Tuesday, 11 November 2008

X : Finnegans Wake

In the spring of 1982 John Cayley, specialist in Chinese at Durham University, had the idea of a collaborative reading of Finnegans Wake. It was open to all volunteers, none of whom turned out to be very familiar with the book; but all were enthusiastic, and eventually it became four readings, culminating on Bloomsday, June 16th, in the large and hideous hall of the Castle Chare.

The first was in the small bar of the Colpitts Hotel, and since there was plenty of bright daylight I used the Rolleiflex; the next two were in the upstairs room of the Bridge Hotel, again at lunch time, and I used a fixed-lens compact camera, the Olympus 35RC, surely the best of its type ever produced, and still doing hard work.

I can claim to have read and re-read the whole of Finnegans wake, largely thanks to having borrowed the Skeleton Key, without which I should have given it up, baffled. Also to my invariable policy of skipping when a book begins to drag.

My mother first made me aware of the existence of “Work in Progress” , and I borrowed “Anna Livia Plurabelle” and “Two Tales of Shem and Shaun” from the admirable Croydon Public Library, but could make nothing of them, even after borrowing “Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress”. I first handled the whole book in 1954, again without success; it was a production of Mary Manning’s “The Voice of Shem” by the Questors Theatre, Ealing, in September 1958 which really introduced me to it; I bought the book, and later the record of Cyril Cusack reading Shem, and Siobhan McKenna reading ALP. This record was a great help when I chose to take the part of Shem in these co-operative readings. The main hazard was that of adopting a bogus Irish accent.

It so happened that my third and last son, Stephen, was born in March 1958. He was not a contented child in his early years; his immediately elder brother, Jeremy, was already showing that out-going character which was to make him a great party man – his parties in the early seventies have given me a rich photo-archive of goings-on. It became clear to me that here I had a classic case of Shem and Shaun, and I was most satisfied to find an existing artistic pattern in my own life.

Finnegans Wake is a fine funny poetic book, and this fact animates the pictures.

David Fuller and Anne Stevenson at the Finnegans Wake reading, Colpitts, 17/04/1982

At the same reading.

Patty O’Boyle and David Burnett at the Finnegans Wake reading, Bridge Hotel, Durham 08/05/1982

At the same reading.

Finnegans Wake reading, Bridge Hotel, Durham 22/05/1982

Bron Frith at the same reading.

Finnegans Wake reading, Castle Chare, Durham 16/06/1982

John Cayley, same occasion.

Overhead projection of the Wake, p617.

1 comment:

Stephen James said...

Shem and Shaun, a witty literary comparison. But the passage about Shem is long, bitter, furious and unrelentingly contemptuous and I wonder what a child might have done to inspire this reaction. Or what a child might have done to prevent it.


My old sad beery father.

Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he'd come from Arkangels, I sink to die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup.