Recordings of James Joyce Reading from his Works

First Recording – ‘Aeolus’ – 1924

The first recording of Joyce reading from his work was organised by Sylvia Beach, the publisher of Ulysses. Late in 1924, she went to the Paris branch of the Gramophone Company (which owned the label His Master’s Voice) and asked if they would make a recording of Joyce reading. She was directed to Piero Coppola, an Italian composer and conductor, who was then artistic director of His Master’s Voice in Paris.

Coppola told Beach there was no public demand for anything other than music recordings, but he agreed they could make a recording for her. However, the recording would have to be made at her expense, and it wouldn’t have the ‘His Master’s Voice’ label on it or be listed in their catalogue. Beach agreed to his terms.

According to Beach, Joyce himself was anxious to make this recording. Joyce had chosen to read John F Taylor’s speech from the ‘Aeolus’ episode, claiming it was the only passage that could be lifted out of Ulysses, and that being declamatory in style it was therefore suitable for recital.

But Beach believed he hadn’t chosen it for these reasons alone. She felt that the passage “expressed something he wanted said and preserved in his own voice” (Beach: 171). MJC Hodgart, writing later about the same passage, claimed that it is “a truly inspired statement of Joyce’s artistic credo…” (Hodgart: 121).

(It’s not clear, however, if Joyce had originally intended to read from a different part of Ulysses. On 16 November 1924, he wrote to Harriet Weaver saying that he was learning a page of the ‘Sirens’ episode for the recording, and he repeats this to Valery Larbaud in a letter of 20 November, just a week before the recording was due to happen.)

As Joyce was preparing for the recording session, he was suffering with severe eye problems. His eye specialist, Doctor Borsch, decided at the beginning of November that Joyce would have to undergo another eye operation and had scheduled it for November 27. However, Joyce asked for it to be deferred until 28 November so that he could make the recording.

On Thursday 27 November 1924, Joyce travelled with Sylvia Beach by taxi to the Paris suburb of Billancourt, where the record company’s factory was located. The journey seemed long, and Joyce was suffering both from his eyes and from nerves, but he soon felt at home with Piero Coppola, with whom he discussed music in Italian.

Beach says that the recording was an ordeal for Joyce. The first attempt to record failed – apparently because Joyce faltered – and they had to begin again. In the end, the recording took up one side of a twelve-inch disc and it lasts just over four minutes. Two days after the recording, Joyce underwent his sixth eye operation, to remove a cataract from his left eye.

Given that the Gramophone Company wouldn’t produce the record under the HMV label, it seems that Joyce took the time to design his own record label. His sketch for a record label is now in the James Joyce Collection at the University at Buffalo, along with several of the original records.

In her memoirs, Sylvia Beach acknowledged that the HMV recording was rather primitive and not a technical success. However, it remains the only recording Joyce made from Ulysses, and Beach said it was her favourite of the two recordings: “I think the Ulysses record is a wonderful performance. I never hear it without being deeply moved” (Beach: 171).

Sylvia Beach ordered thirty copies of the record, to be paid for on delivery. The records were not intended for sale, and most of the copies were given to Joyce who gave them away to friends and family. Beach kept a couple of records herself, and admitted that she later sold them at a stiff price when she was hard up.

Second Recording – ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ – 1929

Sylvia Beach also claimed a hand in the second recording, by bringing Joyce together with CK Ogden, the English linguist and philosopher. Ogden was co-author (with IA Richards) of The Meaning of Meaning, and his translation of Wittgenstein’sTractatus Logico Philosophicus was published in 1922, the same year as Ulysses.

In 1929, Joyce suggested that Ogden might write a preface toTales Told of Shem and Shaun, to be published by Caresse and Harry Crosby’s Black Sun Press in Paris. Admittedly, Joyce only suggested Ogden after Julian Huxley and John Sullivan had already declined, but Joyce hoped Ogden (who was also a mathematician) might discuss the mathematical structure of hisWork in Progress. Though Ogden chose not to discuss the structure, Joyce still described Ogden’s preface as “useful,” and the book was published on 9 August 1929.

Ogden was keenly promoting Basic English, an international language of 850 words in which, he claimed, everything could be said. In 1927, he founded the Orthological Institute at Cambridge to promote Basic English and to train teachers. Realising the usefulness of voice recordings for language teaching, he equipped the Institute with what he claimed were the largest recording machines in the world, and he organised recordings by contemporary writers including Joyce and Shaw.

Joyce chose to read part of the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ section of his Work in Progress for Ogden’s recording. An early version of the ALP piece was to have appeared in 1925 in the English review The Calendar, but the printers refused to set it. Instead, it was published for the first time in Le Navire d’Argent on 1 October 1925. Constantine Curran said that Joyce gave him a copy of Le Navire to read during a visit to Paris (possibly in 1927), enclosed in which was a note urging him to read the ALP piece “half aloud, without a break and rather rapidly” (Curran: 87).

In October 1927, Joyce revised the ALP piece for publication intransition, the literary journal edited by Eugene Jolas, and he read the piece from an advance copy of transition to an audience of about 25 people on Wednesday 2 November. He continued revising it in advance of its publication in book form by Crosby Gaige in October 1928, and by Faber in June 1930.

For the Orthological Institute’s recording in August 1929, Ogden had part of the text of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ produced in half-inch letters on large sheets to make it easier for Joyce to read. Sylvia Beach marvelled at such large type until a friend pointed out that Ogden had merely photographed and enlarged the pages of the book. Even so, the light in the recording studio was not enough for Joyce to see even half-inch letters, and Ellmann claims that he was prompted in a whisper during the recording. Despite the prompt, Joyce faltered during the first attempt and the recording had to start again.

The ALP recording took up two sides of a twelve-inch disc and it lasts eight and a half minutes. The recording sold for two guineas (£2 2s), a large amount of money at the time. Just two years later, Ogden said that the first impression had sold out but demand for the recording continued. He said a second impression was being prepared, though he also noted that the price was being halved, “in the interests of the wider public which is loath to part with more than 21 [shillings] even for a double-sided twelve-inch disc.”

When the records were ready, Ogden sent one to Joyce, but Lucia broke it and in late November 1929 he was still waiting for another to arrive. It seems that the records were being pressed at a HMV factory, and Joyce complains in a couple of letters about how slow they are. Joyce later had copies sent to his friends, including James Stephens whom he urged to get in touch with Ogden and get some recordings of himself made.

Sylvia Beach thought the ALP recording was beautiful and she was amused by Joyce’s rendering of the brogue of an Irish washer-woman. Harry Levin, writing in his 1944 study of Joyce, remarked: “Everyone who has played Joyce’s captivating phonograph record from ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ will agree that the best introduction to his book is to hear him read it aloud. Yet even the author’s expressive brogue cannot convey all the inflections, unless it is supplemented by the text” (Levin: 124).

After the recording was done, Joyce kept the pages of ALP that Ogden had prepared. When Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein visited Joyce in Paris in late November or early December 1929, Joyce showed him the “giant meter-wide sheet of paper, filled with gigantic lines of gigantic letters” (Cornwell: 82). Joyce’s poor sight meant he couldn’t read to Eisenstein, and instead he played him the gramophone recording while Eisenstein followed the text on the huge sheets.

Joyce later gave the enormous sheets to Sylvia Beach, who also received both the first and second attempts at recording ALP made by Ogden at the Orthological Institute in 1929. However, she says in her memoirs that she hadn’t preserved the ‘master’ of the ‘Aeolus’ recording and that it had been destroyed. Without the original, she discovered, it was not possible to get the recording re-pressed, but the BBC made a copy of one of her records for their programme on Joyce in February and March 1950.

Joyce in Basic English

While recording the ALP piece, Joyce told Ogden he would be interested to see how the effects he was aiming at in Work in Progress might be conveyed in the 850 words of Ogden’s Basic English. They didn’t attempt the experiment then, but Joyce’s extended stay in London from May to September 1931 (when he finally married Nora Barnacle) made the experiment possible. Together they prepared a Basic English version of the last four pages of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle,’ which was published in Ogden’s journal, Psyche, in October 1931.

In Psyche, Ogden claimed the aim of the Basic English version was “to give the simple sense of the Gramophone Record made by Mr. Joyce.” He defended the changes he made to “the sense of the story” by saying they were made because Joyce “took the view that it was more important to get these effects of rhythm than to give the nearest Basic Word every time.” Thus, between the recording and the Basic English text, Ogden claimed, “the simplest and most complex languages of man are placed side by side.”

Sylvia Beach, and many others since, didn’t see much merit in Ogden’s Basic English version. Beach called Basic a strait jacket for the English language and thought that Joyce would be “starved” if he could only use a vocabulary of five or six hundred words. However, though she thought Ogden’s Basic version of ALP “deprived the work of all its beauty,” she also thought that Ogden and IA Richards were the only people whose interest in the English language matched Joyce’s, and she complimented the ALP recording, saying it was a “treasure” (Beach: 172).

CD versions of the two recordings are widely available on the internet. For more information see: The Modern World.

Beach, Sylvia: Shakespeare and Company, London: University of Nebraska, 1980 [1956].

Cornwell, Neil: James Joyce and the Russians, London: Macmillan, 1992.

Curran, Constantine: James Joyce Remembered, London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Hodgart, MJC: ‘Aeolus,’ in James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays, eds. Clive Hart & David Hayman, London: University of California Press, 1974.

Levin, Harry: James Joyce: A Critical Introduction, London: Faber & Faber, 1944.

A comparison of selections from Ogden’s Basic version and Joyce’s original can be found in Susan Shaw Sailer’s essay, “Universalizing Languages: Finnegans Wake Meets Basic English,” in the James Joyce Quarterly (vol. 36, no. 4, Summer 1999: pp. 853-868).

Part of the issue of Ogden’s Psyche on the Basic English version of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ can be found at
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