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Even moderate Joyceans will admit that there...

Even moderate Joyceans will admit that there is no better lead-in to James Joyce’s massive “Ulysses” and its elephantine successor, “Finnegans Wake,” than a reading or a rereading--in this instance perhaps a first hearing--of Joyce’s earlier works. (And what better way to prepare to celebrate Bloomsday on June 16?) This is especially true when they are narrated by an Irish actor who understands the difference between stage performance and narration. Donal Donnelly has said: “They are very difficult to compare. Narrating can be a lonely thing at times. You are enclosed in a tiny cubicle, often tackling a work regarded as a major contribution to literature. It is an incarcerated kind of activity, requiring enormous inner concentration--it’s a very different kind of pressure than acting on stage.”

Donnelly, born and raised in Dublin, has performed on both sides of the Atlantic. One of his recent supporting roles, fittingly enough, was that of Freddy Malins in what was to be John Huston’s last film, “The Dead,” possibly the best-known story in “Dubliners,” though other favorites include “Araby,” “Ivy-Day in the Committee Room,” “Counterparts,” and “A Painful Case.”

Joyce himself described “Dubliners” as “a chapter in the moral history of my country,” showing the overall paralysis and insularity of the city, yet celebrating the private, often checked, potential in certain individuals. The book’s publishing history is almost as well known as its contents; for it took close to 10 years to find a publisher willing to risk possible charges of obscenity. Mild enough as it may seem in this respect by today’s standards, one must remember those prevailing at the time. And in addition, the fact that not only the author and publisher, but also the actual printer of a book could be held responsible for its content under British law. When it finally appeared in 1914 it was indeed attacked for its “obscenity” as well as for its making use of actual places and persons in Dublin. Several of its characters were to appear later in “Ulysses.”

“Dubliners” was almost immediately followed (1915) by “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” an autobiographical novel in which Joyce appeared as Stephen Dedalus, who would play a major role in “Ulysses.” The detailed account of Stephen’s childhood, his school days and young manhood shows his interests in art and literature growing, together with his rebellion against Roman Catholicism and his native Ireland. Joyce himself left Ireland in 1902 for a year in Paris. After a brief return he left Ireland again for the Continent, and except for a short visit in 1912 he maintained a self-imposed “exile” for the rest of his life, moving from place to place, and dying in Zurich early in 1941.

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Donal Donnelly gives an account of what this book has meant to Ireland as well as to the rest of the Western world, and his reasons for apprehension when he undertook to narrate it. “I first read the book when I was 17 or 18, again when I was in my ‘20s, and then again in my ‘30s. For Irish actors, this novel is an integral part of our lives. I was so nervous because of the position the novel holds in world literature. I told (the producer) that I wasn’t afraid of making ‘a mountain out of a molehill,’ but of making ‘a molehill out of a mountain.’ ”

Anyone who hears Donnelly’s lilting Irish voice has to believe that his nervousness left him instantly once he had started on his narration. Both in “Portrait” and in “Dubliners” he defines with authority the individual voices of Joyce’s characters, distinguishing between the supporters of Parnell and his enemies, between the priest and the prefect.

Though Joyce himself did not, to my knowledge, record any passages from these two books, he did read selected passages from both “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake.” They were recorded by Sylvia Beach in 1924 and are available on a cassette that runs 46 minutes, and includes Cyril Cusack reading Joyce’s poetry. In some ways, Joyce sounds, at least to my ear, rather less “Irish” than Donnelly, which is not too surprising when one considers the writer’s cosmopolitan life.

Although marathon readings of both “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” have been staged by a few college and university groups, with volunteers spelling one another at set times and with spotty results, no professional recording has, to my knowledge, been made of the full text of either work. This may be all to the good, for the effort would be prodigious for both reader and listener. And though Joyce certainly wrote for the ear, as always, he also wrote increasingly for the eye as his own eyesight declined, leaving him virtually blind in his closing years. But in “Dubliners” and “Portrait” we are given a vivid re-creation of Joyce’s Ireland, which was not only molehill and mountain to him but also his essential world.

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Where to Order Cassettes

Recorded Books, 270 Skipjack Road, Prince Frederick, Md. 20678. Telephone (800) 638-1304. Fax: (301) 535-5499. “Dubliners”: 7 cassettes. Purchase: $49.95. Rental: $16.50. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”: 8 cassettes. Purchase: $56.95. Rental: $16.50. Joyce and Cusack recordings from Poets’ Audio Center, 6925 Willow St. N.W., No. 201, Washington, D.C. 20012. Order No. C-1671. Purchase: $12.95.


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