Thursday, 16 April 2015

Sentenced to read Finnegans Wake forever!

'The best way to approach Finnegans Wake is in a group.  It has to be stalked like a wild animal, and you need a hunting party.' Robert Anton Wilson

'What a terrible book this is!'
'We're all going to go to hell as a result of reading this!'
'We'll all meet there.'
'We'll meet again.'
'Some of us would say: we may go to hell but I want to get to the end of this.'
'That might be the sentence! Sentenced to read Finnegans Wake forever.'

This comes from Dora Garcia's lovely film, 'The Joycean Society,' which she posted on Vimeo (though sadly it's now become a private video). It's a documentary about the Zurich Finnegans Wake reading group, founded and led by Fritz Senn (above).  Ever since 1986, the members have been meeting once a week to read and discuss the Wake. They reached the end after eleven years but, because Finnegans Wake is circular, they had to go straight back to the beginning. They were 'sentenced' by the unfinished final sentence of the Wake. Like me, they're now on their third lap!

None of the people in the film is identified until the list of names in the closing credits, but I recognized Fritz Senn who, with Clive Hart, started the Wake Newslitter in March 1962. The very first 'Litter' begins with the words, 'Finnegans Wake needs to be read communally.'

The readers are mostly male, and in their 70s, and the film is partly about growing old together and with a book.  In an interview, Garcia said that she 'filmed the readers of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation as incarnating one of the most notorious episodes in Finnegans Wake: Mamalujo—the four old men endlessly discussing the text. When they stop reading the text, the world will collapse.'

She's probably thinking of two different episodes here - the Mamalujo episode is a treatment of collective senility, but doesn't have any discussion of a text. That happens in the Hen chapter, whose Professorial narrator says:

'Look at this prepronominal funferal, engraved and retouched and edgewiped and puddenpadded, very like a whale’s egg farced with pemmican, as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia.' 120.09-17

The Joycean Society members are the closest thing to Joyce's ideal readers 'suffering from an ideal insomnia'. They've accepted his outrageous challenge, expressed to Max Eastman: 'The demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.'

As Dora Garcia says in her interview, it takes a particular type of reader to accept this demand.

'The Joycean Society is only tangentially a film about Finnegans Wake; its central subject is the people who read Finnegans Wake, the readers. Such a book engenders a very particular type of reader. I have never known of any other book that creates such a specific, distinct, dedicated population—an irreverent community, a brotherhood without any hierarchies. The society created by the Wake is one of the most fascinating aspects of the text. Many idées reçues about language, literature and reading explode into pieces with readers of the Wake: there are no authorities, just people who devote a lot of time to the text; it is not really written in English, therefore English native speakers are in no better position to read it.'

We see them working their way, word by word, through  part of the great 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' chapter. They're reading pages 211-12, which is a list of presents given by Anna Livia to all her children. The camera takes us right into the group, with faces, hands and pages shown in close-up.

I wondered why they don't use the internet.  I thought, why aren't they googling or consulting fweet?

Then it struck me that they are sitting in a James Joyce library, with an amazing collection of materials at their fingertips.  

The group discussion is intercut with an interview with a professional academic Joycean (right). You might assume he's a member of the reading group. In fact, he's Geert Lernout, the Belgian genetic wakean, who's based in Antwerp. Lernout talks about the extraordinary way in which Joyce composed the book, 'harvesting' phrases from other sources.  He shows us examples from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Dublin, used by Joyce in his Haveth Childers Everywhere section, where HCE as the City of Dublin, speaks.

Lernout points out that Joyce's notes (left) are not in his handwriting. This is because, at the time (March 1930), he was too blind to read or take notes. He had to listen to an assistant read the article. Joyce would then seize on a phrase, which another assistant wrote down. Joyce's helpers at the time were Stuart Gilbert, Helen Fleischman, Padraic Colum and Paul Léon. In his Paris Journal, Gilbert recalls working with Joyce with five volumes of the Britannica spread out on the sofa.

This reminds me of Richard Brown's description of Finnegans Wake as 'a theatricalised parody of the eleventh Britannica, which was often his first point of reference in composing the Wake.' James Joyce: A Post Cultural Perspective p 113.

Lernout's genetic approach is very different from that of the Zurich readers, who focus on interpretation. What both share is a sense of Finnegans Wake as a sacred text, and a slightly baffled awareness that they have become addicted to it. Lernout says, 'Joyce programmed it in such a way a that he invites you to that kind of religious fervour, where you turn it into a holy book....I'm not describing it as dangerous...Of all possible pathologies, it is one of the most benign ones.'

The Zurich Joyce group also look like they're reading a sacred text. They remind me of Talmudic scholars and, at the end of their session, they even sit in silence, as if in prayer.

While they  sit in silence, we hear church bells in the distance, a reminder of the passing of time. I thought of the Zurich spring festival of Sechseläuten, whose bells ring several times in the Wake: 'Pingpong! There's the Belle for Sexaloitez.' 213.18.  It was Fritz Senn who identified this in 1960, in his first ever article on the Wake ('Some Zürich Allusions in Finnegans Wake', The Analyst, Vol. II, 1960-1965, XIX (Dec. 1960). Were the bells really ringing or did Garcia add them?

Fritz Senn is also interviewed (left) and, like Lernout, he describes reading Finnegans Wake as 'a more harmless kind of addiction than drugs or alcohol.'

Senn talks about the value of the group reading as a form of therapy:

'I am not saying this just ironically, it is also a therapy group, it does something… and I think it can be more helpful than some therapy you have to pay for….Maybe reading Finnegans Wake is a substitute for people who usually are not very successful in life, like me. At least you can interact with a text. If we were happier we would be bankers or have an emotionally full life. I think, and I am here along almost Freudian lines, that culture is a sort of substitute for pleasures that are denied to some of us for many reasons.'

Fritz Senn also discusses the reading group in his 2007 book Joycean Murmoirs (ed Christine O'Neill), where he reveals how trying it often is for him to be in charge of it.

'To be in charge of a bunch of keen-witted, enthusiastic Wake readers, whose offerings are not always strictly relevant, is not without its strain on human forbearance....I vacillate from chagrined intolerance to a resigned awareness that the multivocal muddle of Wake glosses is, after all, caused by the nature of what we are trying to understand. A group reading taxes the brains of each exponent: at every moment one has a baffling text in front of one's eyes that leads to dispersed associations, one deliberates what one might contribute, and simultaneously someone (at least some one!) is always speaking. It is no wonder that the outcome is acoustic and intellectual chaos.'

Declan Kiberd has a fascinating interview with Fritz Senn on his podcast, which you can listen to here.

At one point, the film takes us outside the book-lined room to the snow-covered Zurich cemetery, where Joyce lies buried beneath a bronze statue by Milton Hebald. There are resonances here of the end of 'The Dead', with snow falling 'upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried.'

While the camera moves around the snowy scene, we listen to the group talking about an article in the TLS, which claims that the way to tell someone is really dead is to blow tobacco smoke up their anus.

Joyce's statue fixes the camera with an inscrutable gaze.