Briefly noted: ‘A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake’

“They lived and laughed and loved and left.” 
― James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

James Joyce is my favorite author, most especially his novels Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. With a minor in English, it was only natural and expected that I would study both of these books in school. School didn’t assign Finnegans Wake; perhaps they saved it for English majors and those working on a masters or doctoral degree. Or, perhaps the faculty was scared of the book.

I love the book, possibly for the language and the historical and cultural references and its endless puns and other humor. I also love chaos, and because of this, I suggest that people reading it for the first time should just go with the flow, setting aside worries or concerns about what it all means for a subsequent journey through the masterpiece.

If you want help, there’s help out there. If you want industrial-strength help, one option is Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake. If you want getting-started help, then the 1944 A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell, Henry Morton Robinson, and editor Edmond Epstein will save most of your sanity. Before this book was published, I don’t think readers–or English department professors–thought it was possible for anyone to understand, much less explain Finnegans Wake.

Publisher’s Description: “Since its publication in 1939, countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake — James Joyce’s masterwork that consumed a third of his life — have given up after a few pages and dismissed it as a ‘perverse triumph of the unintelligible.’ In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first key or guide to entering the fascinating, disturbing, marvelously rich world of Finnegans Wake. The authors break down Joyce’s abstruse book page by page, stripping the text of much of its obscurity and serving up thoughtful interpretations via footnotes and bracketed commentary. A Skeleton Key was Campbell’s first book, published five years before he wrote his breakthrough Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

In her June 2018 MythBlast| Mythic Mavericks essay on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website, Leigh Melander writes that “For years I have been intrigued with what I perceive as a particularly Celtic sensibility, an ability to dance on the knife’s edge between insight and nonsense, tragedy and comedy, sacred and profane. Not to say that only those of Celtic antecedents have this ability, of course, but there seems to be a profound and specific love for this dance in Celtic myth, story, and literature.”

An apt phrase as the foundation celebrates James Joyce this month, the man–whom I believe–knew how to dance on that knife’s edge. Skeleton Key, says Melander, “Has lasted as the bedrock unlocking of Joyce’s profanely sacred nonsensical insights for generations of scholars and readers.” To be sure, more intensive books have been written in the last 74 years to help readers decypher the the enigma people perceive in this novel, but Campbell’s and Robinson’s work is a sound first step to breaking the code.

Susan G. Hauser wrote in her her “‘Finnegans Wake’ Breakdown,” in Salon that “We had come to realize that reading Finnegans Wake without assistance was akin to crossing the Sahara without a camel.” That’s not a surprising assessment inasmuch as some of the purported best critics in the known universe proclaimed before the ink was drying on the novel’s first edition that it was unintelligible, and later, that it is “the greatest book that nobody’s ever read.”

Hauser says that the group of friends who came together to read, discuss, and understand Joyce’s novel “Began with the same resolute spirit displayed by Stephen Dedalus at the end of ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ We felt we were doing a noble and brave thing, though we never dared to compare ourselves to the Wake’s first readers. To our mind they were just as courageous as the first people who ever tried eating lobster.”

Perhaps you should read Hauser’s article before you try reading Finnegans Wake. If you are brave–and not one of these people who tends to ask “what’s the worst that could possibly happen?”–and decide to tackle the Wake, you’ll probably order a copy of Skeleton Key after reading the first several pages.

Blind luck might suffice, but I doubt it.

Malcolm R. Campbell

Campbell is the author of the magical realism Florida Folk Magic Series of novels that includes Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” Coming soon, the final novel in the trilogy, “Lena.”

 

 

Dear Flora

Watching down on creation from the great sanctified church in the sky, I’m sure you are spry enough again to sing and dance in a ring shout circle, and re-conjure your memories of a life well lived.

Partial view of the cover art work for “Lena.”

As you watch us muddle through our days, perhaps you notice this old writer whom you once knew as that white boy around the corner who stopped by daily to see his best friend in the house where you worked as a maid in Tallahassee. Because my friend’s parents were frequently absent due to work, volunteer, and church schedules, you were the stern ruler of that household from dawn to dark.

In those days, I saw you as the heart and soul of that home even though our flawed traditions wouldn’t allow you to walk in through the front door. I loved and respected (and sometimes) feared you then, but I was not allowed to tell you so. After my mother and my grandmother, you were the best cook on the planet, but Southern booking wasn’t the best of what I learned from you.

I learned about faith and forbearance and streetwise savviness in a dangerous world along with the value of humor and tall tales as antidotes to the slights and terrors of the day. In those days, perhaps you saw me as part of the fair number of kids who hung out around that house and the woods behind it and had no way of knowing whether I’d end up in reform school or the priesthood. Well, I guess you knew I wasn’t destined to become a priest!

Like the children who lived in that house, Flora, I went off to college and then into the Navy and then into a life a thousand miles away. I’m sorry I lost track of you then. I wish I had hugged you goodbye before I went off into the world.

Now, as Lena, the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series is nearing its release date, I want you to know that the book’s acknowledgements tell my readers you are my inspiration for Eulalie, the conjure woman who is the heart and soul of the series. Thank you for everything you taught me and my apologies for everything I have forgotten.

with love,

Malcolm

Why are some astonishing books less interesting when re-read?

Readers and writers often discuss whether or not they re-read books. While many of us have too many new books we want to read to spend much time re-reading old ones, the consensus is that there are usually a few comfort-food old books we enjoy multiple times.

I’ve re-read most of Isabel Allende’s books at least once, some of Pat Conroy’s bools several times, and an old Scot’s language trilogy A Scot’s Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon multiple times. Why? The reasons are mostly subjective, but usually include interesting characters, compelling plots, a fine use of language, and the likelihood of discovering something new in the story each time I go through it.

I very seldom re-read page-turner novels. They keep my attention the first time, but the plots are too linear and predictable to be interesting if I try to pick up these books a second time. Other books, many that are clever, highly inventive, and often humorous don’t seem to work for me on a second or third reading. Perhaps most of the excitement from the first reading fades away because it came from experiencing something very new, like hearing a great joke, that doesn’t work later on because I already know the punchline.

As a case in point, my favorite novel in 2006 was Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  It was well received by critics and became a bestseller. Out of fresh reading materials, I looked forward to reading it again last week. I was surprised to find myself skimming. However, I did read it to the end because I’d forgotten many of the details of a rather tangled plot.

The protagonist, Blue van Meer, is enrolled in an upscale high school for her senior year after spending the rest of her school years enrolled in one or more schools every year because her widowed father ended up with university teaching positions throughout the country. At St. Gallway School, she seemingly inadvertently comes under the wing of an eccentric film teacher and the snobbish clique of students who worship her.

The book, which mimics the syllabus of a high school or college course, is clever, inventive, philosophical, and an outstanding example of stories where nothing is what it seems to be. Blue’s erudite father is very philosophical and very opinionated about the values of the unwashed masses. While this was interesting the first time through the book, such passages became a big of a swamp the second time through. Likewise, Blue speculates about a lot of things and, while exciting when I first read the book, were a bit tedious the second time.

I still highly recommend the novel and believe that readers who enjoy something different and highly creative will have fun reading it. It failed to keep my attention the second time through because its unique approach tended–in my view–to keep it from being compelling when that unique approach was a journey I’d taken before.

I admit that my feelings about re-reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics are highly subjective and probably tell you more about me than they tell you about the book. Other readers would look at the list of books that I re-read and say they either couldn’t get through them once, much less twice. With movies, some of which I’ve watched multiple times, I often find that the ambiance of such films brings me back to them in spite of the fact I know how they end. Perhaps avid readers feel the same way about the books they read multiple times.

Some people tell me they’ve read all the books in the Harry Potter series multiple times. I’ve read them all, but have little interest in re-reading them even though I’ve seen some of the movies more than once (and enjoyably so). I recently read the Scot’s language translation of the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane and thoroughly enjoyed it because–for a person of Scots ancestry–it was fun reading it in Scots. Could I read it again? Probably not because I enjoyed seeing a story I already knew through the eyes of the Scots translator. It can only be new once.

Likewise, Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics can only be new once, and after that an novel based on a clever approach didn’t work for me as read-it-again-and-again comfort food.

–Malcolm

Coming soon, “Lena,” the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series.

Coming this year: ‘Lena,’ the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic Series

We hear that books in series tend to sell better than standalone books. But, we also hear that if the first book in a series is well liked, the author might have trouble keeping readers’ interests in subsequent books.

Early reviewers who liked “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” said they though book two, “Eulalie and Washer Woman” was even better. The readers were happy and I was relieved that I hadn’t botched up the whole thing by writing a sequel.

The odd thing is, the sequel has sold fewer copies than the original and has a fraction of the reviews. Go figure.

So, I had mixed feelings writing a third book. On one hand, I thought that with the declining interest shown for book two, it was kind of silly to write book three. However, I had a few things left to say. Or, perhaps, the characters did. Book three was harder to write than the previous books. So, it took longer.

But finally, Lena is almost ready to send to my publisher. We’ve already been having conversations about the cover. As far as the cover goes, our artist for books one and two has moved onto other things. So, we’ll need somebody new.

What’s left to do? Well, this is the polishing the manuscript phase. That means going through the story page by page to get rid of any inconsistencies, typos, continuity problems, or stupid mistakes I can find before sending the DOC file to Thomas-Jacob Publishing. Fortunately, we have a great editor who will catch 99 and 44/100 percent of the mistakes I miss.

I have no idea how long it will take to get everything squared away. Several months, perhaps. Like most authors who get to know their characters throughout a series of books, I will miss these people. But, I suspect it’s time to move on to other themes and other stories. (I reserve the right to change my mind.)

For years, I wondered if I would ever find the characters and story lines to write about the racism in Florida during the years when I was growing up. For prospective readers, I hope I did.

Malcolm

Click on my name for my website.

Get your 99¢ Kindle copy of ‘Eulalie and Washerwoman’ before the promotion ends

My Florida Folk Magic series novel Eulalie and Washerwoman has been available on Kindle this spring for only 99¢. However, we’re wrapping up this Kindle promotion soon, so this is a great time to get your copy before we return to the regular price.

Description: Torreya, a small 1950s Florida Panhandle town, is losing its men. They disappear on nights with no moon and no witnesses. Foreclosure signs appear in their yards the following day while thugs associated with the Klan take everything of value from inside treasured homes that will soon be torn down.

The police won’t investigate, and the church keeps its distance from all social and political discord. Conjure woman Eulalie Jenkins, her shamanistic cat, Lena, and neighbor Willie Tate discover that the new “whites only” policy at the once friendly mercantile and the creation of a plantation-style subdivision are linked to corrupt city fathers, the disappearing men, rigged numbers gambling, and a powerful hoodoo man named Washerwoman. After he refuses to carry Eulalie’s herbs and eggs and Willie’s corn, mercantile owner Lane Walker is drawn into the web of lies before he, too, disappears.

Washerwoman knows how to cover his tracks with the magic he learned from Florida’s most famous root doctor, Uncle Monday, so he is more elusive than hen’s teeth, more dangerous that the Klan, and threatens to brutally remove any obstacle in the way of his profits. In this follow up to Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie and Lena face their greatest challenge with scarce support from townspeople who are scared of their own shadows. Even though Eulalie is older than dirt, her faith in the good Lord and her endless supply of spells guarantee she will give Washerwoman a run for his ill-gotten money in this swamps and piney woods story.

Editorial Review: Told through the narrative voice of Lena, Eulalie’s shamanistic cat, the fast-paced story comes alive. The approach is fresh and clever; Malcolm R. Campbell manages Lena’s viewpoint seamlessly, adding interest and a unique perspective. Beyond the obvious abilities of this author to weave an enjoyable and engaging tale, I found the book rich with descriptive elements. So many passages caused me to pause and savor. ‘The air…heavy with wood smoke, turpentine, and melancholy.’ ‘ …the Apalachicola National Forest, world of wiregrass and pine, wildflower prairies, and savannahs of grass and small ponds… a maze of unpaved roads, flowing water drawing thirsty men…’ ‘…of the prayers of silk grass and blazing star and butterfly pea, of a brightly colored bottle tree trapping spirits searching for Washerwoman…of the holy woman who opened up the books of Moses and brought down pillars of fire and cloud so that those who were lost could find their way.'” – Rhett DeVane, Tallahassee Democrat

 

Enjoy the story!

–Malcolm

‘Mountain Song’ book giveaway

My Kindle novel Mountain Song will be free on Amazon April 5-April 7, 2018.

Description: David Ward lives in the Montana mountains where his life was impacted by his medicine woman grandmother and his utilitarian grandfather. Anne Hill suffered through childhood abuse and ultimately moved in with her aunt on the edge of a Florida swamp. Their summer romance at a mountain resort hotel surprises both of them. But can they make it last after the initial passion wears off and they return to their college studies far apart from each other especially after an attack on a college street changes Anne forever?

This story begins and ends in the high country of Montana where David and Anne meet as college students working as seasonal employees at a resort hotel. In today’s terms, they would probably call themselves soul mates. Yet  summer romances are usually fragile, almost as though they’re a part of the places where they occur.

Add to that, an attack on a dark street corner while Anne is walking from a movie theater back to her dorm. She won’t let David help her because she believes that to become whole again, she must recover on her own. Both of them make mistakes at an emotional time when there’s no room for making mistakes,

I know this story well because–other than changing names, locations, and moments, it’s true.

Malcolm

Review: Jane Harper’s ‘Force of Nature’

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk, #2)Force of Nature by Jane Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the Bailey Tennants accounting firm takes two employee groups into a rugged Australian mountain forest for an annual weekend of “team building,” the men’s group returns ahead of schedule and the women’s group straggles back to civilization late, injured, scared, and in a fighting mood, indicating that its working together skills need more attention. The group is also missing the bossy, opinionated Alice who apparently wandered off and got lost; statements from Lauren, Beth, Bree and Jill about just how that happened are vague and contradictory.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk (who first appeared in Harper’s “The Dry” in 2017) and his partner Carmen are pulled into the investigation because Alice has been providing them with evidence of the company’s illegal activities. Aaron and Carmen can’t help but wonder who, if anyone, discovered there was a whistle blower in their midst. And then, too, a serial killer used to call those mountains home.

Harper deftly handles the storyline by alternating her chapters between the present day investigation and the prior day-to-day troubles of the women’s group on the trail. In the here-and-now-investigation chapters, Falk, the local police, and the rangers find a tangled web of possibilities about what might of happened to Alice. Is she still alive?

In the up-close-and-personal chapters showing a women’s group starting a normal hike into the wilderness and then trying to find its way out alive, readers see that tensions, tempers, and mistakes are worse than police suspect.

Everyone, including Falk, has a past that complicates their reactions to the majestic wilderness. Falk carries memories of his father’s lonely hikes in those isolated mountains and wishes the family’s past had played out differently. Each of the women not only has personal and professional issues with the others in the group, but is distracted by unsettling family problems that keep pulling their focus away from making sensible decisions in a setting where terrain and weather always have the upper hand. So much for creating a cohesive team.

Harper clearly knows how to tell an exciting story and keep her readers guessing about what really happened until the final pages of the aptly titled “Force of Nature.”

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism short stories and novels.

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