Illustrating Finnegans Wake
The Folio Society’s edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has just been published – discover John Vernon Lord’s exceptional illustrations and look inside his fascinating notebooks.
‘I have put the language to sleep’ is how James Joyce described Finnegans Wake. The 1939 book which took 17 years complete is a novel without genre or even recognisable plot or clear cast of characters. It is a bold expedition into language, deliberately entangled and peppered with puns, portmanteaus and wordplay. It reaches for something like a dream-state – a place beyond ordinary ‘awake’ literature. It is not, to be honest, an easy read. In fact I see it as something of a test, an entrance exam for a very exclusive club of readers – one which I have failed to gain entrance to a number of times. I am therefore filled with admiration for John Vernon Lord who was asked two years ago to not only re-read the book, but to illustrate it for a new fine edition for The Folio Society.
In his introduction for Folio’s edition, Lord writes that part of what drew him to Finnegans Wake was his desire to ‘get to a closer understanding of it’, and his illustrations are a vivid exploration of the text, picking out repeated imagery and expressing the musicality of language. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Lord when he came into the Folio offices to see the edition’s binding and show us his notebooks. Whilst all illustrators have sketchbooks and rough drafts, these notebooks are frankly a wonder to behold. Filled with neat handwritten observations, quotes from the text and little sketches, they work like a code-breaker’s manual showing a way to get into that exclusive club.
On one page there were lists of dates and numbers. Lord told me that he sets a stopwatch for every bit of research, sketch, drawing and draft he makes when working on a book. He therefore knows it took him 499 hours and 15 minutes to complete the book – 24 of those hours were just the initial re-reading of the book. On another there were the notes of the Tristan Chord from Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, and a note saying that Joyce connects Isolde with the character of Anna Livia Plurabelle and the dawn of a new day. He also notes that Joyce disliked the great composer, once saying that ‘Wagner stinks of sex’.
I’ve added all the scans of the notebooks I took that day here (under John Vernon Lord – illustrating the impossible) but below are a selection of my favourite extracts and the beautiful illustrations they became.
From Lord’s introduction: ‘This illustration of a hen scratching among ‘a middenhide hoard of abjects’ is a version of Anna Livia Plurabelle. It seems as if the whole of the world’s existence is being brought out of the earth, foraging for a record of the past: ‘where in the waste is the wisdom?’’
From Lord’s introduction: ‘Attributes of the artist (easel, guitar and pen) surround the Gracehoper, whilst the ondt
is coughing and asking questions, with his hoard of cash situated behind him. In the end shaun falls into a barrel, which rolls backwards into the river Liffey.
Some of the philosophers mentioned in the text have also been incorporated into the illustration: Confucius, Melanchthon, Aristotle, Schelling,
Plato, Schopenhauer, Vico, Kant, Maeterlinck and Leibniz. Wyndham Lewis, who is also mentioned, is between Kant and Maeterlinck.’
From Lord’s introduction: ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’s face merges with the sea as she delivers her monologue at the end of the book. ‘I feel I could near to faint away. Into the deeps,’ she murmurs. she is a personification of the River Liffey, which flows, as a dissolving dream, into the vast ocean at the dawn of a new day.’