Best audio + best book = well, best audiobook

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To get right to it, this unabridged recording of Ulysses (Recorded Books, 1995, read by Donal Donnelly and Miriam Healy-Louie) is one of the audiobook world’s greatest achievements.  The story of James Joyce’s masterpiece is well known. At least I hope it is, because I don’t intend to do a plot summary. (Hint: you can always read Homer’s Odyssey or check out Hollywood’s version with Kirk Douglas. I remember seeing it as a child and having nightmares about a raging and drunken Polyphemus for weeks afterwards.)

I have listened to this version of the book three times now (I’ve also read it three times; no, there is nothing heroic about this on my part. I was a Joyce scholar in graduate school and I had plenty of help). In fact Ulysses (not this version) is the first book I can remember listening to. In 1982 for the centennial of Joyce’s birth someone, I believe it was the BBC, broadcast a nonstop, uncut performance of the book, and, miraculously I caught that broadcast

As groundbreaking as that program was, I don’t remember that it had the impact of this version. Donal Donnelly, the late great Irish actor (he died in 2010) who reads most of the book, is simply astonishing. He has a lot to manage in this narration — a variety of languages and numerous accents (we often overlook the fact that even within the Irish brogue there is tremendous variety). He has to sing, tell jokes, convey the rarified consciousness and allusive internal monologue of Stephen Douglas (who is basically James Joyce). He also has to reliably deliver hundreds of place names and proper nouns. Most important, he must help the listener to comprehend a major component of Ulysses — Joyce’s techniques of varying points of view, unreliable narrators, and variations in style of each of the books 18 chapters. For example as those familiar with the book will know, one chapter, called the Oxen of the Sun, relates to a woman who is in extended labor at a hospital. As the hero of the story, Leopold Bloom, along with Stephen Dedalus and some of the other characters await the birth (well, really only Bloom is awaiting the delivery; the others are getting drunk), Joyce relates events by mimicking in literary style the gestation of a fetus. It starts out very Latiny (the equivalent of the female egg, a professor of mine once explained) moves to Old English, Middle English Chaucerian, etc., up progressively through Elizabethan, Miltonian, right into the late 19th century with Carlyle and MacCauley. (This is a much-abbreviated list.) Joyce even includes an, ahem, afterbirth of modern  gibberish, signaling the language’s decline into today’s hodgepodge of co-mingled languages. Anyway, you get the point. Donnelly has to convey this linguistic evolution and he pulls it off spectacularly. Then, just when you think you couldn’t exceed that performance he moves into the hallucinatory Circe episode, which prefigures Finnegans Wake in its resistance to meaning.

It’s a damn tour de force is what it is and it is nearly equaled by Miriam Healy-Louie’s effort in the Penelope chapter, which is basically a stream-of-consciousness monologue by Bloom’s wife Molly. She also is superb. Her feat probably only seems slightly inferior to Donnelly’s because she only has one chapter to interpret, even though it’s like 1600 lines and 40 or so pages of a single sentence-length paragraph. For perspective in count it is the approximate equivalent of reciting the entire text of, oh, say Much Ado About Nothing, which, by the way many think that Ulysses is.

But they are wrong. Ulysses is challenging material, but this performance by Donelly and

James Joyce

James Joyce

Healy-Louie makes it significantly more accessible. Thanks to these two great artists, Joyce’s comedy, inventiveness, intellectual vigor, and, most important, his humanity are on full display.

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One Response to Best audio + best book = well, best audiobook

  1. Brendan says:

    I grew up in Ireland and recorded the first time I read Ulysses – http://joycecast.podomatic.com. My favorite commercial version is Jim Norton’s narration for Naxos – there are also some interesting recordings of the novel on archive.org.

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