A Long the Riverrun

An interview with Stephen Crowe

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: What were your first reactions to Finnegans Wake? Was there any initial resistance, given the unconventional way it's written, and was there a section that lured you in?

Stephen Crowe: If anyone tells you that they experienced no resistance to reading Finnegans Wake, they’re obviously not to be trusted. I often find it difficult to get into even very conventional books, so I’m used to forcing my way through a first reading to some extent. But although it’s difficult, a lot of it is easier than the harder parts of Ulysses. Chapter two is an entertaining read, but I think chapter seven, the portrait of Shem the Penman, is the first part where I definitely felt like I was enjoying myself, if not exactly understanding. The beginning of that chapter is really a point where everything, the imagery, the language, the style, comes together in a truly entertaining way. Book two, on the other hand, was an incredible chore. The feeling of relief as you reach the end, with the famous Tristan and Isolde chapter, is immense.

DA: Do you approach the book as a puzzle or a palette? Do you try to make your artwork close to what Joyce might have meant or do you embrace the possibilities of your own interpretations? Is it possible or even desirable to try to work out what Joyce meant?

SC: Clearly Joyce meant to say something – it’s not just a stream of gibberish. So as an illustrator I think I owe it to the text to try to understand as much of it as I can. I try to figure out at least a couple of different ways to interpret every passage, but I certainly don’t exhaust every avenue. There’s a limit to how much information I can cram into the illustrations anyway. On the other hand, I do think that there are portions of the book where it’s not really important to understand it on a semantic level. Joyce was deeply influenced by music in his writing, and I think it’s fine to appreciate some of the book quite passively, as if it were music. I would agree that there’s no such thing as “understanding” the book entirely. Partial incomprehensibility is part of its design.

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DA: Wake in Progress is rich in styles and allusions; there's visual nods to Henry Darger, Saul Bass, Aubrey Beardsley, Ralph Steadman and illustrations in the guise of the Bayeux tapestry, Punch magazine, Expressionist woodcuts, underground maps, medieval manuscripts (extra-appropriate given Joyce regarded Finnegans Wake as a modern Book of Kells), Greek pottery, playing cards, musical notation and children’s picture books. It gives the impression of roaming through centuries of art as Joyce did history, geography, language and culture. Yet at the same time, you have a unique, refined and definable style of your own. Were you conscious of balancing the two (eclecticism and consistency)?

SC: For most people, and certainly for myself, what you call your “style” is really the sum of your limitations. Joyce didn’t have any stylistic limitations. He could write in any way he wanted. So the ideal illustrator of Finnegans Wake should probably be able to draw in any way they want. But I’m not that person. I spent a while trying to adopt styles of drawing that I really don’t have the skill to achieve, but eventually I decided to embrace my limitations and find ways to flatter them. At the same time, I want to adapt material rather than just copying it, and I think that my adaptations tend towards the things that appeal to me without my giving it very much thought. I like strong compositions and illustration that combines typography, so I do those things. The latter fits in with the Book of Kells connection, the former much less so. A more ornate and detailed style would probably be more appropriate, but I don’t enjoy drawing that way, so I don’t.

DA: Finnegans Wake takes the stream of consciousness technique and turns it into an ever-changing deluge of currents (the female embodiment of Joyce's beloved Liffey, Anna Livia). The closest the book gets to solid recurring objects in the vortex are the main characters. You've captured these memorably particularly H.C.E. who has such an iconic look (hat, umbrella, bow-tie) that at one stage you draw him almost as typography and he's still recognisable. Did you stick to Joyce's descriptions of the characters or were their outside influences when creating them?

SC: Most of the descriptions I’ve read of HCE – in studies of the book – make him a fat blond hunchback. My HCE is fat, but he doesn’t really have a hunchback, and I gave him black hair because it looks better in black and white. His other features are a combination of Leopold Bloom and Charlie Chaplin, plus a politician’s rosette that comes and goes according to whether I remember to draw it in. The appearance of all of the “characters” is extremely mutable in the book, so I don’t worry too much about the consistency of their features. As you say, once I’ve given them a few recognisable characteristics, like a bowler hat or an eye patch, that gives me an amazing amount of freedom to change everything else about them. I could draw a bowler hat and rosette on a moose or a flowerpot, and you’d have to assume it was HCE. I’m dealing right now with the question of whether Shem the Penman should be black. There are many references to him being black, but also Irish and Jewish and who knows what else.

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DA: To what extent do you read Finnegans Wake differently to other books? And has the book changed your mind towards the dreaded creature that is the pun?

SC: Most books develop their themes through the plot and the way the characters change over time. Finnegans Wake uses those techniques to some extent, but mostly he uses others. The most important one is probably the leitmotif. He marks out different ideas with certain words, letters, numbers or rhythms, so you can trace the development of each idea according to the way he develops the motif. Like in music. Repetition is what powers the whole thing. But reading the Wake teaches you to read in a wakean way. After a while, you find yourself reading conventional books with half an ear for all the words they repeat and the images they reuse. After all, any story is basically a collection of themes organised in a certain way. That’s one thing that you can definitely take from reading the Wake: it makes you re-evaluate everything you think about reading and writing.

The puns must be the most abused thing about the whole book. People hate puns. I hate puns. When you hear about a book made entirely of puns, you imagine the kind of person who thinks puns are hilarious, and your heart sinks. And probably Joyce did think puns were hilarious. But I don’t think most of the pun-language in the Wake is really intended to make you chuckle. It’s a device for combining different ideas in a chaotic way, like in a dream. The book wouldn’t be possible without it.

DA: It's strange to think of Joyce's work of sustained creative vandalism being translated into another language, given it's unclear what language it's being translated from and to. Joyce suggested that those who couldn't understand the book should read it aloud (in a Dublin accent). As Finnegans Wake's so focused on language, were there difficulties or challenges in translating it into a visual medium?

SC: The Italian translator that worked with Joyce claimed that he didn’t seem to worry about changing the meaning as long as the rhythm was the same. So I take that as an excuse to interpret pretty loosely. I try to find visual “puns” and metaphors to replace Joyce’s verbal ones, and visual ways to represent the motifs that he marks with words and numbers. The tree and tower that you can see in a lot of my pictures come directly from the book, but a lot of imagery that I ended up using over and over developed organically as I worked. I stole the lamppost from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just because it felt right. Later I visited Dublin and saw that the lampposts don’t look like that, but I shan’t change it. I try to keep altering the imagery along with the style to imitate the fluid nature of the text. My favourite example of that is probably when I turned Hosty into a sad-looking musical note. I think I punched the air when I came up with that.

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DA: You've mentioned your preference for Finnegans Wake over Ulysses saying you weren't entirely convinced of Joyce's abrupt changes of style in the latter. You put this down to Joyce having been enamoured with and then outgrown Ibsen in the course of the many years he spent on the book. As you’ve spent several years on Wake in Progress, have you found your own attitude towards the book, its author and the art changing?

SC: I’ve only read it once from start to finish – I’m on my second reading now, as I work – so it might be too early to say. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I guess I continue to vacillate on the question of whether or not it really needs to be so difficult. When you finish any difficult book there’s a strong urge to praise it just to justify your own effort, so I’m always conscious that I can’t be entirely objective about it. I hope I won’t ever think that it’s a failure! My point in the comparison with Ulysses was that Finnegans Wake seems like a success on its own terms: it’s the same book at the end that it was at the beginning, whereas the logic behind Ulysses seems to change halfway through. That’s just an appraisal of its adherence to a design; whether the design itself is sound I think I’m still too close to it to say. I feel like I’m more ambivalent about the book now than I was before; but when I first started my project, I wrote on the website that Joyce and I had an “intense love-hate relationship,” so maybe I’m actually less so.

DA: There's a real hidden beauty, humour and even sadness when you decode some of the references in Finnegans Wake. The one that resonated most with myself, so far,  is the line “So pool the begg and pass the kish", which refers to Joyce leaving Dublin for exile (Poolbeg and Kish being lighthouses the ship passes). What have been your favourite finds in the text?

SC: There are some real horrors lurking under the surface. For example, in chapter three we’re told that HCE rents his home for “one yearlyng sheep, (prime) … and one small yearlyng goat (cadet).” Those parentheses mark the livestock as HCE’s sons, Shem and Shaun (the first born and the youngest); so on the one hand, HCE pays his rent with a goat and a sheep, but on the other, he’s sacrificing his own children. The mythical King Aun of Sweden (of the House of Yngling) prolonged his life by killing nine of his ten sons. I got that from reading The Golden Bough, which I recommend to anyone tackling the Wake. 

The most poignant reference to Joyce’s own life that occurs to me occurs in the confrontation between HCE and the Cad with a Pipe, when the Cad says “I have met with you, bird, too late, or if not too worm and early.” This line combines the phrase Joyce used against Yeats – “I have met you too late” – when he dismissed him as “too old” (even though the poet was then only 39), with Oscar Wilde’s line that he met Alfred Douglas “either too late or too soon.” But other references in that passage suggest that the Cad is not Joyce but T.S. Eliot, plagiarising Joyce to write The Waste Land. I think it shows how much he identifies now with Yeats rather than his arrogant younger self, and it’s a great example of the book’s generous sympathy: he refuses to take sides.

The line that’s come to mean the most in my family is at the end of chapter three: “Humph is in his doge.” My wife’s pregnancy was on my mind when I imagined “Humph” as a foetus curled up underground. “Dogeing the baby” is the only Wakeism that’s entered our common vocabulary.

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DA: You've said previously "Nothing that appears in Finnegans Wake is ever just one thing. How exactly do you draw a talking fox which is also a mouse, one of two arguing brothers, a pope, and modernist author Wyndham Lewis?" These associations, that fire off in all directions like a spider diagram into infinity, seem to be both visionary and something approaching madness. Given Jung's verdict after examining Joyce's daughter Lucia ("You are like two people going to the bottom of a river but where you sir are diving, she is drowning"), do you think a touch of madness comes with genius in Joyce's case? Or do you think Finnegans Wake was a carefully rational exercise (demonstrating perhaps the chaos behind form)?

SC: “Rational” definitely isn’t the word I’d use for it. It’s a conscious attempt to represent the unconscious. So it’s simulated chaos. On the one hand, there’s a system at work, with the cycles of history and so on, but on the other hand it’s filled with so many allusions that you could spend the rest of your life tracking them down. The huge volume of references, puns, and even just misspellings with no obvious purpose, give an impression of limitless possibilities, like a trompe l’oeil.
But that might just be my rationalisation for it. This really relates back to my feelings of uncertainty about the value of the book. I can account for it in a way that appeals to me, and generate from that the idea of a Finnegans Wake which is ultimately a rational work of art. But I can’t do that without ignoring aspects of it that contradict that idea. There are people who think that the Wake is a prophetic work that foresaw the bombing of Hiroshima and god knows what else. Now, that sounds a bit mad to me. But I know that Joyce was superstitious. What if they’re right and I’m wrong? Maybe he really did think he had magic powers, and I’ve been wasting my free time illustrating the work of gibbering madman! Ultimately, I have no idea. I just keep going and hope for the best.

DA: How important and prevalent do you think humour is in Finnegans Wake and your corresponding works of art? Is it a comedy as Joyce claimed and is tragedy lurking within it?

SC: It’s certainly a comedy first and foremost, but a lot of what happens is not natural comic material. Time and perspective are so elastic that often the same events feel comic and tragic at the same time. One single passage might describe at the same time a child being humiliated in an innocent children’s game, and the ritual murder that originally inspired it. The overwhelming sense that I took from my first reading of the book was of tremendous levity combined with tremendous sympathy. I’ve compared it to Monty Python, and that kind of extreme silliness applied to serious subjects really typifies the tone of a lot of the book. I try to approach my illustrations in a similar spirit. I suppose they haven’t raised many belly-laughs, but I like to think my work is at least as funny as the cartoons in the New Yorker, and less formulaic.

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DA: Joyce defended Finnegans Wake saying "They say it's obscure. They compare it, of course, with Ulysses. But the action of Ulysses was chiefly during the daytime, and the action of my new work takes place chiefly at night. It's natural things should not be so clear at night, isn't it now?" Joyce could see that the study of fiction was deep down a kind of dream interpretation. How important is the dream aspect to your vision of the book? Have you been influenced by artists of dreams such as the Surrealists?

SC: I’ve read several critical studies that claim that the dreamer is awake at some point in the book, and it just seems so ridiculous to me. The dream is the book. If he were awake, why on earth would he be thinking that way? He’d have to be insane! I always keep in mind that I’m illustrating a dream, and I’m not that interested in working out what the dreamer’s real name is or where he lives and so on. If a kitchen-sink drama is what Joyce had in mind, he probably could have found a more straightforward way of going about it. For me, the domestic aspect is simply another layer of the dream.

The relationship between fiction and dreams is one that really fascinates me. I can’t say for certain how far Joyce’s views extended on this subject, but I do think he perceived that dreams, stories and religion all follow the same logic of representing abstract ideas in physical ways. The example I always come back to is the Holy Communion. Eating the bread is a metaphor for receiving salvation; it’s an objective correlative, just like the ring in Lord of the Rings, or Proust’s madeleine. So in a sense he’s reading the religions of the world as if they were novels, and novels as if they were dreams.

I consciously avoid anything that seems too psychedelic or self-consciously weird. I’ve never had a dream that looked like a Salvador Dalí painting. I prefer fantasies that are more grounded in ordinary things. That said, A Week of Kindness by Max Ernst is very interesting. It consists of scenes made up of collages of Victorian illustrations. I spend a lot of time looking at things like that even if I might not be sure yet how to use them.

DA: Your City project is very different to Wake in Progress, could you tell us what the thinking is behind it and how it's developed?

SC: It was while doing research for Wake in Progress that I first encountered a book called The City by Frans Masereel, which is a series of 100 woodcuts capturing all these unrelated city scenes: factories and revolutions, traffic jams and murders, all kinds of things. I was fascinated by it: the stark black and white, the crazy perspective, variety of characters, the undertone of violence. I kept this little book in my pocket all the time. Most of the pages I did for chapter three are based on Masereel’s woodcuts.

At the same time, I’d been thinking for a while about some ideas for a comic, and I gradually came up with the idea of a city inspired by Masereel’s as the setting: somewhere between a real place and a nightmare. Masereel’s city is based on Paris, but I wanted mine to feel like a place on the brink of collapse, so I put it somewhere in Austria-Hungary after World War One. I started populating it partly with characters based on Masereel’s grotesques, and partly with types pulled from turn-of-the-century fiction.

It’s still in the early days right now – I’m learning how to write and draw a comic as I go – but I want it to grow into a kind of mythologised version of interwar Europe. I’ve always loved the way that the Coen Brothers reuse genre tropes in their films, and I’d like to achieve something similar with borrowings from Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. It’s not that much of a stretch. You can see in some of Greene’s work, such as The Ministry of Fear, that he was already trying to turn a spy thriller into a Kafkaesque nightmare, so he’s really beaten me to the punch.

DA: Given Finnegan Wake's a cyclical book and thus never ends (following Vico's theory of historical cycles), do you ever worry you'll start illustrating it all over again when you come to the 'end' or have you other projects in mind for the future?

SC: I can’t imagine that far ahead! I’ve already redrawn a lot of pages because I wanted to do them better or simply changed my mind about something. My nightmare is that I’ll never even reach the end the first time, never mind starting again.

[Since publishing this interview, Crowe has begun illustrating Joyce's Dubliners for the new Paris-based Irish-interest publisher de Selby Press. We wish them all the best of luck and look forward to the edition.]