Sunday, April 25, 2010

James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

Most of us have read or been obliged to read, by a high school English teacher or college professor, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Many have read the indelible story collection Dubliners. Hardly any of us have got past the first few chapters of Ulysses, let alone the entire book (even if it was crowned No. 1 in Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels back in 2003). But who among us has the intellectual fortitude (or masochistic compulsion) to get through all 628 pages of Joyce’s nearly impenetrable, nay, opaque final work, Finnegans Wake?

Don’t worry, I have no intention of suggesting you read a book I’ve never read myself, but there is a case to be made for everyone reading just the first chapter (the first 29 pages) of this work of fiction like no other.

I won’t try to tell you what it’s about because I couldn’t. I’ll let the scholars synopsize the unsynopsizable. The “story” seems utterly beside the point, at least to me. Finnegans Wake is an attempt to replicate dream in the form of language. To squeeze between two covers every trick, technique, and figure of speech in the English language — synecdoche, euphemism, metonymy, synesthesia, and the pun (especially!) to name only a few — into the creation of a linguistic equivalent of the hypnagogic state we all drift through on the verge of sleep. The portmanteau word is the coin of its realm, and the double (triple, quadruple, sextuple!) entendre is what it purchases for the reader. For example:

He addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur. Wither hayre in honds tuck up your part inher. Oftwhile balbulous, mithre ahead, with goodly trowel in grasp and ivoroiled overalls which he habitacularly fondseed, like Haroun Childeric Eggeberth he would caligulate by multiplicables the altitude and malltitude until he seesaw by neatlight of the liquor wheretwin ‘twas born, his roundhead staple of other days to rise in undress maisonry upstanded (joygrantit!), a waalworth of a skyerscape of most eyeful hoyth entowerly, erigenating from next to nothing and celescalating the himals and all, heirarchitectitiptitoploftical, with a burning bush abob off its baubletop and with larrons o’toolers clittering up and tumbles a’buckets clottering down.

Over the years I’ve read this passage dozens of times and still have only a vague notion of what it’s “about,” but it never fails to make me smile (in no small part because of its bawdy nature, I confess). Or this:

What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through successive ages that shabby choruysh of unkalified muzzlenimiissilehims that would blackguardise the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven. Stay us wherefore in our search for tighteousness, O Sustainer, what time we rise and when we take up to toothmick and before we lump down upown our leatherbed and in the night at the fading of the stars! For a nod to the nabir is better than wink to the wabsanti.

Wink, indeed. (If you have small children, try to get them to say “muzzlenimissilehims” or “heirarchitectitiptitoploftical” from the first example. My grown daughters still remember them!)

Probably the most descriptive word for this language is “poetry.” It’s certainly closer to poetry than prose, and its pleasures are more in the language than any narrative we could chisel out from beneath the words. And, here, I go out on a limb. It seems to me that the poetry in the first chapter is more compelling than in later chapters (at least those I’ve read), except perhaps for the famous (relatively) Anna Livia Plurabelle section. Here are a few lines quoted at random from later in the book:

But now, talking of hayastdanars and wolkingology and how our seaborn isle came into exestuance, (the explutor, his three adesiters and the two pantellarias) that reminds me about the manausteriums of the poor Marcus of Lyons and poor Johnny, the patrician, and what do you think of the four of us and there they were now, listening right enough, the four saltwater widowers, and all they could remembore, long long ago in the olden times Momonian, throw darker hour sorrows, the princest day, when Fair Gargrate waited Swede Villem, and Lally in the rain, with the plank prints, now extincts, after the wreak of Wormans’ Noe, the barmaisigheds, when my heart knew no care,…

Maybe it’s just me, but where the first two passages seem prism-like, the latter just seems cloudy — Joyce muttering to himself. I offer the comparison simply as further rationale (my own and only mine, for sure) why it’s okay to read just the first chapter, instead of the whole book.

While just a little of Finnegans Wake goes a long way, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of the experience. Because that’s what it is, an experience sui generis.

Other recommended works: Stephen Hero (an early draft of the Portrait), Exiles (a play), and "The Dead" (the long concluding story in Dubliners).

Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent

It’s always puzzled me that, at least in some forums, Joseph Conrad is seen as an adventure story writer, as though he wrote for teenage boys. Admittedly, some of his long stories like Youth, Nigger of the Narcissus, and Typhoon have incredible scenes of high adventure and action, but even these are great works of literature. His The Secret Agent, too, with a title that suggests all the elements that go with the spy genre, will surprise, but hardly disappoint, anyone picking it up for an enjoyable read.

Joseph Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and didn’t learn to speak English fluently until in his twenties. Like Vladimir Nabokov, for whom English was a second language as well, Conrad became one of the great master stylists in our language. Most of his novels take place on or near the high seas, with The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes being more political and European in nature.

It’s full title being The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, the book is hardly simple in either plot or character. It is set in London, 1886, at a time of great political upheaval, when anarchists and revolutionaries were a daily presence in the newspapers. The secret agent of the title is Adolf Verloc, a shop owner who sells pornography and bric a brac, and who is secretly employed as an agent provocateur by a foreign country, probably Russia. He is evidently not the most adept in the techniques of anarchy and, at a meeting with his handler, a Mr. Vladimir, he is given one last chance to prove himself worth his fee by bombing the Greenwich Observatory.

The features of Mr. Vladimir, so well known in the best society by their humorous urbanity, beamed with cynical self-satifaction, which would have astonished the intelligent women his wit entertained so exquisitely. “Yes,” he continued, with a contemptuous smile, “The blowing up of the first meridian is bound to raise a howl of execration.”

“A difficult business,” Mr. Verloc mumbled, feeling that this was the only safe thing to say.

“What is the matter? Haven’t you the whole gang under your hand, the very pick of the basket? That old terrorist Yundt is here. I see him walking about Piccadilly in his green havelock almost every day.”


“It will cost money,” Mr. Verloc said, by a sort of instinct.

“That cock won’t fight,” Mr. Vladimir retorted, with an amazingly genuine English accent. “You’ll get your screw every month, and no more, until something happens. And if nothing happens very soon, you won’t get even that . . . . A dynamite outrage must be provoked. I give you a month.”

Verloc’s pathetic life revolves around a group of ineffectual anarchists (just referred to) who publish and distribute pamphlets called “The Future of the Proletariat”, and his family, including his wife and, most importantly, his brother-in-law Stevie who suffers from a mental disease characterized by extreme excitability.

After his meeting with Mr. Vladimir, Verloc meets with his anarchist friends, who include The Professor, who is always in possession of a powerful bomb the mere pushing of a button on which would blow him and his surroundings up. Stevie overhears their sinister conversation and is deeply disturbed. As the bomb plot progresses Verloc is unable to keep his family uninvolved in his dangerous activities.

In addition to being compelling, even thrilling at times, The Secret Agent also has a unique structure. It’s written like a linked chain, with each scene linked to the next by a single character’s perceptions, with the person changing from scene to scene. In this way, the author suggests the tenuous nature of a world in which murder and deception can infect every other aspect of life, destroying not only the intended victim, but damaging or destroying everyone else who has come into contact with both murderer and the murdered.

To reveal any more of the plot would deprive the reader, since one of the great accomplishments of the book is the manner in which each scene builds from the previous one. But, it gives nothing away to say that a bomb does go off and the consequences are devastating for all involved.

Though published in 1907, The Secret Agent reads like it was written yesterday. It’s not surprising that it is one of the novels most mentioned in connection with 9/11 and its aftermath, and the war in Iraq. As great novels always do, it takes a specific place and time, great characters and a deeply important theme, and makes of them timeless art.

Other recommended works: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, “The Secret Sharer” (one of the most anthologized short stories ever written), Victory, and Chance.

Thomas Mann’s "Death in Venice"

Evidence of its being possibly the finest novella of the 20th century, Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice has inspired more than a few offshoots: the gorgeous, haunting Visconti movie (with music of Gustav Mahler), the Benjamin Britten opera, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2007 presentation of the ballet by John Neumeier, Robert Coover’s fantastical Pinocchio in Venice, most recently Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansari, plus various graphic novels and even murder mystery spin-offs.

Within the first few pages, you know you’re reading something special. Gustave von Aschenbach is a famous author, well into middle age, whose nerves are beginning to fray from overwork. On an afternoon walk near a cemetery in Munich, he encounters a stranger.

(Aschenbach) was brought back to reality by the sight of a man standing in the portico, above the two apocalyptic beasts that guarded the staircase, and something not quite usual in this man’s appearance gave his thoughts a fresh turn . . . . He was of medium height, thin, beardless, and strikingly snub-nosed; he belonged to the red-haired type and possessed its milky, freckled skin . . . and the broad, straight-brimmed hat he had on made him look distinctly exotic . . . . In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed. His chin was up. So that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed on his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose . . . . the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums.

Leaving his gaze a bit too long on the face of the stranger — an apparition of Death, or the Devil? — Aschenbach receives a hostile gaze in return. He blinks first and walks away, feeling strangely “a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes,” and this singular moment inspires Aschenbach soon to take a vacation to the perennially romantic city of Venice.

From the moment of his arrival there, he encounters images to warn him of what is to come — an old man, made up to look younger, trying pathetically to fit in with a group of young men, and another red-haired stranger, an unlicensed gondolier, who would steer him astray.

The fate he is being drawn into he encounters at his hotel, the famous Lido. He is immediately smitten by the young son of a Polish family, dressed in a sailor suit.

Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture — pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity. Yet with all this chaste perfection of form it was of such unique personal charm that the observer thought he had never seen, either in nature or art, anything so utterly happy and consummate.

The consummate artist has encountered the perfect beauty. Unfortunately, for the aging widower, the beauty is both too young, and male.

The boy’s name is Tadzio and Aschenbach quickly rationalizes his interest in the boy in aesthetic and artistic terms.

The damp Venice air is hardly conducive to Aschenbach’s health and he decides to leave for healthier climes. A mix-up with his luggage finds him back at his hotel, resigned to staying — another rationalization. What begins as an artistic appreciation of the boy has turned into an obsession.

The novel follows the artist’s emotional and physical disintegration, leading him to increasingly depraved behavior, and eventually to his death, in the claustral atmosphere of a growing cholera epidemic.

Death in Venice is as perfect as a lovely, sad and disturbing dream, with multiple layers of meaning that cause it to resonate in the mind long after you’ve finished reading it — a book to read and reread with ever-increasing reward.

Other recommended works: The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, Doctor Faustus, and the great short works, including Tonio Kruger, Mario and the Magician, Disorder and Early Sorrow, The Blood of the Walsungs, Tristan, and The Black Swan.