Ulysses first edition to auction for between €70,000 and €90,000
Copy signed by James Joyce is from the earliest print run of the world renowned book
Sylvia Beach and James Joyce.
Ulysses is now widely regarded as one of the greatest works of western literature, invariably topping lists of best novel categories, and holding a record as one of the most expensive 20th century first-edition books to sell at auction. In 2002, a copy of the book sold through Christie’s New York for $460,500 (€409,840) .
In the forthcoming Rare Books, Literature and Manuscripts Sale by Fonsie Mealy at the Talbot Hotel in Stillorgan on June 18th, the highlight of the auction of over 600 lots, is a first edition, number 30 of the first hundred copies ever printed of Ulysses. What makes this particular copy special, besides being from the earliest print run, is that it is signed by James Joyce (€70,000- €90,000).
Prior to its first publication in book form, Joyce’s epic of eighteen chapters based on the wanderings of a middle-aged advertising salesman over the course of a day in Dublin, was partly serialised (between 1918 and 1921) in the Little Review. Paradoxically, it was the Chicago magazine’s foreign editor, the outspoken modernist poet Ezra Pound, who was to be the text’s first censor. An official complaint by the secretary for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice decided to take legal action against the magazine.
Ulysses was first published as a book in Paris on Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd, 1922, by Sylvia Beach, an American publisher and founder of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company.
A thousand numbered copies were printed on handmade paper, clad in soft covers that featured the title and the author’s name in white on a blue background. A copy can fetch tens or hundreds of thousands of euro, depending on the condition and whether or not it was signed by Joyce.
Just 800 of the first 1,000 books are known to exist and half of these are held in public collections throughout the world.
The writing and publication history of Ulysses was shaped by individuals and organisations trying to censor it, outraged by its explicit references to the human body and its iconoclasm.
More than 400 copies of the book were seized by the American Post Office and burned, this eventually culminated in a court case: The United States V One Book Entitled Ulysses in 1933.
Ten minutes after the statement by Judge John M Woolsey that “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States,” publishers Random House set their typesetters to work on one of the most controversial books of the twentieth century.
But it was not just in the United States that the book caused uproar. The Sporting Times, a weekly British newspaper, regarded the book to be the work of “a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine”. The Dublin Review went further, wondering how “a great Jesuit-trained intellect has gone over malignantly and mockingly to the powers of evil”. Even D.H Lawrence, himself a victim of censorship, described the book as being “the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written”.
In Kevin Birmingham’s book: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, he noted the utter irony of banning the book. While it was prohibited to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers, the book owes its very existence to several women.
It was inspired, in part, by Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, funded by Harriet Shaw Weaver, serialised by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, joint editors of the Little Review, and first published by yet another woman, Sylvia Beach.
In December 2018, a first edition (number 292 of 750) was sold through Whyte’s for €19,000, and in 2014, a copy of the book – also a first edition – sold through Bonham’s for €40,000, more than €15,000 over its higher estimate.
Also listed in the Fonsie Mealy sale, is a first draft of the Joseph Strick screenplay of Ulysses. Though the book was never prohibited in Ireland, the 1967 film was the longest banned film in the history of the State, and only released from censorship in 2000, after 33 years on the shelf for being “subversive to public morality. When the film was aired in New Zealand it was shown only to gender-segregated audiences. (€600-€800)
De Burca Rare Books in Blackrock also has a first edition listed in their current catalogue. Item 214 is number 635 of 750 out of the total first print run of 1,000 copies, and is listed at €42,500.
The timing of the sale is appropriate with the forthcoming Bloomsday celebrations on the 16th of June. Joyce, noted for his acerbic wit, once mischievously said of Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”