Some degree of conceit is essential to any artistic creation. Whoever creates needs to believe in the importance of what he has to say, and in his ability to say it in a unique, singular, unrepeatable way. Whoever creates must also believe that someone will be there to listen. James Joyce, having written the enormity of his books, believed that he would have given readers and critics enough work for the next three hundred years. It was one of the most presumptuous comments in the history of literature, yes, but perhaps also one of the most farsighted. One hundred years have passed since the publication of “Ulysses”, and efforts continue to be intense to understand its dimension, to unravel his work sewn in infinite filigrees.
Celebrating James Joyce was once an act of revenge. Throughout his tumultuous career, the great Irish author faced the hardships common to most writers: disinterest, contempt from others, personal dismay. And he also faced some of his own hardships: self-exile, censorship, the constant accusation of immorality, the progressive rejection even of those who once admired him. Celebrating Joyce became, then, to contradict a narrow and retrograde vision of art, to mark a position for a creative and moral openness. It became, above all, the defense of a supreme freedom: of the right that literature has to be low, eschatological, popular, and at the same time, almost paradoxically, of its right to hermeticism and complexity, its right to failure, to inefficiency, to the shipwreck of meaning.
There are still two hundred years of reading and deciphering to go, but it is already possible to say that in the first centenary we understand its novelty and its radicalism. The work is infinite, but in this single and sinuous sentence perhaps fit his two greatest literary contributions: the systematic use of interior monologue, in an exploration never seen before of the intricacies of human consciousness; and the total instability of his style, in a constant wandering between the possible ways of writing the world. But saying something like that is not at all exhausting, and in order to celebrate Joyce it is convenient to start celebrating something more unnoticed: the greatness of the attention to his figure, the extraordinary community that has made Joyce a pretext for exploring the limits of literature. Celebrating in this way is no longer revenge or excessive worship, but a simple act of common dedication to artistic power.
Rarely is one as well accompanied as in reading a page of “Ulysses”. It is with roughness that the author leads us through the dark streets of Dublin and the dark minds of a few Dubliners, and the prevailing feeling can be that of being lost, vulnerable to the chaos of thoughts, fragile before the dismantling of reason and language. Surrendering to this hostile universe in solitude can be a frightening and unsettling experience, doomed to giving up early. But there are plenty of possible companies on this journey through its almost a thousand pages, as there are many more thousands of pages of guides, notes, summaries, criticisms, dispensable or essential revelations. To Joyce’s voice are added these hundreds of others, and in a short time we are not so lost, or at least not so alone.
For me, this impression has never been more vivid than now that I have embarked on an unusual project: a new translation of “Ulysses” made in eighteen voices, a different translator for each of its chapters. Slowly, “a minimum space of time for minimum times of space”, I advanced along the stony lines of this narrative, fighting new curves for impossible conversions, creating a path inevitably mine that, in an unlikely coincidence, should coincide as closely as possible with the one taken by Joyce . But not for a moment did I walk alone, and this is important: the entire time I was accompanied by other readers, other critics, other translators, by endless deciphers of this open and collective work.
Being part of a team of translators made the literary exercise much more communal, it opened up a ruckus in the silence of my office. And the experience was all the more remarkable because I found myself in league not only with my companions in this new edition, led by Henrique Xavier, but also with the translators of past editions, such as Antônio Houaiss, Bernardina da Silveira Pinheiro, Caetano W. Galindo. Joyce is a formidable author, yes, but what an exquisite job his translators have done, with their ability to achieve, each of them, a unique, singular and unrepeatable expression of the primitive work. Each one, in his own way, brings, at the same time, his own interpretation of each phrase and a faithful assimilation of its intention and meaning. It will be a source of great pride if the new edition also fulfills this fate.
I wish all literature could count on such a commitment, on this gregarious and festive impetus. We would have a much livelier, happier, more complex, freer literature if writers were not so afraid of incomprehension, indifference, and fatal disinterest. This fearlessness is not the exclusive mission of those who write today: it is also the mission of those who read, of those who decide whether or not to accept the books that reach their hands, whether or not to surrender to the inevitable vulnerability of reading. All literature, perhaps all art, depends on this dedication: on this act of trust in the depth of experience, and in the human capacity to transform it into words.