Wednesday, 28 September 2011

"not yet, though vennisoon after" - when to read 'Finnegans Wake'

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, for all except a select band of devotees, in 'Finnegans Wake' James Joyce bequeathed as his parting gift to the world a book that is essentially unreadable. Yet any list of the world's great books would include Joyce's 'book of the dark' alongside his book of the day, "Ulysses". To its admirers it is the greatest book of the twentieth century; to others it remains a mystery as yet unexplored.

It is complex, deliberately made so, as Joyce expanded and revised earlier drafts, creating ever richer neologisms and portmanteau words and incorporating words from a variety of languages. It is the multiplicity of meanings and interpretations contained in each phrase (and often word) that makes 'Finnegans Wake' the magical work it is. This, in turn, has led to a veritable industry of commentators, annotators and critics who have subjected the book to possibly the most detailed examination ever accorded to a modern work of fiction.

This process began even before the book was published in its final form by Faber and Faber in 1939, as a result of the publication in the journal 'Transition' of extracts from what was then called 'Work in Progress'.

These extracts in fact comprise the bulk of the work and were published in 17 installments between April 1927 and May 1938, Joyce having commenced his 'Work in Progress' in 1923, the year after 'Ulysses' was published. 'Transition', published by Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company contained alongside 'Work in Progress', work by other leading modernists, such as Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and even Franz Kafka.

Sections of the work were also published in individual booklets by private presses, such as the Paris based Black Sun Press and the New York Crosby Gaige. Copies of these, especially the signed ones, can be very expensive. The first of these was 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' (1928), the last (and most elaborate, including a hand coloured initial letter by Joyce's daughter, Lucia) 'Storiella as She is Syung' (1938).

Only two years after the first appearance of 'Work in Progress' in 'Transition' Joyce encouraged a group of friends to publish their responses to it. Thus it was that in 1929, Shakespeare and Company published 'Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress', containing articles by, amongst others, Samuel Beckett (to whom Joyce dictated parts of 'Work in Progress' as his eyesight failed) and William Carlos Williams, surely the only occasion on which a spirited defence of a book has been published ten years before the actual book was published. A significant number of Joyce's letters to his friends also contain explanations of various parts of his text.

But then everything about 'Finnegans Wake' defies the usual conventions; it is one of those works like 'Tristram Shandy' and 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' that changes the landscape of literature. For a start, since its original publication, successive editions have maintained essentially the same pagination, from Page 3 through to 628, enabling references in critical works to page and line numbers to have universal application. This is similar to the Bible, with its generic Book, Chapter, Verse references and, in my mind, 'Finnegans Wake' is Joyce's sacred book, since into it he poured not only his own life experience, but a view of life that is both universally valid and profoundly sympathetic. Joyce's writing style, in this work, has all the characteristics of a dream, with characters undergoing transformations both to heroic archetypes and to geographical features. But the identity of the dreamer is not certain.

Who are the characters? Essentially a family living in a public house in Chapelizod, on the banks of the Liffey west of the centre of Dublin, at which house, a party has assembled for the wake of one Finnegan, a builder who fell from a ladder. The family are the publican, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, their twin sons Shem and Shaun and daughter Issy. But these characters represent all of humanity.

HCE is the archetypal flawed man, who has committed some sort of indiscretion in Phoenix Park, from which event much of the book's narrative action (such as it is) is derived. But he is also the mythical hero of his race, Finn MacCool, and a builder of cities and civilisations. His geographical counterpart is Howth Head, where the Liffey meets the Atlantic.

Anna Livia is all women and has her counterpart in the 'rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of' the River Liffey, Dublin's passage to the sea. She is a subject of gossip amongst the washerwomen down at the river but is the well spring of all life.

Shem 'the Penman' is the writer and artist (possibly Joyce), Shaun 'the Post' is the practical son (possibly Joyce's brother Stanislaus), deliverer of messages, while the lively Issy is every daughter.

Through these characters in their multiple avatars Joyce presents a view of all history, geography and literature. Finnegan's fall is Earwicker's fall is humanity's fall. Joyce was Influenced by the Italian philosopher Vico's theory of history as repeating cycles (successive ages of gods, heroes and humans followed by a period of chaos before the cycle repeats) and this cyclical pattern occurs thoughout the book, evidenced also by the first sentence of the book being the continuation of its final sentence.

I (perhaps like many others) read selected parts of 'Finnegans Wake' before attempting the whole book (which I have now done). To help I assembled a collection of, what have become standard 'companions' to the 'Wake'. Perhaps the best known of these is 'A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake' by Campbell and Robinson (1944), which contains analysis and a paraphrase of its text.

My own favourite is James Atherton's 'The Books at the Wake' (1959), which is a detailed study of the literary sources Joyce used. These include Skakespeare (every play is incorporated), Swift, Lewis Carroll, The Bible (every book) and the Koran (all 114 suras). But Joyce also built in references to his favourite books, such as Le Fanu's 'The House by the Churchyard' and Thomas Moore's 'Irish Melodies' (all first lines and titles of the melodies are used). Atherton lists several hundred separate works which can be found in the 'Wake', including the 11th edition of the 'Encyclopedia Brittanica', which Joyce plundered for river names and other geographical and historical references.

Louis Mink's 'A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer' (1978) includes references to the thousands of place name references, arranged both in linear form (i.e. in order of the text) and alphabetically.

Add to these Clive Hart's massive 'Concordance' and McHugh's 'Annotations', which provides page by page analysis of every word requiring it, and you would be as well equipped as any previous reader.

There is a wonderful book edited by Burns and Gaylord entitled 'A Tour of the Darkling Plain'.

This contains letters exchanged between Thornton Wilder and Adaline Glasheen over the period 1950 to 1975, in which they share their love of 'Finnegans Wake' and attempt to solve its mysteries. Glasheen went on to produce the wonderful 'A Census of Finnegans Wake' (1956), which lists the hundreds of characters, fictional and historical, who appear in the work, with suitable annotations. She later expanded this in second and third editions.

So, when to read 'Finnegans Wake'? Perhaps, as Joyce wrote it at the end of his writing life, it is best read late in your own reading life. It is the work of a mature mind at the very height of its powers.

And perhaps now is exactly the right time, as a New Edition of 'Finnegans Wake', the product of many years work on the manuscripts, has just been published in a sumptuous edition by the Houyhnhnm Press, Dublin. This has some 9,000 'corrections' from the previously published version and is perhaps the last word on the text. It will be available in Penguin shortly.

Why read it? Because hidden away you will find (as on page 328, line 29), lines that take your breath away:

"In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sounddance and thereinofter you're in the unbewised again, vund vulsyvolsy.".

For a succint statement of life (and death) that is about as good as literature can get.

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Friday, 23 September 2011

High Barn Books - Stella reports on the first ten years

It could have been the 14th, or possibly 15th September 2001 when we first thought of it. We know now to call this ‘post 9/11 Britain’ and although the shocking twin towers collapse seemed to have nothing to do with the conception of High Barn Books, maybe we were in a way ready for something new.

We had gone to York Book Fair and picked up some books we had bought from a local bookseller. Being heavy and expensive to post it seemed sensible to go and get them while we were so close. We ended up at the house of Jeffrey Stern - quite a stunning property in itself, but even more so given the books inside - and the books outside in his substantial outhouses. Jeffrey had a radical idea. He thought we should become booksellers.

Actually this wasn’t so radical. I don’t think that any of our friends at the time would have thought it at all strange that we should go into the business. We had been collecting books since we were married in 1970 and one look at any room in our house would show that it had grown from a collection to, well, a BIG collection.

I don’t say it’s an obsession as that somehow implies piles of books in corners of every room. We have made an effort to keep the size of our book collection down to the size of the place we live - which means we either have to limit our book collection or keep buying somewhere bigger. No prizes for guessing which we did. But then suddenly it became obvious that some books we had begun to collect weren’t as interesting as they used to be. And we had new interests, new collections to build up. When Jeffrey suggested becoming sellers it immediately became apparent to us that we had some books to sell already. He thought about 300 books was enough to start selling and we felt that we had that many we could pull out of our own collection without missing them too much.

So then we had the drive home. Could we do it? Yes. What should we call it? Rabbit Lane Books? Gressingham Books? Stelandjohn’s Book Emporium? But of course High Barn Books was the one and only name in the end. 3 strong monosyllables standing firm like a solid 19th century 3-decker novel and a bit of alliteration into the bargain. We already had a company and we weren’t too sure if we could slot High Barn Books under the same umbrella. As soon as we got home we searched the internet to see if there was another High Barn Books. Assuming that the High Barn B and B in Sussex, and High Barn recording studios in Essex wouldn’t even notice, we felt confident that we had the only High Barn Bookstore in the world. And a call to our accountant on Monday morning confirmed that we could have one company that sold second hand books and were nuclear safety consultants.

Next thing was to sort out some books and catalogue them. There seemed many frightening things to tackle about starting up a new business from scratch - not least the technology of putting things up on the internet rather than downloading them from it. I had a fair amount of knowledge of databases and so we could hash something together that way, and to my amazement I could upload to abebooks using the software we already had.

But describing books seemed to be the most frightening of all. Terrified of doing something wrongly, my first attempts consisted of cutting and pasting other booksellers’ descriptions and then changing them slightly so that they sounded like the book we were trying to sell. After a few days of this I cautiously wrote my own. Now nearly 30000 books later I can’t quite remember what I was so nervous about.

Meanwhile, on the financial front, John was busy buying nice new account books and arranging for new bank accounts in the name of High Barn Books. We had the target of getting the business going by 1st January 2002 - a 3 month margin to sort out all the ins and outs of our new venture, but we achieved our first upload to Abebooks on 25th October 2001. But of course our most important milestone was that first book sale, ‘The Legacy of England’ (Batsford) to the memorably-named Vince Prank.

By the following May we had 1000 books online and had sold nearly 200 books and so the business grew. We picked up books along the way from charity sales, library sales, and through friends we bought collections of unwanted books, mostly locally, though some further away. Some we could put into the boot of the car, and for some we hired a decent sized van. Somehow it just grew.

Problems of shelving our stock were relieved from time to time by bits of shelving acquired here and there over time and this entailed finding tiny bits of free wall space to put them. Now we think we have as much shelving as the house can stand, but there are also books in the garage and some in boxes. But by and large our current stock of nearly 6000 books is about the maximum we can manage here alongside our own collection and the business ticks over well at that level.

In 2001 bookselling on the internet wasn’t new - but it was, compared to now, in relative infancy. Bookselling, unlike most remote selling, lends itself perfectly to the internet. Book buyers have long been able to translate the arcane language of booksellers. Such fragments as cold. ill. or a.e.g, are easily translatable (coloured illustrations, all edges gilt) to your average bookbuyer as booksellers have been using these for years in catalogues.

Bookbuyers don’t just peer at dusty bookshelves in dustier bookshops, spectacles raised to their eyebrows, tattered sports jackets with leather elbow patches, their sit-up-and-beg bikes with wicker baskets poised to take flight with brown paper covered packages perfectly tied up with string. Sometimes they sit by their fires, pipes in hand eagerly perusing book catalogues, phones poised to ring up the bookseller to catch their latest ‘find’. So once the internet became available more widely, it was almost inevitable that some bright spark would put books up there.

Amazon, early on the scene, appeared to the internet all guns blazing to sell new books in 1995 and more discreetly, the Advanced Book Exchange in 1996. Advanced Book Exchange had the idea of matching sellers of unwanted books to buyers who wanted them. Little is left of that idea, though buyers who are looking for particular volumes can add a want and both buyers and sellers get lists of matches. But times change and Advanced Book Exchange turned into a worldwide market place and became Abebooks - with some uncertainly as to whether it should be A-B-E books or Abe as some brother of Cain who has wondered into the book of lost consonants. By 2001 Abebooks was still king of the second hand bookselling business and although they charged commission, they felt that the link between seller and buyer was paramount. It may be only 10 years later, but there have been some dramatic changes since then.

But High Barn Books keeps on going - soon to be in its second decade. We have had our own website for many years, and our packing is second to none. Our average sales are slightly above average and we enjoy what we do. The ebook may be threatening, louring above all booksellers, but we are positive. The look, feel, touch, smell of a real book will never be a phase that will pass.

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