"Ulysses" was written under adverse circumstances over seven years, mangled by poor typing, by James Joyce's obsession with massive additions even upon proof sheets, and by the errors inherent in having this English text set by French printers. But the book, like its author, thrived on adversity: It was a long-heralded literary event when the first edition was presented to Joyce in Paris on his 40th birthday, Feb. 2, 1922. A difficult fiction by a difficult author produced under difficult conditions inevitably was crowded with textual irregularities (as everyone acknowledged from the first).
Subsequent editions (a chronology is available in this new version) made piecemeal corrections, but new errors balanced these. Over the last two decades, sophisticated facsimile techniques and publishers' boldness have made public an almost overwhelming amount of manuscript, typescript and other pre-textual Joyce material (one published Joyce "archive" runs to 63 volumes). Still, no one had a sufficient grasp of the whole to estimate the quantity and significance of error in "Ulysses" as we have read it, until Prof. Hans Walter Gabler of Munich University and his computer team labored their own seven years to give us the revised text available in this volume (a reading text based upon a prohibitively expensive and complex three-volume scholarly edition issued in a small printing in 1984).
Nearly 20 years ago, painstaking new bibliographical techniques made it possible for a major commercial publisher to mass-produce a cheap facsimile of an ideal copy of the first folio printing of Shakespeare's plays. Every reader was given the opportunity to own the original format of many of Shakespeare's plays and the best contemporary edition of most, but it was not a publishing event of great moment. Shakespeare garnered no new audience, and members of the old one, by and large stuck to the treasured copies of the "complete works" which they retained from a familial graduation gift or a college classroom, familiar site of a first encounter. This is in sharp contrast with the new edition of Joyce's "Ulysses" which is a publishing event because it should measurably broaden the audience of first-time readers for what is arguably the most authentic masterpiece yet written in the English language.
Undoubtedly the new "Ulysses" will appear in a printing of tens of thousands of copies. As yet unspecified but inevitable book club arrangements will send Joyce into the hands of an adult audience that found "Ulysses" by word of mouth in their youth and were confounded by its seeming difficulty as a layered narrative of internal and external events, reactions, fantasies and repressions on the part of a young man, a middle-age, middle-class couple, and their acquaintances in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Many, unexpectedly revisiting Joyce in this new edition, will discover that their reading in a contemporary fiction largely nurtured by his innovations has rendered accessible and pleasurable a humane comedy once threateningly impenetrable. The wave of popularity will recede, of course, but I suspect that in its wake, it will leave behind a considerable fresh readership.
The irony is that there is very little new about the new "Ulysses." If the scholar-teachers assign this edition to students, they will probably continue on the sly to teach from their well-marked copies of the earlier Random House text, but do so now safe in the knowledge that it was essentially accurate all along. This may seem paradoxical, as the publishers have pointed out that the new version incorporates more than 5,000 revisions. But the fine print confirms that these are almost all punctuation errors, indentation changes for quoted dialogue, and such mechanics. And a check against parallel passages in the older text reveals that their significance is minimal to meaning.
Reviewers have struggled to find a handful of new passages which were omitted in the earlier printings (some perhaps by authorial intention) but have tumbled over one another repetitiously in asserting the alleged importance of this handful. There seems more puffery than persuasiveness in the reactions of the two most eminent Joyceans of our own or any time, Hugh Kenner and Richard Ellmann (the latter supplies a brief introduction to the new edition). The former told The New York Times that for him, this text "amounts to a new book"; Ellmann cites one passage "of such importance that it will have a considerable effect upon the interpretation of the whole book," but other reviewers besides myself find these claims extraordinarily exaggerated.
What this volume offers is a handsomely printed, confidence-inspiring text which makes a perennial classic again a contemporary fiction.