July 25, 2014
The “bewildering” task of illustrating Finnegans Wake
by Martin Rouse
Finnegans Wake sometimes feels like a big, tome-shaped scab. Not to suggest that it’s bad or anything—scabs do their job amazingly well when they’re left alone. But people just can’t help themselves. They obsess, they pick, they put their dead cell-matter in weird places, and, ultimately, they cause themselves a lot of unnecessary pain. A while back our own Andrew McGrath explored the woes of the ultimate Joycean scab-pickers, the translators of Finnegans Wake, who count in their numbers a Japanese translator who went insane during the translation process, a French translator who couldn’t finish the work for 30 years, and a translator who felt the need to invent new Chinese characters just to capture certain elements of the novel. But did we learn our lesson from these intrepid wordsmiths? No, it seems. Because John Vernon Lord has now attempted to illustrate it.
Lord is an experienced illustrator of everything from Aesop’s Fables to The Hunting of the Snark, but when he was asked to illustrate Finnegans Wake for a new edition from The Folio Society, he found the process to be “bewildering” and “impossible.” The problem is that the novel is notorious for its neologisms, its literary allusions, its stream of consciousness approach, and for being just plain difficult. What’s more, illustrating any text is terrifying, because it requires a much firmer commitment to the images in the book than the author originally had to make, without so much as an Instagram filter to hide behind. In the end, Lord produced eleven images in two years.
As Publishing Perspectives writes about the process, Lord felt like Alice in Through the Looking Glass when she first encountered the text of “Jabberwocky,” saying, “It seems very pretty. . . but it’s rather hard to understand. Somehow it fills my head with ideas—only I don’t know exactly what they are!” Lord elaborates, “There’s always a worry that an illustration may introduce a banality into the text, or even strangle it,” or “distort a reader’s expectations.” Perhaps this is why Lord took the beautifully-whimsical route, with collage-like images of eyes, leaves, and birds that feel back-lit by some unknown spiritual power. Lord describes the slipcase—a stark image of a lightning bolt moving across the page—in similar, eloquently vague terms: “The blackness reminds us that this is a night-time novel; a dream. . . . As ‘lightning’, the image appears to go diagonally downwards towards the earth, representing the Fall. Alternatively, seen as a ‘river’, the tributaries go upwards and join together as a kind of resurrection.”
Naturally, others have attempted to pictorialize Joyce as well. At the author’s request, Stella Steyn illustrated part of the first chapter of Finnegans Wake for transition magazine, which left Joyce apparently “satisfied.” There’s probably no higher praise than that, but here’s trying with In Ulysses, a new video game that allows you to “inhabit the characters of Ulysses and explore the landscape of Dublin on June 16th 1904.” As far as I can tell it’s pretty similar to recent video game phenomenon Kardashian: Hollywood, but just slightly less steeped in the current cultural zeitgeist, and with less blatant sass. This, too, is high praise.
However, full props go to Lord for these incredible illustrations. As he himself states, “This is a book that is wide open to interpretation (‘there being two sights for ever a picture’) and if I were to illustrate it again the images might well be very different, such is the breadth of opportunity it gives.” His images really capture this sense of bountiful but often fleeting meaning in the novel, and never feel gratuitous. It may be that there’s no real point or sense in trying to illustrate Finnegans Wake, and that it is totally impossible to do, but I’m really glad that someone did it anyway.