Happy returns – An Irishman’s Diary on Joyce scholar Fritz Senn

On January 1st this year, a very significant birthday was celebrated in Zürich: the 90th of Fritz Senn, by general account the world’s most eminent Joyce scholar, and not only in terms of seniority.

Fritz is the last of the heroic first generation of Joyce scholars, the ones who embarked on the exploration of this writer with very few research tools, with scanty information, for the most part, as to Joyce's Irish background and in the face of at best indifference and sometimes outright hostility from those outside the circle. (In The Irish Times of June 1967, Quidnunc, the late Seamus Kelly, then the incumbent of this column, memorably wrote of the first Joyce Symposium, "The Joyce Symposers were at it again yesterday...") Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, this band of pioneers were largely not academics: one or two were, but they were well scattered and formed only a small part of the group.

Fritz was probably the most exotic specimen: a proofreader for a publisher in Zürich, he had no academic background apart from a couple of unproductive years in the city's university. His interest in Joyce had largely been a matter of chance: he had come across a copy of Ulysses somewhere, found himself most intrigued by the work's very strangeness, and so began a lifelong interest. Fritz, therefore, cannot be accused on jumping on any Joycean bandwagon – there was no bandwagon when he began, indeed in many ways he got it rolling, though not all of its manifestations would prove agreeable to him. He remained involved for many years in what has disparagingly been called the Joyce industry, helping to organise symposiums and seminars, generally spreading the word.

Meanwhile, a stream of brilliantly original articles, mostly published in the recently founded James Joyce Quarterly, established his international reputation.

Fritz's approach to Joyce was a very special one. An important element of it was his foreignness: he paid particular attention to Joyce's language, to the actual words, asking himself basic questions: what does this passage mean? How would you translate it? He was, and is, uniquely sensitive to the nuances of Joyce's prose, the overtones and the implications, and this is matched by a knowledge of the work, especially Ulysses, that is truly encyclopaedic.

From an early stage, also, he was very aware of the importance of Dublin to Joyce’s writing, and made strenuous efforts to acquaint himself with the city and its history.

On the more negative side, he had – and very much has – a healthy scepticism of people who appeared – and appear – to have privileged access to the inner workings of Joyce’s mind: sentences that begin “Joyce believed”, or “Joyce thought” always arouse his ire; he frequently remarks that not having known the writer, he is in no position to expound on his personality or beliefs. He is also sceptical of people who tend to construct a Joyce who is very much in their own image. (Both tendencies were liberally on display in the recent RTÉ documentary on the writer.)

In the early 1980s, Fritz lost his job with the Zürich publishers, and it appeared that his Joyce library, certainly the finest private such library in Europe, would have to be sold off, among other privations.

At this point a group of his friends, aided by a Swiss bank – ah, these Swiss banks – gathered together and established the Zürich James Joyce Foundation, a centre in the city which housed the library and hosts a range of Joycean activities: workshops, lectures, performances, exhibitions, etc. It is also home to a host of Joycean memorabilia – things such as pandybats, shaving mugs, jars of Plumtree’s potted meat – another area in which Fritz, a great collector, is keenly interested.

The Zürich Foundation always possessed some very important Joyce material, but this was greatly enhanced by the bequest of Hans Jahnke, son of Joyce’s son Giorgio’s second wife, Asta Jahnke. This consisted of some personal correspondence between Joyce and his son, as well as much other material, including manuscripts.

This bequest greatly heightened the already high standing of the foundation in the Joyce world, and although it did lead to a painful episode in which the foundation’s hospitality and facilities were abused, it remains a very valuable resource for scholars and researchers everywhere.

Fritz has had three important books in English extracted from him over the years (he is anything but a professional author): Joyce's Dislocutions, Inductive Scrutinies and Joycean Murmoirs, a volume of reminiscences conducted in interviews with Christine O'Neill.

A Senn lecture is a unique experience: at its best, it is a weave of interconnections, of allusions, of brilliant interpretations, deploying a deep knowledge and sheer awareness of the texts that no one could hope to emulate.

The contribution to Ireland’s culture of this good friend of the country has been recognised by the award of an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland in 2004 and by a visit of President Mary Robinson to the Zürich foundation in the 1990s. Last summer, aged nearly 90, Fritz led a group of Joyceans on a walking tour of Joyce’s Zürich in which he easily outpaced all his companions; he continues to lecture and hold seminars at both the Dublin and Trieste summer schools each year, as well as running an annual workshop at his own Zürich foundation.

It is especially appropriate, in this instance, to offer a birthday wish in the words of Finnegans Wake: "Teems of times and happy returns."