Reading 2014

Being a collection of disordered thoughts on new writing from the last year or so.


There were lots of books about books. I enjoyed Rebecca Mead‘s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishing, 2014) and Joanna Rakoff‘s My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), which both fused literary criticism and autobiography into what Joyce Carol Oates called, reviewing Mead, “bibliomemoirs.” “The book was reading me, as I was reading it,” wrote Mead of Middlemarch, locating George Eliot’s greatness in her broad imaginative sympathies. Mead’s is a lovely book, mixing biographical detail about Eliot with an introspective analysis of how her work might be read and re-read on the journey through life (review here). Rakoff’s book, meanwhile, is more straightforwardly autobiographical, recounting the author’s first job in publishing, in which she became a sort of gatekeeper for J.D. Salinger. Until then, she’d not read him (“I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita”); but before long, she’s hooked.

After a century of literary modernism, its central characters continue to haunt the pages of new work. Kevin Jackson‘s Constellation of Genius: 1922 – Modernism Year One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is novelly conceived, taking 1922 day by day, dropping in and out of the lives of Joyce, Proust, Picasso, Stravinsky, and many other towering figures of the age. Worth it for the detail alone, including the rumoured conversation between Proust and Joyce on their only interpersonal encounter (“I have never read your works, Mr Joyce”). Nine more things you might learn from Jackson here. Shortly after came Kevin Birmingham with The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (The Penguin Press, 2014). In this fascinating book, Birmingham makes a highly convincing case for placing Ulysses at the center of the story of the troubled relationship between art and the law. He also tells a cracking story, weaving anarchists, tortured geniuses, and the international vice squad into the tale of one man and his masterpiece.

Feminism seemed to be in the process of reinscription in 2014. In September Emma Watson spoke eloquently at the United Nations about gender equality and the need to reclaim the very word “feminism” from those who associate it with misandry. Laura Bates collected her thoughts and conclusions from two years of the Everyday Sexism Project in a startling first book. Caitlin Moran published How To Build A Girl (Harper, 2014), a sort of fictional companion piece to her earlier How To Be A Woman (Harper Perennial, 2012), and continued to rule the Twittersphere. Beyoncé got in on the action at the VMAs, beaming the word FEMINIST across America in six-foot-tall capitals. Diane Keaton published the second volume of her memoirs, a touching and witty exploration of beauty and motherhood called Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty (Random House, 2014). And I particularly enjoyed Roxane Gay‘s energizing Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014), which made me laugh out loud walking down the street (review).


Suffering from chronic fear-of-missing-out, I finally dived headlong into Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s six-volume My Struggle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Book 1, 2012; Book 2, 2013; Book 3, 2014), which may or may not accurately be called a publishing phenomenon (cf. Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books). People are describing it as Proustian but really I think a whole new adjective is called for. I was reading Book 1 around the time Boyhood came out at the cinema, and started making idle notes in relation to both about “the transcendence of the banal.” Knausgaard in print and Richard Linklater on film have succeeded in transmuting the inconsequential into something meaningful, even profound. The shambling arc of Boyhood was given special resonance by the astounding formal experiment at the film’s heart: its having been filmed with the same cast over the course of twelve years. Linklater’s film also shared with Knausgaard’s writing a piercing clarity on the subject of what used to be called “the crisis of masculinity.” Meanwhile, the confessional Karl Ove (or “Karl Ove”?) is surely set to become one of the great characters in world literature. His musings — petty, grand, philosophical, banal, cruel, loving — are the extraordinary propulsive force in his meandering, almost entirely uneventful epic. Like Zadie Smith, I need the next volume “like crack.”

A solid showing from fiction elsewhere in 2014 too. There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme (Little, Brown, 2014) was funny and fun and wise and postmodern-without-the-agenda and timely and all that jazz. Wallace Webster’s very much a hero for now, an ambitionless retiree watching box sets of Scandinavian crime dramas and casually pursuing romance. In the background are a series of suspicious deaths and weird happenings in the condoparadise of Forgetful Bay, TX, where he lives. Hugely enjoyable. Joshua Ferris‘s third novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (Little, Brown, 2014), which became one of the first American books nominated for the Man Booker Prize, was very entertaining too. A sharp take on the challenges of spirituality in the digital age, it’s also the comic tale of a dentist caught up in a pseudo-religious conspiracy (review). Back in May, the House of SpeakEasy welcomed David Gilbert to the City Winery stage, and his novel & Sons (Random House, 2013), which explores the life and death of a reclusive literary novelist, was also a highlight (review).

It was an excellent year for general nonfiction. In April, our executive director, Amanda Vaill, published Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). A superb, wide-ranging history of the conflict focusing on key figures including the photographer Robert Capa and Ernest Hemingway, it was later listed as one of the New York Times‘ notable books of 2014 (review). The House of SpeakEasy also hosted Simon Winchester, whose rhapsodic The Men Who United the States (Harper, 2013) was hugely pleasurable (review), and Tom Reiss, who won the Pulitzer for his excellent biographical study of Alexandre Dumas’ soldier father and “the real Count of Monte Cristo” in The Black Count (Crown, 2012) (review). Perhaps my favorite book of the year, though, was Philip Hoare‘s follow-up to The Whale, The Sea Inside (Melville House, 2014), a strange and intense work of natural history, philosophy, biography and literary criticism. His style recalls influences as disparate as Iris Murdoch, J.G. Ballard and even Melville himself; his self-effacing romance with the ocean is gripping (review).

As for the award for best nonfiction that wasn’t actually a book? OK, yes, the Serial podcast was pretty great. I’m in the minority that finds Sarah Koenig‘s smart-casual style somewhat affected, a little disingenuous, and at times plain irritating. But advertently or not, Serial has helped to focus any number of questions and issues currently buzzing round the US legal system and the entertainment-industrial complex. What is the nature of reasonable doubt? How do race and the law interact in today’s society? Is it OK to replay personal tragedy as mass entertainment? The podcast has finished but the debate continues, with the recent publication of interviews with Jay Wilds, the key witness for the prosecution of Adnan Syed in the murder of Hae Min Lee, on The Intercept. Roll on, Season 2…

Keep following us on Twitter and Facebook as we inaugurate another Seriously Entertaining year on January 28 at City Winery with our gala show!

Legalize Joyce!


A June day in Dublin would be a fractal of Western civilization.

– Kevin Birmingham

Kevin Birmingham‘s splendid first book is so packed with smut hounds, tortured geniuses, anarchists, and iconoclasts that it’s hard to pinpoint where its greatest pleasures lie. Although ostensibly an account of the publication ordeal and legal furore surrounding one of the twentieth century’s greatest novels, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (The Penguin Press, 2014) casts a much wider net. As in Kevin Jackson’s excellent Constellation of Genius (reviewed here), there’s literary gossip aplenty. We first see one of its main characters, Ezra Pound, teaching W.B. Yeats to fence. Later, Ernest Hemingway teaches Pound to box and meets Joyce. The great Joyce, unable to see an assailant in a barroom quarrel, would instruct his rambunctious young friend, “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”

From a present-day perspective, it’s also a valuable reminder of where we were, culturally, a mere century ago. “All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words,” wrote one of Ulysses‘s earliest reviewers, in London’s Sunday Express. Powerful censorship bodies on both sides of the Atlantic agreed, and between its publication date, on Joyce’s fortieth birthday in 1922, and its widespread legal availability in the US and the UK, fourteen years passed. Ironically, the first legal ruling in its favour — written by the American Judge Woolsey in 1933 — reads more like literary criticism than legal judgment:

Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone some residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.

This, though, is rather apt, for one of the most persuasive aspects of Birmingham’s book is its notion that Ulysses “changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed, but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law.” A new legal definition of obscenity was required for this to happen, and sensitivity to art was essential to that.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Birmingham’s marvellously told story begins with the artist as a young boy. As a child, Joyce lived at eleven addresses in ten years, a nomadic pattern he would continue throughout his life. (This was no doubt how, as Birmingham suggests, he came to know Dublin so well.) At the Royal University, he proved to be a controversial student: an essay he wrote on the Irish Literary Theatre was effectively banned when he was just nineteen. His medical ambitions proved brief; instead, he eloped to the Continent with Nora Barnacle, a scarcely educated woman with whom he fell in love and asked, by way of securing her loyalties, “Is there one who understands me?” And the date of their first meeting? June 16, 1904, perhaps the most significant in twentieth-century literature.

Their life together — in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris — was not an easy one. Joyce was troubled throughout his life by acute iritis, a condition that caused him almost unendurable pain and led to many gruesome ocular surgeries (the squeamish may need to skip page 101). His writing was no bacon-winner either. Despite accruing an incredible list of admirers — Pound, H.G. Wells, H.L. Mencken, and later T.S. Eliot — Joyce was plagued by censorship problems during the publications of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while the serialization of Ulysses in a New York magazine caused all manner of chaos.

Birmingham sustains several parallel narratives throughout The Most Dangerous Book, among them the history of censorship in the US. Vice suppression in America was particularly dogged. “You must hunt these men as you hunt rats,” declared Anthony Comstock, the principal upholder of standards from 1872 until his death in 1915; “without mercy.” Under the Comstock Act of 1873, post offices in the US were empowered to seize, inspect, even burn material they deemed obscene. The delicate sensibilities of the American public were thus sheltered from, by Comstock’s count, almost three million obscene pictures, fifty tons of books, and 318,336 “obscene rubber articles.” His successor, John Sumner, chosen to head up the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1915, was equally dogmatic, and it was during his tenure that Ulysses reared its Cerberean head(s).


Paris, 1920: James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company, and Adrienne Monnier, a French bookseller of great stature and Beach’s lover for many years.

One of the great services Birmingham performs with his book is to bring to the fore the geographically disparate but courageous women who between them midwifed Joyce’s novel. There’s Harriet Weaver, the cotton heiress who printed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in her magazine The Egoist, and whose endowments to Joyce by 1923, which sustained him and his family during the writing of his epic, totalled the equivalent of more than £1 million in today’s money. On the American side, there’s the tenacious duo of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, whose avant-garde periodical The Little Review was ultimately prosecuted for its serialization of Ulysses in the wake of the “Nausicaa” episode. Finally, there’s Sylvia Beach, the founder of legendary Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, who published the first full edition of Ulysses in 1922. By that stage, portions of the manuscript had been burned (by a horrified British diplomat), “Nausicaa” had been convicted of obscenity in New York, and copies of the book, in Birmingham’s potent phrase, “lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar” beneath Beach’s shop.

It’s a virtuosic piece of research. Alongside the principal cast we meet the patient Maurice Darantière, who was set the task of typesetting the ever-changing and scarcely legible manuscript as Joyce’s final edits were telegraphed in. Later we’re introduced to the magnificently named Barnet Braverman, a one-time anarchist ready to “put one over on the Republic and its Methodist smut hounds” by smuggling copies of the book from Canada into the US. Then there’s Samuel Roth, the enthusiastic but amoral publisher whose pirated Ulysses formed the accidental basis for Random House’s first official US edition. Finally, we meet Morris Ernst, the civil liberties lawyer whose arguments in favour of Joyce’s epic as a “modern classic” not only secured its legalization but brought literature under the purview of First Amendment cases.

Birmingham’s eye for the telling detail and brilliant quote; his ability to sustain complex narratives across continents and disciplines; his perspicuous observations on everything from “dirty words” to Joyce’s feelings of guilt over his syphilitic blindness, not to mention the literary merits of his astonishing work — all add up to a quite marvellous account. It ranks alongside Constellation of Genius as one of the best books in recent years about the ruptures and inspirations of modernism during its troubled birth.

When Ulysses was finally published in the US by Random House, Joyce appeared on the cover of the January 29, 1934, edition of Time magazine, and it’s with their words I close:

Watchers of the U.S. skies last week reported no comet or other celestial portent. In Manhattan no showers of ticker-tape blossomed from Broadway office windows, no welcoming committee packed the steps of City Hall…. Yet many a wide-awake modern-minded citizen knew he had seen literary history pass another milestone. For last week a much-enduring traveler, world-famed but long an outcast, landed safe and sound on U.S. shores. His name was Ulysses.

You can buy The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle Over James Joyce’s Ulysses at McNally Jackson here.