Bloomsday in Vienna

In a spiritual sense, James Joyce was born in Vienna, the city of the unconscious, which shaped the literary voice in his novels

TVR Books | Dardis McNamee | June 2009

A photo of Irish author James Joyce taken in Zurich in 1918 (Photo: C. Ruf/Cornell Joyce Collection)

James Joyce returns to Vienna in early summer each year for the celebrations of Bloomsday – June 16th. Celebrated with marathon readings in most European capitals and in at least 60 countries, this is the day on which the action of Joyce’s great novel Ulysses takes place – a single day in the life of the character Leopold Bloom, 18 chapters, each an hour of the day, each in a different style, each with its own affect, color or idea, saturated with observed detail and mythic resonance.

So while it is luscious to read, it can be pretty heavy going at times, and in lesser hands, this tome would surely have been long since forgotten.

"I may have over-systemitized Ulysses" Joyce admitted in 1921. (Well, at least he’s honest!) However, from the hindsight of our future day, largely uprooted from the narrative conventions – not to mention the prudery – against which Joyce was rebelling, it’s on the whole a joy to read.

A world unto itself, like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Ulysses is a mud bath of glorious language and sensual vanities that should be listened to, like the litanies of Beowulf or Chaucer, Norse sagas or Gregorian chant, while describing a psychological landscape that is entirely modern.

The day, June 16, 1904, was important to Joyce for another reason too, as it was the day when he first met Nora Barnacle,  a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, his muse and later his wife. He took her for a walk on June 16, and well, the rest was history.

But there is more to James Joyce in Vienna than the annual gab-a-thon and pint or two of Guinness. In a spiritual sense, you could say James Joyce was born in Vienna. As a pioneer in the use of the stream of consciousness as a literary voice, he openly acknowledged his dept to the great Viennese novelist and playwright Arthur Schnitzler, who writing in German a generation earlier, explored this technique in works like Dream Story (Traumnovelle) and Lieutenant Gustl.

Joyce vehemently denied being influenced by either Sigmund Freud the founder of psychoanalysis, or his one time protégée Carl Jung – calling them Tweedledee and Tweedledum – although their ideas permeate both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, his two most revolutionary novels. What ever else they do, these novels live in the language of the unconscious in which archetypes have the power of characters in shaping motivation.

At their time, these two novels stood virtually alone in exploring the fundamental role of the irrational, the twin roles of instinct and sexuality more powerful possibly even than love as the most basic human drives.

This got James Joyce into a great deal of trouble.

Begun in 1914, the partially completed Ulysses was first published – a la Dickens – in serial form in a literary magazine called The Little Review, which began in 1918 printing a chapter at a time.  That was, until word got out. By 1920, publication had been enjoined by U.S. censors and the magazine’s editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap were convicted of obscenity.

After that, nobody wanted to touch it. Even with leading literary figures like poet Ezra Pound on his side, Joyce found it difficult to find a publisher who would risk the legal penalties and social ostracism involved in being associated with it and him.

It was published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach from her Rive Gauche bookshop and lending library, Shakespeare and Company at 12 Rue l’Odéon, Paris, the shop whose heritage lives on at Shakespeare and Company Booksellers in Vienna at Sterngasse 6.

Joyce himself described his difficulties a decade later in a letter to his editor at Random House, Bennett Cerf:

"You can well imagine that when I came to Paris in the summer of 1920 with the voluminous manuscript of Ulysses, I stood even slenderer chances of finding a publisher on account of its suppression," Joyce wrote. It was through Pound "and good luck" that he came in contact with Sylvia Beach. "This brave woman risked what professional publishers did not wish to; she took the manuscript and handed to the printers."

An English edition published the same year by Joyce’s patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, also ran afoul of the U.S. authorities when 500 copies were shipped to the States, seized at customs and destroyed. When publisher John Rodker printed another 500 copies to replace the ones destroyed by the U.S. customs officials, these were also confiscated, this time in England and burned by English customs at Folkestone.

After that, a number of ‘bootleg’ versions appeared, having been photographed  and reproduced in facsimile by the publisher Samuel Roth, until Joyce was able to successfully sue for breach of copyright in 1928.

Publication of Ulysses remained proscribed in the United States until the ban was lifted in 1933,  by U.S. District Court Judge John M. Woolsey, the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office and Prohibition was repealed. If you were going to take on the challenge of reading Ulysses, at least you could do it armed with a stiff drink.

Other articles from this issue