Tuesday, February 2

Happy Birthday, Dubliner: James Joyce (and 'Ulysses') are another year older

Yes, that is Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. And no, she is not going to sing "Happy Birthday, Mr. Novelist" in a smoky voice on that playground. She's going to sit there and read her meandering book quietly, and we are going to pause to admire her book playing the part of "edifying accessory." The type on that tome—blue and red—nicely complements her tank top of brightly colored stripes. Formidable, Ms. Monroe.

But enough of celebrities reading. On to Joyce. On this day in 1922, at age 40—he considered his birthday a lucky day—Joyce published Ulysses, which he pronounced "Oolissays." (He also considered blue and white to be most auspicious hues. Furthermore, they're in line with the Greek theme he started in naming his book after Homer's wily and sea-buffeted king, whom he first encountered as a schoolboy by way of Charles Lamb's adaptation of the Odyssey.)

At the Barnes & Noble website—home to sound book reviews, short and long, and its Daybook—I learned the genesis of the repeated, breathless use of that already breathy word "yes" in the "famous 45-page, 8-sentence Molly Bloom monologue" that ends Ulysses. Apparently, Joyce had simply heard a friend, an American named Lillian Wallace, saying "yes" repeatedly in conversation. Seven months later, when Ulysses was published, she was in attendance at a special dinner Joyce held to celebrate the birth of his book into print. (And at this dinner he unveiled a copy of Ulysses, with blue covers and white type, a rare copy, as the first run of the novel was quite small.)

Should you crave to read a tad more about Joyce and his quirks, which were legion, even by writers' standards, check out today's Writer's Almanac. A sample here:
Joyce was afraid of thunder and lightning—during electrical storms, he would hide under bedcovers—and he was also afraid of dogs, and walked around town with rocks in his pockets in case he encountered any roaming mutts. He didn't care for the arts other than music and literature, and he especially had no patience for art like painting. Over his desk he kept a photograph of a statue of Penelope (from Greek mythology, the wife of Odysseus/Ulysses) and a photograph of a man from Trieste, whom Joyce wouldn't name but said was the model for Leopold Bloom. On his desk he had a tiny bronze statue of a woman lying back in a chair with a cat draped over her shoulders. All of his friends told him it was ugly, but he kept it on his desk anyway. One of his Parisian friends remarked, "He had not taste, only genius."
Although Joyce might have had scant appreciation for the visual arts, Henri Matisse later illustrated Ulysses with 26 images, which don't illustrate the book proper, but rather key moments from the Odyssey that have been abstracted into faceless, struggling forms. The titles of the six etchings, for instance, include "Calypso," "Cyclops," "Nausicaa," "Circe," and "Ithaca." For starters, here's his take of drunken Polyphemos losing his eye.

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