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 disk that is kept in the Morgan Library Museum, a collection created at the beginning of the 20th century that includes drawings by Albrecht Dürer, scores by Mozart or that recording from 1924 in which the Dubliner reads part of the seventh chapter of Ulises, novel that this 2022 turns 100.
Sean Kelly, the world’s largest collector of objects related to that book, donated the disc in 2018. It is one of the 30 copies (there is another in the Museum of the Word of France) commissioned by Sylvia Beach, the first publisher 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 preservation 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 release of the Ulises has always generated a lot of curiosity. Especially because of how difficult it was to publish: One of the problems was a trial for obscenity in the United States that frightened 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, with which Ezra Pound asked 30 subscribers to contribute £ 10 annually to fund TS Eliot’s work. And in that of John Radker, director of The Little Review, who 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 edition and luxury and select subscribers whose name was a claim: Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway or Winston Churchill. It also featured the press. Every week the Paris Review he published a scoreboard with the number of subscribers: “It was like a sporting event,” he boasted. It is not surprising that he knew how to take advantage of the media: “In the world of Ulises, advertising, 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 made the book an object of worship. The first review in The Observer was the test: it sparked 150 new subscriptions and the sale of cheaper copies in a few days. These figures reinforced the epic account 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 he looked at other numbers: 40% of the copies were acquired by collectors who in a few days resold them for 20 dollars (about 330 today) . Figures that show that expectation fostered 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 all, his admiration for Joyce was also evaporating.
In 1921, Beach used 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 about your interests than mine ”. That accusation sounds like guilt for having fed a monster to whom neither the money nor the dedication of its editor seems enough, which involved in the Ulises his 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 this 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 he tells it there is no excitement, but neither lists of expenses (he paid for it out of pocket without saying the amount); gave the copies to friends of the author (“I did not do it for any commercial purpose”) and did not ask or do any favors to edit it.
She registered at 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 wouldn’t even include the title in its catalog. Beach did not abandon and easily convinced Joyce: musician and music lover, he himself chose the two pages he read. It did so, raising and lowering its 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 folios to be able to see the lyrics, with his tenor voice he perfectly sound that Ulises that the writer and editor Gonzalo Torné describes as follows: “Joyce was the first to immerse a microphone in a human brain. Thus he managed to capture the sound of the mind, its changing and broken language ”. That’s exactly what those five minutes sound like: someone thinking aloud. That is why Torné adds that “with Ulises, Joyce gave way to great literature, to all our illusions, desires, fears and daily pettiness, ravishingly human ”.
Those electrifying five minutes where an impetuous Joyce underlines all the alliterations does not help to understand the book, but they give meaning to this advice: “Let yourself be carried away by the musical and environmental power of your 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 so often been said to be nonsense.
Beach also saw its sonic dimension: “Joyce has unusual hearing sensitivity.” About the recording he wrote: “It was more than mere oratory.” They are no longer fiery praise, but it still surrenders to the talents of its still author: “It was a wonderful performance. I can never listen to it without being deeply moved. “
Two records and a betrayal
At this point, that ecstatic tone is no longer in his private writings: “Joyce sees the 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 is the reason why my small business has been able to be useful to him ”. Joyce is so excited about recording that she wants to start her own label. Beach is not following him in that endeavor. With that album aligned in substance and form with its author and with Ulises; Brief and disinterested, you already have the project you were looking for: one that doesn’t need a sports scoreboard.
Later, apart from negotiating their translations and other steps, they only made together a little book of poems, 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 that was left of him were two copies of that record.
How much would they be worth? Martín Ballester affirms that it is difficult to value because it is not a highly sought after material, but that in those 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 on 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.