Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

The Third Decade – book group books

1st edition – 1925

Last month our book group celebrated 20 years together. The first book was Atonement by Ian McEwan.

Here are the latest books we have read (May 2020 – December 2021). This post links to a series of posts which go back through every title we have chosen over the years. The first link back is here.

Milkman by Anna Burns (May-June 2020)

The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (July-Sept 2020)

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (Oct-Nov 2020)

The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens (Nov-Dec 2020)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Dec-Jan 2021)

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Feb-Mar 2021)

Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe (Mar-Apr 2021)

Fidelity by Marco Missiroli (April-May 2021)

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (Jun-Jul 2021)

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Jul-Sept 2021)

China Dream by Ma Jian (Sep-Oct 2021)

Bewilderment by Richard Powers (Nov-Dec 2021)

Sympathy for the Devil inspired by Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita

Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

Coincidence No. 347 – Keats

A post on Simple Pleasures part 4, prompted by a Poem on the Underground eight days ago, quoted a famous line from John Keats’ Endymion

Three days ago a gift was received at ArkAngel HQ – an 1894 copy of selections from Keats’ poems published by Routledge (with whom ArkAngel is currently in discussions about a book).

Tawney was 16 at this time
The subject of the recent post

Just before drafting this post a quick search for RH Tawney revealed he is not some long-forgotten Victorian reader but a significant figure in British economic history. Richard Henry ‘Harry’ Tawney, according to that other double-initialled historian AL Rowse, “exercised the widest influence of any historian of his time, politically, socially and, above all, educationally.” Tawney was a leading Christian Socialist and a vocal champion of Adult Education.

He was born in 1880 (so was 16 when he acquired this volume) and died in 1962. On a plaque to him in Lissenden Gardens near Parliament Hill he is dubbed “Founding Father of the Welfare State”.

 

RH Tawney

Free State Monopoly

There aren’t that many things not on the Internet. But here’s one. At least it only has a tiny presence thanks to ArkAngel client Google Arts & Culture and The Little Museum of Dublin. Here’s that one screen

And now it’s time to correct the situation…

An Irish Monopoly set from 1936

This set was picked up in Carlingford, Co. Louth around 2012. It was manufactured during the Free State period (1922-1937) in Ireland which adds a whole level of interest to this artefact. The patent application number indicates it dates from 1936, the penultimate year of the Free State.

Reference to the Irish Free State in the instructions.

The Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) existed from 6th December 1922 to 29th December 1937. It was established  under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 which marked the end of the three-year Irish War of Independence, an event whose centenary falls this year. It pitched the forces of the emerging Irish Republic in the form of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against the British armed forces and various paramilitaries. In the wake of the signing of the Treaty an even more bitter and highly divisive conflict erupted in the Irish Civil War (June 1922 – May 1923).

When I was over at RTE (the main Irish public service broadcaster) in Dublin in 2017 speaking to their board about digital strategy two of the participants in the meeting had to leave slightly early to go meet the President and discuss plans for the marking of the centenary of the Civil War a full five years out, indicative of how sensitive the subject still is a hundred years on.

The only thing missing is the dice shaker

A second small presence has come to light in researching this post – the vestiges of an eBay sale on Worthopedia, an antiques price guide. There are some photos of a set in much worse condition but it includes a dice shaker. That set seems to be missing one of the six player pieces. 

From crummy Crumlin to the shrewd investment of Shrewsbury Road

This set was dug out last night thanks to James Joyce – specifically the Finnegans Wake Research Seminar at the Institute of English Studies & School of Advanced Study at the University of London. We were focused on this part-sentence: “terminals four my staties were, the Geenar, the Greasouwea, the Debwickweck, the Mifgreawis.” It’s a reference to the four key stations (“staties” is a dimunitive of stations plus a nod to the Free State/Free Staters)  in Dublin (before they were renamed to their current names) and by extension to the four provinces of Ireland: Great Northern (Amiens Street; Ulster); Great Southern & Western (King’s Bridge; Munster); Dublin, Wicklow & Wexford (Westland Row; Leinster); and Midland Great Western (Broadstone; Connacht). It got me thinking as to whether those stations appear on my old Monopoly set. It turned out there are no stations – in their place are cinemas or ‘cinema theatres’ as they were then termed, reflecting the transition from one popular entertainment medium (of the 19th Century) to the next (which characterised the 20th Century), ‘picture palaces’ being in their heyday in Ireland when this set was made.

Three cinemas and a theatre displace:

King’s Cross / Reading Railroad
Marylebone Station / Pennsylvania Railroad
Fenchurch Street / B. & O. Railroad
Liverpool Street / Short Line

depending whether you are British / American. The cinemas are all from the posh sounding Savoy chain – the Dublin, Limerick and Cork branches.

Presumably the name is derived from the Savoy Hotel in London. That has its own theatrical links as it was built by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, funded by the profits from his Gilbert & Sullivan opera productions. It opened in August 1889 and was the first luxury hotel in Britain, introducing electric lights, electric lifts and bathrooms with constant hot and cold running water. Which brings us to the Electric Company and the Water Works, both of which are present and correct. One of the best sections in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is an encyclopaedic yet poetic description of the water works serving Dublin. The protagonist Leopold Bloom is boiling some water for tea:

“What did Bloom do at the range?

He removed the saucepan to the left hob, rose and carried the iron kettle to the sink in order to tap the current by turning the faucet to let it flow.

Did it flow?

Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of 5 pounds per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250 feet to the city boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street, though from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12 1/2 million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr Spencer Harty, C. E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the impotable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) particularly as the South Dublin Guardians, notwithstanding their ration of 15 gallons per day per pauper supplied through a 6 inch meter, had been convicted of a wastage of 20,000 gallons per night by a reading of their meter on the affirmation of the law agent of the corporation, Mr Ignatius Rice, solicitor, thereby acting to the detriment of another section of the public, selfsupporting taxpayers, solvent, sound.

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?

Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea:.. “

D’Oyly Carte hired César Ritz as hotel manager and Auguste Escoffier as chef de cuisine – in the spirit of love of coincidences, Gilou Escoffier is the name of a key character in one of the best box sets around: ‘Engrenages’ (‘Spiral’ in English) – it’s the last thing I was watching (last night) before writing this. Eight series are currently available on BBC iPlayer. It’s a police/ lawyer / prison drama which is currently the best way to visit Paris – via a flight of fancy.

Joyce wrote ‘Ulysses’ in exile on mainland Europe and reconstructed his native city from Thom’s, a comprehensive guide to Dublin, specifically the 1904 edition, which is the year the novel is set. 


Thom’s Official Directory
(Dublin, 1904)

I first saw a copy of this book at the Stiftung James Joyce (JJ Institute) in Zurich, guided by the venerable head of the institute, Fritz Senn. I started by checking out my sister-in-law’s street in Ballybough near Croke Park as it was in 1904 as a test case of a place I knew intimately in the city. It’s only 5 minutes’ walk from Bloom’s house where he was boiling the kettle that night in 1904. The section of ‘Finnegans Wake’ we were exploring last night, led by Professor Finn Fordham of Royal Holloway, University of London, involved some kind of recreation of the city through maps. Whipping out the old Irish Monopoly board seemed entirely appropriate as it is one of the most famous (and distorted) recreations of a city (various cities) ever. 

Coincidences No. 114 & 115

WordPress is telling me I registered with it 14 years ago – digital time flies. To mark the occasion here’s one of those word coincidences we all have. The word is ‘helpmeet’ – “A helpful partner, particularly a spouse.” It comes from the Bible, in the King James’ version: “an helpe meet” for Adam i.e. Eve (Genesis 2:18). So this also marks the occasion of my Silver Wedding Anniversary this week. I always associate “helpmeet” with Eve in the Old Testament.

Now I haven’t thought about the word ‘helpmeet’, or even the more common ‘helpmate’, in many a year. But it cropped up twice today before 8.00am.

I am writing in my Faber & Faber Poetry Diary 2020. Opposite today’s date is a poem by Julia Copus, ‘Lacan Appeals to the Patient’. It has the line:

Beyond the clayey dark your helpmeet is waiting. 

It is clear this particular helpmeet is masculine and I think it refers to the sculptor in the poem which I understand to be the Creator, perhaps God, perhaps some other kind of artist or higher being. The name Adam means ‘red earth’ or perhaps ‘red clay’. It is the substance God moulded the First Man from in the Bible and this poem is about the shaping of “one’s selfhood”.

Started during lockdown, I am now up to page 242 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Today’s page contains this line:

Helpmeat too, contrasta toga, his fiery goosemother, laotsey taotsey, woman who did, he tell princes of the age about.

To be honest I’m a bit lost in this chapter – it’s about the three children in the story, two brothers (a bit like Cain and Abel from Genesis) and a sister. It has a lot of references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, hence “fiery goosemother” = fairy godmother meets goosey goosey gander. “laotsey taotsey” may echo ‘goosey goosey’. “Fiery” may relate to the fact that one of the brothers (the one this sentence is about, I think) is associated with the devil. “Helpmeat” will be a deliberate pun/misspelling as that is the nature of the novel. I’m fairly sure it is referencing biblical Eve. Joyce had a strong Eve character in his own life – his wife Nora Barnacle from Galway. What the woman “did” I’m not sure, but it might include eating the forbidden fruit. The man might well find that something to tell princes and others about. 

“laotsey” is a reference to Lao-tse, the ancient Chinese philosopher and central figure in Taoism. The Woman Who Did is a Victorian novel (1895) by Grant Allen. “taotsey” may be related to ‘tutti’ type words i.e. ‘all’. Finnegans Wake is constructed from such layers of meaning and reference. The trick with both Finnegans Wake and Ulysses is not to get too hung up on understanding every word. 

1st (trade) edition, Faber & Faber, London, 1939

My edition of Finnegans Wake is a Penguin Modern Classic. But of course the original publication was by the bold, Modernist Faber & Faber. So that is Coincidence No. 115.

Simple Pleasures of Summer

From Summer by Ali Smith, published this month, the fourth of her seasons series. I picked the quotation out for its reference to Simple Pleasures.

This section is from just after the bit where this lane with its grassline down the middle appears

What a great thing it must be, to be able to make a seat like that look so good.
The best thing is, it’ll last, he says. Decades. Simple pleasures.
Simple pleasures, she says. I was just walking along thinking about them. Well, about how I tend to wish pleasures were a lot simpler than they end up being.
He laughs.
He licks the cigarette paper along its edge.
Uh huh? he says.
Oh, you know, she says. How even when things are lovely it’s like we can’t help blocking them from ourselves. What a lovely summer it is and how, it’s like, no matter what we do, we can’t get near its loveliness.

This links to another key paragraph set along the lane in the image above:

The briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account – because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed.
Not even this one she’s in exists. Even though it’s apparently the best summer so far of the century. Not even when she is quite literally walking down a road as beautiful and archetypal as this through an actual perfect summer afternoon.
So we mourn it while we’re in it. Look at me walking down the road in summer thinking about the transience of summer.
Even while I’m right at the heart of it I just can’t get to the heart of it.

I call this the Beauty Stab.

Schema for Ulysses

To mark Bloomsday 2020 (or Zoomsday as it has widely become known due to Corona Lockdown circumstances this year) I’ve decided to publish Joyce’s 1921 schema for the novel (largely for my own convenient reference).

Title Scene Hour Organ Colour Symbol Art Techniq-ue
1

Telemac-hus

The Tower (Sandycove) 8am White & gold Heir Theology Narrative (young)
2

Nestor

The School 10am Brown Horse History Catechism (personal)
3

Proteus

The Strand

(Sandymount strand)

11am Green Tide Philology Monologue (male)
4

Calypso

The House

(Eccles St)

8am Kidney Orange Nymph Economics Narrative (mature)
5

Lotus Eaters

The Bath 10am Genitals Eucharist Botany & chemistry Narcissism
6

Hades

The Graveyard

(Glasnevin)

11am Heart White & black Caretaker Religion Incubism
7

Aeolus

The Newspaper 12 noon Lungs Red Editor Rhetoric Enthymemic
8

Lestrygo-nians

The Lunch 1pm Oesophagus Constables Architecture Peristaltic
9

Scylla & Chary-bdis

The Library

(National Library)

2pm Brain Stratford & London Literature Dialectic
10

Wanderi-ng Rocks

The Streets 3pm Blood Citizens Mechanics Labyrinth
11

Sirens

The Concert Room

(Ormond Hotel)

4pm Ear (Gold & Bronze) Barmaids Music Fuga per canonem
12

Cyclops

The Tavern 5pm Muscle Fenian Politics Gigantism
13

Nausica-a

The Rocks

(Sandymount strand)

8pm Eye, nose Grey & blue Virgin Painting Tumescence / detumescence
14

Oxen of the Sun

The Hospital (Holles St) 10pm Womb White Mothers Medicine Embryonic development
15

Circe

The Brothel 12am Locomotor apparatus Whore Magic Hallucination
16

Eumaeu-s

The Shelter 1am Nerves Sailors Navigation Narrative (old)
17

Ithaca

The House

(Eccles St)

2am Skeleton Comets Science Catechism (impersonal)
18

Penelop-e

The Bed

(Eccles St)

Flesh Earth Monologue (female)

We had a three hour reading session on Zoom at sundown with a reading from each chapter, we being the Charles Peake Ulysses Seminar of the University of London/Senate House. I read a section from Ithaca in which our protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, have a piss out back of the latter’s house after a night on the town.

Screenshot 2020-06-16 18.09.59

I re-started my third reading of the book today to mark the occasion. My plan is to keep reading it on an endless cycle until I drop into the black hole myself.

Then they follow: dropping into a hole one after the other.

[Hades]

My Ulysses library copies editions book james joyce

A big chunk of my Ulysses library

In the Wake of Waking Up

I’m writing this after having just finished an online session about the Sirens chapter of Ulysses with the Charles Peake Seminar group – it’s the chapter centred on music. I switched straight from that which finished at 8pm to a live online gig from the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin by Iarla O Leonaird (singer in Gaelic) & Steve Cooney (guitar player) which started at 8pm. Music is a Big Thing for Joyce – this morning I got to The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly at the end of the second chapter of Finnegans Wake, marking the culmination of the rumours about HCE’s shameful act, fixing that moment for the long term in folksong. It actually opens with musical staves and notes, underlining the collagey, encyclopedic and scrapbooky nature of the Wake.

Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
How he fell with a roll and a rumble
And he curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple
At the butt of the Magazine Wall,
The Magazine Wall,
Hump, helmet and all?

He was one time our King of the Castle
Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip.
And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of His Worship
To the penal jail of Mountjoy
To the jail of Mountjoy!
Jail him and joy.

I noticed this morning after finishing this section and the couple of pages before it that when I went to read another (conventional) novel it took a good few minutes to go back to conventional reading – you get into a different mode of reading and thinking when immersed in the Wake. It was a really interesting reading experience. The way you read the Wake is more engaged, playful and energetic than normal reading.

I want to finish off this second post by starting a couple of lists. The central character, HCE, has his initials explained in a number of ways in the book and I want to start capturing them:

  • Harold or Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (p30) – see last post
  • Howth Castle and Environs (3) = 1st line of the novel, a key location in both the Wake and Ulysses
  • Haveth Childers Everywhere (a section published in 1930 as part of Work in Progress) = Adam, father of mankind
  • humile, commune and ensectuous (29)
  • Here Comes Everybody (32) = Everyman
  • habituels conspicuously emergent (33)
  • He’ll Cheat E’erawan (46) = a sinful fella

HCE Group-Logo-Landscape-Colour

Another list I want to begin here is one of all the different ways Joyce refers to the city at the heart of the novel (as with Ulysses) – Dublin:

  • Dabblin (p16)
  • (Brian) d’ of Linn (17)
  • dun blink (17)
  • durblin (19)
  • Devlin (24)
  • Dumbaling (34)
  • Poolblack (35) = Dub/black Lin/Pool : dubh linn (Gaelic) black pool

phoenix-park map finnegans wake

The focus of Wake’s Dublin

(I’ll keep building these lists as I read through.)

 

Waking Up

My favourite book is Ulysses by James Joyce. I first read (most of it) at university, completed it six years later. By that time it resonated far more for me – I’d got to know and love Ireland in the interim. It has a reputation for being difficult but once you let go a bit and let it flow over you to some extent it becomes both readable and enjoyable. It feels to me like it’s about everything.

finnegans wake james joyce book novel

Inevitably after a few years the thought occurred to read Joyce’s follow-up, Finnegans Wake. In November 2017 I bought myself a copy of A Shorter Finnegans Wake, edited by Anthony Burgess. The longer original seemed so intimidating that I felt this attractive slimmish Faber volume might be the route in. But on opening to the first page it looked absolutely unreadable. A codebook with no key. Like nothing I’d ever seen, apart from perhaps the most obscure, chaotic parts of Ulysses – reminiscent but far more convoluted.

At the beginning of 2018, on 5th January, I joined the Charles Peake Seminar at the University of London, a monthly gathering at Senate House of mainly academics close-reading Ulysses, which I’d first been told about years before by Fritz Senn, the director of the James Joyce Institute in Zurich. “Good timing”, the person beside me whispered, “we’re just starting a new chapter!” I wasn’t particularly impressed until it came to light that the last one had taken 5 years. We’re talking close reading here.

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

One of the regular attendees at the Charles Peake was Finn Fordham from Royal Holloway who led another sister seminar on Finnegans Wake, also monthly, same place. He persuaded me to try it out, reassuring me that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the book. My first session was on 23rd February 2018. we were on page 538. Now we’re on page 547. Two and a bit years to cover 9 pages!

But these two years proved crucial. A few weeks ago, during the Coronavirus lockdown, our seminar having shifted online for now and doubled in frequency through demand and enthusiasm, I realised, after a particularly enjoyable session, looking back to page 1 that I could now read what once seemed unreadable. On 26th April (2020) I embarked on the journey through the Wake. Reading at least a couple of pages every day, usually to get my day under way, I have now read the first couple of chapters, the first 50 pages, in half a month.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

I’m glad to get a name-check in the opening line. The central character is HCE. By my reading so far HCE is Adam (among others). HCE is a man who has a great fall by committing a sin in a garden or park, Phoenix Park in Dublin. It involves sex and breaking the law. He might have been exposing himself to some young ladies or wanking in a hidden place. He may have been frolicking with some soldiers. His crime changes with each telling. Rumours abound. HCE stands, we are told at the start of Chapter 2, for Harold or Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Humphrey connects him to another bad egg (or ego) who had a great fall, Humpty Dumpty. Chimpden is a reminder that we are but bald apes. Earwicker renders him/us lower, creepy weird insects (earwigs). But at the same time HCE is also some kind of a king. This is the night book to Ulysses‘ book of a single day around Dublin city. This one takes us to dawn through the obscurity and dream-world of a typically chaotic, but not without pattern, human sleep. Humphrey becomes Humpty becomes Adam becomes Everyman, struggling with identity, guilt and self-justification, interacting with a family equally fluid, in a language playful, funny, obscure, frustrating, innovative and plumbing the depths for things that don’t really want to come to light…

James Joyce portrait Irish writer novelist

To see or not to see, that is the question

 

19 years and counting

Our book group started in November 2001 with much the same personnel as we have now (lost one or two along the way with moves out of town etc., added one or two to bring fresh blood). I’ve ended up being the one archiving the titles read so here is the last two years’ worth since I last made a record in December 2017.

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer book novel cover design

  • Fire & Fury by Michael Wolff – Feb 2018
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens – Mar 2018
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Apr 2018
  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid – June 2018
  • The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst – Sept 2018
  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – Oct 2018
  • Arno Geiger – The Old King in his Exile (Oct-Nov 2018)
  • Ann Tyler – Back when we were grown-ups (Dec-Jan 2019)
  • Crudo – Olivia Laing (Jan-Feb 2019)
  • I Served The King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (Mar-Apr 2019)
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Apr-May 2019)
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (June-Aug 2019) [my choice]
  • To Calais, in ordinary time – James Meek (Sep-Oct 2019)
  • The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Nov-Dec 2019)
  • Karoo – Steve Tesich (Dec-Jan 2020)
  • Old Filth by Jane Gardam (Feb-Mar 2020)
  • A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (March 2020)
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (April 2020)

To Calais, in ordinary time – James Meek book novel cover design

A fine plague book

 

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