James Joyce’s 115th Dream


‘Most books develop their themes through the plot and the way the characters change over time. Finnegans Wake uses those techniques to some extent, but mostly he uses others. The most important one is probably the leitmotif. He marks out different ideas with certain words, letters, numbers or rhythms, so you can trace the development of each idea according to the way he develops the motif. Like in music. Repetition is what powers the whole thing. But reading the Wake teaches you to read in a Wakean way. After a while, you find yourself reading conventional books with half an ear for all the words they repeat and the images they reuse. After all, any story is basically a collection of themes organised in a certain way. That’s one thing that you can definitely take from reading the Wake: it makes you re-evaluate everything you think about reading and writing.’

Having finally read Finnegans Wake for this interview with its exceptional illustrator Stephen Crowe (Wake In Progress), it does seem to me that we read different books in vastly different ways. Compare Akhmatova’s poetry to Riddley Walker, or Naked Lunch to Ovid and it’s clear that these things only share an art-form in the most basic and tenuous sense, they otherwise depart early on. I think that’s partially why Borges is my favourite writer. He doesn’t try to distil, instead he goes with it and expands. He recognises the inevitable lie of literature, that it is not simply pages and words we are reading rather it is universes surveyed (however claustrophobic), and embraces that.

My personal preference for James Joyce’s writing has always been for Dubliners (which Crowe is now illustrating for de Selby Press), Portrait and the first three and the last magnificent chapters of Ulysses (with a notable mention of his often ignored and derided poems, which seem to me brave, flawed but occasionally perfect in their simplicity) but speaking to Crowe has been an eye-opening experience towards later Joyce and the worlds he expanded the novel into. I hope you get as much from the interview and Crowe’s illuminations as I have.

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