With near universal acclaim as the greatest work of Modernist literature, and possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Ulysses, by James Joyce, deserves one other award…that being perhaps the least understood and most complicated novel ever written. Tough to read is an understatement. The extensive vocabulary used (over 30,000 distinct words in a novel of 265,000 words), the seemingly countless number of allusions and the often confusing stream-of-consciousness writing style results in a work that is an enigma, even to those who study it.
Joyce (1882-1941) took pride in the chaos and seeming lack of structure in this work, stating his pleasure at how this work would keep professors busy “for centuries” trying to figure out what he meant. I hate to be simplistic, but I do not have centuries to digest any one work, there is simply to much out there that is intellectually stimulating without being maddeningly near impossible to grok. One can surmise that the great modernist artist Henri Matisse also quickly appreciated the daunting and gargantuan task understanding this book entails, when one looks at the illustrations he provided to the Limited Editions Club (LEC) for their edition of Ulysses. As Thomas Craven, in the Quarto-Millenary says, “Matisse delivered to Mr. Macy a bundle of studio sweepings having no discoverable connection with anything in Homer or Joyce.”
George Macy writes in the Quarto-Millenary that:
I have never been more greatly impressed with the mental facility of an artist than I was when I suggested to Matisse that he should illustrate Ulysses. He said, over the telephone, that he had never read it. I got Stuart Gilbert to send him a copy of Mr. Gilbert’s translation into French. The very next morning, M. Matisse reported that he had read the book, that he understood its eighteen episodes to be parodies of similar episodes in The Odyssey, that he would like to give point to this fact by making his illustration actually illustrations of the original episodes in Homer! I may have been taken in, of course. If I was not, it can surely be said that Henri Matisse grasped this book quicker than any other man ever did.
Of course Macy understood Matisse provided him with illustrations completely unrelated to the novel. Yet, Macy developed an approach for integrating the illustrations in a manner that actually does make ethereal sense, using the abstraction of both James and Matisse as the unifying theme. James Laver, also in Quarto-Millenary, points this out:
The etchings arrived…and proved to be a degree of abstraction which, however familiar it might be to students of Matisse’s draftsmanship, might well have proved a stumbling block to George Macy’s subscribers. Fortunately, Matisse has included in his parcel some twenty drawings made in preparation for the etchings and, as is usual in Matisse’s work, these begin almost naturalistically and progress towards abstraction. Whereupon Mr. Macy had one of his strokes of genius. He saw in a flash that the drawings themselves were the best possible preparation for, and explanation of, the etchings; and he decided to reproduce the lot. The result is an exciting flash of insight into the mind of a master, and this flash of light illuminates Joyce also, for the problem of Ulysses itself is precisely a problem of the degrees of abstraction. The result was a book not only beautiful in itself but of the highest educational and cultural value.
I enjoy the drawings more than the finished etchings, though all are nicely done taken in isolation as groups of drawings. However, the confusion of the etchings and their relationship to the text, seems to carry over to the entire edition. The binding, the paper, the type…sometimes I think it wonderfully apropos while other days it borders on being a obfuscated mess. Perhaps Macy, in his genius, got it just right?
Of the 1,500 copies of this edition, about 250 are signed by both Joyce and Matisse. The remaining 1,250 are signed by Matisse alone. Thanks to Books and Vines reader Menno, we get some context as to why only 250 were signed by Joyce.
Joyce was initially pleased that an artist of Matisse’s stature was to illustrate Ulysses. But after some consideration, Joyce was worried that the Frenchman might not be familiar enough with the Irish terrain to do the job. He attempted to have a friend in Ireland send the artist an illustrated weekly from Dublin around 1904. When he discovered that Matisse had not even read the book, but instead depicted six episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce flew into a rage and refused to sign any more copies.
Tracking down a fine condition edition signed by both Matisse and Joyce can be done, but will cost you (typically) at least $25,000, making it by far the most expensive LEC to try to add to your collection. A fine condition edition signed by only Matisse looks like a relative bargain next to this, usually costing around $6,000 or so.
As an aside, for any who are thinking on embarking on Ulysses, supplementary explanatory material is a must. A couple Books and Vines readers have suggested The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires, published by Routledge, 3rd edition (1996) as an excellent resource used by Joycian scholars, as well as Stewart Gilbert’s ‘James Joyce’s Ulysses‘. A couple other readers have suggested ‘Ulysses Annotated‘ by Don Gifford with Robert Seidman.
About the Edition
- Designed by George Macy
- Illustrative etchings and drawings by Henri Matisse
- Etchings pulled by Photogravure & Color Company, and lithographic drawings pulled by Duenewald Printing Corporation
- Set in linotype Scotch Roman
- Printed at The Printing-Office of The Limited Editions Club
- Worthy special paper
- Bound by George McKibbin & Son in full brown buckram, embossed in gold on spine and front cover from design by LeRoy H. Appleton
- Introduction by Stuart Gilbert
- 382 pages plus 26 illustration leaves, tipped in
- 9″ x 11 3/4″
- Limited to 1500 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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