Interview – Robert Amos – James Joyce & Finnegans Wake

What do you do when you find yourself obsessed by a writer and one of
his books?

If you’re artist Robert Amos and the writer is James Joyce and the book
is Finnegans Wake you use your art training to investigate the text. By
this process Amos has created a new art with Joyce’s words.

This interview with Amos was constructed from emailed questions and                                                                             answers, information supplied by Robert, and
from questions and answers in a one-on-one interview in, where else,
the James Joyce Bistro. It is literally more of an assemblage than an
interview but gives I think a real sense of what Amos is trying to do

Amos was given “the commission of a lifetime” to decorate the James
Joyce Bistro, Decorate isn’t really the right word. Paintings, murals
and assemblages hang on the walls. Text and Celtic knots encircle the
table tops. More Joycean text scrolls down the bar’s counter top.
Maureen the barmaid told us she plans to “read the bar” one evening.
All of this art was created by Amos.

It was quite an experience to sit with Robert in the pub, surrounded by
his murals and paintings. Here I was, resting my elbows on tables he
had inscribed with Joyce’s text, while I was listening to him read
Joyce, not only from the book but from the table top and the bar.

We met on a quiet afternoon with only a few young men playing pool in
the bar and I’m sure it was a novel experience for them to be hitting
balls to the accompanying sound of James Joyce being read aloud.


LP: Where did the idea for the Joyce related art come from?

RA:  As an artist I am constantly in need of subject matter. Finnegans
Wake is a paramount work of literary creativity and is currently all
but lying fallow. At one point, I needed some words to inscribe on my
paintings, and I after trying others, I chose Joyce, who has been my
longstanding literary interest.

LP: You wrote out the text of Finnegans Wake in a “poetic” format of
short lines. Why?

RA: After years of trying to understand the book and getting nowhere,
I discovered an on-line group which was reading Finnegans Wake at the
rate of one page a week. The group was instigated by Charles Cave of
Australia, and by following the postings I began to make some progress.
I stayed with the group for two years.

My first inclination to write out the text came when I was reading the
chapter called “The Mime of Nick, Mick and the Maggies”. It seemed to
be  concocted as an old-time theatre poster and I could imagine it
typeset in old woodcut type. I thought I’d give that a try myself, to
see if I could space the lines, exactly as they were written, in a way
that was circus-poster-like. It worked out well. I tried it first on
the keyboard and then by hand.

Next, while reading the “Washers at the Ford” chapter, I realized that
there were two women involved in the text, one on either side of the
river. I thought it would be helpful for me if I separated their
speeches, so that I would know who was talking. I did this by
downloading the text (the Trent University site) and adding lines and
spaces to make it look like a dialogue. That was a lovely challenge,
and took me to the heart of the matter.

I was hooked, and went on and on with the text. First I divided the
text into  sentences by putting two returns – an empty line – after
each period. Where the commas, semi- and colons occurred I made a new
line with a single return. It was a great realization to me that
Joyce’s punctuation was entirely sensible and his grammar was (almost)
always correct and complete. Clearly, JJ meant every jot and tittle of
this huge and puzzling book.

I posted a bit of my reformatting on-line and one of the group members
commented that it looked like a reading script for a radio play. In
fact, for a long time I had the feeling that Finnegans Wake could be
best understood when it was read aloud. My friend David Peacock was
enjoying the audio book of Ulysses and provided me with the 6-hour
selection of readings of Finnegans Wake by Jim Norton (Naxos) which
convinced me that this book made sense (though I have always felt that
Norton reads too fast to allow any thinking about what he i is saying).
Subsequently I have sought the other bits recorded by a variety of
readers – Joyce himself, Siobhan McKenna, Cyril Cusack, Brendan Behan,
and Joseph Campbell for instance. I learned that Patrick Heaney had
made a once-through flat-out recording (in the course of four days,
using amphetimines) of Finnegans Wake, though I have never heard it.

I reflected on how useful Norton’s reading of Ulysses was. In a bid to
capture David Peacock’s interest for Finnegans Wake, I proposed to make
a spoken word recording of the entire book for him. Though by no means
in possession of a complete understanding of the book – I hadn’t read
as much as a third of it by that time – I began. At first I made a home
recording using an old cassette tape recorder. This took about four
years, and eventually it filled about 36 90-minute tapes.

Progressively some things became clear. First, my pace of going through
the book was different than the page-a-week group, so I left the
Internet behind. Second, the keystroking to reformat my script was
tedious. I don’t much like sitting at a keyboard. Third, I needed to
get to a recording studio if my recording was to have a future.

I had been corresponding with Charles Cave of Australia, and described
to him how I was “short-lining” the text. When I explained my process,
he said that, as a computer programmer, he could easily set up the
algorithms to take care of much of my key-stroking effort. To this end
I defined and wrote out a set of six “rules”, by which the text could
be newly formatted by the computer.

I have done this reformatting entirely for my own purposes. There is
not a single key stroke added to the text. I simply create the line
lengths to suit my understanding and put appropriate spacing between
lines. The original typesetters had done the same thing for different
reasons in 1939. Though I make no interventions in the text, I expect
that scholars consider even adjusting the line lengths to be heresy.

Yet I believe that the short lines are a great advantage to anyone
beginning the study of this book. If there was nothing standing in the
way of publishing Finnegans Wake this way – in an edition more than
2,000 pages long – I think that formatting the line lengths this way
would be a real help to readers.

Here’s why. The words on the page, as they have been typeset, appear to
be one solid mass of uninflected verbiage, compacted for the
convenience and economy of typesetting. The rythms of the text are
entirely missing. The dynamic of the oral tradition is based on the
grammar of each sentence and itis encoded in its punctuation. Short
lines are a visual equivalent of that dynamic.

I used to have the feeling that I was holding my breath while reading
Finnegans Wake, waiting to reach the end of a phrase or clause.

“You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy? You says:
It is a puling sample jungle of woods. You most shouts out:
Bethicket me for a stump of a beech if I have the poultriest no-
tions what the farest he all means.”

The aprehension is dissipated by this visual correlative of mine – at a
glance you can see where you are in a sentence. Thus, with short lines
we can tell where the subordinate clauses begin and end (separated by
commas, for example). Very long lists, which are such a part of
Finnegans Wake, form into columns and pop into view. The parallel
structures so dear to Joyce (“they lived ant laughed und loved end
left”) are suddenly given a shape.

They lived
ant laughed
und loved
end left.

When you know where a list begins and ends, you can relax and examine
it for what it is. Or you can ignore it. But it is no longer an
annoying challenge.

What follows is a random example of what happened when the text is

Like Jukoleon, the seagoer, when he bore down in his perry
boat he had raised a slide and shipped his orders and seized his
pullets and primed their plumages, the fionnling and dubhlet, the
dun and the fire, and, sending them one by other to fare fore fom,
he had behold the residuance of a delugion: the foggy doze still
going strong, the old thalassocrats of invinsible empores, maskers
of the waterworld, facing one way to another way and this way
on that way, from severalled their fourdimmansions.

Like Jukoleon,
the seagoer,
when he bore down
in his perry boat
he had raised a slide
and shipped his orders
and seized his pullets
and primed their plumages,
the fionnling and dubhlet,
the dun and the fire,
sending them
one by other
to fare fore fom,
he had behold the residuance of a delugion:
the foggy doze still going strong,
the old thalassocrats of invinsible empores,
maskers of the waterworld,
facing one way
to another way
and this way
on that way,
from severalled their fourdimmansions.

LP: You recorded yourself reading Finnegans Wake, why did you do that?

RA: in fact, the entire reformatting project was in aid of making a
“reading script” of the text, to use in my recording of the text.
Realizing that my home recording was never going to be good enough, I
made the acquaintance of a neighbour, Robert Martin, who has a
professional recording studio in his basement. I decided to record the
first hundred pages with him as a test, and it took us a number of
sessions to learn how to work together. By now we have had sessions
over the past four years – both of us are quite busy and can only free
up a few weeks each year, it seems. We meet at 9.30 am, set up the
microphones and levels, and I read for an hour – then a break – than
half an hour more. By that point I notice my concentration is beginning
to falter, errors crop up, and so we repair to the control room where
we edit out the page turnings, coughs, misspeaks and anything else.
At the moment we are at page 442 of 628.

When people hear that I am doing this they often ask if I am using an
Irish accent. The answer is no. I’ve never even been to Ireland. My
family came to Canada from the Scottish borders in the 1840’s. But with
a Canadian upbringing, a home in Victoria and a British wife, I think I
have the sort of mid-Atlantic tone, which makes most of the words
clearly spoken. Of course, being a natural ham actor, I have taken it
upon myself to create all the characters as they occur to me. At any
rate, Joyce developed the book with the European voices of Trieste and
Zurich and Paris in his ears.

I have no plan to release the recording commercially, but it is
professional quality. When the copyright issues surrounding Joyce are
extinguished I will have the text ready for its audience – should there
be one.

I have no idea who an audience for this will be – no one has so far
shown any inclination to listen to me read. I believe it would be a
real benefit in a university library – if  Finnegans Wake ever makes it
onto a curriculum, and if students ever have to confront what Joyce’s
words might sound like. In fact, as I read it I feel it makes perfect

This audio version of the text and my reformatted version are
intimately conjoined. After I finished recording the first hundred
pages I made a CD for my own use, in MP3 format. At the same time I
copied the text, in its reformatted form, on the CD. Anyone listening
to it on a computer can also have my script appearing on the screen.
(When I found there was more space left on the CD I also added some of
my own calligraphy of my favourite phrases.)

LT: How else have you incorporated Joyce’s text into your own work?

RA: Throughout this time I have inscribed my favourite phrases with ink
and brush on Chinese and Japanese papers. The act of selecting the
texts is a pleasure. Unlike transcribing other authors, writing out the
Joyce texts is challenging, like practicing the piano. One has to focus
on every single character Joyce wrote, for he takes delight in
confounding our expectations. I have created hundreds of these pages,
and they are now posted on a variety of Joycean websites. Over the
years a number of correspondents have commissioned from me their own
favourite phrases. In about 2002 a batch of my originals was exhibited
at a conference at the University of California at Berkeley under the
sponsorship of The Riv, a man we came to know on the list as the
Riverend Stirling. (His rare postings on the internet were the most
cogent comments about the Wake I ever discovered.)

Before his death The Riv wrote me a lovely letter, from which I quote:

“The lively freedom, the riverine adaptation of the literal to the
littoral, the rebirth of Celtic knotwork in Chinese brush strokes –
all these emerge by your creative gifts and merge seamlessly before the
beholder’s eyes, thanks to your authorial ability to connote the
mysteries of “correctness.” I do not exaggerate, though it might look
as such. Robert Amos is one fine Joycean artist!

“It was neatening to see your cover on the James Joyce Quarterly 39;02
Winter 2002. May Brighid’s light flicker lambently on Carol Kealiher
and the rest of the JJQ staff for their good taste in selecting you.
Keep up the good work, Robert.”

With no way to have my pages of calligraphy mounted as scrolls, which
was always my goal, I changed tack. I initiated a collaboration with
Harumi Ota, a Japanese potter living in my home town. Over the course
of four years I have decorated about 400 pieces of porcelain with
Joycean phrases, decorations (Celtic knotwork, Ming Dynasty patterns)
and other imagery. These plates, bowls and cups have been a great
success with my clients. Some of them were taken to Dublin in 2006 for
the centenary of Bloomsday.

Later it became possible to have my calligraphy mounted as scrolls in
Taiwan and in Beijing. In 2006 David Peacock, my friend and fellow
Joycean, commissioned me to do the decor of his new top-end restaurant,
the James Joyce Bistro, located in his Peacock Billiards, the
“ultimate” pool hall, in Victoria.

There is much more to say. As I became more deeply immersed in the
text, I eventually wrote out the entirety of the text with a fountain
pen, in a series of hardbound blank books, a project which took me two
and a half years. I write it out with Roland McHugh’s annotations on
one hand and The Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (by Joseph Campbell)
and Understanding Finnegans Wake (by Danis Rose) on the other.

This is the way I have found to get closest to the author. Every
other method – reading with eyes, listening to a recording, reading
aloud, typing, for example – allows one to move right along without
actually taking in what’s been written.

This was a way of slowing myself down sufficiently to understand what
Joyce was writing. After all, he actually wrote the book – he didn’t
type it. And of course writing a book is different from reading it.

I have been scrupulous to take Joyce exactly as I find him. The
resulting creations work for me. So far the public’s reaction utterly

About the Author

3 Responses to “Interview – Robert Amos – James Joyce & Finnegans Wake”

  1. [...] Original Don Denton [...]

  2. Just wanted to say fascinating piece. Great stuff!


    Richard, in the Scottish Borders

  3. I found Robert’s work in The James Joyce Bistro and the entire display in Peacock’s Billiards a facinating experience. Moveover, the experience of thought and expression as the Poetry of Joyce is transformed through art proved to me an educational acet. I admit I heralded the early work of Joyce but it was through Robert’s work and hearing aloud the word’s of Finnegans Wake that the clarity of meaning struck me. A seamlessness between the calligraphic word art and the style in the allusions, those two dimensional images serve well the Joycean liturgy. I find such energy in the flavour presented which transforms a place underground, into a catacomb where literature is celebrated in art.

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