James Joyce's Ulysses is a novel unique in the history of English literature, perhaps all literature, in that it has a day dedicated to its celebration all over the world. So extraordinary was the novel's impact on readers that the first Bloomsday was celebrated within two years of the novel's publication by Sylvia Beach (Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922; see image), proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, at once a bookshop, lending library, publishing house, and modernist salon. The day is named for Leopold Bloom, one of the novel's three chief characters. Of course, when we think of Bloomsday and of Ulysses, we also think of Dublin, the city in which the novel is situated, and which may be regarded as a character in its own right. But what is this "Dublin," and what is "June 16?" These are questions provoked by the novel itself—another way of inquiring, like Joyce and his characters, into our experience of space and time.
June 16 is the date on which Leopold Bloom and the young writer Stephen Daedalus wander through the ancient streets of Dublin, and, simultaneously, through both the ancient and more recently cleared byways of memory. These Dublinish avenues and side streets, and the ghosts of past and present which suddenly appear in them, are interwoven with the protagonists' moment-by-moment existence, so that past and present, inner and outer, become a tapestry of ancient myth and Dubliner's dream diary. Joyce chose June 16 because on that date he walked through Dublin to the suburb of Ringsend with Nora Barnacle, his wife-to-be. But Bloomsday is a time not only to recall Joyce's life, to trace Bloom's and Stephens's steps through the streets of Dublin, and to read and reread the first modernist literary masterpiece. We are also invited to look inquiringly at things which we too frequently take for granted: our interior monologues and the places and people they memorialize.
Joyce's style, later called "stream of consciousness" (a phrase coined decades earlier by the philosopher William James), is an artistic approximation of what happens in the mind and body as it journeys through life: loving, envying, wanting, mourning, fearing, pondering, wondering. One of Joyce's essential insights, which would become central to modernist literature, is that the mind creates "reality." The universe is contained within each person's experience. Joyce conveys this as well through his classical paradigm. Bloom's classical alter-ego is Ulysses, the heroic wanderer of Homer's Odyssey, the epic poem on which the novel's structure is closely patterned. Though this pattern provides an ironic perspective on Bloom's seemingly mundane and sometimes hapless and humiliating adventures, the poetry of the novel's language, the self-awareness of the protagonists, their tentative engagement with, and occasional, passionate surrender to the mystery of their being, endows their inner lives with a mythic grandeur. But whereas in ancient myth, the hero journeys to distant lands and performs acts of courage through which he discovers his destiny, in Ulysses, the heroes journey into the self.
Ulysses has exerted an enormous influence on a wide range of writers, many of whose papers are in the Berg Collection. Two notable examples of the variety of the novel's influence are T. S. Eliot's pioneering modernist poem "The Waste Land," (the typescript/manuscript of which, bearing Ezra Pound's edits and notes, is in the Berg Collection), especially the first page, unpublished in Eliot's lifetime (see image), and the Beat epic of searching for missing fathers across a continent: Jack Kerouac's On the Road (see image).
An important byway in the novel's own journey—its reception in France—can be traced in the Berg. France welcomed Ulysses, and not only as the home of its first appearance in print. Portions of the novel appeared in serialized form in French literary journals, as it was translated into French. This was especially important since it was illegal to publish it in the United States. In 1921, a small portion of Ulysses had been serialized in the New York modernist journal The Little Review. But after a complaint to the District Attorney was made by a New York reader about a sexual scene in one of the published portions, a judge declared the novel obscene. A pirated edition would appear in New York, in 1929, but the first authorized edition was published in the U.S. only as late as 1934, by Random House.
Modernist French writers who had read the novel celebrated its daring and depth. On December 7, 1921, the renown French poet, translator, and critic Valery Larbaud (1881-1957), who had just read Ulysses, and had been overwhelmed by its brilliance, lectured on the novel and Joyce's other works before an audience of 250 crowded into the famous Paris bookshop and lending library ("La Maison des Amis des Livres") in the rue de l'Odéon, owned by the modernist poet and publisher Adrienne Monnier. Monnier had, in 1919, encouraged and financially assisted Sylvia Beach to establish Shakespeare and Company in the rue Dupuytren, from which Beach moved the shop, in 1922, to 12 rue de l'Odéon (see image of Joyce and Beach standing in the doorway of Shakespeare and Co.), directly across the street from Monnier's "Maison." Monnier and Beach had by then become lovers, and they lived together for thirty-six years, until Monnier's suicide in 1955 (see images of Monnier and of Monnier with Beach, and with Beach, Joyce, and Monnier's parents). In his 1921 lecture, Larbaud conceded the novel's obscenity, in the literal sense: "The English language has a very great store of obscene words and expressions, and the author of Ulysses has enriched his book generously and boldly from this vocabulary." But he explained that "this vocabulary" was integral to creating the characters' authenticity.
Each of the attendees at Monnier's shop had paid 20 francs for admission, the proceeds to be given to Joyce, always short of funds, and who was shyly hiding behind a screen. At Larbaud's insistence, he emerged into view at the lecture's conclusion to receive the audience's loud applause. The enthusiastic reaction prompted Joyce to suggest to Larbaud a French translation of Ulysses. This decision would initiate a difficult journey as fraught with conflict, deflected desires, zigzags, and pratfalls as were Bloom's wanderings through Dublin. First, Larbaud declined to take on the project, and persuaded Joyce to give the task to a young Breton writer and translator, Auguste Morel. Joyce asked Monnier if she would publish the translation, but she agreed only on the condition that Joyce and Larbaud would supervise the effort. The work went slowly, and various portions of the translation appeared in French journals over the course of several years.
When, by chance, the English scholar and translator Gilbert Stuart noticed several errors in a few sample pages in Monnier's bookshop window, and pointed them out to her, she introduced him to Joyce, who added him to the translating team. The result was a three-way wrangle among Morel, Stuart, and Larbaud, which compelled Joyce to intervene in the process and take a more active role in the translation, which at last was published in French, in 1929 (see images of the working draft and of Morel's queries for Larbaud and Stuart). The numerous, multi-layered puns which appear on virtually every page of Ulysses make the novel especially difficult to translate, and one sympathizes with the author and his three translators. It is fitting to end a Bloomsday musing with reflections on translation, since the novel itself is a translation of the mind's activity into a reading of the world that exists only seemingly outside itself. Translation also means the process of moving something from one place to another, as Bloom, Stephen, and Molly move through Dublin, their memories, and as they and the novel itself move through our imaginations.