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Posts Tagged ‘Finnegans Wake’


August 30, 2012 | by

Around Valentine’s Day, my gut finally confirmed what my head had long known: I would in fact be graduating from college in just three months, which meant that something would have to be done about the books.

This was in Philadelphia, in a large room on the second floor of a three-story house on Baltimore Avenue. Not wanting the hassle of selling a sofa or armchair at year’s end, I had furnished the room with little other than a bed, a salvaged nightstand, and a too-small desk borrowed from a friend’s girlfriend’s roommate. If it weren’t for the books (and the Robert Kennedy campaign poster that passed for decoration), a visitor to my room might surmise that its occupant tended toward a mildly disturbed kind of solitude. But there were books, lots of them. Books lined the mantel of the bricked-up fireplace. Books were stacked at the foot of the bed; they were strewn on the floor around the desk like a blast radius. Piles of books that frequently collapsed into small landslides annexed the nightstand. A stray book or two often lay on the floor in the middle of the room, the aftermath of hasty between-class transitions. For the first time in my life, I felt I had too many books.

You have to understand that like many bibliophiles, this was a Rubicon I never imagined crossing. In my experience, the adage “all things in moderation” carries much wisdom; until last winter, I thought books were an exception to this rule, occupying a higher moral plane than other things one might collect, like bottles of fine scotch or European football jerseys. In my reverence for the printed word, I subscribed to all the humanistic pieties: books as worlds between two covers, as food for the mind and soul, as a link between living and dead. Walking into Penn’s library every day for the last two years, I passed beneath a window bearing a breathless quotation from Samuel Daniel: “O blessed letters! That combine in one all ages past, and make one live with all!” The pane’s religiosity was apt; my faith in books had never been higher than in college. There, they protected me from the terrifying emptiness of Sunday afternoons, distracted me from one girl or another’s failure to return my call, and transported me from the campuses where I often felt I was merely playing at life, swept away from my old comfortable St. Louis existence because I needed a college degree. Books were the tributaries that returned me to the main current, if only for a few hours.

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Staff Picks: Tea Cakes and Putin and Vets, Oh My!

April 6, 2012 | by

“Some poems smack of a gentility one would like in some moods to smack out of them.” Even before I read that sentence—about the sainted Elizabeth Bishop!—I knew Maureen McLane was the poetry teacher for me. Her first book of criticism, My Poets, is the survey course of my dreams: a long, loving argument with and about everyone from Chaucer to Gertrude Stein. As befits her subject, McLane is both plainspoken and lyrical, falling at times, as if naturally, into verse as clear as her prose. —Lorin Stein

I remember a college professor commenting that he was never sure Stephen Crane “knew what he was doing” when he dropped all sorts of clues and oddness into his stories. I had the same thought while reading Barbara Comyns's 1959 book, The Vet's Daughter. Does all this strangeness serve a purpose? Does the bizarre ending mean something? Whether the answer is yes or no, I still enjoyed the novel more than anything I’ve read in months, and I’ve already ordered the rest of her books. —Sadie Stein

Robert Caro—never disappointing—had a particularly good piece in the April 2 edition of The New Yorker, on John F. Kennedy’s assassination but from LBJ’s perspective. It’s a bizarre and fascinating tale of how history is formed both by monumental events and by intimate details. And that famous photograph of his swearing in—as he stands grim-faced and flanked by Lady Bird and Jackie—will never look the same to me again. —Nicole Rudick

It wasn’t the intimidating length or experimental style that had me wondering, Wait, what?, when reading Finnegans Wake. It was my damned curiosity about the “careful teacakes” that Joyce introduces. My foodie heart salivated at the thought—where do I get one of those? Luckily, I stumbled upon A Trifle, a Coddle, a Fry: An Irish Literary Cookbook last weekend and was thrilled to find a recipe for these mysterious treats alongside sixty-six other recipes gathered from food references in the writing of twelve Irish authors, including Beckett and Shaw. Crack it open for a satisfying literary and gastronomic adventure, and let the sating begin. —Elizabeth Nelson

Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin has kept me up the last three nights. —L.S.

This week I attended a reading of Dante’s Inferno inside Saint John the Divine cathedral, a massive Gothic-revival church near Columbia University. If you missed it, mark the date. It happens annually on Maundy Thursday (which, for those needing to brush up on their Christian calendar, commemorates the day of the Last Supper). It was awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. A wooden pew is really the only place one should learn about Hell. —Allison Bulger


Document: Happy Birthday, James Joyce

February 2, 2012 | by

Image courtesy Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc.; document now part of a private Joyce collection in New York.

There’s so much to celebrate today, February 2, the birthday of James Joyce. On January 1 of this year the published works of Joyce came into the public domain. What does this mean? It means that scholars no longer need to go to his grandson Stephen Joyce, bowl in hand, begging for a ladle full of text. It means that I can translate for you the above illegible bit of manuscript from Ulysses in Joyce’s hand:

By Bachelor’s walk jogjingle
jaunted Blazes Boylan, bachelor.
In sun, in heat, warmseated,
sprawled, mare’s glossy rump
atrot. Horn, Have you the ?
Horn. Have you the ? Haw
haw horn.

Clearer? Good.

Even better, it also means that I can quote you the slightly different published version of this passage:

By Bachelor’s walk jogjaunty jingled Blazes Boylan, bachelor, in sun, in heat, mare’s glossy rump atrot with a flick of whip, on bounding tyres: sprawled, warmseated, Boylan impatience, ardentbold. Horn. Have you the ? Horn. Have you the ? Haw haw horn.

You see the improvement? Excellent.

The irony of Stephen Joyce’s virtual censorship of the work of a man continually at odds with the censors himself has not gone unnoted—especially because Joyce reveled in the thought of perplexing scholars for generations to come. (The censorship that afflicted—if not made—Joyce’s career is also tinged with irony: who among the hormonal pubescent lads you know would have the patience and determination to locate, let alone reread, the dirty bits?)

You may recognize this snatch of text from the eleventh chapter of Ulysses, the Sirens episode. Read More »


Part 3: The Departure

October 26, 2011 | by

Poolside at the Beat Hotel. Photograph by Michael Childers.

A story in three parts. Previously: Part 1, The Amanuensis, and Part 2, The Offer.

After two months of twelve- to sixteen-hour days, and six-and-a-half-day weeks, I began to realize I’d misread the signs that led me to the Beat Hotel. The caretaker’s house did have the advertised citrus trees, pool, fireplace and view, and the Camaro—glowing, golden—was there, too. But I hadn’t spent a single night in the house. Instead, I collapsed in a room at the Beat, got up early and went back to work. The Camaro stayed in the driveway. Worse, my fantasy about living the writer’s life in the desert was precisely that: I hadn’t written a single page. Instead of breaking my writer’s block, Steve entombed it beneath an endless, proliferating series of tasks. Read More »


Around Bloom in a Day

June 27, 2011 | by

James JoyceExuberantly marked across the globe, Bloomsday celebrates the single day on which James Joyce set Ulysses, his epic adaptation of The Odyssey, which also happens to be the day of his first successful rendezvous with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Each chapter of the novel corresponds to an episode in the daily life of one of the book’s three protagonists as they move around Dublin in the summer of 1904: Stephen Dedalus, the frustrated artist as a young man; Leopold Bloom, the Jewish everyman; and Molly Bloom, his profoundly sensual but unfaithful wife.

Immodesty on such a scale is rarely justified, but Joyce was entitled to make his claims on posterity since we don’t just remember his ambitions, we read what they achieved. In his influential book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argued that while “one effect of Ulysses is to show that mass man matters, that he has an inner life as complex as an intellectual’s,” the novel’s density works to “rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership.” I feel uncomfortable with the implication that writing sympathetically about “mass man” means writing for him, perhaps because I can’t quite banish the sense that I might have more than a little of him in me. But to properly defend Ulysses against the charge that it is deeply and treacherously unreadable, you cannot avoid calling yourself to the stand. Martin Amis baldly posed the question, “Who curls up with it?” And writing on this blog last year, Peter Terzian elected to take Ulysses on a vacation, reasoning that the book affords “the kind of pleasure to be found in difficulty.” I agree and would also subscribe to his method of consulting guides to Ulysses on a preliminary read, before trying to do without them for a second attempt immediately after. But I wanted to push things further still, to see just how much pleasure could be derived from the second most difficult novel in the language: to engage in some omphalos-gazing extreme reading.

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