An Unexpected Encounter: On the Illustrated ‘Ulysses’

January 6, 2022 | 4 min read

When Spanish painter Eduardo Arroyo set out to illustrate James Joyce’s Ulysses in the late 1980s, he did so with the hope that the final product could commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joyce’s death, in 1991. But resistance from Joyce’s estate prevented the project from ever coming to fruition. Forever after, Arroyo dreamed of one day seeing Joyce’s original text and his own illustrations side by side in a single volume. When, in 2011, Ulysses entered the public domain, that dream became possible.

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To commemorate the centennial of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Other Press will publish Arroyo’s dream—a fully illustrated volume of the novel, featuring over 300 color and black-and-white illustrations by Arroyo—in collaboration with Spanish publisher Galaxia Gutenburg. Judith Gurewich, publisher of the Other Press, took on the project just before Arroyo’s death in 2018; although he won’t himself see the edition’s publication on January 25, 2022, Gurewich takes pride in knowing that she helped bring his decade-long dream to life.

The Millions spoke with Judith Gurewich about Arroyo’s legacy, the challenges of reading Joyce, and her international collaboration with Galaxia Gutenburg.

The Millions: This book was a collaboration between you and Galaxia Gutenberg publisher Joan Tarrida, the seeds for which were planted during a visit to Tarrida’s Barcelona’s publishing house apartment. Can you talk a bit about the nature of your collaboration with Tarrida?

Judith Gurewich: I came across Eduardo Arroyo’s artwork even before I met Joan Tarrida. Arroyo’s watercolors were spread on the chairs, tables, and windowsills of the elegant living room at Galaxia Gutenberg, and I was simply blown away. When Joan came in to meet me, I asked right off the bat who this artist was and what his drawings and watercolors were for. This is how this wild collaborative project started. Then Joan took me to a more formal conference room where we talked about literature and about books we could buy from or sell to each other. We made many, many deals after that meeting. It was truly an unexpected encounter. We have very similar tastes and visions of the world.

TM: In 1935, Matisse was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Ulysses, of which just 1,000 copies were made, though many speculate that the artist never in fact read the book himself. Why do you think Arroyo is the right artist to illustrate this new edition of Ulysses, and what about his style do you think complements the novel?

JG: Arroyo has an interesting artistic perspective. For him, the contemporary movements of abstract expressionism and even surrealism weren’t political enough, so he opted instead for a form of radical figurative art more in line with George Grosz or Roberto Matta. Eduardo was thrown out of Spain for resisting the Franco regime, and he remained exiled in France for more than 15 years. By the time he decided to illustrate Ulysses, he was back home and democracy had returned. But his satirical acumen had found a perfect target.

When it came to Ulysses, I think Arroyo felt free to accompany the passages he picked with whatever came to his mind. I don’t think he was under any injunction to make sense of the book. This is an impossible task anyway. As Joyce himself said, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” I also think that Arroyo’s interventions serve as a form of punctuation, or as a breather. Joyce’s genius and/or madness allowed him to see all aspects of life on the same plane. No high or low, no distinction between what is allowed or forbidden. Arroyo reveals that Joyce’s work isn’t about interpretation. It is a straightforward process.

TM: Obviously the timing of this project is tied to Ulysses entering the public domain, but why else do you think now is the right time to reintroduce Ulysses to U.S. readers? Because it is such a famously challenging and, for many, prohibitively inaccessible novel, do you think this new edition might help readers rediscover it—that is, engage with it differently or more deeply—or introduce it to new readers who were previously too daunted to dive in?

JG: I think Joyce is a puzzle and will remain a puzzle. But what is interesting is that what was provocative and eventually censored is today also part of the public domain: pornography, insulting the church, speaking the unspeakable. Joyce was a prophet in a way, and one day we may finally be able to fully grasp what he has to say. But for now we have Arroyo to hold our hand as we peruse our illustrated version of this impossible masterpiece.

Honestly, nothing will make Joyce easier. Arroyo’s works are merely an homage to the incomprehensible, interrupted at times by scenes that are easier to understand. Joyce is a mad artist who wants to mess with his reader, and Arroyo is a serious artist who insists on making art accessible. Turning the pages of the book, looking forward to the next drawing may also encourage some of us to read a few sentences. This is good enough, no?

Classics are a necessity in our lives because they say different things at different times. But I wouldn’t call Ulysses a classic that you are delighted to “rediscover.” It isn’t so much a classic to reread but a classic that maybe hasn’t been fully read yet.

TM: At 720 pages, 1.25 lbs., and 8.82″ by 12.28″ in its hardcover binding, this edition looks more like a coffee table book than a novel—and to capture the grandeur of Arroyo’s illustrations, it surely needed to be. How do you feel about this book as an art object?

JG: I think this is an art object more than a book. Anybody will tremendously enjoy turning the pages—the drawings are at once complex, satirical, and super easy to grasp. No art history course required!

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is an editor and writer from Los Angeles. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets at @smswrites.

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