How to read the most unreadable (and greatest) novel ever published
Auckland musician Joshua Hetherington was just another schnook who used to tremble at the thought of reading Ulysses. But as he writes in this personal essay published on Bloomsday – the annual celebration of the life and genius of James Joyce – he discovered a kind of spirit guide.
On Bloomsday, June 16, 2010, Irishman and author Frank Delaney launched the weekly podcast Re: Joyce. Over the course of nearly seven years he produced almost 400 episodes dedicated to deconstructing James Joyce’s Ulysses, many of the single-page close readings running upwards of half an hour at a time. On February 21, 2017, at the age of 74, Delaney unexpectedly died. The moment rang into the space his unfinished project would forever shade. Its echo blindsided me eighteen months later.
Just over half of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece remained ahead of me. I’d stumbled across Delaney’s podcasts whilst floundering for insight, for context, for anything that might help illuminate the density, the at-times-seeming unfathomability of a first, raw reading of the novel. Buried at the foot of the Ulysses Wikipedia page was a reference to Delaney and his endeavour. A page-by-page analysis was just what I required, but what struck me most immediately was not simply the outrageous and epic scope of the podcaster’s quest but the outrageousness of its floundering, not a third of the way across the traverse and yet nearly seven years in.
James Joyce’s writing practices began with his incessant taking of notes on slips procured from the National Library in Dublin and later on small writing pads to fit his waistcoat pockets. Covering both sides, he would later decipher them with a magnifying glass, his writing a tiny scrawl, his eyesight notoriously poor. Joyce’s primary notes for Ulysses weighed over 25 pounds. Another 10 pounds were discarded. Sixteen kilograms is not insignificant. The Air New Zealand carry-on luggage limit is seven.
Back in 2001 I had marvelled when my wife Cara handed me the weighty tome. Though its reputation preceded it, the book was still bigger and heavier than I’d imagined (more than 700 pages and 700gms, as it happens). A seconds’ bin retrieval from the publishing company at which she worked, the vivid marker slashed across its page edges lent it a punk air, its doorstop bulk one of arrogance.
‘How unreadable can it possibly be?’ I thought. For many years to come its reputation would remain intact.
Lurking, surly on the shelf and looking in occasional need of a cigarette, it waited. On blue-moon moments I’d spot it sneering, as from an alleyway, and select the tome to read again its first impervious page, or flip to another and marvel in admiration at how little of it seemed to make sense. I was confounded by the fact the novel covered only a single day in the lives of its characters on that first midsummer’s Bloomsday, Thursday June 16, 1904. Like Jose Luis Borges’s story ‘Book of Sand’, so named ‘because neither sand nor [the] book has a beginning or an end’, the thing to me seemed somehow endless.
Frankie Thomas’s Paris Review article ‘Are We All Joyceans Here, Then?’ recounts her ephiphanic close reading of Ulysses in a mid-2010s seminar course at New York City College. I discovered her piece in the week of its publication for Bloomsday, 2018. Her recounting of collective rooftop readings and a ‘distinct kind of joy’ that ‘wired and vibrating’ she had felt after each class had me hooked. Hers was an affirmation I wanted somehow a piece of.
Francis James Joseph Raphael Delaney was born in County Tipperary on October 24, 1942. His father, Edward, was an elementary school principal, his mother, Elizabeth, a kindergarten teacher. Each was a founding member of the Irish Teachers Union. In the shoulder-cropped, black and white photograph that accompanies every Re: Joyce podcast a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, white-haired man on the edge of a half-smile looks up with impish intensity at the lens. In other photographs the sartorially impeccable author, resplendent in a polka-dot bow tie and braces or a vibrantly coloured scarf, sports black, oval-rimmed glasses and a pocket-handkerchief.
Upon the moment Ulysses first came alive for Delaney, he said, ‘I began to read it aloud and it started to make sense – because it’s not a novel, it’s a prose poem.’
When you hold Ulysses in your hand ‘prose poem’ is not the first thing that springs to mind. It had taken me twelve years to read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I’d finally had to buy my own copy when it became too embarrassing to hold on any longer to the hard cover edition lent me in 2003. Murdoch, at first glance, is a great deal less intimidating than Joyce. I liked her Booker Prize winning novel. I’d picked my way through it intermittently over the years, and had made much briefer work of other Murdoch titles. Despite this patchy track record and a bedside table heaving with the read, the half-read, and the unread books that haunt my waking nights, Frankie Thomas’s article had me seeing things differently.
A thumbnail of the article’s illustration had first caught my eye. Lawrence Mynott’s bright, bold, graphic representation of James Joyce that appears on the cover of the 1982 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses is all orange and blue. In the image Joyce is angular, his face half-moon shaded, and he sports a wide-brimmed Panama hat and a light blue, polka-dot bow tie. He is wearing his trademark pebble glasses, thin moustache, and holds a cigarette between crooked fingers. The enigmatic likeness exudes style. Joyce looks inscrutable, aloof, self-contained, and his Mediterranean-toned confidence suddenly seemed to fill me with something akin to confidence, too.
Though I had not yet discovered Re:Joyce, Thomas’s claim that ‘you cannot traverse Ulysses without a serious guide’ did not deter me from formulating a seat-of-the-pants attempt at the bastard. A week-long, twenty-page-per-day burst would hopefully provide me with the foothold I needed – a base camp from which to begin a proper ascent. It was Bloomsday 2018. I struck out.
Despite a pervading confusion, sense of obscurity, multitude layers of meaning and an avalanche of allusions threatening to sweep me away, I still had Joyce’s wordplay to thrill to, his sharp and surprising dialogue to digest, his humour to delight in, and his taut narrative and sublime prose to relish: ‘On his wise shoulders through the checker work of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins’.
Amidst the density and opacity, the riddles and the rhymes, rose sentences, some famous, that bruised with staggering force.
‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, uttered by Stephen Dedalus, contains an astounding prescience, written so early in the twentieth century with so much unimaginable history lying ahead. Sentences later, the 22-year-old Dedalus – Joyce’s younger, autobiographical representative, and star of his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – turns his ear to cheers from a schoolboy hockey match outside. To an anti-Semite he rejoins, ‘That is God… a shout in the street’. I was starting to like Stephen Dedalus even more.
My progress through the novel felt exhilarating. A momentum gathered contrary to the preconceptions I’d sustained. In public I felt self-conscious at its bulk but delighted at its promise. When I told my father I was reading Joyce he said, ‘Not the unreadable one?’ My sister looked at me sideways when she saw it in my lap. ‘That is some serious reading’, she said. Cara rolled her eyes at the pretention of its presence in the bedroom. I countered pretentiously, telling her I wished I’d known Ulysses was such a page-turner. It was no longer the novel that I was rebelling against, but its bad reputation.
Then I discovered Frank Delaney’s Re: Joyce. The outrageous and ultimate folly of the ex-Dublin novelist’s page-by-page deconstruction seemed a rebellion of a similar sort. Delaney found his first copy of Ulysses in a brown paper bag abandoned by a tourist on the seat of a Dublin bus. He’d tried and failed three times to read it. With Joyce’s 1982 centenary celebrations looming the Irish BBC book show presenter realised he’d better prepare. At nearly forty Delaney decided to write his own book. James Joyce’s Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses was published ahead of the centenary. It was a surprise bestseller.
Delaney’s fascination with Ulysses stemmed from a long-held desire to break down the barrier of incomprehension between the legendary work and the general public.
‘I am a passionate believer in democratisation’ he said. ‘I couldn't bear, when I was in my twenties, that a fellow countryman of mine had written a book that I couldn't understand.’ Delaney believed a literary culture that held Joyce as ‘a totem’ was to blame. ‘Snobbery around his works congealed. We couldn’t break through it.’
Read aloud, Ulysses had made sense to Delaney. His reading of the novel is a highlight of the podcast’s innumerable delights. A prose poem it may be, but it is a great many other things, too. One of these is the crystallisation and depiction of the modern city of Dublin and of its people at the turn of the twentieth century. With his notes and a copy of a Dublin newspaper saved from 16 June 1904 at hand, Joyce wrote the novel from abroad, and entirely from memory. Its evocation of that time and place is rendered so vividly, so boldly, and with such surprising verisimilitude, that the reader – or listener – can almost feel themselves wandering the town and travelling in its carriages, hear the clack of boots and hooves on the cobblestones, smell the food, see the fireworks and hear the shouts in the street. Joyce wanted to give ‘a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of [the novel’s pages]’. One hundred and six years from the date of its setting and eighty-eight years from the date of its first publication in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company in Paris, Joyce couldn’t have hoped for a better ambassador, nor for a better reader of his book than Frank Delaney.
Joyce once said, ‘I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.’ Delaney addresses the novel in not only its microcosmic focus but also its broadest scope. References are cited frequently beyond the current page and chapter he is unpacking, to moments and scenes from countless pages that have gone before and to the many he anticipates. He finishes, with best-guess aplomb, innumerable unfinished thoughts and spoken half-sentences – those of the characters whose internal monologues Joyce invited the reader to share – translating and transforming incomprehension and confusion into something natural, relatable and clear.
What, to this reader, had initially seemed archaic and almost deliberately opaque, in Delaney’s hands is illuminated and illuminating. Internal monologue and external dialogue begin to flow and to blend with the narrative, and start to feel and to sound familiar, everyday, and modern. In his soft yet sibilant Irish brogue a wealth of supremely natural dialogue is brought to life and enlivened majestically by the podcaster’s insight into the Irish colloquial of Joyce’s early twentieth century Dublin, and into the Dublin of Delaney’s own mid-twentieth century years. To be read Ulysses by Delaney is to take a leap into a world not so dissimilar from our own and not so far removed from our own perspectives, struggles and lives.
Though technically unfulfilled, Delaney’s promise to get his listeners through Ulysses truly got me into it. I was reading much more daily than I’d prescribed for myself, and simultaneously listening to earlier chapters close read by Delaney. This opened the novel up for me, clarifying its narrative arc and force. Episodes I’d followed relatively well leaped vividly to life, greatly informing and extending my understanding not only of those passages and episodes but also of my present place in the book.
I was also getting to know Delaney better. He would accompany me, speaking into my earphones as I walked, espousing I drove, and I would check the rear vision mirror, startled as a horn blasted or a siren wailed in the background of so many of his Connecticut-cut podcast recordings. He was a teacher, a companion, a raconteur, a philosopher, a man of letters, a lover of literature, and the proud owner of a facsimile of Joyce’s original handwritten manuscript, to which he would regularly refer for insight into last minute manuscript changes. He also owned a replica of James Joyce’s death mask, which hung on the wall of his office. In one amusing aside he marvels at what must have been an enormous brain in a head of Joyce’s size.
In 1982 Delaney marked on a Dublin street map the path of Leopold Bloom, the novel’s chief protagonist, across the novel’s fifth chapter, as he navigates the streets of the city each knew intimately. The married Bloom reads, contemplates, and disposes of an erotic letter solicited from a pen pal via a classified newspaper advertisement he’s placed. The dots Delaney joined on the map drew a question mark.
‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Because Bloom was up to something questionable… I’m sure that others had made the discovery before me. But it was, in that moment, my discovery, and one of wonder.’
For me, Delaney’s revelation is one of wonder, too. It’s also a wonderful example not only of Joyce’s playful and cunning intellect, but of his desire to entertain, to compel and to confound well beyond the bounds of the form’s previous limitations – and beyond his and our limitations, as well. Of Ulysses, Joyce once said, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality’.
Of the notoriously allusion-laden chapter nine, Delaney, only half joking, says, ‘There’s no question that however rewarding contemplation of all this… is, it can also hurt your head’. It’s a revealing moment for a man who, despite consistent immersion in a close analysis of Ulysses that ran for almost seven years, died with more than two thirds of the novel’s close reading incomplete.
In chapter eight the magnificently named Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell, ‘a bony form’ who strides ‘along the curbstone from the river… a folded dustcoat, a stick and an umbrella [dangling] to his stride’, is pointed out with delight by Leopold Bloom to old flame Josie Breen: ‘Watch him,’ says Bloom. ‘He always walks outside the lampposts’.
Regarding the passage, and not entirely unselfconsciously, Delaney confesses that he, too, has walked in the ‘small space between the lampposts and the street – shoom!’ I laughed at his endearing admission. How silly it seemed until, one afternoon on an awning-lined street in Thames, I too seized my chance, not entirely unselfconsciously, and walked outside the lampposts to join Jim, Cashel and Frank in the fun.
In the eight long chapters beyond Delaney’s final communiqué I felt a surer footing even as I missed his guidance immensely. In chapters he had warned of I often found myself worryingly at sea and frequently out of my depth. And yet one needs no interpreter for a sentence such as this: ‘The heaven tree of stars hung with humid night blue fruit’.
Out of the blue the enormity of the podcaster’s absence would sometimes strike. Once, in the shower, sudden tears sprung, merging with the water hot-splashing my face and disappearing in the stream.
Ulysses’ final chapter – Molly Bloom’s freewheeling, breathtaking stream-of-conscious finalé – is a funny, moving, staggering affirmation of love and sex, life and faith, that endures and rises effortlessly above the cliché of its latter-day, wedding-card co-option. In one stunning, unpunctuated, 50-page sentence, it demonstrates spectacularly the heady, fundamental role that memory plays in the forging and understanding of one’s identity and of one’s place in the world. I’d spent more than five weeks in the heads of James Joyce, Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom.
I’d spent a great deal of time in the company of Frank Delaney, too. As I read the novel’s final, beautiful words and wondered what he might have had to say about them I missed the man more than ever: ‘… then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’
In a rare lament Frank Delaney rues not having more lifetimes in which to complete his Odyssean task. In another revealing admission he confesses, with endearing coyness, that his immersion in the project has him now dreaming about Ulysses. ‘Tell me there’s nothing wrong with me, listeners,’ he implores. There’s nothing wrong with you, Mr Delaney. You just ran out of lifetimes.
Frank Delaney’s epic podcast can be downloaded on iTunes. The most recent print edition of Ulysses was published by Penguin in 2011, an annotated, 1,296-page paperback for $46. There are also sound recordings, including a 1959 LP read by Siobhan Mckenna and EG Marshall, which is available at the Auckland Public Library – but rather frustratingly is for library use only, so you’ll have to bring your own turntable to listen to it.