James Joyce Reads From Ulysses and Finnegans Wake In His Only Two Recordings (1924/1929)

As much as it is about every part of Dublin that ever passed by James Joyce’s once-young eyes, Ulysses is also a book about books, and about writ­ing and speech—as myth­ic invo­ca­tion, as seduc­tion, chat­ter, and rhetoric, ful­some and emp­ty. Words—two-faced, like open books—carry with them at least two sens­es, the mean­ing of their present utter­ance, and the ver­so shades of his­to­ry. This is at least part­ly the import of Joyce’s myth­i­cal method, as it is that of all expos­i­tors of ancient texts, from preach­ers and the­olo­gians to lit­er­ary crit­ics. It seems par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant, then, that the pas­sage Joyce chose for the one and only record­ing of a read­ing from Ulysses comes from the “Aoelus” episode, which par­o­dies Odysseus and his com­pan­ions’ encounter with the god of wind.

Joyce sets the scene in the news­pa­per offices of the Freeman’s Jour­nal, epit­o­me of writ­ing in the present tense, where reporters and edi­tors give puffed-up speech­es punc­tu­at­ed by reduc­tive, pithy head­lines. Amidst this busi­ness, eru­dite pro­fes­sor MacHugh and Stephen Dedalus wax lit­er­ary and his­tor­i­cal, mak­ing con­nec­tions. MacHugh recites “the finest dis­play of ora­to­ry” he ever heard—a defense of the revival of the Irish lan­guage that com­pares the Irish peo­ple to Moses and the ancient Hebrews spurn­ing the seduc­tions of an oppres­sive empire in the per­son of an Egypt­ian high­priest: Vagrants and day­labour­ers are you called: the world trem­bles at our name.

Joyce record­ed the pas­sage in 1924 at the urg­ing of Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny founder Sylvia Beach, who per­suad­ed the HMV gramo­phone stu­dio in Paris to make the record, under the pro­vi­sion that she would finance it and that the studio’s name would appear nowhere on the prod­uct. Ulysses, recall, was in many places under a ban for obscen­i­ty (not lift­ed in the U.S. until 1933 by Judge John Woolsey). The record­ing ses­sion was painful for Joyce, who need­ed two attempts on two sep­a­rate days to com­plete it, plagued as he was by his fail­ing eyes. And yet Joyce, Beach wrote in her notes, “was anx­ious to have the record­ing made… He had made up his mind, he told me, that this would be his only read­ing from Ulysses… it is more, one feels, than mere ora­to­ry.” You can read the speech here while lis­ten­ing to Joyce read above. Beach called Joyce’s read­ing a “won­der­ful per­for­mance.” “I nev­er hear it,” she wrote, “with­out being deeply moved.”

While Beach may have been sat­is­fied with the record­ing, her friend, lin­guist C.K. Ogden pro­nounced it “very bad,” mean­ing, writes Beach, “it was not a suc­cess tech­ni­cal­ly” (though it was not, in any case, “at all a com­mer­cial ven­ture”). You will notice this imme­di­ate­ly as you strug­gle to hear Joyce’s mut­ed read­ing. Anx­ious to pre­serve his voice in a clear­er doc­u­ment, Ogden cap­tured Joyce read­ing from Finnegans Wake five years lat­er at the stu­dio of the Ornitho­log­i­cal Soci­ety in Cam­bridge (he boast­ed of own­ing “the two biggest record­ing machines in the world”). By this time, Joyce’s eye­sight had almost com­plete­ly dimmed. Ogden pho­tographed the text and enlarged it so that the let­ters were a half-inch tall, yet Joyce still could bare­ly make them out and “sup­pos­ed­ly need­ed some­one to whis­per along” (Beach, who was not present, imag­ined he must have known the pas­sage by heart).

Joyce chose to read from the “Anna Livia Plura­belle” sec­tion of the exper­i­men­tal text—a pas­sage “over­flow­ing,” writes Men­tal Floss, with “allu­sions to the world’s rivers.” He reads in the voice of an old wash­er­woman, and begins with a most suc­cinct state­ment of the tem­po­ral dimen­sions of lan­guage: “I told you every telling has a tail­ing.” Where Ulysses fore­grounds lit­er­ary his­to­ry, Finnegans Wake dives deep into geo­log­ic time, and priv­i­leges the oral over the writ­ten. These are the only two record­ings Joyce ever made, and they sure­ly mark what were for him cen­tral loca­tions in both books, though he also chose them for their ease of read­ing aloud (and, per­haps, mem­o­riz­ing). The Mod­ern Word col­lects infor­ma­tion on the var­i­ous com­mer­cial releas­es of the Joyce record­ings, many of which include read­ings of Joyce poems and sto­ries by Frank McCourt, Colm Meany, Stephen Rea, and oth­ers. And while many of those read­ings are very good, none of them can match the thrill of hear­ing Joyce him­self speak from the past.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce’s Dublin Cap­tured in Vin­tage Pho­tos from 1897 to 1904

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load the Free Audio Book

Hear All of Finnegans Wake Read Aloud: A 35 Hour Read­ing

Find works by James Joyce in our  Free Audio Books and Free eBooks col­lec­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • John F. Darcy says:

    My moth­er was born in Sli­go in 1906. As lit­tle my ken of Joyce’s words, his music is the same as that I heard ‑and bare­ly under­stood- when my moth­er cam togeth­er, talk­ing in a room of her sib­lings and con­tem­po­rary com­pa­tri­ots.

    JJ sounds like the old pipe-smok­ing Gael­ic speak­er we stopped to ask direc­tions in that trip to Eire nev­er tak­en.

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