Today in history... James Joyce is born, and Ulysses is published

Ulysses, the Dublin-born writer James Joyce's masterwork, is today regarded as one of the most important and definitive examples of Modernist Literature ever written.

In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses first on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Today, its reputation as a pre-eminent and "difficult" work endures.

Famous for its unwieldiness as much as its influence, Ulysses - whose title and themes allude to Homer's Odyssey - totals 265,000 words in 18 abstract "episodes" containing a vast, 30,030-strong vocabulary within experimental prose.

The book was first published in Paris on February 2, 1922, on the author's 40th birthday - his own self-imposed deadline. Only 1,000 copies were initially printed.


The 1922 first edition of Ulysses

This edition was said to contain over 2,000 errors and preceded a publication history that is both obscure and disputed. Eighteen differing versions of the book are thought to have been published, to-date.

However these further complications would have perhaps pleased Joyce. He once claimed to have included "so many enigmas and puzzles" in the work, "it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what it meant."

Joyce also wished for his work to achieve "immortality". Which leaves the question: how much does a work of Ulysses' immortality and stature bring at auction?

In 2006, a Paris first edition of Joyce's masterpiece fell below expectations, bringing a disappointing £30,000 under an estimate of £36,000-£50,000 at Sotheby's.

Nevertheless, despite their rarity, Ulysses first editions have appeared fairly frequently at auction over the years.

Another sold the previous December, also at Sotheby's, for £95,000.

It wasn't until 2009, though, that a Ulysses first edition price tag lived-up to Joyce's ambitions of immortality. That year, a copy sold for £275,000: then the highest sale price recorded for a 20th century first edition.

Yet even this was paltry compared to a signed version of the book, auctioned four years previously to the Sotheby's £30,000 edition.

Never underestimate the power of an author's signature: a Ulysses first edition signed by Joyce set a World Record when it sold for £460,000 at Christie's New York, in 2002.

 

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