• Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.
• Howard Eiland, modernist scholar, editor of the modernist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, and author of the biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.
• Eve Sorun, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, currently writing a book on empathy and elegy in British modernism.
Out of the mire and death of World War One, even before the shooting stops, comes the strangest thing: the novel of the century. It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, transposing the wily warrior of Greek myth into the buried consciousness of a single day in Dublin in 1904. The global war was only part of the nightmare from which Joyce was trying to awake. From his teens, he’d set himself against every orthodoxy of provincial Ireland, against the pieties of family, church and Empire. Even before pre-publication, Ulysses became the fighting flag of Modernism: a sort of cracked “true realism,” an anti-violent anarchism in prose, poetry and painting, too. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces: Mrs. Dalloway, The Waste-Land? Have you made it through Ulysses? Is history a nightmare we’re still sleeping through?
Where do we look for a short course in the modernist sensibility? You could return to Ezra Pound’s young, verbless days as an Imagist in “In a Station of the Metro
“: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Or we could quote his solicitation letter to H. L. Mencken, republished by The American Reader
: “At any rate, if there is impractical stuff, I want it.”
Virginia Woolf proposed the look and feel of modernism in three classic essays
, including a call to a higher realism in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall
Joyce wasn’t much of a theorist, but he talked (and sang, and jigged) with his dinner guests
: “What goes on in an ordinary house like this house in an ordinary day or night - that is what should be written about… eating, sleeping, all that we take for granted, not leaving out the digestive processes.”
A story about modernist books is in particular a story about modernist lives: how fun, desperate, original they were – “What a lark! what a plunge!” For that reason, we recommend Kevin Birmingham’s terrific group biography, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses
, once more. (We tested it as a beach read, and it passed with flying colors.)