State Library of Victoria owns one of the rare signed copies of Ulysses

There is a notorious book in Victoria’s State Library that is so rare it is worth more than a house.

The modernist novel Ulysses was penned by Irish writer James Joyce in the early 20th century and was so controversial at the time, it was banned in some countries.

State Library Victoria has one of the most sought-after signed first edition copies of the book, which was published in Paris and is just one of 100 copies printed on Dutch handmade paper.

A stone tablet with carvings on it.
The library has a cuneiform tablet created in Southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), circa 2050BC.

“The value of this would buy several houses,” said the library’s manager of History of the Book and Arts Des Cowley.

“This is the rarest possible edition you can have of the first edition of Joyce’s great novel, 100 years old, literally today.”

Toorak man Fred J Brient purchased the book for 10 pounds and 10 shillings in 1922, the year it was published in its entirety, and donated it to the library.

At the time, the novel was considered controversial due to what was described as obscene content, which resulted in it being banned in countries including the United States, where it ended up in court.

This led to pirated editions being published, of which State Library Victoria has obtained copies to put on display as part of its latest exhibition: World of the book: 2022: The Rare, The Sacred and the Iconic.

Rare books on display at State Library

There are several hundred rare and sacred items in the exhibition, the oldest being a cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia which is 4,000 years old.

“It’s an example of one of the world’s first forms for writing pre-cuneiform script,” exhibition co-curator Dr Anna Welch said.

“We might hope that it has some sort of beautiful poetic text inscribed on it but it’s actually far more prosaic — it’s a tax receipt for taxes paid in sheep and goats.”

An old black and white illustration of humans and monsters.
William Blake’s illustration of Dante’s divine comedy.(Supplied: State Libary Victoria)

Italian poet Dante is also being showcased, more than 700 years after he sparked an inferno with his The Divine Comedy.

The Dante collection ranges from a rare early edition of his famous three-part poem to recent inspired works produced by Australian artists.

“This edition of Dante’s poem was published in Florence in 1506 and it’s the oldest copy of Dante’s poem in our collection,” Dr Welch said.

“Florence was the place where Dante was born and it was also the city from which he was exiled and it was that great crisis in his life that led him to begin writing this poem, the Comedy.

“For lots of people, Dante is a real touchstone of literature, whether they are Italian heritage or not, and so being able to share these beautiful editions of wonderful artists that have been inspired by Dante is a really wonderful thing for us here at the library.”

A book sits open. Inside is a colourful picture of Emma on a horse and the title page.
Volume two of Jane Austen’s Emma from The Novels of Jane Austen, with coloured illustrations by CE and HM Brock, London, JM Dent, 1897.

A nineteenth-century boxed set of Jane Austen novels, medieval manuscripts and works donated by Melbourne writer, artist and Oscar winner Shaun Tan are also among the treasured items on display.

“It features over 300 works from the rare books collections, most of which have never been exhibited before, so it’s a wonderful chance for people to come and see Victoria’s great collection,” Dr Welch said.

The exhibition is on until early next year and is expected to attract around half a million visitors.






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