Ulysses is one of those books that doesn’t go away. Written over the course of twenty years or so, published in Paris in 1922, it became controversial for its sexual, and to some, lurid, content.
Among other things, in the Nausicaa episode, Leopold Bloom, the protagonist, masturbates privately at the sight of a young woman on a Dublin beach. This did not particularly go over well with the authorities who opposed its publication in the United States. Eventually, in 1933, the publisher Random House, under the auspices of the very young Bennett Cerf, pursued an attempt to override those early oppositions on grounds of legal indecency, and Judge John M. Woolsey, ruled that year, in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, that the book’s literary merits overruled any concerns about indecency.
(The details of this legal story, which is actually quite involved, and lots of other interesting material, is detailed in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham, which appeared in 2014, and is well worth a look for those interested.)
Having seen a wonderful rendition of Monteverdi’s opera Ulisse staged by the Boston Early Music Festival last week, I was particularly aware, from that quite literal account of the Odyssey narrative, of the centrality of Penelope’s fidelity.
In that traditional account, she has, of course, been fighting off suitors since Ulysses departed twenty years prior. His return, and subsequent proof of his identity to her by identifying a feature of their bed that no one else could have known, mutually seals their reunion. Of course, Ulysses has not been as faithful to Penelope as she has been to him. He was waylaid with Calypso en route home but finally, manipulated by the gods, she releases him.
The central theme of determination, however, carries through both their stories: he, determined to return to Ithaca and to Penelope, and she, to resolutely wait for him.
In Joyce’s version, the fourth episode of the book, Calypso, focuses specifically on Bloom’s relation to his wife, Molly, as does the eighteenth and final episode, Penelope. However, in Calypso, Bloom is, as though, held captive by Molly, serving her obsequiously, well aware of her infidelities with Blazes Boylan. In Penelope, a singular explosion of feeling narrated by Molly, she finds her affection for Bloom once again, bringing him home, despite her own overt infidelities.
The ironies and twists in Joyce’s version – Molly is the explicitly unfaithful one here – contribute to the quality of unexpectedness that continues to make the book fascinating. Seductive in its eluding a straightforward mapping of the Odyssey myth, but capturing its fundamental structure and themes, it continually appeals for rereading and reinterpretation.
Perhaps something about the idea of the 111th anniversary, for a book whose writer was endlessly fascinated by linguistic and numeric curiosities, particularly calls out in its repeated invocations of that singular digit.