DECIPHERING JAMES JOYCE

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To celebrate Bloomsday, Anthony Gardner speaks to Frank Delaney, a man on a mission to popularise James Joyce ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Frank Delaney is a man who enjoys a challenge. A year ago he set out to explain one of the most daunting books in the English language—James Joyce’s "Ulysses"—line by line on the internet. Fifty-two podcasts later, he has reached the end of Chapter One. "Some chapters are five times as long," he observes, "and the book gets more complicated as it progresses, so it could take another 30 years." That would bring Delaney to the age of 99. He thinks he will probably not move on to "Finnegans Wake".

Delaney—an Irish broadcaster and author based in New York—admits that as a young man he found "Ulysses" unreadable. But as the centenary of Joyce’s birth approached in 1982, he felt increasingly embarrassed by his failure to get through it. "I began to read it aloud, and it started to make sense—because it’s not a novel, it’s a prose poem." He went on to write a bestselling book about Joyce’s Dublin, after which Joyce became "a resident guest in my mind". He has now read "Ulysses" six times.

With his rich Irish intonation and palpable enthusiasm, he makes an ideal guide. The book, he declares, is one of the pleasures of life: "a vast, entertaining, funny, absorbing, exciting, complex, immensely enjoyable novel. A book to get lost in." It is also a book to listen to: "Joyce was a singer—he had a beautiful tenor voice—so he understood writing for the ear. In 'Ulysses' you can hear how he slips from one thought to another, which is fascinating." 

The idea of the "Re:Joyce" podcasts developed after Delaney’s publishers told him that he needed to promote himself on the internet. (He is writing a series of novels about Ireland.) "Ulysses" is full of allusions which are easily missed by the general reader, ‘But when I looked at the annotated editions, there were lots of gaps. I thought, 'Why not do the book in such a way that there is not a single unexplained reference?'"

So Delaney turned literary detective. "The starting point is to treat Joyce with deep suspicion: what is he up to? If there’s an egregious word in a sentence, you know there’s something going on." He gives as an example the adjective ‘gorescarred’, applied to a history book: ‘gore’ can mean not only ‘blood’ but also ‘a triangular shape’ and ‘to stab deeply with a sharp weapon’. Four sentences later, Joyce refers to a general leaning on his spear—that is, a sharp weapon with a triangular head. "'Ulysses' is a puzzle," says Delaney, "which is one of the things that has kept it alive. Besides that, it has a magnificent size of spirit, and Joyce wrote the most beautiful English: he can encapsulate a whole scene in one phrase."

Delaney is an unashamed populariser—something, he says, that he learnt as a presenter of BBC arts programmes. "I was introduced to the idea of 'smuggling'—presenting a big and complex idea in a comprehensible way. The first radio programme I did about Joyce had Snoopy as the other item, and the podcasts are in that vein." He has even recorded a James Joyce rap, which can be enjoyed on YouTube. This approach, he says without rancour, has put him at odds with conventional Joyce scholars: "No one hates a populariser more than an intellectual."

The action of "Ulysses" takes place in Dublin on a single day: June 16th 1904 (now celebrated annually as ‘Bloomsday’), when Joyce had his first date with his future wife. Since then the Irish capital has seen insurrection, civil war and voracious property development. So can the spirit of Joyce’s city be said to survive? "The malice is still there," says Delaney with a chuckle. "And you can see the schools that Joyce went to, Clongowes and Belvedere. Sometimes you get echoes and mists in the back streets off the Liffey that remind you of the book, but what we laughingly call 'progress' has more or less erased the rest."

A new study of Joyce by Gordon Bowker, a biographer, claims that Ireland’s greatest novelist preferred to travel on a British passport. Delaney is neither surprised nor disappointed; after all, Joyce spent most of his life in exile. "He didn’t have much time for nationality—he was a citizen of the world." Joyce, he adds, was an awkward man who enjoyed being misunderstood and "liked the disrespect with which he was treated in Ireland. His books were never banned there—they didn't have to be, because no shops stocked them. When I wrote my book on him, my mother told me she wished I’d chosen 'someone more edifying than that old blasphemer.'"

Today, on June 16th, Delaney will hold a party in his office to celebrate both Bloomsday and the first anniversary of his podcasts (which have so far achieved some 90,000 downloads). Though he laments that Guinness doesn’t taste the same in New York, he has arranged for a menu based on the food in "Ulysses." Like its protagonist Leopold Bloom, he says, "We will feast on the inner organs of beasts and fowls."

Frank Delaney’s podcasts can be heard here

 

Anthony Gardner is a writer based in London. He previews talks for Intelligent Life magazine and edits the Royal Society of Literature’s magazine RSL. His first novel "The Rivers of Heaven" is published by Starhaven. Picture credit: Jerry Bauer