by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
On a chilly Thursday evening, I headed from my parking spot outside the Kaufleuten Saal, where Joyce once put on plays as co-founder of The English Players theater group, and up Augustinergasse, which winds around a small square before opening up to the building at number 9: the Haus zum Strauhof, home of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation. Central as the Strauhof is, it is easy to miss: just off the famed Bahnhofstrasse, and in front of the St. Peter’s Church, it is tucked away among curving stone alleys.
The Haus zum Strauhof dates back at least to the mid-sixteenth century, although the structure in its current form was built in 1772. It has remained largely unchanged since then. An inviting mass of tangled red vines, bountiful in summer, hangs over its entrance and the walk to the Foundation, past the Literary Museum on the ground and first floors, leads up narrow wooden stairs. Here I would attend the decades-old Finnegans Wake reading group, acclaimed by both Lonely Planet guidebooks and some of the staunchest Joyce devotees in this Alpine country.
I was a little bit late, and hesitant to take my place among such a group of old cronies, but was put at ease when I found director Fritz Senn greeting another young visitor attending for the first time. I had heard little about the group — and all from Senn — but what I’d heard had been enough to recognize that the Thursday evening reading group is nothing for the faint of heart. I had arrived with minimal knowledge of the Wake, in a state of dishevelment with only a notebook and pencil to guide me through the ninety-minute reading, and with about fifty years’ less wisdom than the average attendee. If there was a gathering in which I was expecting to flounder, it might be this.
Entering the room, I was warmly welcomed into the group by Mary, the woman sitting next to me, and Ron, who sat across. They pointed out a man wearing a black suit jacket over a turtleneck, now in his twenty-seventh year of the weekly meeting. I counted fourteen participants around the table, a fairly even split between men and women—the women, on average, one or two decades younger than the men — and a fairly even split between Anglophone and native Swiss-German speakers. Every man was dressed in some combination of suit jacket, turtleneck and sweater vest, so that attire was really no good distinguisher for any one individual at all.
Soon began, in Ron’s words, the “inspired guessing game.” We opened to page 257 — some of us books, others carefully annotated sheets kept in binders (the other newcomer and I received two of many copies from the bookshelf). A soft-spoken man named Arthur read from the bottom. “The play thou schouwburgst, Game, here endeth. The curtain drops by deep request.”
At this, he paused, and for some minutes possible allusions and interpretations of the lines poured in. Schouwburg, it turns out, is the Dutch name for theater, and “deep request” was noted as something of an idiosyncratic pairing. A woman who regularly attends the Monday Ulysses group pointed out several Norse references in the ensuing lines and suggested that the performance drawing to a close was likely from Wagner’s Nibelungen.
“Gonn the gawds, Gunnar’s gustspells,” Arthur continued, in an unplaceable accent, undulating smoothly through the passage’s alliterative offerings. Lulled by the rhythm I drifted off into other thoughts, deaf to the conversation that had recommenced around the table. “Rendingrocks roguesreckning reigns,” Arthur read, the ‘r’s rolling off his tongue and the ‘g’s hammering through his teeth, the closest thing I’d heard live to Richard Burton’s deep, solitary baritone in the 1950’s recording of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood.
Every sound, sentence and word, each rhythm and etymology became a point of numerous dispersions. What could it mean to “exceedingly extell?” From here, the opinions unfurled, ever extending, sometimes vehemently opposed. Talk heated most where the language balanced between the strange and the familiar, in new words that seemed puzzling and unknown but that came close enough to something common that one could speculate, that one could make “pisspots” or “ possets” out of “posspots,” and then one could wonder why, of all things, this particular invention. (“ No. Please no,” a Midwestern man groaned when another casually suggested the possibility of “passports.” There was laughter all around the table, suggesting that the language is open and permeable but never wholly permissive).
The reading ended at the bottom of page 258, and those who were interested headed out together for a post-reading beer.
Talk at the pub turned to the history of the Foundation, which subsequently turned to personal history.
“I was born in 1934, you know,” Ron, a former English teacher at the business university in St. Gallen, remarked for reasons now unclear.
“I’m older than that!” quipped his neighbor, a frequent visitor from New York (born in ‘32), who was lamenting his upcoming return to the city, a land then under eons of snow.
“I know — that’s why I show you so much respect!” Ron fired back.
It struck me then that I might never escape the minutia of high school hierarchy, that gradation of years that dictates power — the seniors of my freshman year would remain seniors, and I would remain a senior to those freshmen I no longer remembered. I decided to evade the coy probing at the question of my age, calculating a low yield in respect.
“Ah — but age is just a substitute for beauty!” the New Yorker proclaimed with charming bravado. I steered the conversation toward the Wake. What is it that draws the reading group members, year in, year out, often from a distance of a few hours’ commute? What is it about the group? What is it about the text, the reading?
“It’s the sound of it, it doesn’t matter so much about the origins, “ Mary said, evoking the text as aural, something to be heard, to resonate in wholeness, not in fractions of etymology and reference and double meanings. With that, she obliterated the work of the reading group a little bit, which, after all, reads the text in the tiniest of pieces before parsing them apart and seeking in that, somehow, to put it all together.
“It’s a shame, when we’ve picked it all apart, I’d like to hear it again, in Joyce’s words,” said Mary. “Perhaps we should read through the passage once more after we’ve discussed it.”
Ron, on the other hand, spoke of its pieces. The puzzle, the challenge, the work I had observed just an hour before, when nearly each person had sat with a different reference book alongside her or his copy of Finnegans Wake, and Ron and the man from the Midwest were at each other’s throats about the interpretation of one particular line. Then I thought of Arthur’s voice, and how lovely it had been lilting through those ‘r’s and ‘g’s, and that reading was so powerful in the sound of it.
There was a resistance to academia in the group of which I did not quite know what to make. “We’ve lived through — and survived! — the world of academics,” Ron said with an equal measure of humor and scorn, referring to his and another member’s pasts as university instructors. Where, then, did this group’s scholarship diverge from that of academics? When I headed off towards my train, the first to leave at 10:30, I left full with thought and good company, but with many threads still loose.
Just as Ulysses is the book of the day, Ron had told me, Finnegans Wake is the book of the night. That night I dreamed of the Foundation in logically fragmented night thoughts: the Foundation and its characters, the Foundation and a whole complex web of scholarship sewn across continents and oceans, memories preserved and the question, “What meaning?”
A comment of Ron’s came lurking into mind, that these Thursday evenings are the center points of his weeks — the social aspect of them, and the book. Reading Finnegans Wake holds the danger of taking over, because no text will match the challenge of it, he’d said. Consequently, all other reading had fallen away. For some years now he has been traveling to the annual Trieste Joyce School, where Joyce and socializing come together as they do in the reading group, and outside of Joyce time he finds it hard to stay off the subject. On holiday in Italy, standing in the doorway of a friend’s house during a dinner party, he had heard a group of Australians mention the name Joyce — a cousin or a sister, perhaps — and with that he was off: he invited them in for a grappa (being himself a few in), and he couldn’t help himself, he talked their ears off for an hour and a half about the great Irish writer; the mention of the name has just taken hold of him. And so, in the drowsy inebriation of night, the Wake and the reading group and the place and the people that meet in it took hold of me, too. So many lives and pressing feelings, existences ordered around secondary meaning covered by sheer, overpowering linguistic form.
What does one do with a text like Finnegans Wake or Ulysses, nodal and ceaselessly laborious? One does, and does again, persisting at it, traversing through one pathway before the next, always with the possibility of looping back around and making one’s way through it, again, differently.
Later, when I spoke to International James Joyce Foundation President Sebastian Knowles, he described the Zurich James Joyce Foundation in a way that became for me the notion of a Joycean element: “It is a node or vortex through which or into which or out of which ideas are constantly rushing.” True, Knowles was referring to the Foundation, but he might also have been referring to an element of Finnegans Wake: a node in this monolithic, inscrutable network.
Many of the scholars with whom I spoke explained their interest in Joyce through the labyrinthine nature of his works.
“Joyce is a writer you never finish reading, who never writes the same book twice, who continues to challenge and disorient readers,” John McCourt of Roma Tre and the Trieste Joyce School said, before adding the much-needed twist to it all: the humor of Joyce, the “extraordinary humanity in his works; the extraordinary complexity.”
“I don’t find in his work the dark hopelessness that many people associate with modernism,” McCourt went on. “Life is not simple but there’s optimism in Ulysses. Despite all their problems, Leopold and Molly Bloom continue to hold through.”
I don’t know if this holds by light of day, but in the night it all came together as one: it was for togetherness, then, for the entwining of it, the endless task, which is a discourse. Another year, another reading.
About the Author:
Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi is a writer based in Berlin.