Sunday, October 15, 2017

Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War

(Note: A truncated version of this essay was presented at the North American James Joyce Conference at Victoria College in Toronto in June 2017.)

“Enough...have I read of augur in the hurry of the times” (FW 356)

This essay stems from my deep fascination with the years surrounding the publication of Finnegans Wake---James Joyce’s struggle to complete his 17-year magnum opus in the late 1930s as World War II erupted. In 1936 he told a friend that “the disturbed conditions now abroad in the world” made it hard for him to work, “It has been almost impossible for me to continue writing with such terrible anxiety night and day.” (Bowker, 484) Once he finally handed in the finished manuscript of Finnegans Wake in 1939, Joyce lamented, “They had better hurry. War is going to break out, and nobody will be reading my book anymore” (Ellmann, 721). The convergence of humanity’s grandest literary construction appearing in conjunction with man’s most destructive conflict feels highly significant to me. Finnegans Wake was finally published on May 4th 1939 and within four months World War II began.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Returning with Some News

Djuna Barnes illustration.

This blog has been dormant now for nearly three months while I've been tied up with full-time employment, home ownership, unfinished writing projects, and immersive reading experiences, including the pursuits of our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group. To blow the dust off this space, I want to quickly share a few nuggets of Joyce-related news with you.

For one, our Finnegans Wake Reading Group here in Austin is reaching a milestone. We've been meeting regularly now for over five years, engaging in close readings of the text together in our bi-monthly two-hour sessions. We started out doing two pages per meeting, but once we hit the final chapter of the text (Book IV), the material was so dense we started doing one page at a time to fully soak it all in. Lately, we've been reading the final pages of the Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle's bittersweet monologue as the river of life drifts out into the sea of the unknown. In our next meeting, we'll be reading the famous final page, leading into the ricorso back to the beginning.

(Note that we are not completing a full cycle of the text yet, though, because we've been navigating through the Wake using the "treasure map" outlined here. Basically we've been reading the chapters from easiest to hardest. This is actually the seventh chapter we're completing as a group.)

My inspiration to create a Finnegans Wake group in Austin came from my experiences attending meetings of the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Group in Venice, California. Our gradual style of closely reading one or two pages at a time, kicking off the meeting with each participant reading two lines aloud in a circle---that all came from the Venice group led by my friend Gerry Fialka. His group has been deciphering the Wake now for 22 years and they recently received a great writeup in The Argonaut, a Los Angeles newspaper. Here's a snippet:
Fialka, formerly an archivist and production assistant for Frank Zappa, says the club isn’t invested in the author’s intended meanings — that’s impossible to know for sure — but unwrapping various layers of meaning throughout. Dozens of languages mix with English, weaving a tapestry of religious, pop culture, literature and mass media references. Puns, riddles, songs, jokes and allusions surface every which way. The plot, of which arguably there is none, is circular.

“No ‘Finnegans Wake’ reading club is exclusively about ‘Finnegans Wake,’ because ‘Finnegans Wake’ is about everything,” Fialka declares.

Joyce spent 17 years writing the book during a wave of new media technology, and taps into notions of a somnambulistic populous, no longer attentive to their environments. One possible message of the book is “all you Finnegans wake the F up,” Fialka says. “It’s about everything that happened and will happen.”

Another eminent Wakean and friend of mine, Derek Pyle, recently began writing a column in the James Joyce Quarterly covering Joyce-inspired projects in contemporary arts and media. His piece in the latest JJQ (Vol. 52, No. 3-4) included a nice writeup of the Austin Classical Guitar Orchestra performance I participated in last year that was inspired by Finnegans Wake. He even gave this blog a shout out!

The article also discusses the efforts of Polish translator, scholar, and musician Krzysztof Bartnicki to translate Finnegans Wake into a musical composition. "In Da Capo al Finne," Derek explains, "Bartnicki removes all the letters from the Finnegans Wake text except for ABCDEFGH, turning the remaining notes into a musical score (in keeping with German key notation where H indicates B natural and B means B flat). Bartnicki says the resulting text contains snippets of Frederic Chopin's compositions, 'Yankee Doodle,' and lots of themes from Star Wars."

Derek contemplates Bartnicki's observations, leading to an eloquent appraisal of the nature of Finnegans Wake as a living text. He mentions how some academics will scoff at Bartnicki's reading, since Joyce's book does not and could not contain all these things, and provides the following counterpoint:

Imagine, however, that there is a Finnegans Wake that exists not simply as a book but is somewhere in the ether---a wondrous, confused, endless gesture toward the ongoing events during human eons. Perhaps this oceanic tide is ingrained in the book but is ultimately much larger than and independent of the text's specificity. Perhaps this essence is what affects some readers so deeply, evoking imagination, creative inspiration, bemusement, and frustration. Such speculations might prompt the deification of Joyce, but Bartnicki opposes this by further questioning the very nature of authorship, suggesting that the reader's responses to the Wake do not 'belong' to Joyce any more than they 'belong' to the reader.

Lastly, I must mention the news that there is a new film in the works---James and Lucia, set to star Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen in the role of Mr. Joyce. The film will center on Joyce's life as he was composing Finnegans Wake in the late 1920s-early 30s, which: a) is a movie idea I've talked about for years, b) will likely take most of its material from Carol Loeb Schloss' book on this subject (which I wrote about here), and c) will hopefully not suck. I'm honestly more nervous about the film than I am excited for it. I worry they'll make it too sad, dark, grim, leaving out the infinitely humorous and energetic force of the Wake. Or they may try to portray Joyce's relationship with Lucia as incestuous for shock value. Or the movie might just suck and be boring, further reinforcing the notion to the general public that Joyce and Finnegans Wake should be ignored. Although, ya never know, maybe the exact opposite could happen...