Literary daybook, March 11

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Topics: Books, Richard Blumenthal,

Today in fiction
On March 11, 1784, Isabella elopes with Heathcliff.
— “Wuthering Heights” (1847)
By Emily Brontë

From “The Book of Fictional Days”
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1923, James Joyce wrote to his patron, Harriet Weaver, that he had just begun “Work in Progress,” the book that would become “Finnegans Wake” 16 years later: “Yesterday I wrote two pages — the first I have written since the final ‘Yes’ of ‘Ulysses.’ Having found a pen, with some difficulty I copied them out in a large handwriting on a double sheet of foolscap so that I could read them…” Though increasingly plagued by eye problems — 10 operations, and counting — Joyce’s lifestyle had improved from the “Ulysses” years, thanks to Weaver’s continued support and the money given by Sylvia Beach against future royalties. He and his wife, Nora, were able to get new clothes, a new flat, even new teeth: “The dentist is to make me a new set for nothing,” wrote Joyce to Miss Weaver, “as with this one I can neither sing, laugh, shave nor (what is more important to my style of writing) yawn…”

Nora was not fond of her husband’s style of writing and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was “on another book again,” just a year after the misery of “Ulysses,” she asked her husband if, instead of “that chop suey you’re writing,” he might not try “sensible books that people can understand.” Although she did not tighten her purse, Weaver was also unimpressed by those sections of “Work in Progress” that Joyce sent her, and by his explanation that he was attempting to go beyond “wideawake language, cutanddry grammar, and goahead plot”:



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“I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately-entangled language systems. It seems to me you are wasting your genius.”

Ezra Pound agreed with her — “nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization” — but Samuel Beckett did not:

“You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read … It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.”

In the only recording he ever made, Joyce reads part of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section from “Finnegans Wake” (as well as an excerpt from “Ulysses”). The entire section was published in a limited-edition book in 1928, the 800 copies signed by the author now a collector’s item; the excerpt below can be heard online, as read by Joyce:

“Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”

– Steve King

To find out more about “Today in Literary History,” contact Steve King.

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