Yesterday I had to give a talk on my undergraduate dissertation and what it’s about to the other people at my college studying English. I think it went well – I was the last of nine talks, but people still paid enough attention to laugh in the right places and clap at the end. Some students took notes – it was interesting to see at the end what people had noted down, and whether or not they had got what I thought I had been trying to say.*
Someone asked me just now how I thought it went, and when I said that I thought we all did well, he said: “No, the answer should always be ‘Well, I was fucking fabulous’.”
An exercise in self-advertisement?
*Essentially: Joyce considers the advertisement as a material ‘thing’ as well as an ideological apparatus à la Althusser.
- Dreaming that my friend James was flinging worms at me while I was sat at a library desk. The worms were still muddy, although I don’t know where he got them from. They spoiled the paper I was using to take notes.
- Having to write an essay in my own blood because I’d forgotten a pen for an English A Level exam, and then panicking because my blood wasn’t the regulation black or blue ink. Dream-me didn’t think to ask for a pen.
- Making so much mess on the art tables at school that my art teacher had to use a chainsaw to scrape my monstrous clay pot off the table, which had dribbled coloured slip and varnish everywhere and got stuck. The varnish was slowly dripping to the floor and taking over the room. I struggled to scrape it up using a top-up card (remember those?).
The Wikipedia article for the English nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence mentions James Joyce for his use of the rhyme in Ulysses (1922):
James Joyce used the lines, “The maid was in the garden” and “The King was in his counting house” in Ulysses, in the chapter “Calypso.” In the next chapter, “Lotus Eaters,” Bloom misquotes the line about the queen, saying “The Queen was in the bedroom” instead of “the Queen was in the parlour.”
The article editor doesn’t suggest that Bloom’s substitution of ‘bedroom’ for parlour is because he is thinking of his wife, who had not left their bed: “Mrs Marion Bloom. Not up yet. Queen was in her bedroom eating bread and.” Molly was not eating bread and honey (the word omitted before the full-stop), but rather was eating the bread and butter which Bloom had prepared for her. The ‘misquotation’ is a deliberate play to make Molly fit the role of Queen.
The reason I came across this was because I read a poem by Joyce with even more sustained links to the rhyme. This poem isn’t mentioned by the Wikipedia article, which I looked up in order to discover the origins of the Sing a Song of Sixpence rhyme – a massive oversight, once you’ve read the poem:
Sing a song of shillings
A guinea cannot buy,
Thirteen tiny pomikins
Bobbing in a pie.
The printer’s pie was published
And the pomes began to sing
And wasn’t Herbert Hughesius
As happy as a king!
According to J. C. C. Mays, ‘Pennipomes Twoguineaseach’ was published in 1932 to advertise the publication of The Joyce Book (1932). This book contained the poems of Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach set to music, hence the description of the ‘pomes’ in the ‘printer’s pie’ and how they ‘began to sing’. Similarly, this is a singing poem: its verses follow the tune and rhythm to Sing a Song of Sixpence. The poem refers to the new book’s publisher, Herbert Hughes, who appears in the poem’s narrative of the book’s publication as ‘Hughsius’.
Unlike one of Joyce’s later poems*, ‘Pennipomes Twoguineaseach’ is not explicitly named as an advert, but the poem’s function as one is initially signalled by its title: like Pomes Penyeach, the words mimic a street-seller’s cry for attention. The poem has the voice of a verbal ad, something akin to the apple-woman in Ulysses who cries ‘—Two apples a penny! Two for a penny!’ Instead of apples (pommes in French), here what is being sold is ‘pomes’ (‘poems’), for pennies or rather, in the case of the new book, two guineas.
A strange way of advertising, isn’t it?
* The later poem is ‘Rhyme to Advertise Extract from Work in Progress’, and can be found, in James Joyce, Poems and Exiles, ed. J. C. C. Mays (London, Penguin, 1992), along with ‘Pennipomes Twoguineaseach’.
Gabriel Conroy in ’The Dead’, Joyce’s concluding story to Dubliners, does not actually read his dinner speech directly from the little paper he pulls from his waiscoat pocket. Rather, the paper holds the headings for his speech, acting as a guide for its direction, but not the precise words to be used. This is probably just as well, as Gabriel runs over the headings of his speech: ‘Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris, the quotation from Browning.’ Were Gabriel to read his speech directly from the paper, coupled with Joyce’s unabashed use of repetition, a reader of ‘The Dead’ might be forced to go through the entire thing twice.
The book itself – that is, the copy the actor reads from – only contains the story itself, divorced from the rest of Dubliners. Large and leather-bound, it lies on a wooden book stand on a small dark wooden table, enabling the actor to keep his hands free. From the upper gallery (standing, tucked safely behind a wooden rail for only a tenner), I could see that this book had writing only on one side of the page, and had been annotated and highlighted by the actor to help prompt his reading. Perhaps the book has been bound in this way to make sure that the text fills a sizeable – and hence, pleasingly-sized – book, an alternative to Gillen starting to read from near the end of a similarly-bound copy of Dubliners. The size of the print might need to be bigger – the playhouse’s stage, built like a combination of several early-modern indoor theatres (including Blackfriar’s), is only ever lit by wax candles candles, and a larger text would prevent the actor from hunching over a finely-printed text in a dimly-lit room. The thick paper made a muffled crackle as the pages turned in the small space.
The setup recalls Mark Twain’s description of hearing Dickens read his own works in America, when on tour:
Mr. Dickens had a table to put his book on, and on it he had also a tumbler, a fancy decanter and a small bouquet. Behind him he had a huge red screen — a bulkhead — a sounding-board, I took it to be — and overhead in front was suspended a long board with reflecting lights attached to it, which threw down a glory upon the gentleman, after the fashion in use in the picture-galleries for bringing out the best effects of great paintings. Style! — There is style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings.
And so there is a similar style about Gillen and his surroundings: a crystal glass and decanter get their own table – no flowers – accompanying the one holding the book, and the actor himself has his hair neatly brushed back, dressed in a white bow-tie and waistcoat, as though he were Gabriel Conroy about to give his speech. Note my use of the simile here: Gillen is careful not to conflate himself entirely with Conroy throughout the reading, though he does in parts: when ‘Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company’, the actor does the same (albeit while still seated), briefly making his audience Conroy’s too. This subtle movement of the reading (complete with Dublin accent – Gillen is from Drumcondra), between the close focalisation of the narrative through Conroy’s point of view and through other characters, still keeps space for irony: Gillen’s audience is not affected by Conroy’s speech in the same way that Conroy’s audience is. The comparison of the three aunts to the three Graces, for example, is received as highly affective by those women, and yet received knowing laughter from the playhouse audience. Perhaps Conroy was right in his earlier uncertainty over his speech: ‘He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.’ The heads of his hearers – and yet, unlike the rest of both audiences, Aunt Julia does not hear his flattering comparison:
Aunt Julia vainly asked each of her neighbours in turn to tell her what Gabriel had said.— He says we are the Three Graces, Aunt Julia, said Mary Jane.Aunt Julia did not understand but she looked up, smiling, at Gabriel, who continued in the same vein:— Ladies and Gentlemen […]
The almost-homophone – vain(ly)/vein – is much clearer when read aloud. The first, of course, means ‘without success or result’; the second, used metaphorically in the same way that ‘path’ might be used, to some extent has had its meaning tainted by that first instance of the sound: is Gabriel’s speech in vain, or does he speak ‘vainly’ in the sense of having too much pride? Another play on pride in the story is also dependent on identical sounds: Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s wife, tells her husband before the dinner that she is ‘trying to get that Mr. D’Arcy to sing. He’s full of conceit, I think.’ A D’Arcy, full of conceit? Could anyone believe such a thing? A quick search through the text of Pride and Prejudice (courtesy of Project Gutenburg and the search function) suggests that while the exact phrase ‘full of conceit’ is not used, the word ‘conceited’ is, often in conjunction with ‘pride’ and ‘Mr Darcy’.
All of this points to the advantage given to Joyce’s work when read aloud – the jokes are more audible to the audience, and there is something pleasingly intimate about being read to. In a theatre the size of the Sam Wanamaker especially (it houses around 340 people per performance) this is quite a feat, but Gillen manages it by speaking softly yet clearly unless a character’s voice demands more volume. This sense of intimacy is only broken at the end, when ‘upon all the living and the dead’ has arrived, and applause is accompanied by bows from the two performers: strange, given that I half expected them to whisper – as though to children – ‘goodnight, my dears’ and then leave us, half swooning into sleep. But of course, the audience is not in bed, and nor did Gillen begin his reading by saying, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin,’ that classic beginning to children’s stories on the radio. Instead, he started before he had even sat down and looked at the book – like a parent reading a child’s much-favoured book (or an actor who knows his lines!), you know he knows bits by heart.
Coming home on the Northern line after the performance, I wondered at my own expectation that reading aloud should always end with ‘Goodnight’. Gillen’s reading had taken place in the evening, although perhaps this is apt for a story which ends late at night. But why are my associations of reading aloud almost exclusively of bedtime reading, adults reading to children? (Like me, as you grew older and more impatient you may have wished to read books silently, to yourself.) Why do we ‘grow out of’ reading aloud? This was not always the case: reading aloud to loved ones was common practice, and reading silently to yourself was seen as unsociable. The diaries of Frances Burney and Jane Austen, for example, record many occasions when they were read aloud to as adults, as well as reading by themselves, and instances run into their presentations of reading in their novels. Reading was something to do with friends, family and lovers – or as one historian dryly puts it, reading ‘helped maintain relationships’. Having a voice deemed attractive is something we are aware of though: ‘Oh, I’d listen to her read the telephone book’, or (as Caitlin Moran once said, of Benedict Cumberbatch) ‘he’s got a voice like a jaguar in a cello’. Asking a few friends, there are a wide range of instances in which they have experienced reading aloud outside of the childhood bedroom, forms of reading which carry different social weights: from reading religious texts in a place of worship to volunteering to read to the old or sick (again, reading to someone in a bed). A more solitary experience might be listening to an audiobook, if you do it with headphones, on a commute.
It got me wondering: when have you read aloud to others, or been read to? Where were you? Who was there? And what did it mean to you?