Sunday, 4 May 2014

Happy Birthday Finnegans Wake!

Finnegans Wake is 75 years-old today!  It was officially published on 4 May 1939, though Joyce had received the first copy from Faber on 30 January, in time for his birthday party on 2 February.  It was simultaneously published in London, by Faber and Faber, and New York, by the Viking Press.  Publication also meant the revelation of a secret, which Joyce had kept for seventeen years - the title of the book.

 This is the Viking Press cover.

Here's Faber and Faber's version. What they share is the reddish brown colour of the River Liffey, which Joyce had previously chosen for the Anna Livia Plurabelle booket.

Apart from the covers, the texts are the same, and both publishers' names appear on the title page. This is the copy owned by Marsh's library in Dublin, where the young Joyce read medieval books  ('The stagnant bay of Marsh's Library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas.' Ulysses)

For publicity, Joyce agreed to a photo session for Time magazine with Gisèle Freund, in March 1939. This was the only time that Joyce was photographed in colour. 

Joyce also looks reddish brown, just like his book!

Here's Freund's account of the session.

'He opened the door for me. He was dressed for his colour portrait in a wine-coloured velvet jacket; on his long and sensitive hands he was wearing several jeweled rings. He seemed thoroughly miserable at the thought of being photographed in colour and he glanced uneasily at my elaborate old-fashioned lighting equipment as if it were some enormous beast ready to attack him. Nervously I began to stumble over the wires and drop things; the atmosphere became more and more tense.
  Suddenly, as Joyce groped his way to the chair I had arranged for him, he hit his head on the lamp. He cried out as if he had been stabbed and clasped his hand to his head.
  'I'm bleeding. Your damned photos will be the death of me,' he exclaimed, forgetting in his pain that he had made it a rule never to swear in the presence of a lady.
  'Nora,' have you got some scissors?' I called out to his wife in the next room.
She came in – quiet, motherly, soothing Joyce as if he were a frightened child.   We pressed the cold steel against the almost imperceptible scratch to prevent swelling, a remedy I remembered from my youth.
  Calmer now, Joyce sat down and studied a page of proof with a magnifying glass, a characteristic pose. I snapped the button and captured the cover photograph that Time had asked for.  In a few minutes, working as quickly as possible in order to protect Joyce from fatigue, I finished my film and promised him I would never trouble him again, ever.
  Joyce held me there for a while, apparently relieved to be released from the ordeal; he talked about Finnegans Wake, speculating on its possible reception by critics and the public. Suddenly his voice changed and became weaker, exhausted, and he spoke of death – his death – predicting that it would be his last book. I tried to reassure him....But he refused to be comforted, and a note of melancholy hung over our farewell.
  I ran downstairs, hailed a taxi, and asked the driver to rush to my laboratory, where a technician was waiting to develop the precious film so that the best portrait could be sent special delivery to New York. The taxi driver was so eager to please that as we turned a corner he lost control of the wheel and we crashed into another car. I was thrown to the floor and showered with falling glass, but, worst of all – a veritable catastrophe – my camera was smashed.
  With bloodstains on my face and tears of frustration and rage blurring my eyes, I arrived home and telephoned Joyce.
  'Mr Joyce.' I said weeping now, 'you damned my photos – you put some kind of a bad Irish spell on them and my taxi crashed. I was almost killed and your photos are ruined. Now are you satisfied?'
  Joyce gasped, and I knew I had guessed rightly. he was indeed a very superstitious man; he had wished me bad luck and now he felt responsible. Contrite, he begged me to return the next day so that he could pose again.'

Freund took a second set of pictures, in which Joyce wore a black velvet jacket and different rings. However the first set proved to be undamaged, and so one of these was used on the Time cover. 

'When the Time cover came out in May, Joyce, like a delighted child, showed it to to everyone who came to the house. Best of all, friends told me how amused he had been when he retold the story of my accident, adding, 'I said I would never be photographed in colour. Well Mrs B caught me, not once but twice. She's stronger than the Irish.' 

Gisèle Freund, James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years, 1965

Time magazine put Joyce on their cover on 8 May. They have a framed copy on the wall of the Palace bar in Dublin (left).

Here's what Time had to say about the book:

'All children are afraid of the night; when they grow up, they are still afraid, but more afraid of admitting it. In this frightening darkness men lie down to sleep and dream. Generations of diviners, black magicians, fortune tellers and poets have made night and dreams their province, interpreting the troubled images that float through men’s sleeping minds as omens of good & evil. Only of late have psychologists asserted that dreams tell nothing about men’s future, much about their hidden or forgotten past. In dreams, this past floats, usually uncensored and distorted, to the surface of their slumbering consciousness. This week, for the first time, a writer had attempted to make articulate this wordless world of sleep. The writer is James Joyce; the book, Finnegans Wake — final title of his long-heralded Work in Progress.'

You can read the whole article here. 

The Observer had the inspired idea to commission Oliver St John Gogarty - Buck Mulligan himself! - to review Finnegans Wake. Here's part of the review:

'‘When I think of the indomitable spirit that plodded on, writing Ulysses in poverty in Trieste, without a hope of ever seeing it published, I am amazed at the magnitude of this work, every word of which in its 628 pages had to be weighed, twisted, and deranged in order to bring up associated ideas in the mind....The immense erudition employed, and the various languages ransacked for pun and word-associations is almost incredible to anyone unaware of the superhuman knowledge the author had when a mere stripling. In some places the reading sounds like the chatter during the lunch interval in a Berlitz school. Every language living and dead in Europe gabbles on and on. But what is the motive force behind this colossal production? Finnegan’s wake [sic] may be the wake, that is the funeral celebration, as well as the panegyric, of civilisation. Resentment against his upbringing, his surroundings, and finally against the system of civilisation throughout Europe, perhaps against Life itself which Finnegan may represent, created this literary Bolshevism which strikes not only at all standards and accepted modes of expression whether of Beauty or Truth but at the very vehicle of rational expression. This arch-mocker in his rage would extract the Logos, the Divine word or Reason from its tabernacle, and turn it muttering and maudlin into the street. It is impossible to read the work as a serial. It may have a coherency and a meaning. What is wrong with the meaning that it cannot be expressed? Ripeness cannot be all in this instance, nor can a myriad-minded man full of infinite suggestion satisfy the reader with suggestions alone. Perhaps it is wrong to look for a meaning where there is every meaning. It may be unmodern to expect sense. Lewis Carroll stopped short brilligly, but this goes on lapsing as everlastingly as Anna Livia. There is nothing new under the sun: it is only exaggerated. This is the most colossal leg-pull in literature since McPherson’s Ossian. Mr. Joyce has had his revenge.’' 

Joyce loved this review. He told Frank Budgen, 'Gogarty is an athlete, a cyclist and a swimmer. He should know what staying power is.'

Throughout May, in Dublin, Finnegans Wake's 75th birthday is being celebrated with talks, exhibitions and performances.The great Joyceborough website has a list of their events here.

The James Joyce Centre is also joining the celebrations, with their own programme. Their main event, on Saturday 10 May, is a whole day devoted to the book. It's called Wakey Wakey: A Day ofJoyce's Night Book at the Joyce Centre.

It starts at midday with a talk by Vincent Deane, ‘The Formation of a Truly Criminal Stratum: Crime in Finnegans Wake'.  

Deane is a brilliant literary detective, and an expert on Joyce's working notebooks. He's tracked down many Wake sources to obscure articles in Irish newspapers from the 1920s. It was Deane who first identified Joyce's use of the Bywaters-Thompson murder case.

'We’ll close the day at 5pm with a panel on ‘Why Read Finnegans Wake?’ A panel discussion chaired by James Joyce Centre Research Scholar Terence Killeen asking the question often thought but rarely discussed: is Finnegans Wake actually a ‘good’ book?'

Oh to be in Dublin this month!


  1. Wouldn't you agree that all editions of FW should respect the brown color Joyce chose, for their covers?

    "I said I would never be photographed in colour." From superstition??? Or was it just a giant physical headache in those days?? (I'm reminded of the early Berkeley and Patrick vignette's color theory.)

    "Mrs B caught me" Wikipedia explains, I guess: "In 1935, Monnier arranged a marriage of convenience for Freund with Pierre Blum"?

    "what Time had to say" nb author was the infamous Whittaker Chambers, also very poorly proofed

    "staying power" In the context of the comparative gibberish of FDV's II.1-- --this phrase is sort of depressing: How much of FW's bulk is mere 'staying power' as opposed to the charm, expression, inspiration of most of FDV's Book I? So much of the 1930s stuff makes me doubt his art... and these memoirs reinforce that sense of petty narcissism (forgive me).

  2. Thanks for explaining Mrs B - I wondered about that

    '"I said I would never be photographed in colour." From superstition???'

    Probably superstition, though he may have been sensitive about his brick red complexion.

    'The colour of his face is a bricky red, evenly distributed' Frank Budgen