.

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