Senn master – Terence Killeen on a presidential award for one of the world’s foremost authorities on Joyce

President has been a strong supporter of Fritz Senn’s James Joyce Foundation

To say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house would probably be an exaggeration. But as 96-year-old Fritz Senn made his unaided way up the platform to receive from Michael D Higgins a presidential award for distinguished service to Ireland overseas it was certainly a highly emotional moment. –

Senn had come a long way – literally, from Zürich in Switzerland, and psychologically, from times of setback, personal tragedy and depression – to Áras an Uachtaráin last January to receive this award.

What brought him there – and what, he would probably say, had literally saved his life at times – was his devotion to the study of James Joyce, on whom he is one of the world’s foremost authorities.

In 1985, Senn set up the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich, after being let go from his job as a proofreader at a publisher’s. At the time it had appeared that his vast Joyce collection – the finest private collection in Europe – would have to be dispersed. But happily friends stepped in and with initial support from the Union Bank of Switzerland the Foundation became the repository for Senn’s Joyce books, a collection that has been greatly enhanced since.

A very special contribution was the bequest from Hans Jahnke, stepson of Giorgio Joyce, of much material from the Joyce family archives, hugely upgrading the Zurich Foundation’s importance in Joyce studies.

The Foundation’s establishment and work – it hosts many workshops and lectures, among other events – was one of the paths that led Senn to the Áras last January. But it was not the only one: Senn is also one of the world’s leading Joyce scholars, with a treasury of essays on Joyce’s works, especially Ulysses. These are brilliant explorations of Joyce’s linguistic universe, unparalleled in their sensitivity to nuances of meaning, to verbal echoes, to overtones and undertones, to connections and disjunctions. To call Senn a close reader is an understatement: he often gives the impression that he has the entirety of Ulysses in his head at all times, that he mentally carries it around with him.

His approach to Joyce’s work makes a mockery of the overdone distinction between “academic” and “amateur” study of the writer. He has never held an academic position but his scholarship is as impeccable as any.

Indeed, this slightly dishevelled, modest, unprofessional man has a strong claim to be the world’s pre-eminent living authority on Joyce, far outstripping any professor one might care to name.

As a person Senn is mordant, very witty, self-deprecating, very entertaining to be with. (There is an occasional acerbic side as well, just for variety – he would never claim to be a saint.)

As a critic he is perhaps above all grounded: he is not inclined to entertain theories or speculations which are not properly based in the actual work.

Nor is he very impressed by people who seem to have some kind of privileged access to the mind of Joyce, who know exactly what the writer thought, wanted and believed.

His goals are much more modest, but equally, they are much better founded.

Senn was born in Basel in 1928, but the family moved to Zürich quite early in his life. He attended the University of Zürich but dropped out early without taking any degree. He is the author of two books, Joyce’s Dislocutions and Inductive Scrutinies, which are collections of some of his finest essays over the years and of a volume of memoirs, called Joycean Murmoirs.

His interest in Joyce, and especially Ulysses, developed soon after the second World War. He read the book, found it intriguing, and decided he wanted to know more about it. From early on in his investigations – in his case the early 1950s – he grew very close to the Dublin setting of Joyce’s work, visiting it early and often.

He has always been a great collector of physical memorabilia relating to “Joyce’s Dublin”, and of which the Zurich Foundation holds a great store, from pandybats to Jacob’s biscuit tins. Indeed, older residents of the city might feel more at home in the Foundation than they do in Dublin’s current incarnation.

Senn’s visit to the Áras to receive his honour, accompanied from Zurich by his daughter Mia, was by no means the first time the President had encountered him. Michael D has been a strong supporter of the Zürich Foundation for some time: he visited it during his first term, and was absurdly criticised for it by a rival candidate during his second election campaign. It is hard to see how public money spent on such a visit could be called wasted.

Senn and the President co-operated on the laying of a plaque beside Joyce’s grave in Zürich last year containing a poem by Joyce about his daughter, Lucia. In this way, Lucia, who is buried in Northampton, is commemorated beside the graves of her parents. The idea for the plaque was that of the late Stephen Joyce, Joyce’s grandson, but its execution was the work of the President and Senn, acting together.

So the Áras award – presented along with 12 others – was a particularly fitting testimonial to someone who, over a now very long career, has been a principal exponent of one of Ireland’s great writers, helping to rectify many years of neglect and indifference and to bring home to us just what we have got going for us in spite of all.

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