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James Joyce with Sylvia Beach in 1922: Irascible, selfish, brilliant

Ulysses is an epic in a Dublin day. The story of its publication is an epic of more orthodox proportions. Its journey from barely-legible manuscript to law-abiding bookshop took longer than the voyage from Troy to Ithaca that inspired it. In The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham, a Harvard literary historian, recounts how a book that was banned in Britain and America for more than a decade came to be regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Ulysses — or "oolissays", as James Joyce pronounced it — is a book deserving  a biography and that is what Birmingham has written.

Chapters of Ulysses first landed on the censor's desk when they were published as instalments in the Little Review, an American literary magazine, between 1918 and 1920. It was the unusual prose and eccentric punctuation that first caught the inspectors' eye; they thought it might be spy code. Then, in the January 1920 instalment, one of Joyce's characters refers to Queen Victoria as a "flatulent old bitch that's dead" and for the first time the post offices of Britain and America suppressed its publication.

For the easily offended, there was worse to come. When the book was published in 1922, some reviewers thought it a masterpiece. Most, though, were appalled by the explicit stream of Molly Bloom's consciousness that concludes the book. One review called the episode a feat of "diabolic clairvoyance, black magic". Another described Ulysses as "the maddest, muddiest, most loathsome book issued in our own or any other time — inartistic, incoherent, unquotably nasty — a book that one would have thought could only emanate from a criminal lunatic asylum".

Birmingham describes a time when books were thought to be as dangerous as an anarchist's bomb. In the eyes of the censorious, political radicalism and sexual deviance were symbiotic threats to society. Book burning wasn't a mere gesture. It was the only way to keep corruptible minds safe. Under New York law, literature was criminal if it fell foul of what one lawyer called the "six deadly adjectives": obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, disgusting.

The characters in the fight over Ulysses are memorably depicted by Birmingham. Ezra Pound was a noisy, rambunctious and mostly counterproductive cheerleader for Joyce. Anthony Comstock was a book-burning postal inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose bushy muttonchops hid the scar left by a pornographer's switchblade.

In the long list of publishers, editors, lawyers, smugglers, patrons and judges without whom Joyce would have died penniless and forgotten, two heroes stand out. The first is Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co. In 1922, she did what others (including Virginia Woolf) had refused to do and published Ulysses unexpurgated. Her savvy meant the book was read in New York and London. Her loyalty to Joyce was unswerving and unreciprocated. When Random House promised to challenge the ban and publish Ulysses in America, she voluntarily relinquished the world rights she had to the book. With characteristic selfishness, Joyce never shared with Beach the financial rewards he later enjoyed.

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