Thursday, 17 October 2013

Reading Shem in Sweny's

My weekend in Dublin ended with a return visit to Sweny's Pharmacy, to join in their regular Sunday night reading of Finnegans Wake. On arrival, I was welcomed by volunteer P.J.Murphy, in his white chemist's coat, who offered me a mug of tea and a paperback copy of the book. Twelve people arrived for the reading, and we all sat around the walls of the Pharmacy.

There were also free fairy cakes!

Fairy cakes!
I was nervous beforehand, because I've always believed that Finnegans Wake should be read in an Irish accent. While I'm happy to do that on my own, I'd be  embarrassed to put on an Irish accent in front of a room full of Irish people.

So it was a relief to find that there were other non-Irish folk there. I sat between David Cunningham, a Scottish lighting designer, who was working on a production at the Abbey, and Kirsten, a Danish journalist who'd just moved to Dublin and was discovering Joyce for the first time. She'd already been to the Ulysses reading at Sweny's. I think, after that, Finnegans Wake came as a bit of a shock! There was also a jolly American and another Englishman. The remaining seven were Irish.

Kirsten from Denmark

A jolly American

The reading was begun by the bearded Irishman (below) behind the counter, who explained that we were in the Shem the Penman chapter, starting from the middle of page 176. Shem the Penman is a comic and grotesque portrait of Joyce himself, and it's the funniest and easiest chapter in the book. Everyone would read a page in turn, in an anti-clockwise direction.

The reading begins
The fact that there were twelve of us was a wonderful Joycean coincidence. Joyce told his friend Padraic Colum, 'Twelve is the public number. Twelve hours of the day, twelve men on a jury.' In the book, there are twelve drinkers in HCE's pub, who are also members of a lynch mob, mourners at the wake, jurymen, months, hours, apostles, a football team, the twelve tables of Roman Law, Napoleon's marshals, tribes of Israel, and heaps of other things.  

You can spot the twelve in the book because they're always accompanied by pompous words ending in
'-ation'. They 'crunch the crusts of comfort due to depredation, drain the mead for misery to incur intoxication, condone every evil by practical justification and condam any good to its own gratification...' (142.19-21).

While he was writing the Wake, Joyce got twelve friends to write a book of essays explaining what he was up to. Published in 1929, it was called Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. The cover has Joyce's sigla (symbol) for the twelve, a circle (based on a clock face). That's also picked up in the word 'Round' in the title.

So it was very appropriate that there were twelve of us and we were all sitting around the walls of Sweny's Pharmacy, reading the book in a circle!

Having said all that, three other women did join us after the reading had started, but after five minutes listening to us reading Finnegans Wake, they realised they'd made a mistake and left. Yes, the Shade of Joyce compelled them to go, preserving the magic Twelve!

As the reading passed around, I couldn't help flicking forward to see which page was likely to come my way. Some pages are much harder to read than others. I was lucky to get page 182, a relatively easy one describing Shem writing 'nameless shameless shamelessness about everybody he ever met.'

Kirsten, who followed me, was less lucky to have to read the long list of all the rubbish strewing Shem's house ('once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mottage, unquestionable issue papers, seedy ejaculations...'). 

Kirsten reads p183

The Englishman who followed stood up to read his page, another difficult one describing Shem's preparation of an insane egg dish.

Englishman reading page 184
But I felt sorriest for the Irishman who got page 185. He had to read the filthiest passage in the whole book. It describes Shem making ink from his own excrement and, to preserve decorum, it's in Latin! There's a translation here. He did a heroic job getting through it.

We raced through the chapter at a good rate and seven of us had to read a second page. 

I was pleased to end up with the final page, which describes the coming of Anna Livia Plurabelle, 'as happy as the day is wet, babbling, bubbling, chattering to herself, deloothering the fields on their elbows leaning with the sloothering slide of her, giddygaddy, grannyma, gossipaceous Anna Livia.' When I was a teenager, my Father bought me a record of Cyril Cusack reading this so it's very familiar to me. I copied Cusack's phrasing and rhythms (but not his Irish accent). At the end, I got a round of applause!

After the reading, we all went over the road to have a drink in the Lincoln's Inn pub. Another Joyce coincidence! This pub is next door to Finn's Hotel, where Nora Barnacle was working as a maid in 1904 when she first went out with James Joyce. The Lincoln's Inn even has the original front door of the hotel. The words 'Finn's Hotel' are all over Joyce's early Wake notebooks, and it looks as if this was his first title for Finnegans Wake. He has hidden this original title in the Wake at 514.18:  '— .i..'. .o..l.' 

The perfect ending to a wonderful Wake weekend in Dublin.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a nonobvious link from Shem back to Roderick O'Conor:!topic/alt.books.james-joyce/Es7TPpQNwj4