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James Joyce Insisted That Cover of “Ulysses” Be the Blue of Greek Flag

Ulysses james joyce
Ulysses, the great epic novel by the brilliant Irish writer James Joyce, was published about a hundred years ago. Joyce, a noted Philhellene, insisted that the blue of the book’s cover match the blue of the Greek flag, which hung in his Paris apartment. Credit: Geoffrey Baker/CC BY-SA 4.0

Ulysses, the great modernist novel by the brilliant Irish writer James Joyce, was published about a hundred years ago. Joyce, who was a noted philhellene, insisted that the cover of his tome match the blue of the Greek flag, one of which he had hanging in his apartment in Paris.

As noted by the embassy of Ireland in Athens today, because the printer found it almost impossible to locate the exact shade of blue needed, only two copies of Joyce’s seminal work Ulysses were ready by the publication date, February 2, 1922, which was Joyce’s fortieth birthday.

The Irish writer, known for his stream of consciousness writing style and his dense prose, was a great admirer of all things Greek to the point that he learned how to speak Modern Greek while he was writing Ulysses. He was even known to cap off all his birthday celebrations with a rousing rendition of the Greek national anthem, the “Hymn to Liberty.”

“I spoke…modern Greek not too badly and have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onion sellers, chiefly the latter,” Joyce once said. “I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

On February 2, 1922, the writer opened a package from his publisher and finally was able to see his 933-page Ulysses with its cover in the blue of the Greek flag with white lettering.

The embassy of Ireland stated in a Tweet celebrating the centenary of the publication of Ulysses that Joyce was interested in Greek affairs until the very end of his life.

Ulysses, the Roman version of the Greek name Odysseus, is considered one of the most important works of modernist literature and has been called “a demonstration and summation of the entire movement.” According to Declan Kiberd, “Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking.”

Joyce employs a stream of consciousness style of writing that takes readers on a nearly-endless tour of the Dublin of his times, chronicling the life of Leopold Bloom in the course of an ordinary day, June 16, 1904. The work was intended at the outset to be an epic work reflecting the very composition of  Homer’s Odyssey.

Ulysses establishes a series of parallels between the poem and the novel, with structural correspondences between the characters and experiences of Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus, including events and themes pertaining to Ireland’s relationship to Britain at that time.

The novel is highly allusive, imitating the styles of different periods of English literature. Since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from an obscenity trial in the United States in 1921 to protracted textual “Joyce Wars.”

The novel’s unique stream of consciousness technique and experimental prose—replete with puns, parodies, and allusions—as well as its unforgettable characterization and earthy humor have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history; Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate June 16th as “Bloomsday.”

Ulysses outline
The outline for “Ulysses,” as written out by author James Joyce. His seminal work had much of the structure of Homer’s Odyssey and was a modern riff on characters from that greatest work of Greek literature. Credit: Twitter/Embassy of Ireland in Greece

Ulysses by James Joyce divided into three books

Ulysses is divided into the three books (marked I, II, and III) with eighteen episodes. The episodes do not have chapter headings or titles.

At first glance, much of the book may appear unstructured, chaotic and difficult to get through. Joyce once said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” which earned his novel immortality, just as he had intended.

The schemata Stuart Gilbert and Herbert Gorman released after publication to help defend Joyce from obscenity accusations made the links to The Odyssey clearer, and also helped explain the work’s structure.

Ulysses is divided into eighteen episodes that roughly correspond to the episodes in Homer’s Odyssey although the Odyssey is divided into twenty-four books or sections.

Some scholars believe that every episode of Ulysses has a theme, technique, and correspondence between its characters and those of the Odyssey. Joyce referred to the episodes by their Homeric titles in his letters. He took the idiosyncratic rendering of some of the titles (e.g., “Nausikaa” and the “Telemachiad”) from Victor Bérard’s two-volume Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée, which he consulted in 1918 in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

While Joyce’s novel takes place during one ordinary day in early 20th-century Dublin, in Homer’s epic, Odysseus, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, took ten years to find his way from Troy to his home on the island of Ithaca.”

Also, in contrast to Homer’s poem, which includes violent storms and a shipwreck, giants and monsters, as well as gods and goddesses, Joyce puts his “hero” in our decidedly more prosaic time, with Leopold Bloom, “a Jewish advertisement canvasser,” corresponding to Odysseus.

Stephen Dedalus, the hero also of Joyce’s earlier, largely autobiographical work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, corresponds to Odysseus’s son Telemachus, and Bloom’s wife Molly corresponds to Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who waited twenty years for him to return from the Trojan War.

Joyce studied Greek from Paulos Fokas, as seen in his Zurich notebooks between 1915 and 1918. Stephen Dedalus is also portrayed as teaching a history class on the victories of Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Events in 2022 that honored James Joyce’s work

The entire year of 2022 was a celebration of all things Ulysses and James Joyce. Known as Ulysses100, the commemoration included online presentations, such as Strolling Through Ulysses, a two-part radio drama written and narrated by Robert Gogan which guided listeners through the bizarre events and quirky characters that populate Ulysses.

Another event was sponsored by the Friends of Shakespeare and Company, who read Ulysses. Teaming up with Penguin Classics and Hay Festival, the group produced an ensemble recording of the complete text that was released as a free podcast last year after the one hundredth anniversary of the publication.

The project included over one hundred writers, artists, comedians, and musicians from all over the world, with readers such as Will Self, Jeanette Winterson, Olivia Laing, Ben Okri, Ishion Hutchinson, Paul Murray, Deborah Levy, Caoilinn Hughes, Eddie Izzard, Margaret Atwood, Meena Kandasamy, and the bookshop’s owner Sylvia Whitman along with many other exciting names.

You may listen to the reading of Ulysses on Apple Podcasts, here, or on Spotify, here.
The recording is also available on Patreon at this link.

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