I t is easy to lose yourself in Ulysses. It refuses to lead its reader on a simple narrative path but is contrary, complex, long, and wonderfully strange. What could be better, then, than a key?
Even before the novel was published, Joyce was petitioned by friends and despairing translators to help them to understand his work. In response Joyce produced a schema, dividing the novel into its 18 episodes and revealing key features of each one, such as its correspondence to the Odyssey, its symbol, narrative style, and timeline. He allowed seven copies of his schema to be produced for close confidantes and one of these, typed on a single long oblong sheet, is being offered as lot 175 in our sale. The schema is such a useful key for readers, in fact, that Joyce was very reluctant to share it. He explained to the translator Benoist-Méchin, the original recipient of our copy of the schema, that giving away the key endangered the novel’s particular mystique: “If I give it all up immediately, I’d lose my immortality. I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”. However, the recipients of Joyce’s schema seem to have followed the old rule of a secret being something you tell only one person and by 1930 it has been seen so widely that Joyce allowed its publication.
If by giving away a key too easily Joyce risked his immortality, what of keys in Ulysses itself? Leopold Bloom leaves his latchkey behind in the pocket of yesterday’s trousers when he departs from his home at the beginning of his day’s odyssey. He had reminded himself several times to pick up the key before going out, and his annoyance at his own forgetfulness recurs several times in the novel. Finally, when Bloom staggers home in the early hours of the morning with Stephen Dedalus, he puts his hand in his empty pocket to retrieve his key, so he has to hop the fence and come in by the back door.
Bloom’s missing latchkey has been interpreted in Freudian terms as a symbol of his loss of potency, and in political terms as a synecdoche of Irish dispossession before Independence, but given Joyce’s careful mapping of Dublin in the novel it is also a key to a real front door. Lot 177 in our sale is the real latchkey to Bloom’s fictional home, 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, which was in fact the home of one of Joyce’s friends. It was rescued by a Joyce scholar – just the sort of man who would have enjoyed a surreptitious snoop at Joyce’s schema – when the house was being demolished in the 1960s. The house’s front door was also reclaimed and is now exhibited at Dublin’s James Joyce Centre.
So our sale has two keys to Ulysses. One is a secret that was never kept but has guided generations of students through the novel; the other once unlocked a front door that now opens onto a brick wall. The very fact that these items still attract such interest shows that Joyce’s immortality is safe enough, and one cannot help but think that Joyce himself would have taken great pleasure in the appearance at auction of his fictional hero’s lost key.