Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

First edition of James Joyce's Ulysses

First edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

As a lesson in persistence and the “you-never-know-what-might-happen,-just-do-it” school of writing, my short story “Ulysses Induced,” is probably hard to beat. I wrote this short story as a chapter to a novel in 1982. The novel was my second effort at a novel, and the truth is that I had no idea when I started the novel what the novel would really be about. Over a period of two or three months I wrote 1,000 words every day on this novel, and at the end of the period, I had my 300 or so pages. But I knew immediately, and practically throughout the writing of the novel that I had no idea what it was. On the other hand, one of the chapters had “magically” come to me in a fit of inspiration, and I said to myself, “Well, this entire 300-page novel may be a piece of crap, but this chapter seems to be a short story.” I almost immediately “removed” the chapter from the novel and proceeded to work on polishing it and preparing it as a short story. I then proceeded to sending it out in submissions to magazines and anthologies. The writing of the 300 pages to get the four (double-spaced) pages of this chapter was worth the persistence. Then followed 17 years of submitting the short story for publication and having it rejected everywhere. Until, suddenly, to my astonishment, it was accepted in 1999 at a small, but eventually slightly influential mystery magazine, called “Murderous Intent,” where I had published my Canadian Crime Writers-award-nominated short story, “Murder in the Abbey” three years earlier. So it was that the persistence of submitting for 17 years also paid off. I had, of course, been encouraged many times on the story over the years, including by one editor at my newspaper who had read it and said with bright eyes: “Oh you will definitely get this one published!!!” I think that was around 12 years before the publication. (I have just realized also the funny fact that, despite its Paris-setting, I was living in Toronto when I wrote this – attending the University of Toronto – and I had never been to Paris, and had no idea at that time that the following year I would move to live in Paris for the rest of my life (well, at least from 1983 to the present).) Anyway, here, for better or for worse, I can now finally put up “Ulysses Induced,” on my blog for eternity (should the internet manage to replicated itself eternally)….

This…this…”
“What this?” says the writer, looking up from his winged chair.
“This, man, this is the first,” says the student, sweat pouring down his face, “the very first printing of the first
edition of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses!”
“Yes,” says the writer calmly.
“This is valuable. I mean, I saw it selling in California for $40,000. But that shouldn’t be news to you.
Where did you get it? What did you pay?”
“I found it.” The writer pauses. “In an old antiquarian bookshop here in Paris, selling for almost nothing.”
“What bookseller wouldn’t know how much this is worth?”
“That’s what I wondered.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well you see,” says the writer, settling back into the cushions of the chair, “I could see that the owner of this
store on the Rue de l’Odéon was dying. He was in his eighties and very arthritic. I noticed the book the first
time I went in. It was sitting on the regular shelves with the cheap novels. I mean, it wasn’t in a glass case or
behind bars. Just sitting on this shelf like it was any other book. I couldn’t believe it. I decided to start a
conversation with the store owner, not mentioning the book, to see what kind of person he was. To see why
this extraordinary edition was sitting on that shelf at such a miserable price. You can imagine my shock when
I learned it was selling for 10 francs.”
“TEN francs? Like, two bucks?”
The writer nods. “I knew its market value. I took it to the man and put it on his desk, with the price facing
up. And you know what he did? Nothing. Just looked at me, waiting for the 10 francs.”
“So you paid and ran –”
“No. I felt guilty. How could I give the man 10 francs for this treasure? A dying old man? The
money he’d earn from the book at auction would pay for his retirement. So I told him I wanted to buy the
book but I didn’t have any money with me, could he put it aside until I came back for it in a couple days? He
agreed.”
“What were you waiting for?”
“That conversation we got into. I discovered the store owner was an expatriate Englishman. We had
switched from French to English. Turned out he was in Paris in the 1920s, struggling as a writer, writing
articles for the small reviews, and finishing his first novel. In the 30s he went off to Spain to fight in the civil
war. In the 40s, he was with British intelligence. It was all so fascinating, but his speech was slipping and he
suffered flaws of memory and when I asked him about more recent things I found he had practically no
recollection.”
“So the book –”
“I noticed that not only was the man’s memory and speech defective, but so were his hearing and
sight. I came to the conclusion that he really didn’t have a clue what books he had in the store or what their
value was.”
“Precarious position for an antiquarian.”
“That’s why I left the book on hold. I expected to come back in a few days and find that the old man, or
someone else, had discovered what the book really was. I expected to return to find the old man saying,
`Terribly sorry, but there’s been a mistake….'”
“But that didn’t happen?”
“No. I began to visit the store regularly to talk with the old man. And I never got up the courage to buy
the book. I was too overcome by guilt to act. Yet all the time I dreamed about the book. I knew it could be in
my hands at any time. It began to possess me.”
“How long did this go on?”
“Weeks. I continued to probe the man about his days in Paris in the 20s. And that’s how I learned that
the book came from James Joyce himself.”
“No!”
“The old man told me that he’d met Joyce many times and that the older writer had encouraged him with
his writing. And he gave me that horrible book of his, he said, You know, that immoral blasphemous
disgusting slime about his wife. I said to him, `I suppose you threw the trash away?’ What? he grunted. No. I
never throw away a gift. I’ve got it boxed away somewhere out of reach.”
“He was gaga.”
“So it seemed. I decided on a strategy. I’d become a good friend. Visit him regularly until he died.”
“Going a bit far, no?”
“The man now looked like he was ready to drop off any day. I didn’t think I had long to wait. When he
died, I’d take the book.”
“What about his family…friends?”
“There were none, really, from what I could tell. In any case, my plan went strange. As I became more
friendly with him, I started regretting the whole thing. I remember thinking, `If I started this only to get my
hands on the book, now I truly like the old man.'”
“And you no longer cared about the book?”
“If only. No. I HAD to have the book. I was stuck. I could no longer tell the man that the book I’d asked him
to hold onto that first day was his Ulysses. That I’d known it all along and was just waiting for him to die so I
could take it. But I couldn’t continue hiding the plan, and thinking about the book, waiting. It became clear
there was only one thing to do.”
The writer slouches deeper into the wings of the chair. “I’ve never admitted this to anyone,” he says.
“And I want you to keep it to yourself.”
The student nods nervously.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you,” says the writer. “I suppose I’ve needed to confess….”
The student nods again.
The writer’s voice hardens: “I decided the only solution was to kill the old man. He was sick anyway,
or so I justified it to myself. By killing him I would not only help myself, but him too. If I did it right, it
would go unquestioned.”
The student’s hands clench tightly the light blue cover of the book.
“I know it sounds crazy,” says the writer. “I know you’re thinking me insane. But you can’t know what
was in me. It stole my humanity.”
“The book?”
“The greed. The spirit of greed in its purest form. The spirit of greed had entered me and taken me
over. Imagine losing all sense of good, of compassion, all love for others. You’re left with nothing but a goal:
to get your hands on an object. That valued object no longer has intrinsic value; only the release it is going to
give you from the pain of want. You will kill to get that release.”
“What happened?”
“Finally, one day when I went there, I brought along poison, to put in his tea. I was in better spirits than I’d
been in a long time. I was soon to be released. But then something I had never imagined happened.”
“The old man died on his own?”
“No. We started talking about Paris in the 20s again. I was an attentive audience, listening to the last
words of the man I was about to kill. Then he began speaking more coherently than ever. Joyce was a
genius, he said. After reading Ulysses I was ready to give up writing. I realized there was one great writer in
our century, and that it wasn’t me. I concluded that this genius had spoken for our time and that there was
nothing I could add. Others might try, but Joyce had said it with Ulysses. So after 20 years wasted — the
years between the wars — I gave up one day in London sitting in front of my typewriter. I had nothing to say.
I took all my manuscripts and burned them.”
“And that was that? The old man was finished?”
“No. The old man said, But I wasn’t happy. I came back to Paris after the war and opened this
bookshop. And I have slowly degenerated since. But I’ve always kept that copy of Ulysses. And it has always
haunted me. That great novel, that great epic, was the bane of my existence. For years I kept it locked away
in a safe, hoping that there it wouldn’t hurt me. But I was always aware of its presence.
“I couldn’t do what I knew I had to do: I couldn’t get rid of it. So I decided to play with it. If I couldn’t
throw it away, perhaps I could sell it. Not by the normal auction house method. That would be succumbing to
the power of the book, to make money out of it. So I put it on my shelves here with the cheap trashy novels, as
though I didn’t know its value. I thought someone might buy it without knowing what it was, and that would
free me. Teach me that the book was a valueless, powerless pile of waste paper.
“Or maybe somebody who knew what the book was would see they’d struck it rich and pay the 10 francs
and take it from this unsuspecting stupid old shopkeeper. It’d serve him right, they’d think, for not paying
attention to his stock. I thought the supposed violence done me would cleanse me…
“But then you came, he said to me, I never imagined anyone would ask me to hold onto the book. Who
cannot afford 10 francs? When you didn’t pay for it the second time you came, I knew something peculiar
was happening. And I decided to play along. I wanted to watch the scene play out. You didn’t know I knew
what that book has been doing to you. Oh, I saw you suffer. Watching you go through Ulysses induced
desolation, Ulysses induced madness the way I’d suffered it for over half a century released me. It was
Aristotelian catharsis — my pleasure at seeing you as tormented as I’d been for so many years because of that
book. You suffered for different reasons, but it was still because of that book. But soon my thrill, my sadistic
thrill was replaced by a simple curiosity to see where the story would lead.
“Then I realized that all this was like writing a book. For the first time since I quit writing, over 60
years before, I began to feel the thrill of creation again. Without words, I was creating the tale. Recently,
though, I began to realize that I was also creating the tale of my own destruction. And at the same time I was
creating a murderer: you.
“I am 95 years old. I have lived for the most part a wretched life. Now I see that I have created that
wretched life myself and need no excuses to justify it. But I have suffered and now I have learned. I can die,
at least, with dignity. I will not create a murderer. The tale must have a happy ending.”
The writer’s pipe appears to have gone out. He says, “The old bookstore owner reached behind his desk
and produced the book. He handed it to me. But I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t move. Go on, he said, Take it.
Do what you want with it. Sell it, keep it, burn it. I don’t care. I’m going to die and it makes no difference to
me what you do with it. It’s just paper and ink. You must take it. And you will always remember the lessons I
have learned from it. So I took the book.”
“You had your release,” says the student.
“No.”
“What?”
“I have been unable to write a word since that day,” says the writer. “But not to worry. Now I am
giving you the book.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “NO!”

Blog at WordPress.com.
%d bloggers like this: