The Ulysses centenary is a momentous occasion. It is an event for celebration, but one that prompts the question of what exactly is to be celebrated. The publication of an extraordinary Irish novel? Perhaps, but what precisely is Ulysses’s relationship to the Irish novel tradition that preceded or has followed it? The publication of a work that transformed the inherited form of the novel more generally? Certainly, Ulysses revolutionised the modern novel as form but what sort of revolution did it enact and what was its later issue? How do aesthetic revolutions relate to sociopolitical revolutions? Do they, like the latter, have their radical springtimes and then become autumnally institutionalised and conservative? Or must they each be assessed on quite different terms? That Ulysses was an event nearly everyone will agree. However, can we say even now, a century later, what kind of event it really was in Irish or world literary terms? And is Ulysses really a novel at all in any case?
The book launch or its equivalent in this case preceded the publication. As most will know, on Wednesday, December 7th, 1921, Valery Larbaud introduced Ulysses to the world in Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres, for a séance consacrée a l’écrivain Irlandais James Joyce. The séance was promoted as a benefit for Joyce and the 250 or so people who attended paid twenty francs apiece for the privilege. Guided by preparatory discussions with its author, Larbaud’s lecture situated Ulysses in terms of Joyce’s earlier works and tried to elucidate its complex structure and symbolism. He compared Joyce’s achievement to that of other great European writers, including Ibsen, Strindberg and Nietzsche, who had decisively left their stamp on their respective modern national literatures. With Ulysses, Larbaud remarked, Joyce “did as much as all of the heroes of Irish nationalism to attract the respect of intellectuals of every other country toward Ireland. His work restored Ireland, or rather gave to young Ireland, an artistic countenance, an intellectual identity.” By curious coincidence, at 2.30 am in the morning of the day before, December 6th, 1921, two of those “heroes of Irish nationalism”, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the latter much alluded to in Ulysses, had, under considerable pressure, signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London. In those early December days modern Ireland’s future, literary and political, was being shaped in two of Europe’s great capitals, where English, French and American hands all had important says in things.
The publication of Ulysses was famously an epic printing feat in its own right, but the night of February 2th, 1922, was a more domestic affair than the Larbaud promotion had been. In the classic biography, Richard Ellmann describes how the printer, Maurice Darantière, had two copies sent to Paris by the Dijon-Paris express, the train reaching Paris at 7am on the morning of Joyce’s fortieth birthday. There, the devoted Sylvia Beach collected the copies, took one to Joyce’s apartment, the other to Shakespeare and Company, where crowds admired it all day. That night, Joyce and Nora Barnacle dined at Ferrari’s, an Italian restaurant, with Myron and Helen Nutting, Richard and Lillian Wallace, and Helen Kiefer, these friends Americans all except British-born Lillian. As Ellmann tells it, a weary and somewhat melancholy Joyce brought his copy of Ulysses, placed it under his chair, and refused to untie the parcel until after dessert. At last unwrapped, the work, bound in the blue and white Greek colours that the writer considered lucky, sat on the table while Joyce was toasted. After Ferrari’s, the party went on to Café Weber, and when it closed Joyce was eager to press on further but Nora refused, steering him towards a cab. That scene, Joyce keen to extend the night’s festivities, Nora wanting to get him home, may have been the most typically Irish part of Ulysses’s birthday.
Larbaud’s introduction to Ulysses for the event in La Maison des Amis des Livres in December 1921 was later published in La Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF) in April 1922 and an abbreviated English version appeared in TS Eliot’s The Criterion in October 1922. Larbaud’s take on Joyce’s work, particularly his claim that with Joyce “l’Irlande fait une entrée sensationnelle dans la litérature européenne”, provoked a number of irked responses from Ernest Boyd, author of Ireland’s Literary Renaissance (1916, reprinted 1922), a Dublin-born critic then living in the United States, to which Larbaud eventually replied in “A Propos de James Joyce et de ‘Ulysses’” in NRF in 1924. Boyd’s complaint, first expressed in “The Expressionism of James Joyce” in the New York Herald Tribune in May 1922, on the face of things not unreasonable, was that in representing Joyce as a great European writer and Ulysses as the work that heralded Ireland’s sensational re-entry into European literature Larbaud had detached Ulysses from the larger body of Irish Revivalist writing to which it rightfully belonged. In so doing, Boyd protested, Larbaud made Ulysses appear more singular than warranted and ignored the Irish content of Joyce’s work in favour of a concentration on its avant garde technique. Larbaud, Boyd claimed, had set an example for Joyce’s New York admirers, “provincial cosmopolitans” who founded their appreciations on Larbaud’s false cues and had little or no knowledge of Irish history, politics or literary traditions and contexts. Boyd might be regarded as an early forerunner to those late-twentieth-century Irish postcolonial critics who have “Hibernicized” Joyce and Irish modernism. Like Boyd, the latter have also disputed earlier detachments of Joyce from the particular contexts of the Irish Revival and have stressed the distinctively Irish dimensions of his work. Enda Duffy’s The Subaltern Ulysses (1994) and Emer Nolan’s James Joyce and Irish Nationalism (1995) represented a decisive turning point in such reclamation.
Still, that analogy won’t quite hold. Looked at more closely, what provoked Boyd about Larbaud’s influential introduction to Joyce and Ulysses was not simply that the French critic had stressed Joyce’s stylistic technique and singularity at the expense of his Irishness but also that he had identified Joyce with the “Young Ireland” that had emerged after World War I. Essentially, this was the Sinn Féin Ireland created during the War of Independence waged in the same years during which Joyce worked on Ulysses. As noted above, both novelistic and national struggles had converged near their culminations for a moment in time at least in the first week of December 1921. In his “Concerning James Joyce”, an article published in The World (New York) in 1925, Boyd returned to the controversy, focusing on this aspect of things in particular:
A new element in the controversy, which had its echoes here among the provincial cosmopolitans who take their cue from M. Larbaud, is supplied by this emphasis on ‘Young Ireland,’ meaning the Ireland of Sinn Fein, which is credited with a relationship to Joyce entirely unlike that of writers of his own generation, Padraic Colum, James Stephens or Seamus O’Sullivan, or those of the older generation of Yeats, ‘AE,’ Synge and Moore.
Disputing this association of Joyce with Sinn Féin, Boyd asserts: “It so happened that I was in Ireland during the very years when this now triumphant ‘Young Ireland’ was fighting the British Government, and I can assure M. Larbaud that never had Joyce a more hostile public than that.” Sinn Féiners, Boyd asserted, had then been either indifferent or hostile to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and “The people who really appreciated Joyce belonged precisely to that Ireland prior to 1914 which M. Larbaud dismissed as of secondary importance.” Joyce’s earliest stories, he adds in support, had received their first hearing in AE’s Irish Homestead “long before M. Larbaud’s ‘Young Ireland’ was heard of.” And Boyd himself had recommended stories from Dubliners “to H. L. Mencken in 1914, who published some of them in Smart Set” and the credit for things done later to promote Joyce went to Ezra Pound. The article continues in this vein, protesting that:
It is part of the process of making Joyce a coterie author to ignore the genuine pioneers on his behalf, who make no fantastic claims for him. As for M. Larbaud’s ‘Young Ireland,’ it is so incensed by the praise accorded to Joyce at the Tailteann Games last summer that, in a typical broadside, the whole tribe of Anglo-Irish writers has been excommunicated from holy Ireland. The anathema is reprinted from the Catholic Bulletin, the most widely circulated monthly in Ireland, in the local Irish World of Jan. 10. Yeats, Joyce, Lennox Robinson and several of the young poets are declared to be bestial, filthy-minded and blasphemous.
Here, Boyd’s claim is not that Larbaud has scanted Joyce’s Irish subject matter but that the French critic has wrongly linked Joyce and Ulysses with Sinn Féin and drastically overstated the revolutionary credentials and eventfulness of both one and the other. The gallant “Young Ireland” reclaiming its nationhood with whom Larbaud had associated Joyce in La Maison des Amis des Livres had become the censorious Catholic Ireland of the Catholic Bulletin, a vituperative journal that was certainly no friend to books ‑ Joyce’s or anyone else’s ‑ that did not conform to some orthodox Gaelic Catholic version of “Irishness”.
However, Boyd disputed not just Sinn Féin’s revolutionary credentials but Joyce’s too. In “Joyce and the New Irish Writers”, published in Current History in March 1934, he asserted that:
Essentially Ulysses is a continuation of the studies of certain Dublin types first adumbrated in the superb volume of short stories, Dubliners, and in that fine novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, neither of which excited anything like the furore in esoteric circles which greeted Ulysses. […] To claim for this book a European significance denied to W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge or James Stephens is to ignore its genesis in favor of mere technique, and to invest its content with a mysterious import which the actuality of the references would seem to deny.”
Conceding that Joyce had wonderful imagination, Boyd insists “he also has the defects and qualities of the French naturalists of the Zola school” and that his eroticism, exaggerated by the censors, “will be revealed as oscillating between mocking Rabelaisian ribaldry and the contemptuous and disgusted horror of the body which makes Swift the authentic precursor of the Irish asceticism”. The stress here is firmly on continuity rather than radical rupture or singularity. For Boyd, Ulysses is a development of Dubliners and Portrait. Likewise, he claims Joyce’s affinity with pre-World War I Ireland rather than post-1918 Sinn Féin Ireland, with the French naturalists and German Expressionists, and with Swiftian misanthropy, all of which ‑ by admittedly curious argumentative processes ‑ cumulatively make Ulysses seem less radically new and in its “horror of the body” almost kin to The Catholic Bulletin that had anathematized Joyce!
Boyd’s contestation of Larbaud, then, is motivated not just by a fellow Irishman’s reclamation of Joyce’s Irishness from Parisian or New York “provincial cosmopolitans” but also by the testiness of a Protestant literary elite about the new Irish Free State in which its former cultural precedence was waning and within which it now felt itself a depreciated minority. From Boyd’s standpoint, “provincial cosmopolitans” in Europe and America were claiming too much for Ulysses and in so doing separating off Joyce from his great Anglo-Irish contemporaries like Yeats. Boyd was surely correct when he asserted that there was no immediately obvious connection between Joyce and the new Sinn Féin Ireland. After all, Joyce had left Ireland in 1904 never to return, except for short visits, and he made little attempt after he had become famous in Paris to link his identity with the Free State: Boyd refers at some length, for example, to Joyce’s refusal to become a member of the Irish Academy of Letters founded in 1932. By the same token, as Joyce’s funeral in Fluntern Cemetery in Zürich in 1941 attested ‑ no official Irish representative attended; the British diplomat, Lord Derwent, did attend ‑ the Irish Free State remained diffident about its relationship to the still scandalous Joyce too.
Nevertheless, the keenness with which Boyd disputes Larbaud’s linking of Joyce with “the heroes of Irish nationalism” and with the “Young Ireland” that had emerged after 1918 would suggest that what he is most anxious to discount is that there might be some elective affinity between the revolutionary Ulysses and that new Ireland. In Irish Literary Portraits (1935), John Eglinton, by then like Boyd an émigré from Ireland (in Eglinton’s case to Wales, then Bournemouth) claimed that “Like a devil taking pleasure in forcing a virgin to speak obscenely, so Joyce rejoiced darkly in causing the language of Milton to utter all but unimaginable filth and treason.” In “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”, written in 1937 and published in New Poems (1938), Yeats, without ever mentioning Joyce, asserted his own role and that of Gregory and Synge in imagining into existence the new Ireland with which he was by then however much disenchanted, as On The Boiler (1939) would make clear. Boyd, Eglinton and Yeats had all written appreciatively of Joyce, the first two particularly with considerable perceptiveness. Yet in each of these works one can feel something of an earlier cultural elite’s smarting sense that a new regime, indeed a new society, had come into being and that its own former power was diminishing. Something about Larbaud’s association of Ulysses with European greatness and with the new Ireland established in the same year that Joyce’s work was published irritates Boyd and he returns to that irritation repeatedly. Yeats’s magnificent poem finds no place for Joyce in its heroic pantheon of artists, soldiers, patrons and statesmen, just as Joyce for his part refused to become a member of Yeats’s and Shaw’s Irish Academy. Eglinton, who had of course been comically depicted in Ulysses, concedes, in bitter backhand, an indirect but substantive or spiritual affinity between Ulysses and the new state, associatively linking Joyce’s “Celtic revenge” on the English language with the Irish nationalist hostility to Englishness, Anglicisation and empire that had led to Irish independence. However, the link between Ulysses and the new state might be reckoned in more constructive ways than this.
We will return to Ernest Boyd and Ulysses later, but let us now turn from the matter of Ulysses and the Irish revolution to that of a wider European or Euro-American aesthetic or novelistic revolution. Hannah Arendt might not seem the obvious person with which to begin here but in a review of the work of Hermann Broch published in The Kenyon Review in 1947 she offers comments on developments in the early twentieth century European and Anglophone novel that are worth citing at some length. Situating Broch’s The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil in wider cultural context, Arendt writes:
Hermann Broch belongs to that tradition of great 20th Century novelists who have transformed, almost beyond recognition, one of the classic art-forms of the 19th Century. The modern novel no longer serves as “entertainment and instruction” (Broch) and its authors no longer relate the unusual, unheard-of “incident” (Goethe) or tell a story from which the reader will get “advice” (W. Benjamin). It rather confronts him with problems and perplexities in which the reader must be prepared to engage himself if he is to understand at all. The result of this transformation has been that the most accessible and popular art form has become one of the most difficult and esoteric. The medium of suspense has disappeared and with it the possibility of passive fascination; the novelist’s ambition to create the illusion of a higher reality or to accomplish the transfiguration of the real together with the revelation of its manifold significance has yielded to the intention to involve the reader in something which is at least as much a process of thought as of artistic invention.
The claims here are striking. What we would now call the “modernist novel” ‑ a problematical term ‑ has in Arendt’s opinion “transformed, almost beyond recognition, one of the classic art-forms of the 19th Century”. What had once been one of the most accessible literary mediums, the novel, in this transmogrified version confronts the readers “with problems and perplexities” of an order that the reader must either wholly engage or set the form aside altogether ‑ the form no longer serves anything resembling light reading. No longer offering the once familiar pleasures of entertainment and instruction, strange tales and adventures, or useful “advice”, the esoteric modernist novel confounds readers. Moreover, the pleasures of reading for the plot and suspense, or of idealist transcendence, or the appearance of disclosing the deeper significance of reality have all been retracted. What is left? Can works that have so distanced themselves from the expected pleasures of the nineteenth-century novel still be called novels at all?
The novels of Proust, Joyce and Broch (as well as those of Kafka and Faulkner whom however, each in his own way is in a class by himself) show a conspicuous and curious affinity with poetry on the one hand and to philosophy on the other. Consequently, the greatest modern novelists have begun to share the poets’ and philosophers’ confinement to a relatively small, select circle of readers. In this respect, the tiny editions of the greatest works and the huge edition of good second-rate works are equally significant. A gift for storytelling which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers. Good second-rate production, which is as far removed from kitsch as it is from great art, satisfies fully the demands of the educated and art-loving public and has the more effectively estranged the great masters from their audience than the much-feared mass culture. More important for the artist himself is that a widespread possession of skill and craftsmanship and a tremendous rise in the general level of performance have made him suspicious of facility and mere talent.
This summation offers no simple story of civilisational decline or mass cultural vulgarisation. No. Arendt is plain-speaking: the standard of novelistic production has on the whole improved and the gift for storytelling “which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers”. Furthermore, this good but “second-rate production” ‑ second-rate only because Joyce, Proust, Broch and a few others have taken things to a far higher level ‑ serves perfectly well to satisfy “the demands of the educated and art-loving public”.
What has changed then is that even as there are many more talented novelists writing novels of perfectly decent quality for refined and educated readerships, the works of Joyce, Broch, and others have moved off in a different direction. Eschewing the conventional pleasures of the nineteenth century novel or those offered by these good but “essentially mediocre writers” who are their twentieth century contemporaries, the latter figures are now writing terrifically demanding works that display “a conspicuous and curious affinity” with poetry and philosophy. Although Arendt continues to designate these writers “novelists”, that term seems questionable because what she seems really to be proposing is that the novel as practised by those she calls the “great masters” has become something other than the novel once familiar to readers and that a strange species of art still to be named has emerged. For the authors of such works, the great flood of kitsch and the “much-feared mass culture” is not the most serious challenge to be surmounted. Rather, it is the smaller but still steadily increasing quantum of “good second-rate works” that the most ambitious writers like Joyce or Broch want now to surpass. The edgiest competition is between these two modes of fiction: between what in our more contemporary terminology we might call the well-crafted literary novel and the great modernist masterwork. Mass cultural kitsch can count on massive popular readerships; well-crafted literary novels can find educated, art-loving readerships; the modernist master-work must rely on smaller select readerships of the kind associated with poetry and philosophy.
One of the remarkable things about Arendt’s short mid-century essay is the extent to which it anticipates conceptions of the modern literary field only recently finding expression in Anglophone criticism. I am thinking here particularly of Franco Moretti’s Modern Epic: The Modern World System from Goethe to García Marquez (1996) and of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) and Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (2021). Moretti’s work argues that some of the great works of the modern era ‑ Goethe’s Faust, Moby-Dick, Ring of the Nibelung, The Cantos, The Waste Land, Ulysses, The Man Without Qualities, One Hundred Years of Solitude (curiously no Broch) ‑ belong to a species of fiction that he terms “modern epic”. In contradistinction to the novel, which appears in most modern societies in vast and proliferating numbers, modern epics are rare, Moretti remarks, but they become the subject of extensive, specialised and persistent exegesis. Thus the modern epic becomes what Moretti called “an almost super-canonical form, yet one that is virtually unread” (though it is obligatory for the educated person to have read it or appear to have done so). As such, these super-canonical works are for Moretti masterpieces but flawed masterpieces because the exorbitant demands they make on readers means that they necessarily rely on scholastic institutions, rather than popular reputation and affection, to be transmitted from generation to generation.
There are many problems with Moretti’s concept of “modern epic”. Can we really jettison the term “modernism” so readily? In Moretti’s view, literature generally is functionally conservative because in the face of social and individual confusion induced by rapid social change it “has a problem-solving vocation: to make existence more comprehensible, and more acceptable”. Do literary works generally and “modern epics” only or even mainly serve such socially adaptive and thus essentially conservative purposes as this claims? What about the question of scale? Whatever the demands and difficulties of The Waste Land, a pocket-epic of 434 lines, they are of a different order surely from those of the much longer Cantos or Ulysses or Finnegans Wake or The Man Without Qualities. Lord Jim, A Portrait of the Artist, To the Lighthouse, The Sun Also Rises and The Last September are now commonly termed “modernist novels” and taught as such but even if we allow for stylistic, formal and attitudinal affinities with works such as Ulysses or The Death of Virgil surely we must make discriminations too? Reading Ulysses is simply not the same thing as reading Portrait or The Sun Also Rises; reading The Death of Virgil is something quite different from reading Lord Jim (or even Nostromo) or To the Lighthouse. The qualitative difference has something to do with the magnitude of intellectual engagement and time demand on the reader, but something more than that too is involved. The complex question of the relationship between modernist novel and modernist epic is something neither Moretti nor modern criticism generally tackle.
Nevertheless, setting these conundrums aside, Arendt and Moretti concur that in the early twentieth century the literary field is hierarchically reorganised. Crucially, it does so in ways more complex than that conceived by theorists of some single “great divide” between mass culture and high modernism (versions of such thinking can be found in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) or Andreas Huysssen’s After the Great Divide (1986) or in Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984)). Instead, what Arendt proposes, and Moretti after a fashion confirms, is that the early twentieth century or the era of high modernism gave us not a two-level but three-level stratification comprised of mass-cultural novels (or pulp fiction), well-crafted literary fiction, and exceptional works like Ulysses and its kind. Whether we see the latter works in terms of a convergence of poetry, philosophy and the novel in Arendtian terms or as “modern epics” in Morettian appellation, there is case to suggest that works like Ulysses can no longer be counted simply as “novels”. The latter ask something different of readers and presumably give back something different too.
If we turn from the work to the system that supports it, we find that McGurl’s The Program Era suggests is that in the post-World War II era it was the university that came to the rescue of writers like Joyce and Pound and Broch, saving ‑ till now at least ‑ Ulysses and The Cantos, The Death of Virgil, and so on, from the fate of all those nineteenth century dead epics such as William Morris’s sagas or Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts, for which few people any longer care. For McGurl, the American university system in its period of mass expansion after World War II acted as a buffer between the commercial marketplace and some persisting sense of non-market-defined aesthetic distinction. McGurl’s focus is mostly on the American university writing programme and the ongoing creation in such context of technically demanding and experimental fiction, which might not be commercially viable otherwise. However, if we add to his study of the writing progamme the American “great books” courses where older and till recently mostly Western works were taught, then the importance of the university to the survival of the “classical” and “modern epic” ‑ or however we term such works ‑ seems indisputable. McGurl does concede that “the program era” has led to a certain convergence in the United States of modernist masterwork and good literary fiction, but he refuses to see it as something to lament. Hasn’t, he asks, the university by means of the writing programme and literature department created “a largely system-wide rise in the excellence of post-war American literature in the post-war period”? Instead of decrying the levelling limitations of the “the program era” ‑ the term deliberately proposes a successor era to Hugh Kenner’s now bygone “Pound Era” ‑ why not celebrate “a surfeit of literary excellence, an embarrassment of riches”? And even if the post-World War II period has produced no single outstanding American genius considered equal in stature to Pound or Eliot, Faulkner or Stein, this is more than compensated for by a general rise, democratic levelling, and gender and ethnic diversification of US literary talent.
The field of contemporary literary achievement seems generally flatter than in the Pound era, but it is nevertheless, in McGurl’s view, more richly and variously populated. Here, we rejoin Arendt’s observation that “a gift for storytelling which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers”. McGurl would demur from Arendt’s ascription of the term “essentially mediocre” (a relative distinction of quality only if writers of exceptional ambition and quality such as Joyce or Pound or Musil still exist). What Arendt calls “good second-rate production” is what we now typically call “literary fiction” and for McGurl this is good enough to celebrate and get on with. It is also good enough, as Arendt acknowledges, for educated, art-loving readers of some refinement so it is also adequate presumably for most university classroom purposes and their now more elastic and pragmatic “canons”.
In his most recent work, Everything and Less, McGurl proposes that the field of literary production is now in our moment being reorganised once again by the “age of Amazon”. Though he is too Americanist in purview to think seriously beyond the United States this assumes that the literary institutions of the “program era” ‑ now transferred around much of the Anglophone world at least thanks to the “Americanisation” of the university ‑ currently co-exist with the internet and Amazon and its new technologies. “Has, for instance, anything,” McGurl asks rhetorically, “as consequential as the Kindle happened inside a novel since 2007, when Amazon unveiled its e-reader and instantaneous wireless download system, Whispernet?” Contemporary twenty-first century fiction, in other words, is not being transformed so much by new aesthetic revolutions as by a technological one in its carrier systems. Resisting once again, as he had done in The Program Era, declinist narratives and disputing also traditional critiques of consumerism “too absolute or even theological in nature”, McGurl attempts a cool-eyed sanguine survey of this new literary landscape. “Kindle is something substantially new in the universe of reading”, but it has “not killed off the print book, not by a long shot” and to decry the commodification of the contemporary literary world is merely to rehearse an old story (as old as that of the novel itself) that misses too much of interest in the contemporary scene.
Instead, McGurl offers two alternative perspectives. First, he proposes something like an “end of literary history” (or at least an “end of novelistic literary history” as we know it narrative). “[I]f it were ever true, the narrative of continual innovation running from realism to modernism to postmodernism no longer compels belief that the future of the [novel] form will depart significantly from the repertoire of techniques it inherits from the past.” This might seem a little rich coming from a sociologist so addicted to eras: the Pound Era, the Program Era, the Age of Amazon, all of them essentially American-conceived. But what McGurl is suggesting here is that the immense epic machinery that is Amazon ‑ (“If we could bracket the million troubling implications of its rise, we could easily admit that it is one of the most impressive ventures of our time, equal in its way to the aqueduct systems, cathedrals and moonshots of the past, those triumphs of logistics it distantly resembles. If nothing else, it stands as a monument to the continuing possibilities of large-scale endeavor, one that even its enemies should take to heart.”) ‑ will not in itself aesthetically innovate fiction after the manner of Joyce or Broch in “the Pound era” but that it will recirculate already familiar forms of fiction with greater global reach and dispatch.
Second, while it is no less novel than the creative writing programme was in the 1940s, Amazon crucially differs from the latter in that it is a marketing platform, a distribution and publishing agency, not an educational institution. As such, it makes no pretensions deliberately to educate the taste of its readers, only to cater to their already given tastes as quickly and copiously as online order and mail delivery makes possible. That said, the fact that it has no intentional educational ambitions doesn’t mean that Amazon won’t profoundly reconstitute the literary field or tastes anyway. In this new “age”, Amazonian commodification means above all not horizontal stratifications of taste (masterworks, good second-rate novels, kitsch) of the kind Arendt pondered in her Broch essay, but, McGurl believes, organising literature by genre. In this now vertically rather than horizontally reorganising world, “literary fiction”, shorn of its residual aura, becomes in the Amazon age just one genre like any other, one niche taste among many. Aesthetic sacredness, like every other kind, melts into air.
So where does this leave us? Where indeed does it leave Ulysses? If we take Arendt, Moretti and McGurl seriously, as I think we should, then we must conclude that works like Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, The Death of Virgil, The Man Without Qualities and so forth ought never perhaps to have been designated “novels”. (Poetic epics like The Cantos or The Maximus Poems belong to a different if interestingly cognate maximalist form.) These works represented some sort of revolution in or recasting of the novel form that, as Arendt has it, convulsed the nineteenth century version by bringing it closer in style to poetry and in substance to philosophy or intellectualisation. Or, in more Morettian phraseology, they swelled the novel to grand proportions, converting it into something like a “modern” or “bourgeois epic”. (Lukács ascribed the term “bourgeois epic” to the novel as genre tout court but clearly the experience of reading Ulysses or The Death of Virgil is quite different in kind from reading great realist works like War and Peace or Middlemarch.) McGurl’s point, which he shares with Moretti, is that works like Ulysses (call them what we may) rely on scholastic institutions for their transmission from generation to generation and this confirms what has always been apparent about such works ‑ that they are too much even for most educated and ambitious readers to manage without considerable educational assistance or induction.
Ulysses, then, as great twentieth century novel or as omen that the novel as form was reaching its limits? Now that it has become a reflex to claim Ulysses as one of the finest novels of the twentieth century it can be easy to forget that when it first appeared Joyce’s opus was greeted by some not as a breathtaking new kind of novel but as a sign that the novel might be finished. This was TS Eliot’s verdict in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” (1923), one of the more significant early reviews of Joyce’s work. There, Eliot declared that “[t]he novel ended with Flaubert and James” and that Ulysses represented a new “mythic method” that might confer a stricter form on what had always been an especially loose literary mode, a bagginess tolerable only because the nineteenth century still retained sufficient sense of form otherwise as to be able to afford such looseness. We might dismiss Eliot’s view as eccentrically classical and his conception of Ulysses as a stricter rather than looser version of the nineteenth century novel has not found many critical takers, though Joyce himself worried that he might have over-systematised his Homeric masterpiece.
Nevertheless, Eliot’s sense that the novel in the twentieth century was a flailing form was not entirely an idiosyncratic aberration and other influential voices in that decade also expressed concerns for the novel’s viability. In The Dehumanization of Art and Notes on the Novel (1925) Ortega y Gasset declared that: “I believe that the genre of the novel, if it is not yet irretrievably exhausted, has certainly entered its last phase, the scarcity of possible subjects being such that writers must make up for it by the exquisite quality of the other elements that compose the body of a novel.” He adds: “It is erroneous to think of the novel ‑ and I refer to the modern novel in particular ‑ as an endless field capable of rendering ever new forms.” When all the possible variations had been quarried and worked out, “talent, however great,” he insisted, “can achieve nothing.” In 1930, in “The Crisis of the Novel”, reviewing Berlin Alexanderplatz, Walter Benjamin too sounded the possibility that the novel might be coming to the end of its career and forecast that in a new age of mass technology new modes of epic might replace the novel. Suggestions then by critics of note on the right, the liberal centre, and the left that the novel was struggling and questions forming as to whether works like Ulysses represented the end of the line for the novel or harbinger to something new that might eventually replace it.
So why then if Ulysses and its kind are not really “novels” have we persisted in calling them such? Why haven’t bookstores found specific shelving categories for such works, separating them off from more manageable nineteenth and twentieth century literary novels and according them their own shelf (being fewer in number, as Moretti notes, they would require a much smaller shelving area)? Why do universities, with their greater expertise and commitment to form and categorisation, persist in teaching these waywardly difficult works as “novels”? The answer must be that even when we recognise that they are not quite novels ‑ certainly not ordinary novels ‑ we have no satisfying alternative category for them and that they are nearer to novels than to anything else (even when they position themselves in relation to The Odyssey or The Aeneid as Ulysses and The Death of Virgil respectively do). After all, strangely as it reads in so many respects, Ulysses still bears some resemblances to nineteenth century “novel of adultery” and to the Künstlerroman: the story of the Blooms and their unhappy marriage recalls the one genre, Stephen’s narrative the other. The difference for Joyce, as for Broch or Faulkner or Stein, is in the esoteric manner of telling rather than the tale.
However, if the university served, as McGurl argues, as a kind of buffer between such works and the market, and as a refuge of sorts from which works of similar grand ambition might be attempted in the post-World War II era, the truth is that modernist maximalist works like Ulysses are only a little more amenable to the university than to the market. The universities have of course produced plenty of “Joycean” or “Poundian” experts and critics. Nevertheless, Ulysses or The Death of Virgil or The Cantos for that matter have never in fact been perfectly adaptable to the seminar room or lecture hall either. Despite their real difficulties, it is possible to teach shorter, more compact works like The Waste Land or The Waves or The Castle in a few weeks or less in such educational contexts. However, maximalist works such as The Cantos or Ulysses might, were they taught in detail, swallow a whole semester. In university settings where time is now as commoditised and pressured as in any other place of business, teachers often make do by discussing a few sample chapters of Joyce’s magnum opus or a few cantos of Pound or by reserving the teaching of the novel or epic poem in full to higher doctoral seminars. As such, it is hard to know how things will fare for such texts in “the age of Amazon”, when literature is increasingly losing its sacral aura and when a reflex disciplinary hostility to “the canon” can so commonly be assumed to be “progressive” even if that anti-canonicity is in effect (whatever its better intentions) quite often working to the same value-neutral ends as Amazon.
The university, then, lends these modern epics some support, more in terms of scholarship than scrupulous teaching perhaps, but what they have really survived on, or so it seems to me, is translation and especially translation into prestigious literary cultures and “world languages”. Such are the inordinate difficulties of translating these long, esoteric and linguistically fiendish works that every time they are translated into another language it becomes a major literary event ‑ an “event” recognisably quite different in kind from that which occurs when a more ordinary literary novel is translated. Within a decade of its appearance, Ulysses had been translated into German (1927, 1930), French (1929) and Japanese (pirated edition, 1932). A Spanish edition, published in Argentina, did not appear until 1945; a second translation in Spain appeared in 1976. Thanks to communist denunciation and proscription, a complete Russian edition did not appear until 1989 (in serial magazine form) and in Chinese until 1993 (a two-volume edition) and 1995 (three volumes). Translations had already begun in both Russia and China in the twenties and writers and critics may have had some access to Ulysses therefore while it remained proscribed, but widely available translations nevertheless make a difference. Ulysses, in short, may now seem to many in the West an aging university-reliant masterpiece difficult to read and difficult to teach but in some of the world’s most populous great literary languages it is still a young work only a few decades old. As such, it has lived out its first century by finding new lives in new cultures. It has always generated serious excitement when it makes its way into a new language and it will almost certainly continue to provoke mimetic rivalry by writers in such cultures as they more fully assimilate it. Or, to put matters otherwise, if we take translation into account, then the work of modern epics such as Ulysses and its kind is still not done. A century later, these “modern epics” may be maladapted to either market or university classroom, and they are perhaps becoming more so, but they can nevertheless inspire “revolutions” among kindred ambitions elsewhere.
After the manner of Odysseus, it is time now to return home and in so doing we will come back to Erin via Ernest Boyd. We will recall that in his opposition to Larbaud’s claims for Ulysses Boyd had protested that: “Outside Ireland itself, this quintessentially Irish and local study of Dublin life has evoked somewhat extravagant enthusiasm and highly exaggerated claims for its importance.” Joyce, Boyd insisted, belonged to the pre-1914 Revival, not to the post-World War I “Young Ireland” of Sinn Féin. The Sinn Féin revolution had in any case proved only a conservative bourgeois affair issuing in a censorious, Catholic, anti-intellectual Free State from which Joyce had distanced himself. And just as Joyce had ignored the Free State, so too Boyd claimed in 1934 the new Free State writers had largely ignored Joyce. After the new state was founded, he asserted in “Joyce and the New Irish Writers”, fiction replaced poetry and drama as the chief Irish literary medium. “Those who are familiar with the Irish literary movement will at once be struck by the preponderance of fiction, as against poetry and drama in the two preceding generations.” Where the theatre in the pre-state era had been “the all-absorbing focus of activity”, it can now “boast of only one first-rate newcomer, Sean O’Casey.” Moreover, between O’Casey’s drama and that of the leading new novelists, Boyd saw affinities: “One point of similarity exists between the plays of Sean O’Casey and the stories of Liam O’Flaherty, Sean O’Faoláin and Peadar O’Donnell. They are all the work of disillusioned realists of the Black and Tan period.” The new vogue for realism, “so long absent from Anglo-Irish literature”, might infuriate the Irish censors still wedded to Revivalist ideas of romantic or holy Ireland and its special destiny, but this “disillusioned realism” was now firmly the order of the day. The inference was obvious. If the Sinn Féin revolution had fallen short of its promise, so too Irish writers had turned to a kind of fiction quite different in kind and scope to Ulysses. The new generation emerging in the 1930s had no ambitions to emulate Ulysses; instead it had turned its efforts to establish a new (or old) realism. In Boyd’s assessment, neither the political revolution led by “Young Ireland” nor the aesthetic revolution that was being claimed for Ulysses in Paris had really come off.
There is much to ponder in this account. In many respects it has obviously become the standard literary historical narrative: a decade or so of “Troubles” and revolution after Easter 1916 followed by several decades of political dullness and self-enforced censorious insularity; a decade or two of great literary accomplishment that gave the world the Revival, the Abbey Theatre, Yeats and Joyce, followed by several decades of lesser literary achievement (save for Beckett). There are elements of this general version of things that might be disputed, but what of Boyd’s claim that “Turning from James Joyce to the new group of writers who may be described as representing the Free State period in Anglo-Irish literature, the first fact that strikes one is the complete absence of his influence on these younger contemporaries”? “So far as Joyce has influenced the writers of today, they must be sought in England or America.” How much or little truth was there in this assessment at the time? How much truth now on the centenary of Ulysses?
Boyd, it appears to me, drastically underestimates Joyce’s influence generally and yet in one respect, concerning Ulysses at least, he has proved perceptive. To speak of the “complete absence” of Joyce’s influence on the writers of the 1930s and beyond is to overlook the extent to which the “disillusioned realism” that Boyd notes both in post-independence theatre and fiction was in fact significantly influenced by Joyce’s own work (O’Casey for example was fascinated by Joyce and Ulysses). After all, that note of “disillusioned realism”, if we want with Boyd to call it that, was essential to Dubliners, was not absent from Portrait, and was fundamental to the more realist and naturalist dimensions of Ulysses too. That same “disillusioned realism” might also be found in the works of George Moore and others in the Revivalist period, so it would probably have emerged to the fore in the period of state consolidation anyway even without Joyce’s influence. However, it could be said that it is this grimmer realistic or naturalistic strain in Joyce’s work that subsequent generations of Irish writers right up to the present have always found most serviceable, most amenable to their own imaginative purposes.
Contrary to Boyd, one would have to say, too, that generically speaking, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has left an indelible watermark on the twentieth century Irish novel as indeed it has done on the twentieth-century Bildungsroman in many cultures. From the era of Elizabeth Bowen, O’Faolain and Kate O’Brien through to that of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien up to that of Roddy Doyle and Patrick McCabe and Seamus Deane through to Jamie O’Neill or Sally Rooney more recently, the Bildungsroman remains a perennial mode in Irish novelistic fiction. True, the ambitious Stephen Dedalus artist figure rarely occupies the narrative centre in Irish works after Portrait, but the Joycean influence on the Irish Bildungsroman can hardly be doubted.
And Ulysses? Here, perhaps, time has proved Boyd to have a point. If it has been fertile at all for later Irish fiction, Ulysses has certainly not been generative in the same manner as Portrait because no later Irish writer has tried to reproduce some maximalist compositional fiction on the scale of Ulysses. It is rather at the level of devices like the stream-of-consciousness technique or the interminable sentence or staccato sentence fragment that the impress of Ulysses is most evident on the later Irish novel. These detachable devices have perhaps been particularly important for later Irish women novelists such as Edna O’Brien or Eimear McBride and for their ambitions to represent the inner lives of girls and women while the endlessly unspooling sentence or sentence fragment appear with exemplary clarity in recent novels like Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016) or Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic (2013) respectively. Where Irish writers have attempted to work in Ulyssean mode in more ambitious and expanded fashion ‑I am thinking of Aidan Higgins’s Balcony of Europe (1972, revised version 2010), Dermot Healey’s A Goat’s Song (1994), or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013) ‑ none of these works have attained anything like the stature of Ulysses. Nor, to be fair, do they even go about claiming it for themselves. This is because these works are, however technically complex, still patently novels: they don’t attempt Joyce’s Homeric analogies and scaffolding, his rehearsals and parodies of centuries of styles, his intellectual weightiness and his irrepressible comedy. The point here is not to diminish these later achievements, but to underscore the fact that a century later part of the fascination of Ulysses is that it remains, in Irish terms at least, a once-off, a nonpareil, a work so singular as to be without obvious domestic parentage or evident domestic offspring. If Ulysses represents a kind of itch to create a modern or modernist epic against the odds, then during the last century Joyce’s work, as Boyd could already see in the 1930s, has proved more generative beyond Ireland than at home, where the anxiety of Ulyssean influence remains palpable. A century on, Ulysses’s voyages seem still voyages out, a voyage inwards not yet in sight.
Perhaps the Ulysses centenary may then be the occasion to acknowledge then what in their different ways T. S. Eliot, Ortega y Gasset, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, and others, had intuited a century or half a century ago. That with Ulysses and a small, select body of great maximalist and recondite high modernist novels from other cultures a ne plus ultra of the novel form was reached, a point beyond which the novel simply could not pass without becoming something else. Or, that with Ulysses and its like the end of the novel’s scope for development had in intellectual terms at least been reached and that Joyce, Faulkner and Broch had started on a new form, one we might call the late bourgeois or modernist epic. As McGurl notes in Everything and Less, the bourgeois era of capitalism is now well past but a titanic corporate capitalism obviously continues, and in works like Ulysses or The Death of Virgil the fate of art in such a post-bourgeois world seems anything but assured: Stephen Dedalus is famously stuck and stymied in his late bourgeois Dublin, Broch’s Austro-Roman Virgil is conscience-tormented and dying. In our contemporary post-bourgeois-but-still-capitalist world, good novels may be produced and in far greater quantities than ever before, and as Arendt says, they may be good enough to satisfy fully “the demands of the educated and art-loving public.” But after a time, contra McGurl, this good second-rate literary fiction comes to seem, as Arendt and Ortega y Gasset had predicted, merely talented work in familiar modes. For writers for whom this is not enough, the question of whether the novel or modern epic is capable of some sort of further greatness beyond Joyce or Faulkner or Broch returns to nag now and then.
The epic itch has certainly not disappeared. Maximalism flourishes. Trilogies, McGurl remarks in Everything and Less, endure; indeed, he comments: “I’ve come to think [of them] as the most characteristic of contemporary literary forms.” Trilogies persist no doubt because they are the medium in which the novel can remain affiliated to the more or less regular and recognisable bounds of the modular novel and yet aspire to something of the totality of realist epics like War and Peace or reach for something of the stature of complex modernist ones like Ulysses. Irish writers after Ulysses would attempt trilogies or series too: Ó Faoláin produced one, CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are in this mode, there is the famous Beckett trilogy and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy, JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy has an Irish element, while John Banville has written several trilogies. Nevertheless, for all its maximalist ambition the trilogy appears a kind of compromise mode: a way of hanging onto the educated and refined readership that remains for the literary novel while pursuing something of the particular greatness reserved for the writers of epics.
By this measure, Ulysses is the first and maybe last Irish modernist epic (its relationship to Finnegans Wake needs consideration elsewhere). It is one of the great works of an era of aesthetic revolutions that took things as far as it was possible to take things at that time. It will almost certainly require a new epoch of revolutions, political and aesthetic, founded on new epic ambition before writers will dare to want to go beyond Joyce and his kind again. Till then writers will probably content themselves with writing good literary novels and mass publics will still hanker after the rather more fast-paced and adventurous but mostly anti-intellectual epics that come to us in the familiar forms of Tolkien, Game of Thrones, the computer-enhanced cinematic epic, the play-station epic.
If such prediction seems dreamy after rejuvenated literary greatness, so much the better. This is because ultimately what we celebrate in Ulysses on the occasion of its first centenary is both an appreciation of the ordinary day as it is lived moment by moment and hour by hour (June 16th, 1904, everyday) and ‑ and the “and” is crucial here ‑ an expression of an ambition not to comply with what already is, not to accommodate the good enough. Epic ambition matters too much to be left to Jeff Bezos and to his fellow tycoons and oligarchs that rule the age of Amazon. Such ambition is as important to the humanities and literature and to whatever we call spirit or imaginative vision as it is to the sciences, technology, medicine or politics. In writing Ulysses, Joyce sailed far beyond Portrait, his only ordinary novel. Portrait done, he aimed to match the achievements of Homer or Dante or Milton or Goethe in a darkened era when devastating war and civilisational disintegration were much more evident than civilisational integrity or progress. To create something new, he dared to risk artistic obscurity and exile, tremendous personal failure and familial poverty.
The novelistic appreciation of the ordinary everyday (Leopold and Molly Bloom) and the hankering for something better, something epic (Stephen) cannot couple neatly in Ulysses. Thus, in the end, Leopold and Stephen go their separate ways and Molly muses, by turns tenderly and raucously, on what was earlier in the day or might be tomorrow. The novelistic-type character Leopold has a home and a wife to which to return; stymied Stephen who has still to write his epic has none. In formally refusing to separate or conjoin these figures yet making what they each represent keep company under its umbrella or within its frame, Ulysses is a revolutionary work that seizes the day without ever simply settling for it. Here perhaps we stumble on Ulysses’s real affinity with the revolutionary Ireland with whose creation it was contemporaneous. The epic ambition to take on the world’s greatest empire; the modest desire to be just another ordinary bourgeois nation: Stephen and Leopold, proud style, mundane content, unreconciled, reconciled. For both new work and nation: something accomplished, a final “yes”, unappeased longing.
Notes and Sources
My thanks to David Quint and Emer Nolan for their comments on a draft version of this piece. Details of Joyce’s life and the presentation of Ulysses to the world are indebted to Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, revised edition (Oxford University Press, 1983). Larbaud’s lecture was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française in April 1922. An English version appeared in Eliot’s The Criterion in October 1922; see Valery Larbaud, “The ‘Ulysses’ of James Joyce,” The Criterion, 1, 1, October 1922, 93-104. For examples of Boyd’s several responses to Larbaud, see Ernest Boyd, “The Expressionism of James Joyce”. New York Tribune (May 28th, 1922): 7, “Concerning James Joyce”, The World (New York), January 25th, 1925, n. p., and “Joyce and the New Irish Writers”, Current History, XXXIX (March 1934), 699-704. For Eglinton’s appraisal of Joyce and Ulysses, see John Eglinton, “The Beginnings of Joyce”, Irish Literary Portraits (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1935), 131-150, 145-46. For Arendt on Broch, see “The Achievement of Hermann Broch”, The Kenyon Review, No 3, Vol 11 (Summer 1949): 476-483. For reflections on novel, epic, and maximalist fiction, see Franco Moretti’s Modern Epic: The Modern World System from Goethe to García Marquez (1996) and Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) and Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (2021). McGurl citations on the American university here from “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction”, Critical Inquiry 32:1 (autumn 2005): 102-29. On the status of the novel in the 1920s, see TS Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth”, The Dial, November 1923, reprinted in Frank Kermode, ed, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1975), 175-78; José Oretga y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Notes on the Novel, translated by Helen Weyl (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948); and Walter Benjamin, “The Crisis of the Novel”, Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 1, 1927-1930, ed. Michael W Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, trans Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 299-304. On the early translations of Ulysses, see Carmelo Medina Casuto, “The Earliest Translations of Ulysses”, Papers on Joyce 16 (2010): 81-91, and Geert Lernout and Wim Van Mierlo, eds, The Reception of James Joyce in Europe, Vol 1 (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004). On Chinese translations, see Jin Di, “The Odyssey of ‘Ulysses’ into China”, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol 27, No 3 (Spring 1990): 447-464.