The ‘Ulysses’ album: the five electrifying minutes in which James Joyce gave voice to his novel

A five-minute walk from the Empire State Building in New York, you can hear the voice of James Joyce. It is recorded on a disc that is stored in the Morgan Museum Librarya collection created at the beginning of the 20th century that includes drawings by Albrecht Dürer, scores by Mozart or that 1924 recording in which the Dubliner reads part of the seventh chapter of Ulises, novel that this 2022 turns 100 years old.

Sean Kelly, the world’s largest collector of objects related to that book, donated the disc in 2018. It is one of the copies (there is another in the French Word Museum) of the 30 commissioned by Sylvia Beach, the first editor of the Ulises and owner of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Of the other 28 it has not been possible to know anything: “Tracking this type of material is almost impossible,” explains Carlos Martín Ballester, a collector of sound files, who attributes this difficulty to the lack of care given to the conservation of audio records. . “Especially if they are not musical”.

It is one of the reasons why the history of that album is little known, despite the fact that everything related to the edition of the Ulises has always generated a lot of curiosity. Especially because of how difficult it was to publish: one of the problems was an obscenity trial in the United States that scared potential publishers. It was Beach, an American in Paris who, at 35, had experience selling, but not making books, who managed to launch it with an almost perfect business plan.

The commodification of ‘Ulysses’

His plan was inspired by the Bel Esprit Project, in which Ezra Pound asked 30 subscribers to contribute £10 a year to fund the work of TS Eliot. And in that of John Radker, director of The Little Reviewwho had also wanted to edit the Ulises releasing a private edition —for family and friends— with which to avoid the crime of public scandal. Beach opted for a limited and deluxe edition and for select subscribers whose name was a claim: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway or Winston Churchill. She also counted on the press. Every week, the Paris Review He posted a bookmark with the number of subscribers: “It was like a sporting event,” he boasted. It is not surprising that she knew how to take advantage of the media: “In the world of Ulisesadvertising, journalism and the cliché have invaded everything”, says Andreu Jaume in the prologue of the new edition that Lumen publishes on January 13.

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Thus, before printing it, he had already converted the book into a cult object. The first review in The Observer it was the proof: it caused 150 new subscriptions and the sale of cheaper copies in a few days. These figures reinforced the epic story of the birth of the Ulises. Lawrence Rainey, a professor at the University of York, an expert in modernist literature who died in 2018, looked for cracks when looking at other numbers: 40% of the copies were acquired by collectors who resold them for $20 in a few days (about $330 today). . Figures that show that the expectation encouraged speculation more than reading, something that betrayed the spirit with which Beach opened his bookstore (also a library): “Because of the civilizing capacity of books.” To top it off, her admiration for Joyce was also evaporating.

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach, in the 1920s.

In 1921, Beach uses exclamation marks and onomatopoeia when writing about the novel (“It’s going to make us famous, rah, rah… Ulises it will mean thousands of dollars in advertising!”), but later, his letters are short and cold: “As always, I have thought more of your interests than mine.” That accusation sounds like guilt for having fed a monster to which neither the money nor the dedication of his publisher, which he involved in the Ulises her sister, the silent film actress Cyprian, or Mysirne Morchos, Beach’s assistant who became Joyce’s. Cyprian and Mysirne are just two of the long list of women who helped give birth Ulises. The first, without charging a penny. The second, charging very little. Beach was ashamed of that abuse in his diaries.

A microphone in the brain

The album arrives at the beginning of that disenchantment and the story of its gestation is very different from the one that Beach made of the book. In the text where she tells it, there is no longer any excitement, but there are no lists of expenses either (she paid it out of her pocket without saying the amount); he gave the copies away to friends of the author (“I did not do it for any commercial purpose”) and did not ask or do any favors to publish it.

She recorded in the Parisian studios of His Master’s Voice, where her friend Piero Coppola, who was in charge of the recordings, tried to dissuade her: a writer reading was so uninteresting that the label would not even include the title in its catalogue. Beach did not give up and easily convinced Joyce: a musician and music lover, he himself chose the two pages that he read. He did it by raising and lowering his pitch abruptly, stopping abruptly, then continuing at full speed and without respite.

Despite the vision problems that forced him to take enlarged photos of the pages to be able to see the lyrics, with his tenor voice he perfectly sounded that Ulises that the writer and editor Gonzalo Torné describes as follows: “Joyce was the first to immerse a microphone in a human brain. He thus he managed to capture the sound of the mind, its changing and broken language”. That’s precisely what those five minutes sound like: someone thinking out loud. That is why Torné adds that “with UlisesJoyce gave way to great literature, to all our illusions, desires, fears and everyday pettiness, captivatingly human”.

Those five electrifying minutes where an impetuous Joyce underlines all the alliterations do not help to understand the book, but they do make sense of this advice: “Let yourself be carried away by the musical and environmental power of his word.” The translator José María Valverde wrote it in the 1976 edition of Lumen to encourage fearful readers in the face of a work that has been said so many times that he is nonsense.

Beach also saw its sound dimension: “Joyce has unusual hearing sensitivity.” About the recording she wrote: “It was more than mere oratory.” They are no longer glowing praises, but he still surrenders to the talents of his still author: “It was a wonderful performance. I can never listen to it without being deeply moved.”

Two albums and a betrayal

At this point, that ecstatic tone is no longer in his private writings: “Joyce sees Shakespeare and Company as something that God has created for him, but for me it has more faces than the Joycean. And happily for him, that’s why my small business has been able to serve him well.” Joyce gets so excited about the recording that he wants to start his own record label. Beach does not follow him in that effort. With that disk aligned in the background and form with its author and with Ulises; brief and disinterested, he already has the project he was looking for: one that doesn’t need a sports scoreboard.

Later, apart from negotiating their translations and other negotiations, they only made a little book of poems together, also in a deluxe edition. When in 1934 Joyce managed to publish Ulises in the US, he didn’t offer Beach a penny and all he had left of him were two copies of that record.

How much would they be worth? Martín Ballester affirms that it is difficult to appraise because it is not a highly sought-after material, but that in these cases there are sometimes surprises and it always depends on what the buyer is willing to pay. Sean Kelly, from New York, prefers not to say how much he bid for his. The only reference was left by Sylvia Beach: “I sold them when I was in trouble and got a very high price,” she explained about the time Joyce’s voice saved Shakespeare and Company.

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The ‘Ulysses’ album: the five electrifying minutes in which James Joyce gave voice to his novel


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