Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.

Advertisements

James Joyce: ‘We must write dangerously’

June 16, 2012

On Bloomsday last year I wrote about Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last and least-read book. This year, being less blessed with free time, I’ll share some lines from Arthur Power’s book Conversations with James Joyce (Barnes & Noble, 1974), which I’ve been thumbing through again.

The first excerpt offers a glimpse of domestic life chez Joyce in Paris, where Power and Joyce first met.

Joyce, a restless man, was continually changing his abode, partly through circumstances no doubt, but also on account of his nature, and shortly afterwards he moved to a pleasant, airy apartment opposite the Eiffel Tower, where I used to visit him frequently.

I always took care not to call at his flat until the late afternoon, when he used to come into the room from his study wearing that short white working-coat of his, not unlike a dentist’s, and collapse into the armchair with his usual long, heart-felt sigh. As often as not Mrs Joyce would say to him,
—For God’s sake, Jim, take that coat off you!

But the only answer she got was his Gioconda smile, and he would gaze back humorously at me through his thick glasses.

Nora’s line always makes me laugh.

On Tumblr I posted a few thoughts from Joyce, courtesy of Arthur Power, on his efforts to convey Dublin through the texture of his words, and his belief in the primacy of emotion in art.

Here he elaborates on the latter idea in relation to Ulysses and writing in general:

Emotion has dictated the course and detail of my book, and in emotional writing one arrives at the unpredictable which can be of more value, since its sources are deeper, than the products of the intellectual method. In the intellectual method you plan everything beforehand. When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions. The more we are tied to fact and try to give a correct impression, the further we are from what is significant. In writing one must create an endlessly changing surface, dictated by the mood and current impulse in contrast to the fixed mood of the classical style. This is ‘Work in Progress’. The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. . . . A book, in my opinion, should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.

Conversations with James Joyce is a short (111 pp.), appealing read, with enough contextual detail to enliven Power’s reports but with the pair’s ideas, dialogues and debates very much to the fore. Joyce expounds on his influences, reviews his own work, and muses on his tastes and preferences in literary and other matters.


Stephen Fry’s Planet Word: epilogue

October 24, 2011

Last night the BBC broadcast the fifth and final episode of Fry’s Planet Word, its new documentary about language. At first I intended blogging about each episode, but after two (Babel and Identity) I could no longer summon the enthusiasm. It wasn’t bad, but it was too often superficial and repetitive, too reliant on platitudes and stereotypes.

Episode 5 is about the power and glory of storytelling. Fry is enjoying a horse-drawn jaunt in Dublin, listening to David Norris rhapsodise about Ulysses. Norris is recalling Leopold Bloom’s cat and the onomatopoeic words Joyce used to convey its mews. Alas, he misspells twice (mkgneo and mrkgneo instead of mkgnao, mrkgnao, and mrkrgnao), and the BBC’s subtitles amplify the error.

It may seem trivial, but the lapse reveals a lack of care. Of course Norris, a devoted Joycean, should have known better. But how hard would it have been for the BBC to check a couple of spellings? The error is especially unfortunate given that Norris’s point is about Joyce’s attention to detail and his understanding of the importance of every letter.

Other encounters include William Goldman, who talks about screenwriting, Peter Jackson (Tolkien, Stephen King), Mark Rylance (Shakespeare), Simon Russell Beale (Shakespeare), David Tennant (Shakespeare), Brian Blessed (Shakespeare), Guillaume Gallienne (Shakespeare), Sir David Tang and Johnson Chang (Shakespeare), Robert McCrum (Wodehouse), Ian Hislop (Orwell), Richard Curtis (Auden, pop songs), and Sir Christopher Ricks (Bob Dylan).

Some of these discussions are enjoyable, but you’d be forgiven for wondering if women read or write books at all.

Near the end, the show ambushes its viewers with a blast of Coldplay, that we might reflect on the power and significance of their lyrics. Fry asks us, “Can Coldplay . . . really stand alongside the pantheon of great poets?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on that.

Given the prevailing fixation on electronic communication, it was good to see Fry’s Planet Word end in a bookshop, with Fry wandering happily among shelves laden with physical books. And I was glad, earlier in the show, that Ulysses was singled out for particular praise: a few more people might feel encouraged to read it.

The series has memorable moments; episode 3’s admirable Jess, a “Tourette’s hero” with coprolalia as a special power, leaps foul-mouthedly to mind. But I’ll remember it chiefly as a missed opportunity. In short, I’d have liked more depth, research, and complexity, less pretty scenery* and jovial chat between like-minded friends.

.

* Fry travels to the Mediterranean to read a few lines of The Odyssey on a boat, etc.


Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

June 16, 2011

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot. – James Joyce

Ezra Pound was tirelessly interested in, and supportive of, original and imaginative literature, but with Finnegans Wake he reached his limit, complaining to Joyce that ‘Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.’

He dubbed it Joyce in Regress, a pun on Work in Progress, as FW was known before publication. Unfair, perhaps, but we can recast the charge of regress as an evocation of return rather than retrogression and degeneration. Where Ulysses was Joyce’s daytime novel, the Wake was his work of the night and its sleeping mind – a restorative regression into which we all slide cyclically, more or less.

Every night we fall out of the familiar world, and every day we awake from our adventures with little or no recollection of what has gone on. Yet in sleep we are just as authentically ourselves; guilty and guileless, paralysed, periodically telling ourselves stories in dream-fragments of promiscuous trivia and significance that take some unravelling. A bit like Finnegans Wake.

To the American writer Max Eastman, Joyce said:

In writing of the night, I really could not . . . use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes, of course everything will be clear again. I’ll give them back their language. . . . I’m not destroying it for good!

Read the rest of this entry »


It is Cork

November 5, 2010

Frank O’Connor once visited James Joyce in Paris and asked him about a picture that was hanging in the hallway.

Joyce said it was Cork.

O’Connor replied that he recognised his home city, and that it was the frame he was wondering about.

Joyce said it was cork.


Joyce, Shaw, Pound and pence

June 16, 2010

In the early 1920s, when the soulful and fearless Sylvia Beach was preparing to publish Ulysses at Shakespeare and Company, she sought subscriptions from potential readers, and received among the replies a mighty refusal from George Bernard Shaw. Shaw had read part of Joyce’s book in serial form, and in his letter to Beach he described it memorably as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but . . . a truthful one”. His letter finished as follows:

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and that if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book, you little know my countrymen.

Shaw said elsewhere that he wouldn’t pay three guineas for the book. Joyce, meanwhile, had a bet on with Sylvia Beach that Shaw would not subscribe. Losing the bet meant giving his patron a silk handkerchief; winning it meant receiving a box of Voltigeurs, his favourite cigars. He loved Shaw’s letter to Beach, and sent copies to several friends — including Ezra Pound, to whom he wrote:

if you imagine that the elderly Irish gentleman who wrote it (the letter not the book) has not subscribed anonymously for a copy of the revolting record through a bookseller you little know my countrymen.

Pound was far from satisfied, though, and exchanged about a dozen letters with Shaw on the matter. In March 1921 he grumbled to H. L. Mencken: “Shaw now writes to me twice a week complaining of the high price of Ulysses.” The correspondence ended with Shaw quipping: “I take care of the pence because the Pounds won’t take care of themselves” (also reported as: “I take care of the pence and let the Pounds take care of themselves”).

L–R: Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce. In Pound's rooms in Paris, 1923. Photograph from Cornell University.

.

Last year I said I had never taken part in Bloomsday — not in any official events anyway. This year is no different, but like Leopold Bloom I’ll be walking around taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city (Nora’s Galway, not James’s Dublin). I might bring a Joyce-related book. That will do. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me making occasional Joyce-related tweets.

In a tradition I beganagain last year, I’ll finish with a poem — this time a Limerick from the pen of Pound:

There was once a young writer named Joyce
Whose diction was ribidly choice,
And all his friends’ woes
Were deduced from his prose
Which never filled anyone’s purse.

(Pound told Joyce that choice and purse would rhyme perfectly in certain parts of New York.)


An understatement

March 19, 2010

James Joyce once met James George Frazer at the British Institute in Paris. Frazer was a Scottish anthropologist best known for The Golden Bough, a great survey of comparative mythology and religion. This subject interested Joyce too, but the conversation they had was, as far as I know, as brief, polite and inconsequential as Joyce’s infamous encounter with Proust.

“What name?” Frazer asked him.
“Joyce, James Joyce.”
“And what do you do?”
“I write.”