As the world went to war, James Joyce plotted his own revolution

This extract from ‘The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses’ traces the genesis of a classic

Victim of war: James Joyce around 1918. Photograph: C Ruf/Archive/Getty

Victim of war: James Joyce around 1918. Photograph: C Ruf/Archive/Getty

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

Joyce finished the first chapter of Ulysses on June 16th, 1915, and it could not have been easy. The Berlitz school where he was teaching closed indefinitely that day. Most of the teachers were conscripted, and the students had enlisted or fled. Yet as the cannonades and air raids came closer to his apartment in Trieste, Joyce tunnelled deeper into his novel. He composed the young men’s dialogue on the tower’s parapet while small crowds gathered on Trieste’s waterfront and listened to the gunfire coming from a town a few kilometres away. Austrian Triestines mocked the Italian battle cry by shouting, “Avanti, Cagoia!” – “Forward, snails!” The cheers grew louder with each explosion.

As an Austrian port with an Italian population and a mostly Slavic police force, the city began to tear itself apart. When news of Italy’s declaration spread, Austrian mobs roamed through the streets, attacking Italian nationalists and destroying Italian restaurants and cafes. Sailors vandalised the statue of Verdi in one of the piazzas, and when they burned the offices of pro-Italian newspapers the police simply watched. The Joyce family was placed on a list of enemy aliens, and Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, who made his Italian sympathies clear, was arrested and placed in an internment camp. By the end of May the Triestine authorities dissolved the municipal council, censored the press and the mail, deported Italians en masse and declared a state of siege. When the last train for Italy left, Trieste felt like an open-air prison. Shops were shuttered. Lines formed all night in front of the last open bakery, and food prices rocketed. “Whoever has the last sack of flour,” Joyce said, “will win the war.”

Joyce was hardly in a position to embark on a new novel, much less a novel as ambitious as Ulysses. In 1915 he was unemployed, perched on the edge of a battlefront with a wife and two children and as poor as he had ever been. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man was unpublished, and Dubliners had appeared in bookshops two weeks before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered the outbreak of the first World War. At the end of 1914 only 499 copies had been sold (120 of which Joyce was required to buy himself), and sales were crawling to a standstill. In the first six months of 1915, 26 copies of Dubliners were sold. In the last six months, only seven.

Ulysses began as a whim. It was originally an idea for a short story to tag along in Dubliners. Alfred H Hunter – the lonely, benevolent Jew in Dublin who had lifted Joyce from the dirt in St Stephen’s Green – was a hero of the Trojan War, the protagonist of Homer’s greatest epic, the king of Ithaca, Ulysses. The Hunter-as-Ulysses equation was well suited for a short story, but the concept had grown in Joyce’s mind.

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