Bloomsday 2021: Finn again…

Doublends jined! (typing out Finnegans Wake is a very good exercise…)

This blog lifts its name, Crossmessparzel, from the great “book of doublends jined (may his forehead be darkened with mud who would sunder!)”, Finnegans Wake: you can see it in context on page 619, line 5. Of course, Bloomsday should properly be devoted to a celebration of that other Joycean masterwork, Ulysses, in which the eponymous Leopold Bloom appears; but this year I want to write about FW, which, throughout the long months of lockdown, has been my daily companion. I’m not sure why I started it again; it just seemed right. Whatever else I was reading or writing, I always read a few pages; and in the end went through it twice, because when I got to the “end” (which is not an end) it seemed obvious that I had to start again at the “beginning” (which is not a beginning): it is indeed a book of double ends joined. I am coming to the conclusion that FW isn’t a book you read through and then put down, it is a phenomenon you have to learn to live with.

What does living with this phenomenon mean? Partly, as Anthony Burgess memorably put it, it means having the shade of James Joyce looking over your shoulder every time you sit down to write, and feeling depressed because he’s so much better than you are. But it’s also a stimulation. I find myself looking much more closely at words, to understand where they want to take me, rather than just using them to fill out a pre-existing storyline. In most fiction, the text is a succession of cues to the imagination, giving the reader a kind of guided daydream. Nothing wrong with that! But that use of language- what Burgess called ‘transparent’ language- doesn’t really engage with the potential words carry for multiple meanings and depth of resonance; and that is what excites me. After spending most of a year with James Joyce I’ve found a new interest in technique. I’ve spent a lot of time writing what Virginia Woolf called a ‘rehearsal diary’. The idea here is to practise writing, as a musician might practise scales and arpeggios; it’s almost a Yeatsian automatic writing. Because there is no theme, no story, (and it is emphatically not for publication!) the wordplay can be uninhibited: the language can be so highly characterised that it practically becomes a character. Now I’m looking forward to working with these new techniques in an extended piece- dare I call it a novel? We shall see. What I’m hoping is that I’ll be able to get out of my own light and let the work form itself. And of course, the last thing I want to do is to produce a half-baked Finnegans Wake parody. I’ve been there before: it was called Loseable Paradises and in 1990 I was so pleased with it. You can look it up if you like: click here. You have been warned!

Attitudes change. Some thirty years ago, when I was just starting to take myself seriously as a writer, FW was a dangerous influence. As Anthony Burgess warned me, Joyce’s experiments were for himself alone. It was terribly easy in those days to get carried away on the flow of language, to enjoy the wordplay, show off one’s little learning, and forget the need to communicate. The strange thing is that, for all its supposed difficulty and impenetrability, FW really does communicate; it is funny, consoling, surprising, provocative, and inspiring. But I no longer want to ape Joyce’s achievement. The challenge of Finnegans Wake is, as always, to find one’s own authentic voice.

Thank you for reading this: please click here to see my novels… and buy one? H’m?