The thinning of language (Doris Lessing)

I am in a mood that gets more and more familiar: words lose their meaning suddenly. I find myself listening to a sentence, a phrase, a group of words, as if they are in a foreign language—the gap between what they are supposed to mean, and what in fact they say seems unbridgeable. I have been thinking of the novels about the breakdown of language, like Finnegans Wake. And the preoccupation with semantics. The fact that Stalin bothers to write a pamphlet on this subject at all is just a sign of a general uneasiness about language. But what right have I to criticize anything when sentences from the most beautiful novel can seem idiotic to me? 

… I made tea, and then I remembered a story that was sent to me last week. By a comrade living somewhere near Leeds. When I first read it, I thought it was an exercise in irony. Then a very skilful parody of a certain attitude. Then I realized it was serious—it was at the moment I searched my memory and rooted out certain fantasies of my own. But what seemed to me important was that it could be read as parody, irony or seriously. It seems to me this fact is another expression of the fragmentation of everything, the painful disintegration of something that is linked with what I feel to be true about language, the thinning of language against the density of our experience.

From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook.

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“It’s not just a stream of gibberish” |On Illustrating Finnegans Wake

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At The Honest Ulsterman, Darran Anderson talks with Stephen Crowe about illustrating James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in his project Wake in Progress. From the interview:

DA: Do you approach the book as a puzzle or a palette? Do you try to make your artwork close to what Joyce might have meant or do you embrace the possibilities of your own interpretations? Is it possible or even desirable to try to work out what Joyce meant?

SC: Clearly Joyce meant to say something – it’s not just a stream of gibberish. So as an illustrator I think I owe it to the text to try to understand as much of it as I can. I try to figure out at least a couple of different ways to interpret every passage, but I certainly don’t exhaust every avenue. There’s a limit to how much information I can cram into the illustrations anyway. On the other hand, I do think that there are portions of the book where it’s not really important to understand it on a semantic level. Joyce was deeply influenced by music in his writing, and I think it’s fine to appreciate some of the book quite passively, as if it were music. I would agree that there’s no such thing as “understanding” the book entirely. Partial incomprehensibility is part of its design.

Recent Stuff I’ve Found in Books

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So this Friday, I bought two enormous fat thick Penguin volumes of Jorge Luis Borges in utterly pristine condition (fictions and non-). I own other books that cover some of the material here, but 1100+ pages of JLB is hard to pass up (especially used, especially when I have store credit).

And then today, I was made privy to this lovely Flickr set, “Things found in books,” and thought I’d play along.

So back to Borges: I was somewhat touched by this note (above) I found in the nonfiction collection: Mom sends the book to her son so he “may understand it,” “this most difficult book”; mom also reports it “very hard to read” and appends a frowny face.

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Maybe a week or two before, I found this lovely little wisp of paper:

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In Vlad Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote:

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Which reminded me of this James Joyce clipping—not so recent, I’ll admit, but still carefully placed as a bookmark in a Finnegans Wake guide:

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Okay, annotations, more properly:

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Do most people leave stuff in books? I think most bibliophiles do. (Forgive the snobbish italics there. I’m sure there are bibliophiles who don’t, of course). I have a habit of never reusing a bookmark, so that when I pull out a volume there’s some little tag there that acts as a third point (along with the text and my addled brain) to help triangulate the reading experience (the concrete circumstances of the reading process, the where, the when, the how much, etc.).

And so, after finishing Pynchon’s Against the Day a few weeks ago, I resolved to return to Mason & Dixon. Pulling out my copy,  where I found an entry ticket to Wat Phra Ram in Ayutthaya. I’m pretty sure I bought the book in Chiang Mai (after buying V. in Bangkok; books were the only thing I ever thought were expensive in Thailand).

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A few weeks ago my grandmother let me take one of my grandfather’s favorite books with me when I left her house, a Walt Kelly collection.

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I was thrilled to find inside the Pogo volume the syllabus of my grandfather’s college chemistry class from the Fall of 1947:

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And some of his notes (cryptic to me, but endearing):

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I think the best part about finding my grandfather’s old syllabus tucked away into a book he loved is knowing that we shared a habit.

“—boys to your bellybone and chuck a chum a chance!” — Pynchon Riff + Joyce + Moebius + Chloral Hydrate Party

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1. Here is a rambling riff if ever I rambled and riffed:

2, First, look, that lovely image—it’s by Jean Giraud, aka Moebius. I came across it a week or two ago and digitally nabbed it.

I love Moebius’s work in general and something about the image reminds me of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, although maybe I’m too immersed in the thick novel to not have much of what I see recall it in some ways.

Something about the airship and the horseman recalls an early passage where Reef Traverse, in the American West, dream-reads the airship adventures of The Chums of Chance into existence. (There are parts of Against the Day that recall to me Cormac McCarthy’s westerns (sometimes—often—called anti-westerns, but come, let’s be adults)…where was I going here? It’s Friday and I’ve consumed the better part (aka “all”) of a bottle of rosé and now I’m circling round some odd notes here—yes—the western/Western thing: Manifest Destiny, etc. — I see it in the Moebius illustration, but of course I bring it with me like a sickness. I move on).

3. ” . . . boys to your bellybone and chuck a chum a chance!” — This is from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (85.8). Pointed out to me by Roman Tsivkin, this seems like a most reasonable/splendid source for the namesake of our aeronaut adventurers (who seem rather, uh, absent of late in the final moments of the Bilocations book I’m in right now).

4. Data, perhaps imperfect (again, digitally nabbed)—

In Against the Day:

—Some form of the word invisible appears 173 times—

—The word inconvenience or inconvenient — 84 times—

—The phrase the day — 213 times (usually in a cadence suggestive of the book’s title—some kind of rhythm to it, anyway)—

—The phrase against the day — once (unless you count the chapter (book, really) called “Against the Day,” or the colophon, or what-have-you)—

5. I’m a few sections past this, but a nice passage to end on of a Friday night:

Among students of mathematics here, chloral hydrate was the preferred drug. Sooner or later, whatever the problem being struggled with, having obsessed themselves into nightly insomnia, they would start taking knockout drops to get to sleep—Geheimrat Klein himself was a great advocate of the stuff—and next thing they knew, they were habitués, recognizing one another by the side-effects, notably eruptions of red pimples, known as “the dueling scars of chloralomania.” On Saturday nights in Göttingen, there was always sure to be at least one chloral party, or Mickifest.

It was a peculiar gathering, only intermittently, as you’d say, brisk. People were either talking wildly, often to themselves and without seeming to pause for breath, or lounging draped in pleasurable paralysis across the furniture or, as the evening went along, flat on the floor in deep narcosis.

Flann O’Brien’s Novel At Swim-Two-Birds Is a Postmodernist Masterpiece of Comic Storytelling

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The vibrant force of storytelling in Flann O’Brien’s excellent first novel At Swim-Two-Birds threatens to overwhelm reader and narrator alike—and what a strange joy it is to be overwhelmed. This novel overflows with stories; its plot threads twist into each other, break out of each other, erupt into new ideas, characters, riffs, sketches. First published in 1939—the same year as James Joyce’s Finnegans WakeAt Swim-Two-Birds seems light years ahead of its time—indeed, this is a book that is still ahead of its time.

Summarizing At Swim-Two-Birds is difficult but worth attempting. We have an unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle who doesn’t think much of how his nephew spends his time. Our narrator likes to imbibe large quantities of porter and wax philosophical with his friends about his literary projects. These projects, our narrator’s riffs and scribblings, begin to take on lives of their own: they intersect, overlap, intermarry, degenerate and regenerate.

The book’s opening paragraph announces the novel’s intention to disregard the classical unities of action, place, and time:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

First, we meet “Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class,” a hobgoblin of Irish folklore (he turns out to be a thoughtful and polite fellow). Then, there’s John Furriskey, who “was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.” Furriskey is the literary creation of another of the narrator’s literary creations, one Dermot Trellis, a grumpy old man who writes Westerns; Trellis (an author, it’s worth reiterating) is the eventual antagonist of the novel, the target for all of the other characters’ vengeance. The third opening offers up Finn Mac Cool, “a legendary hero of old Ireland.”

Much of the early part of At Swim-Two-Birds features Finn Mac Cool holding forth on all matters Irish in wonderfully baroque and hyperbolic passages. Here’s a snippet (a long one!), featuring Finn on the ideal man:

When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. Likewise he must hide beneath a twig, or behind a dried leaf, or under a red stone, or vanish at full speed into the seat of his hempen drawers without changing his course or abating his pace or angering the men of Erin. Two young fosterlings he must carry under the armpits to his jacket through the whole of Erin, and six arm-bearing warriors in his seat together. If he be delivered of a warrior or a blue spear, he is not taken. One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. When pursued in a chariot by the men of Erin he must dismount, place horse and chariot in the slack of his seat and hide behind his spear, the same being stuck upright in Erin. Unless he accomplishes these feats, he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skillful, he is of Finn’s people.

It’s hard not to feel something of Joyce in the passage (I’m particularly reminded of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses), and O’Brien’s narrator name-checks Joyce (along with Aldous Huxley) in the first few pages of the book. The narrator’s comically mechanical and precise descriptions also recall Joyce. Joyce and O’Brien drew from the same well of mythology, but O’Brien more keenly attunes his focus on Irish legend and folklore in At Swim-Two-Birds, while Joyce’s project skews to archetypes. Similarities and divergences aside, there’s something strangely fitting about O’Brien’s Finn Mac Cool dreaming his way into other characters’ lives in At Swim-Two-Birds, as if this Finn is the psychic twin of Joyce’s Finn.

Indeed, such a reading would fit neatly into our young narrator’s ideas about the function of character in literature:

Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

This decree strikes me as wonderfully post-postmodernist. That the “modern novel should be largely a work of reference” finds its suitable echo over half a century later in the note-card novels of David Markson (and other reality smugglers). The citation above serves as a metatextual description of At Swim-Two-Birds itself: O’Brien’s narrator framing the various tales that erupt in the novel, but also undoing the frames, allowing his characters to converge, to tell their own stories (and within those stories characters tell other stories…).

In its finest moments (of which there are many), At Swim-Two-Birds operates on an ad hoc logic that it creates and describes in motion, a kind of improvised dream response pattern. Most books, particularly postmodern books, teach the reader how to read them—that is, most novels provide keys, hints, and reading rules early enough in the text to allow perceptive readers to interpret (subjectively, of course) what the novel is doing. O’Brien’s novel in toto, with its discontinuities, gaps, eruptions, and juxtapositions, paradoxically is its own discrete, unified key.

But I seem to be getting bogged down in a bit of literary theory, which is not my intent at all.

Instead, let me draw attention to a wonderful extended jaunt in the middle of At Swim-Two-Birds where the Pooka MacPhellimey enters into an ersatz quest with the Good Fairy, two cowboyish thugs (or thuggish cowboys) named Slug and Shorty, the poet Jem Casey, and the mad King Sweeny. This ragtag band sets out to bequeath gifts to the forthcoming child of Miss Lamont (the creation of a creation of a creation). These episodes unfold in comic bravado, their slapstick rhythms recalling the manic but precise energy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the linguistic brio of the Marx brothers. This miniature picaresque is tempered in sweet pathos for poor crazy Sweeny who must be plied forward with the promise of a feast. The poor man, broken, starving, and living solely on watercress, falls into despair. What eventually moves him? The force of language:

And getting around the invalid in a jabbering ring, they rubbed him and cajoled and coaxed, and plied him with honey-talk and long sweet-lilted sentences full of fine words, and promised him metheglin and mugs of viscous tarblack mead thickened with white yeast and the spoils from hives of mountain-bees, and corn-coarse nourishing farls of wheaten bread dipped in musk-scented liquors and sodden with Belgian sherry, an orchard and a swarm of furry honey-glutted bees and a bin of sun-bronzed grain from the granaries of the Orient in every drop as it dripped at the lifting of the hand to the mouth, and inky quids of strong-smoked tabacca with cherrywood pipes, hubble-bubbles, duidins, meerschaums, clays, hickory hookahs and steel-stemmed pipes with enamel bowls, the lot of them laid side by side in a cradle of lustrous blue plush, a huge pipe-case and pipe-rack ingeniously combined and circumscribed with a durable quality of black imitation leather over a framework of stout cedarwood dovetailed and intricately worked and made to last, the whole being handsomely finished and untouched by hand and packed in good-quality transparent cellophane, a present calculated to warm the cockles of the heart of any smoker. They also did not hesitate to promise him sides of hairy bacon, the mainstay and the staff of life of the country classes, and lamb-chops still succulent with young blood, autumn-heavy yarns from venerable stooping trees, bracelets and garlands of browned sausages and two baskets of peerless eggs fresh-collected, a waiting hand under the hen’s bottom. They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-tipped delphy cups of black-strong tea. They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire. Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant. They mentioned the leap of a fire on a cold night, long sleeps in the shadows and leaden-eyed forgetfulness hour on hour – princely oblivion. And as they talked, they threaded through the twilight and the sudden sun-pools of the wild country.

I’ve perhaps overshared here, let our characters babble on too long—but the verbal dexterity of the passage above illustrates O’Brien’s rhetorical force, the force he lends his characters in order that they should move their insane and desperate friend forward. There’s a sublime alchemy at work here, where imagination turns into words and words turn into food and drink.

I also fear these big chunks of text I’ve pulled from At Swim-Two-Birds don’t highlight O’Brien’s extraordinary talent at rendering speech. The dialogue in this novel is hilarious but nuanced, its ironies rarely if ever remarked upon by intrusive attributions. That O’Brien’s narrator’s characters (and their characters…) speak through the layers of texts adds to the book’s juxtapositions.

These juxtapositions will perhaps confuse or even alienate many readers. At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an attack on the classical unities of action, place, and time. O’Brien’s novel is a send-up of stability, order, and tradition. Some of the novel’s best moments are its strangest indulgences, as when O’Brien (or his narrator) gives the novel over to citations from imaginary antique texts, or allows his characters to indulge in a seemingly endless recitation of obscure facts, or satirizes the moral dangers of tea-tasting. These moments seem to erupt from nowhere, bizarre, wonderful, joyous.

At Swim-Two-Birds lacks the cohesion of theme and voice that characterizes O’Brien’s other masterpiece, The Third Policeman, but this is hardly a deficiency. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of those rare books that actually deserves to be called dazzling, a critic’s crutch-word that mars too many blurbs. Its dazzle derives from its rhetorical force, its humor, and its openness to experiment with not just the novelistic form, but the form of storytelling itself. And it’s here that O’Brien’s novel is most real—he captures the strangeness of storytelling, its mutability, its crazy rhythms. Ultimately, this is a novel unconcerned with providing pat answers and clear solutions. I loved this book, loved reading it—and then immediately rereading it. I’ll let O’Brien get the last word:

Answers do not matter so much as questions, said the Good Fairy. A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.

Some Books I Plan to Read in 2013

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There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.

There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

I do not currently possess any of these books.

I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).

At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:

Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

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I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.

I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).

I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.

But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?

A Very Finnegans Wake Christmas

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Book Shelves #43, 10.21.2012

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Book shelves series #43, forty-third Sunday of 2012

Kind of a hodgepodge shelf—some literary biography, a few now-redundant collections, some literary criticism, art books, etc.

Tracy Daugherty’s Donald Barthelme biography Hiding Man is on the far left; I reviewed it a few years ago, taking note of my favorite part, the so-called postmodernists’ dinner.

Next to it is Susan Sontag’s Reborn, a collection of early journals that I also reviewed.

Next to these two is Sara Davidson’s Loose Change. My aunt gave me a box of books years ago (lots of Asimov and Octavia Butler) and this was in here.

I knew about it because of a long essay in a 2007 issue of The Believer.

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I picked up Penguin’s The Essential James Joyce in Jimbocho, an area in Tokyo known for used bookstores.

I recall paying maybe ¥100 for it. It comprises a few selections from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, some of  Joyce’s (totally unessential) poetry, and the entirety of Dubliners, Exiles, and Portrait. I’ve kept it because of sentiment (and  I like the cover).

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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (Book Acquired, 8.18.2012)

 

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A few weeks ago, for some reason beyond my ken, I stumbled into Finnegans Wake, read on the gentle glow of my Kindle Fire. I’ve been poking into the book for years now, but that particular night I read it with an ease—not an ease of understanding, but an ease of spirit, or of mind. Or ear, really. I had fun with it. I went back each night since then, sometimes only going through a page or two before slipping into slumbers.

Anyway, I’ve been searched for a used copy of Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key to the Wake for years, but I finally just broke down and ordered a new copy through my bookstore.  My plan is to read Finnegans Wake next year. It’s not a plan, so much as something I’ve just typed.

 

Finnegans Wake (With Bear)

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Finnegans Wake (With Bunny)

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Book Shelves #19, 5.06.2012

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Book shelves series #19, nineteenth Sunday of 2012.

When I started this project, this shelf was all Tolkien and Joyce; now it’s mostly Gaddis and Joyce.

I have dupes of most of the Joyce books here; there’s also Joyce criticism/guides on the shelf.

Another angle. Glare is horrible. iPhone is not a good camera; lots of glare; shelf is much taller than me, etc.:

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Here’s a tight shot of the Brownie Six-16 that serves as bookend:

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Something from Finnegans Wake :

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“Rhetoric” — A Page from James Joyce’s Notebooks

This page is from a notebook that contains some of Joyce’s preparatory notes for Ulysses—there are notes for characters (“Stephen,” “Simon,” “Leopold,” etc.) as well as lists (“Books,” “Recipes”) and general ideas (“Theosophy”). This particular page, “Rhetoric,” seems to be part of the material that went into the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses, which plays with the windiness of rhetorical figures. From the National Library of Ireland, via UbuWeb.

William Gaddis on James Joyce

William Gaddis on James Joyce (via/more):

I recall a most ingenious piece in a Wisconsin quarterly some years ago in which The Recognitions’ debt to Ulysses was established in such minute detail I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses.

(March 1972 letter to Jean [?] Howes)

I’ve about reached the end of the line on questions about what I did or didn’t read of Joyce’s 30 years ago. All I read of Ulysses was Molly Bloom at the end which was being circulated for salacious rather than literary merits; No I did not read Finnegans Wake though I think a phrase about “psychoanaloosing” one’s self from it is in The Recognitions; Yes I read some of Dubliners but don’t recall how many & remember only a story called “Counterparts”; Yes I read a play called Exiles which at the time I found highly unsuccessful; Yes I believe I read Portrait of an Artist but also think I may not have finished it; No I did not read commentary on Joyce’s work & absorb details without reading the original. I also read, & believe with a good deal more absorbtion [sic], Eliot, Dostoevski, Forster, Rolfe, Waugh, why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespear, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot &c, all of which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.

(June 1975 letter to Grace Eckley)