“Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds.” — James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
Not long after my father died in October of 2005 a small group of friends and family gathered to remember him and spread his ashes. There were only six of us but we were the six people left in the world who had known him best: my mother, my sister, one of my father’s two brothers (the other had died a couple years earlier), and two friends of the family who had known my parents for nearly forty years.
It was the most informal service imaginable—we had no choice but to call it a Wake—that amounted to the six of us sitting on patio furniture in my mother’s backyard and swapping stories about my father. My sister played Kate Bush’s song “The Sensual World,” which was inspired by Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. I read Brendan Kennelly’s “A Man I Knew”—a poem that could well have been written about my father. Our old family friends had brought a small collection of letters from my father that they had saved over the years. They read some selections and gave us copies.
For the last few years I did little more than glance through those letters. The idea of hearing my father’s voice again without being able to answer was too painful. When I began sketching ideas for the “Growing Up Joycean” entries on this site I struggled to find ways of conveying my father’s enthusiasm for Joyce. Words like “passion” or even “obsession” only hint at the strength of his feelings. Then I remembered the letters. I decided to read them through and excerpt some of my father’s comments about Joyce so that he could speak for himself. It is telling that I knew with absolute certainty they would contain plenty of Joyce material.
Written to dear friends who shared my father’s love of literature the letters seldom mention daily life (though there is often a postscript in my mother’s hand with personal updates) focusing instead on books, movies, and music. Often lengthy passages from books my father was reading are copied out in their entirety. My father always loved that Joyce encouraged his readers to discover the works of other writers. From books of Norse and Celtic mythology to Vico’s New Science; from The Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead to the novels of Melville and Thomas Mann, that love of discovery permeates each letter.
The cost of my father’s reverence of Joyce is also to be found in these letters. My father once said he was so intimidated by Joyce’s legacy that whenever he picked up a pen to write he felt terrified to the point of paralysis. In letter after letter the wordplay of Finnegans Wake haunts my father’s writing. The puns and portmanteau words are clearly a self-conscious tribute to the language of Finnegans Wake but there is also the sense of an aspiring writer struggling to move beyond imitation.
I was apprehensive as I began reading the letters, fearing the inevitable flood of memories and emotions. Most of the letters dated from 1972 (the year before I was born) when my father was twenty-seven. As I read, the necessary sadness was there but it was alloyed by unexpected pleasures: the novelty of reading the thoughts of my father as a young man; my amusement at his hippieish turns of phrase (describing 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico as “far out”); the occasional wince-inducing comment (as when he notes that the “the girls” in his Feminism course “have really interesting ideas”); the surprise of reading him praise a book he had always told me he disliked (Jonathan Livingston Seagull).
When confronted by some consistency-minded nitpicker who wanted to nail down his protean thinking (usually me) my father was fond of quoting Whitman’s “Song of Myself:”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We tend to simplify people, to make them more consistent than they actually are, especially when they are no longer here to surprise us. These letters, at least temporarily, helped remind me of those multitudes my father contained.
Still, it was inevitable that reading them would be bittersweet. Mixed with the pleasure of hearing my father’s voice again is the looming knowledge that he never found a channel for all his enthusiasm and knowledge—none of his ideas ever went beyond living room discussions. My father never wrote the book about Joyce he mentions in these excerpts and now that he is dead he never will. That finality is what haunts me most: the person who wrote the words you are about to read is gone forever and the memories and words of those who knew him are only the fading echoes of a life that has ended.
Note: While I have tried to intrude as little as possible in transcribing these excerpts, I have taken some liberties for the sake of clarity (spelling out abbreviated words, adding punctuation, etc). Where I have been unable to decipher a key word I have replaced it with a bracketed question mark.
* * *
The book that I’m going to write (someday) has found the bases (didn’t really need to look it was there all ways) from which to work — it’s simple — as simple as the subject matter — JJ from Dubliners to Portrait – to Ulysses (ah Ulysses) to Finnegans Wake — one leads to the other grows from its predecessor — culminating in the beautiful fact that its just (just) one book — the book (mine) will deal with the simplicity — since that’s all there is. “Everything I write is simple” J.J.. It’s only the insistence of others to make it complicated — Ulysses ain’t hard to read — it’s a gas! — It’s difficult if you try to read it like a novel — Joyce was no novelist — he’s a poet!
* * *
Vico’s New Science is amazing—completely! Passage after passage of Finnegans Wake come clear as each page of Vico rolls by—
Bruno’s a gas too—will send or bring him to you—please read Vico—definitely important for JJ. Important on its own—
As of late the desire to write has become almost overpowering (almost).
* * *
Malory (Morte Arthur) Walter Pater Marius the Epicurean. Names of cats who did strange things with English. Malory — ancient, wrote 5 page sentences — perhaps some hints there? Ulysses Oxen of the Sun — long sentences — parodies (9) (I think) each corresping to development of the English language. Also fetus. Also etc.
How goes it with Vico? Definitely into language—very strong argument he presents. Joyce’s attraction obvious.
O! While in Germany, if possible, would you get the “Limited Editions Club” edition of Ulysses? It’s in 2 vols I think. It’s the most accurate text available. Would be much appreciated.
* * *
Glad to hear you’re reading Vico — pretty spaced out wop. Bruno is too — so far out “they” (“they” being the powers that were—i.e. The Church [did I say were?]) burnt him at the stake. All because the silly man believed that for every this there’s a that, for every up a down left-right good-bad—(obviously a fool) and that this infinity of differences is caused by none other than TADAH—you. And me and everyone who believes there’s a left or good or beautiful etc. And he (Bruno) rather than spend his time reading off the list of names of every sonofabitch within a five hundred mile radius said in effect—that the you-me-I is actually a level of consciousness whereby all those participating are kinda doomed to make uncertain choices (Joyces) and under [?]— peacably violently fucked up forever: or until they realize that all men are conceptual animals and that god is one concept in millions, countless millions — and so on.
So Bruno the Nolan:
(“No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude; and the artist, though he may employ the crowd, is very careful to isolate himself.” J.J. Day of the Rabblement. 1901.)
* * *
Volleyed with myself as to whether or not to copy out translation of Latin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — decided yes. “Yes, I said yes I will Yes.”
Note: Joyce said the last four words in the title of A Portrait . . . are the most important.
* * *
Last page of the Wake: — “the keys to. Given!” — are the keys to given within the text? — Yes. May the words “the keys to. Given!” be read thusly: “The keys to. Give in!” Yes.
* * *
Reading J.J.. Shem the Penman — amazing chapter — confirms many things — on 1 level — it’s J looking at hymnself with more than jaundiced eyes — on the other is the Wrathful Deities of Tibetan fame . . . The more I read him the funnier he gets. Laughter seems to be the greatest high. Also his poetry — exquisite . . .
* * *
Been reading The Wake and Ulysses a lot — goddamn; my heart, my all, jumps and leaps, swoons with the magic of his enchanted language — such music — “Lowly, longly a wail went forth.”— Such calm and peaceful knowing that all flows annalike into the sunflower lily light within us all . . .
* * *
Ideas for the Joyce book rumble endlessly through me — amazing connections with amazing Things — all pointing to [?] type expansion states of mind — multi-channeled, quadraleveled.
Pages of the Wake exploding — a universe of raw substance — Listen! — It roars.
Creator hands clap — and bang! A pencil line of light shoots threw an inky universe illuminating hidden vistas of self — countless reflectors and echoes flash and hum — the sounds — vibrations.
Birth Death Birth, etc.
It occured to me that the last few times I opened the book that each time I did it indeed was “Finnegans Wake.” Each Time! Flipped out!! Energy: — raw — clear — vibrant.
It darkles — what a funmanimal world.
Eyes closed — The portals of mine ears receive — Face to Face — The Cosmic Howl: HoHoHoHo —
Looking for a goal I found none.
Looking for nothing it was all there — eyes still closed because opened eyes see no more than be heard anyway — music — no — sound/silence — distinguishing seems to be nowhere — rather somewhere — nowhere being everywhere.
All this all that
I’m as confused as
I have a book on the Scandinavian elements in the Wake — would you like it?
Also Our Exag, which is as close to indispensable as any book about the Wake could be. A real mind bender.
Love and Peace,