James Joyce’s Crayon Covered Manuscript Pages for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

Even the most avid James Joyce fans sure­ly have times when they open Finnegans Wake and won­der how on Earth Joyce wrote the thing. Painstak­ing­ly, it turns out, and not just because of the infa­mous dif­fi­cul­ty of the text itself: he “wrote lying on his stom­ach in bed, with a large blue pen­cil, clad in a white coat, and com­posed most of Finnegans Wake with cray­on pieces on card­board,” writes Brain­pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va. By the time Joyce fin­ished his final nov­el, the eye prob­lems that had plagued him for most of his life had ren­dered him near­ly blind. “The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writ­ing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night.”

Crayons also had a place in his intri­cate revi­sion process. “Joyce used a dif­fer­ent col­ored cray­on each time he went through a note­book incor­po­rat­ing notes into his draft,” writes Derek Attridge in a review of The Finnegans Wake Note­books at Buf­fa­lo, a com­pi­la­tion of all the extant work­ing mate­ri­als for Joyce’s final nov­el. He also calls Joyce’s col­ored cray­on method part of “a scrupu­lous­ness which has nev­er been sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly explained” — but then, much about Joyce has­n’t, and may nev­er be. “I’ve put in so many enig­mas and puz­zles that it will keep the pro­fes­sors busy for cen­turies argu­ing over what I meant,” he once wrote, “and that’s the only way of insur­ing one’s immor­tal­i­ty.”

But he wrote that about Ulysses, a breeze of a read com­pared to Finnegans Wake, but a work that has sure­ly inspired even more schol­ars to devote their careers to its author. Some become full-blown “Joycea­holics,” as Gabrielle Carey recent­ly put it in the Syd­ney Review of Books, and must even­tu­al­ly find a way to “break up” with the object of their unhealthy lit­er­ary fix­a­tion. She got hooked when a piano teacher intro­duced her to Mol­ly Bloom’s solil­o­quy at the end of Ulysses. “The last page of Ulysses con­firmed my youth­ful idea that there was such a thing as star-crossed lovers,” Carey writes. “Mol­ly and Leopold were clear­ly meant for each oth­er.” The con­vic­tion with which that idea res­onat­ed, she writes, “was to lead me down so many ill-fat­ed paths.”

Carey stepped onto the long path that would lead her away from Joyce when she looked upon his man­u­scripts: “It was only then, almost thir­ty years after read­ing Joyce for the first time, that I noticed a tiny revi­sion to the final para­graph.” Joyce’s inser­tion added a crit­i­cal, deflat­ing phrase to the pas­sage that had brought her Joyce in the first place: “and I thought well as well him as anoth­er.” What­ev­er your own expe­ri­ence with UlyssesFinnegans Wake, or any of Joyce’s oth­er endur­ing works of lit­er­a­ture, the actu­al pages on which he craft­ed them (the col­or ones seen here from Ulysss­es and the black and white from Finnegans wake) can offer all kinds of illu­mi­na­tion. They also remind us that the books must have required near­ly as much men­tal for­ti­tude to write as they do to prop­er­ly read.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to His Life and Lit­er­ary Works

Why Should You Read James Joyce’s Ulysses?: A New TED-ED Ani­ma­tion Makes the Case

James Joyce Reads From Ulysses and Finnegans Wake In His Only Two Record­ings (1924/1929)

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

Sci­en­tists Dis­cov­er That James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Has an Amaz­ing­ly Math­e­mat­i­cal “Mul­ti­frac­tal” Struc­ture

See What Hap­pens When You Run Finnegans Wake Through a Spell Check­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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