Saturday, August 15, 2015

FinWake ATX visits the Ransom Center

The Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin had the privilege of visiting the Harry Ransom Center last week for an exclusive guided tour of some of the archive's most interesting James Joyce related material. It was a special afternoon with 14 of us getting to peruse and handle about a dozen significant objects all laid out in a chronological order that told the story of Joyce's career from 1922 to 1939, plus some of the many artworks spawned by his influence.

Upon arrival at the Ransom Center (located on the University of Texas campus), we were all greeted by a familiar face in the lobby, providing a perfect intro to the proceedings:

It was the head of Joyce himself, looking back at us from a 1938 sculpture made by Sava Botzaris shortly before Finnegans Wake was completed. It is fittingly in all black just like Joyce's autobiographical caricature in the Wake, Shem the Penman, an outcast and despised figure, "this dirty little blacking beetle" (FW p. 171) described as a "nogger among the blankards" (FW p. 188).

Shem the Penman resides in a "Haunted Inkbottle" (FW p. 182) whose messy, hoarded contents are catalogued for more than a page in a hilarious satire that forms one of the most entertaining parts of the book. You can hear Robert Anton Wilson perform this section to perfection:

When we studied this passage in our reading group last year, we got into an in-depth discussion about all the objects we spend our lives collecting (and creating) until we die, when our bodies disappear and our only real remains are the material we surrounded ourselves with. That's what Joyce seemed to be getting at in that passage, we thought, Shem was "writing the mystery of himsel in furniture" (FW p. 184) the same way we all do. The furniture and other belongings we leave behind carry our mysteries like anchors holding our departed spirits to the earthly realm. 

I kept reflecting on that passage in the days after the Ransom Center visit. My memory of the event includes not merely a long row of intriguing objects, but a room swarming with silent ghosts. I kept having dreams featuring invisible spirits and ghosts for a few nights afterward.

Many of the items we saw had so much life to them, so much history. Archaeologists use the so-called "material culture" of old societies to develop conclusions about them and the divining of history from objects has been a popular topic for books lately. On that note, here is a quick rundown of 12 of the objects we got to look at.

1. Ledger of orders for first edition of Ulysses
As an accountant, this simple booklet ended up being one of the most fascinating objects for me. It was a small leather-bound graph-paper book owned by Sylvia Beach which had on each page a carefully inscribed list of names for those people who were pledging money up front to receive copies of Ulysses when it was first published by Shakespeare & Co in 1922 (Miss Beach, who ran a small bookshop and never published anything before, had to take in pre-orders to cover the cost of the printing). I loved the perfect handwriting and precision of the lists, plus it was loaded with names of literary luminaries like William Carlos Williams, W.B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens, not to mention Winston Churchill. Flipping through it briefly I noticed Joyce's patron Harriet Shaw Weaver had one of the largest pre-orders.

2. T.E. Lawrence's personal annotated copy of Ulysses
Lawrence of Arabia carried around a special signed 1st edition copy of Ulysses that he had fitted with sturdy custom leather binding and made frequent notations in it. As HRC guide Rick pointed out to us, the big bulky book had a smell of engine oil, most likely from hanging around in aircraft hangars and being perused by mechanics looking for the notoriously naughty parts. This was a book with some old ghosts in it. I found it thrilling.

3. Ulysses Court Documents
It's incredible to imagine how, throughout the 20s and early 30s, while Joyce was hard at work on his zany history of the world, he was all over the newspapers in the US and Britain because Ulysses was causing such an uproar for its supposed obscenity. This segment of history was covered magnificently by Kevin Birmingham in his book from last year, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. A dossier of files and papers from the court case was displayed, including testimony from critics, scholars, and bookstores on whether the Ulysses was smutty or not. Of course, a landmark decision declared it was indeed not pornography but an epochal work of art and the United States finally got to read Ulysses legally after 11 years of prohibition. 

4. Ulysses page proofs and typed schema
These were kept behind glass because they were just too damn treasured and delicate to be handled. Here were some of the final page proofs for Ulysses featuring Joyce's own edits and corrections made in red crayon. In addition to that was a very long sheet of paper featuring the typed out schema for Ulysses (with a little handwritten note from Joyce). This had been provided to Stuart Gilbert when he was writing the first detailed exegesis of Joyce's labyrinth. While I'd been well aware of the schema, seeing it stretched out in its original form looking like a massive Excel spreadsheet containing all the intricately conceived architecture of possibly the greatest novel ever gave me a tingling in my stomach. 

5. Many editions of Transition featuring earliest published snippets of Work in Progress (Finnegans Wake)
Before the public could finish digesting Ulysses, a small experimental literary journal called transition (founded by Joyce supporters Eugene and Maria Jolas) had begun to publish excerpts from Joyce's newest work. This bizarre and confusing text didn't have a title yet, so it was called Work in Progress. We got to see many editions of transition, each featuring yet another fresh snippet from Joyce with the title "Continuation of A Work in Progress." (You can view the full pre-publication details of Finnegans Wake at the Genetic Joyce Studies webpage.) Joyce kept the title of his new novel a secret during the entire seventeen year writing process, challenging friends to guess what it was and offering a reward of a thousand francs. In 1938, Eugene Jolas managed to correctly guess the title "Finnegans Wake" and Joyce eventually presented him with a bag full of coins. Joyce made them promise not to reveal the title until he'd finished the "final full stop, though there is none."

6. Page proofs of Finnegans Wake
Not sure whether these were proofs for the final published book or for the sections published in transition (guessing the latter), these were typed pages of the first chapter of the book on very thin paper, featuring minor inscriptions and additions presumably from Joyce but possibly from Stuart Gilbert or one of his other helpers since Joyce was nearly blind at this time. It's difficult to imagine how someone could've taken Joyce's barely legible hand-written sheets and typed the text of Finnegans Wake on a typewriter. Almost inconceivable. But somehow it happened.

7. "Tales Told of Shem and Shaun", "Haveth Childers Everywhere" and other early published fragments of Work in Progress 
In the late 1920s-early 30s, some fragments of Work in Progress were published by small presses in standalone pamphlets. Thumbing through these pamphlets, you start to get a sense of the sheer immensity of the final book since it contains many dozens of these segments which alone make nice little books. It'd be nice if someone re-released some of these pamphlets, most of which feature interesting artwork and very large print which allows the complex, idiosyncratic words the breathing room they need. 

8. Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress first edition
What a time it must've been in the late 20s literary world. Readers and supporters baffled by the excerpts of Joyce's newest work were treated to this extraordinary publication in 1929. It's a collection of 12 essays from different writers, each covering a different topic in defense of the genius of Joyce's latest work. The essays first started appearing in literary journals, then were collected here in book form published by Shakespeare & Co (Joyce had plans for another book of essays supporting his book, but the poor sales of Our Exagmination scrapped that). The collection features the first thing Samuel Beckett ever published, an essay entitled "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce." What I find so amazing about this book is that it was attempting to defend and explain a book that still had another 10 years until it was completed.

9. Finnegans Wake 1st edition
Bound in a red cover to symbolize the auburn streams of the Liffey, this first edition text had belonged to a writer/historian/scholar(?) whose name escapes me but the gentleman lived on an island and the pages in his copy of Finnegans Wake showed the effects. As my pal Brendan quipped, "a river runs through it."

10. ALP bookbinding art (unknown artist)
We now began progressing past the origins and into the derivative artwork. This was an edition of Finnegans Wake with a leather bookbinding featuring a beautiful design of ALP's face and winding hair. 

11. Philip Smith bookbinding art for Finnegans Wake
Minds were blown. This is without a doubt the coolest book I've ever seen in my life. Created by the same artist who made the bookbinding art featured on the background and sidebar of this blog, this was an alternate version featuring a grim corpse laying across the front and back cover. The book came in an elaborate, large case with special instructions on how it should be handled. This thing was dripping with art, every piece of it was special. When you took a close look at the dreadful corpse sculpted on the cover, his eyes were wide open. Finnegan was awakening. Thankfully someone managed to sneak a picture of this one:

12. "Valentines for James Joyce" by Elsa de Brun (aka Nuala)
This was the biggest crowd pleaser and will surely end up being the thing that stays with us the longest. Elsa de Brun was an abstract artist who painted under the Gaelic name Nuala. She lived in New York City and was known for creating stained glass windows in some prominent NYC spots. You can find some interesting pieces about her in the NY Times. Clearly touched deeply by Finnegans Wake, she created a series of 43 pastel artworks each inspired by a passage from the book. The majesty of these works of art had us all in awe. They were so intricately weaved, crisply drawn, and thickly layered that the sheer devotion that it must've taken to create them blew me away.

Our group was so taken by this collection that we've decided to pursue publication of it all in book form. It will surely be a challenge as none of has any experience doing this type of thing, but we're inspired and already making progress.

A website and Facebook page have been created to document this endeavor and we greatly appreciate your support and interest:

(Special thanks to Brian McNerney for orchestrating this event.)