Frank Delaney (1942-2017)

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 26, 2017

Long ago, when a girlfriend fired me without notice, I started each day by writing “She doesn’t love” me 50 times because until I burned the fact into my head, I didn’t believe it. I feel that way about Frank Delaney’s death. I can grasp, with difficulty, that he had a stroke and died. What I can’t grasp is that his mind died as well, because Frank’s mind was about the greatest piece of living architecture I’ve ever encountered.

He got the Great Man obit in the Times — deservedly. As a broadcaster for the BBC, he interviewed 3,500 writers over three decades so knowledgeably and crisply that he was described as “the most eloquent man in the world.” As a writer, he published 16 novels and 6 non-fiction books. And as a champion of Joyce, he was devoted — each week, he did a podcast that dissected a line or two of “Ulysses.” That was, he estimated, a 30-year project. Readers were happy to take the ride: The 300 episodes of “Re:Joyce” have been downloaded more than 2 million times.

Re:Joyce is a good demonstration of Frank Delaney as a reader’s reader — a popularizer. Here’s a bit from Episode 1, in which he tackles the famous opening sentence (“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”):

“Stately” means dignified, especially in ceremonial. In important processions, people adopt a stately way of walking, but here, the word ‘stately’ is followed by the three words, “plump Buck Mulligan.” Nothing stately about the word “plump,” is there? In fact, it’s a term you poke fun with.
So here’s a man with a stately walk and he’s called “Buck,” which indicates some capacity to roister, and he’s plump. So what’s going on? If you ever want to understand multitasking in prose, James Joyce is your man.
Every sentence in “Ulysses” has more than one meaning, and sometimes many meanings. Here, he’s poking fun at this character Buck Mulligan, who is something of a fun-poker himself, which is why his walk is stately. So the man doing the mocking is also being mocked.

But what made Frank Delaney a treasure was the force and vitality of his personality. Here he briefly profiles James Joyce — in rap:

And he compares beating writer’s block to an affair that strengthens a marriage:

Imagine this personality at dinner. For a great talker, he was a great listener. Once I went on a bit in praise of John le Carré. Frank heard me out and then told some personal stories about the legendary writer which, if repeated, would get me sued in England. He didn’t present this information as a corrective or a rebuke; he just thought I might like to know.

To wear erudition lightly, to not intimidate, to reject intellectual snobbery — in my world, these are rare gifts. Liberating gifts, at that. When I was writing my play, I didn’t hesitate to send Frank the first act, and he didn’t hesitate to point out its flaws and urge me to keep going — he took me seriously as a playwright, which was just what I wanted and needed. And he was immensely funny. When a writer who downplayed her stunning good looks served up precious sentiments about Art on the Web, Frank and I traded retro male comments with a glee that often inspired Diane Meier, his adoring wife and partner, to step in with a schoolmarmish “Boys…. boys…”

It was glorious to be his friend.