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The New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture Saturday, July 26, 2014

Subtexts: The epic in the ordinary

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Posted: Friday, June 13, 2014 5:00 am | Updated: 12:35 am, Sun Jun 15, 2014.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is popularly known for two things: obscurity and obscenity. The former was Joyce’s method for assuring the book’s longevity. “I put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” he once said, “that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” The latter created the book’s first sparks, resulting in thousands of copies being burned here and in the United Kingdom. Shortly after the book’s publication in 1922, English poet Robert Noyes told the Royal Society of Literature, “There is no foulness conceivable to the mind of madman or ape that has not been poured into its imbecile pages.” This was Noyes’ flowery way of saying the book contained descriptions of masturbation and orgasm.

Joyce’s confounding work is getting new attention this Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the author’s masterpiece on June 16  — the day in 1904 in which the whole novel takes place — because of Kevin Birmingham’s new release, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Penguin Press). The text chronicles the origins and writing of the tale as well as its transformation, in Birmingham’s words, “from an insurgency to an institution.” That’s a great story in itself. Birmingham also describes how Bloomsday has turned into a worldwide event that includes readings, period costumes, and the eating of lambs’ kidneys for breakfast.

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