April 1, 2014

The illustrated Finnegans Wake may make more sense than the original


One of Lord's illustrations.

One of Lord’s illustrations.

If you’re the type of reader who thoroughly enjoys trudging through long, dense experimental novels of the high-, post-, or just plain modernist era, you’re in luck: The Folio Society has released a rather attractive edition of the experimental novel of whatever type of modernism you like, James Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake.

What makes The Folio Society’s edition of Joyce’s final, most beguiling work special, aside from the pretty awesome cover design, and worthy (I suppose) of the $195 pricetag are the frontispiece and eleven color illustrations by John Vernon Lord, all of which can be viewed in a slideshow on the Guardian website. Lord’s illustrations look like some type of proto-comicbook on acid in which the panels have dissolved away and all the images meld together.

Below each slide are captions written by the artist explaining how he interpreted the various scenes and passages of Finnegans Wake he chose to depict. The third, particularly chaotic illustration shows “a hen scratching among ‘a middenhide hoard of abjects,’” or a hen pecking away atop a clutter of objects—a clock, a cannon, a kettle, an insect, etc.—about which Lord writes:

The process of writing seems to be discussed in this chapter: ‘by writing thithaways end to end and turning, turning and end to end hithaways writing and with lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down’. The hen discovers a tea-stained letter and ‘a quite everywaylooking stamped addressed envelope’. ‘The writer’s hand’, holding a quill, represents the ‘notesnatcher’, Shem the Penman.

Which doesn’t say much about what’s going on in Finnegans Wake, but maybe therein lies the charm of these illustrations of a novel whose first Guardian review began with: “Mr Joyce’s Finnegans Wake…does not admit of review. In twenty years’ time, with sufficient study and with the aid of the commentary that will doubtless arise, one might be ready for an attempt to appraise it.” Maybe the appeal of Lord’s imagery is how it does not or, even, cannot clarify anything about the book but renders so deftly the enigma at the heart of Joyce’s novel, if you can call it that.