Author Brian Hall is known for his diverse subject matter. His 2003 novel I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Companyis a fictionalized account of Lewis and Clark, and his 2008 novel The Fall of Frost re-imagines Robert Frost’s personal life and inner world. Hall’s writing has received significant praise over the years; his 1997 coming-of-age novel The Saskiad has been translated into twelve languages.
This year Hall collaborated with composer Mary Lorson for a rather unusual endeavor: setting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music. Part of the Waywords and Meansigns project, Hall and Lorson were tasked with creating an unabridged musical version of the Wake’s famous eighth chapter. The chapter presents a dialogue between two women, who are in turn juxtaposed with Dublin’s Liffey river and one of the book’s main characters, Anna Livia Plurabelle. (You can hear their chapter in the embedded audio player below.)
Derek Pyle, who runs Waywords and Meansigns, spoke with Brian Hall about a number of topics ranging from the experience of wrestling with Joyce’s text to the process of writing and researching novels.
Derek Pyle: You worked with Mary Lorson for the Waywords and Meansigns project. What was your collaborative process like?
Brian Hall: We decided that I would record the voice track first, before she did anything else. I’ve never recorded any reading before, so we practice recorded the thing twice, just to get me used to it. That way I could get used to just how thorny it is to read at a relatively quick pace, to manage to spit out all of these weird words one after another. You have to practice quite a lot so you can get through a sentence and make it sound somewhat natural.
I assured Mary right at the beginning that the final mix and music, all of that would be entirely up to her and I wasn’t going to interfere. I made some suggestions, just throwing out ideas — I know [classical music] pretty well, and she was interested in drawing on that, so I mentioned a few things that could be related.
Derek Pyle: At times your voice has a call and response feel — it was her tinkering that created this effect?
Brian Hall: The chapter is clearly some kind of a dialogue, but a lot of it is not really clear which voice is which. I was looking online and nobody really agrees on how the voices divide. I made my own version of the back and forth, just by highlighting the younger voice, and I gave Mary a copy of this marked up version of the text.
When I read it in the studio in Toronto, it was all on one track. As I read, every time I went to the younger voice I pitched my voice a little bit higher. So with the pitch between the two voices, and my printed version, which had highlighted the young woman’s lines, Mary could tell pretty easily which was which. She put the voices on two different tracks, one on the left speaker, one on the right speaker, and did everything that we hear. It really gives a much better feel.
Derek Pyle: It’s such a full landscape of sound, with the river running through the conversation. What were some of the other underlying conceptual elements guiding your reading?
Brian Hall: Because I tend to gather books, I already had the Tindall guide to Finnegans Wake and I also had the Roland McHugh Annotations to Finnegans Wake. I read through both the Tindall and the McHugh related to this chapter, to see whatever there was — things that I couldn’t figure out on my own.
Since Joyce uses — I can’t remember the figure — 140 different river names, McHugh notes pretty much every time there’s a river name. He doesn’t say which country it’s in, so I marked all of this up and then for all the river names I looked them up on Google Maps.
I wanted to find out what country the rivers are in, because you don’t really have a sense how to pronounce it unless you know what language it’s in. When you’re reading [the Wake] out loud you want to straddle, as much as possible, the different possible pronunciations of these multilingual words.
But I don’t really know how Joyce pronounced some of those words. He may have had a Dublin-English version of it. A lot of it is total guesswork but it was really fun, although a fair amount of work — with a text like this you basically have stuff all over the page, with arrows trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing.
Derek Pyle: What was your engagement with Joyce prior to this undertaking?
Brian Hall: By the time I got out of college I had read most of Joyce except Finnegans Wake. I cheated a bit — I took a course on Ulysses and I ran out of time in the course, the way you do in college, and I ended up only reading about half of Ulysses. I wrote a paper on the part that I had read, to hide the fact that I hadn’t read the whole thing.
When I was forty, I went back and read the entire Ulysses, and like loads of writers I was pretty fascinated. Large parts of it are some of the most interesting stuff written in the 20th century, I think.
But it’s true for a lot of great work, one of the things that makes them so fascinating — as you approach them as a critical reader and as a writer yourself, it makes sense that there are things that you don’t entirely agree with. There are parts of Ulysses which I think go farther down the formalistic path than is really helpful. I never much liked the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter, the one that goes through the history of the English language.
I think a lot of Ulysses, as great as it is, it’s a little longer than ideal. But you know, it’s a fabulous monumental work. When people pick it as like, if you’re forced to choose the greatest novels of the 20th century, I’m certainly not surprised that a lot of people pick Ulysses.
Portrait of the Artist I’ve probably read three or four times. Dubliners you of course get in high school and I read it again in my forties. I read Stephen Hero at one point because I was curious to see the earlier version of Portrait of the Artist.
But Finnegans Wake was the big thing that I had never gotten around to. I actually have you to thank — it really was an opportunity for me to do something I’d wanted to do, which is to take a closer look at one part of the Wake. I always wondered how to what extent I would appreciate what his goals are in Finnegans Wake.
Derek Pyle: How would you articulate Joyce’s goals?
I can only speak of the Liffey chapter, but I think he goes further down the path of playing with language, to the point where it starts to become a question of diminishing returns. I want to stress how much I enjoyed reading it out loud — it is a fascinating word fest he’s done.
But he has the idea that [the chapter] is going to be about rivers — about a river, the Liffey. He has what I think are loads of great ideas about how to do this, where Liffey and Livia are basically the same. The way he describes the places where the Liffey runs and the kinds of landscape it runs through — he does it in such a way that pretty much every moment is both about the river but also about this sort of mythical female figure, Livia. I think a lot of that is really great.
Then there’s this other side of Joyce — and this is the part where I as an artist part ways with him — since he’s doing a thing about the river, he decides to incorporate into the chapter the names of like 140 rivers from around the world. I think that layer just gets in the way; I can’t see that it adds much.
Who am I, of course — I’m just me and he’s James Joyce. If I were his childhood friend and he took any advice from me, I would say “hey Jim, maybe that one layer…”
Derek Pyle: As a writer reading Joyce, is there any way his works have influenced your own craft in terms of techniques to use, or even to avoid?
The generally broad idea of stream of consciousness narration, which of course takes many forms, but he was obviously one of the big fat originators of it. That’s had a big effect on the way I write. I believe very strongly that prose should take whatever form it needs to take, to properly convey the way a person is thinking.
All of my writing, except for my first novel, is in close third person. But I think the writer whose style of stream of consciousness influenced me somewhat more than Joyce — but of course she herself was influenced by Joyce and vice versa — was Virginia Woolf. Her approach in Mrs. Dalloway is the way I tend to write when I’m trying to convey the moment of thought in one of my character’s minds.
I think a big problem with a lot of literary writing today is that a lot of writers consistently stick to a polished lyrical style. I guess it’s out of the idea that beautiful writing is always beautiful, so why not write beautifully. My temperament or whatever, my reading of that, it’s not psychologically acute writing because it doesn’t reflect emotional turmoil.
If you’re describing a character who is very upset or angry or confused, or if the character is not very literate — I think the prose should always try to reflect the content, and that means loads of good prose is not beautiful.
You know Joyce, a lot of his stuff is of course beautiful in its own way, but you get to the “Sirens” chapter in Ulysses and you have this overture section at the beginning. It’s just totally fractured. He’s not trying something beautiful there, he’s trying something much more interesting.
Derek Pyle: Whether it’s Woolf or Joyce, did you take a research approach into looking at technique, breaking down how and why does this work?
Brian Hall: I haven’t sat down and analyzed it. Stuff that I read that really excites me, I just assume it’s working its way into how I think about writing. I do lots of research for my novels, but it’s not related to stylistic stuff.
The novel I’m working on right now, the main character is an astronomer. My sense is, if you’re going to write a novel where the main character is an astronomer, you really should know a lot about astronomy. It’s not like you need lectures in there about astronomy, but just in the background of your mind, you should know a lot because that’s how your character will look at the world.
It helps if you like to do research for its own sake, because then you don’t have the temptation to try to shoehorn too much into the novel. It doesn’t feel like a waste to me if I have twenty times more material than I actually put into the book. I love research, so I don’t regret that at all.
Derek Pyle: Anything else you want to add? Biblioklept interviews usually end with the question ‘have you ever stolen a book?’
Brian Hall: I’ll say this. I really detest copyright law in general and in the U.S. in particular and these organizations like creative commons — what you’re doing with this whole project, where stuff is put online for people to freely download, I just think it’s great.
My understanding of the original idea of copyright law, for one thing it only lasted for sixteen years when it was first proposed by Jefferson. The idea was to keep people from competing in the market with the original thing.
But when you take something, and you change it dramatically by adding things — I ran into this with my Frost book. I ended up not being able to quote certain Frost poems because of supposed copyright problems. That’s a real perversion of the original idea of copyright protection. What I was doing in the Frost book would in no conceivable way cut into the sales of volumes of poetry by Frost.
I personally sympathize with people who are alive and remember Frost and are uncomfortable with the idea of a novelist like me coming along and writing a very personal novel about Frost. I don’t think it’s ridiculous that they don’t like it. But if it weren’t for the ridiculously extended copyright laws in this country, there wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be allowed to do what I do, they could be unhappy about it the way that I’m unhappy about lots of things, and you know, we would just move on.
Oh, and to answer your question, I’ve never stolen a book.
They got into our car at a stoplight. It was cold. We never lock the doors in back. There were two of them. At the apartment they terrorized us. It took all day, most of the night. There was beating and thrashing and scorn and damage and fear. Sounds I didn’t know could come out of us. Above all it was boring. In the sense that it was all actions and all bad; there is no life of the mind available amid beating and thrashing and scorn and damage and fear, no space at the back of oneself to go to and think anything else. Long stretches of boredom that fill up with something like thinking but there is nothing to think except what it is, what it is to be in this, and what it is to be in this is simply and utterly nothing but what it is, no volume around it, no beach, no reverie. At one point Washington raised his arms to me and blood ran down both arms to the floor. I watched it hit the tiles, it would have been something to think about, cleaning blood off tiles. Sometimes it’s better to just replace them. Eventually in fact that’s what we would do, replace the white ones. We kept the black ones, which were sort of speckled anyway. But “eventually” is not a concept of mind that exists amid beating and thrashing and scorn and damage and fear. Even when they had Washington dance in the red-hot shoes, I wasn’t imagining analogies, Snow White, I was soaked into Washington’s dread, it had no edge. That is what boredom is, the moment with no edge.
To survive you need an edge.
Read the rest of “We’ve Only Just Begun” at Harper’s.
It was nonsense, Dr Vrba continued, to study the emergence of man in a vacuum, without pondering the fate of other species over the same time-scale. The fact was that around 2.5 million, just as man took his spectacular ‘jump’, there was a ‘tremendous churning over of species’.
‘All hell’, she said, ‘broke loose among the antelopes.’
Everywhere in eastern Africa, the more sedentary browsers gave way to ‘brainier’ migratory grazers. The basis for a sedentary existence was simply no longer there.
‘And sedentary species,’ she said, ‘like sedentary genes, are terribly successful for a while, but in the end they are self-destructive.’
In arid country, resources are never stable from one year to the next. A stray thunderstorm may make a temporary oasis of green, while only a few miles off the land remains parched and bare. To survive in drought, therefore, any species must adopt one of two stratagems: to allow for the worst and dig in; to open itself to the world and move.
Some desert seeds lie dormant for decades. Some desert rodents only stir from their burrows at night. The weltwitchia, a spectacular, strap-leaved plant of the Namib Desert, lives for thousands of years on its daily diet of morning mist. But migratory animals must move – or be ready to move.
Elizabeth Vrba said, at some point in the conversation, that antelopes are stimulated to migrate by lightning.
‘So’, I said, ‘are the Kalahari Bushmen. They also “follow” the lightning. For where the lightning has been, there will be water, greenery and game.’
From Bruce Chatwin’s novel/memoir/travelogue The Songlines. The image is Welwitschia by Louise Nienaber.
In July, I spoke to Richard Zenith in Lisbon about his work translating Fernando Pessoa, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Sophia de Mello Breyner, and many other spectacular Portuguese-speaking poets. Read our conversation in the hot-off-the-press fall issue of Asymptote. (Available in English and Spanish!)
I recently had the chance to interview the marvelous David Shook about the equally marvelous Like a New Sun, a book of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry, which he edited and co-translated. You can read the interview over at Asymptote’s blog.
I first read about Asymptote here on Biblioklept a few years ago. I’m happy to share that I have joined their ranks as Interview Features Editor, and that this is my first interview with them. Check back often for more interviews with translators, poets, novelists, and more.