Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Eve Arnold's 1955 photo of Marilyn reading Ulysses


I came across this image of a famous reader during my Bloomsday reading yesterday about James Joyce and his novel, Ulysses, which follows the odyssey of Leopold Bloom through the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. The photo was on the cover of Poets & Writers last summer and taken by Eve Arnold in 1955. Arnold, now in her nineties, was the first woman to join Magnum when she became a member of the renowned photo agency in 1961.

Marilyn Monroe was pictured by many famous photographers, but the only woman who regularly photographed her was Eve Arnold. Her images are especially tender and sensitive, capturing Marilyn in some of her most unguarded moments, and the two women became friends. A comment on a post in the film blog Gone Elsewhere quotes Poets & Writers editor Mary Gannon about the image and how it came about.
The photograph was taken in 1955 by Eve Arnold. In Joyce and Popular Culture, R.B. Kershner quotes a letter from Arnold about the day she took the shot:
We worked on a beach on Long Island…I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it–but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her.
Along with a certain irony (blonde bombshell tackles her century’s most baffling book), the photo–everything about it–has a nostalgic appeal. For those, like me, with a fetishistic attachment to books, there’s the well-worn hardback, the title and author’s name rendered elegantly on its cover. The merry-go-round Monroe sits on elicits memories of days filled with unstructured play. And behind her, the grassy clearing under the shade of the trees offers just the right place to get lost in a book.
Author Declan Kiberd feels more of us should get lost in the pages of Ulysses. In his new book, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, Kiberd argues that the novel is far more accessible than it's usually made out to be. Sam Leith writes in the Daily Mail that Kiberd, a Dublin English professor himself, is trying to rescue the book from generations of academics.
The whole point of the book, Kiberd argues, is to be useful. In the fruitful collision of Stephen Dedalus, avatar for Joyce's self-consciously bohemian younger self, and Leopold Bloom - adman, cuckold, kindly and feminine repository of practical wisdom - Joyce shows a path to maturity. 'Bloom can seem like an eccentric,' says Kiberd. 'But only because he has a deeper than average understanding of reality.'

As Kiberd persuasively argues, Joyce had no time for bohemia's scornful attitude to the bourgeoisie. He himself was a sometime entrepreneur - he opened the first cinema in Dublin, attempted to get a newspaper called The Goblin going and tried to flog Irish tweed in Trieste.

Ulysses was an attempt to marry bohemia with bourgeois life - to find spiritual nourishment in the public spaces of the city and the banality of the daily round. Where Yeats and his mob sought heroes in an idealised past, Joyce found them in the present; where Homer 'set out to heroicise the domestic ... Joyce wishes to domesticate the heroic'.
The publisher of Ulysses & Us doesn't seem confident that words alone will sell the message of a user-friendly Ulysses. That seems to be why Arnold's photo of Marilyn reading the book is used as the cover illustration.

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