His longest relationship has not been with his wife. Or a friend. Or even a cat.
It has been with a single book.
For most of us, James Joyce’s Ulysses is a daunting 600-page modernist novel that meanderingly chronicles the adventures of Leopold Bloom over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland.
But for Michael Groden, Ulysses has been his life.
For more than four decades, the Distinguished University Professor has taught the work to Western undergraduates, graduate students and adults outside of university. He is the author of two often-cited scholarly books on Joyce’s novel, which was published 98 years ago this month, and he has overseen the 63-volume facsimile reproduction of Joyce’s manuscripts.
The Necessary Fiction: Life with James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, however, is a departure for the famed Joyce scholar. In fact, the recently released book is a creation that’s difficult to define. Critics have branded it everything from personal criticism, to a biblio-memoir to (and this last is Groden’s favourite wordplay description) an ‘autobloomography’.
No matter the name, all agree The Necessary Fiction is a blended tome – part exploration of Joyce’s classic work and part personal reflection of Groden’s journey to a lifelong relationship with this single book.
It is, by far, Groden’s most personal work.
“There are people who have written criticism and studies of literature who talk very personally. But I really wanted this to be a memoir focused on this book,” he explained. “There are similar books – ones about life with either an author or book. There is one about Middlemarch. There is one about Proust. But I found they had that kind of restraint that academic books always have. I didn’t want to do that.
“Thinking back about what it was that made me so attracted to Ulysses, why it hit me so strongly, I just couldn’t get away from the sense that it was intimately connected with my parents, my sense of my family. So I had to do that, talk about that – and that meant a sort of self-exposure which I hope will come across.”
The book was nearly 16 years in the making, mainly because he struggled with how best to tell his story. Opening up in a memoir was not in his professional nature.
Trained by dissertation director who was “an absolute master,” Groden marveled at his mentor’s ability to write “quite beautiful, clear prose without giving a single shred of himself away.”
“That was always the model – you’re writing about a subject, not writing about yourself,” he said. “Success was based on the quality of the analysis, the convincing-ness of the argument. It was not about your personal investment and connection. That was the goal I grew up with.
“It was those kinds of things that I pulled tried to pull away from in this book and go in the opposite direction. Never be neutral.”
He continued, “I didn’t want to fall into a trap that I had to do it a certain kind of way. So it took me a long time to learn how to do it. I wrote a lot of boring chapters that I cut out. Redo and redo and redo. I kept hitting a wall I couldn’t get beyond.”
When frustration set in, Groden started numbering his drafts – starting a new number every time he went back to the beginning and started over again. For the first five or six drafts, he never got beyond page 50. On the eighth or ninth draft, he powered through to the end for the first time.
Even when finished, it was still too long. But he could see a structure. After a “painful month and a half” of edits, 100 pages were cut and the final book took shape. (“I still have a full file of outtakes which is longer than the book,” he laughed.)
At times, The Necessary Fiction is deeply personal. Readers get a wonderful resonance of the author’s life and almost forget this is a book about a book. But then just as that happens, the stories dovetail together again.
“My life had things in it that I can write about, but it’s not a life that is reason for writing a memoir,” he laughed. “The justification had to be about why a book appealed to me. That is why I tried to weave the book in and out of the story. When it felt like I was pulling too much into my own life, I tried to bring it back to Ulysses. It was always important to connect the book either directly or tangentially to what I was talking about in my life.”
Toward the end of the book, Groden dedicates an entire chapter to his interactions with Stephen Joyce, who died in January after a lifetime spent as gatekeeper of his grandfather’s estate.
Obituaries called Stephen Joyce a “doughty defender of his grandfather’s legacy,” a man known for his prickly and punishing engagements with academics, publishers, artists and institutions worldwide. Ask anyone who dealt directly with the grandson, and you soon see how those comments are the watered-down kind reserved for the recently deceased.
In reality, Stephen Joyce was a foul man, a man who publicly likened academics to “rats and lice” and said, in a 2006 New Yorker profile, “they should be exterminated.” He was even worse in private and his letters to scholars – including to Groden – are filled with unrestrained and obscene attacks.
“There are other difficult estates,” Groden said, “but they don’t also include the kind of hatred or vitriol.”
Within The Necessary Fiction, Groden has become the first scholar to openly document these interactions. He quotes letters sent to him by Stephen Joyce – every foul word.
The chapter wasn’t easy for Groden to write. In fact, it filled him with anxiety every time he approached it. But he thought it important to record as part of the journey.
“I had a certain regret when I heard that he died – a regret that I don’t think he saw the chapter before he died. I wanted him to. I had a 10-year exchange of listening to insults from him while I was trying to get permission to do something. I wanted him to see what I said.”