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My foos still won’t moos.

January 19, 2010, 2:18 pm

In the 12/18/2009 NB column in the TLS, we find the following presumably real-live riff on “Humiliation”:

In 2003, Sebastian D. G. Knowles looked at himself in the mirror: he was the author of a study of James Joyce; he was Professor of English at Ohio State University (specializing in Joyce). He had attended dozens of Joyce conferences. But he had never read Finnegans Wake. “Worse, I had never even tried to”, Professor Knowles writes in the current James Joyce Quarterly. Guilt-ridden, he decided to confess his failing in a song to be sung at the after-dinner entertainment at a Joyce conference in Miami:

Am I alone? And unobserved? I am.
Then let me own, I’m an academic sham.
My reading of the Wake‘s a fake.
Up to about page nine I’m fine.
But the idea of reading every word’s absurd.

Knowles borrowed the music from Reginald Bunthorne’s aria in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. Even those unfamiliar with it may imagine the rhythms of the chorus:

And everyone will say
As you walk your mystic way,
If this young man can read Finnegans Wake
Which is much too deep for me,
Why what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!

Knowles’s rendition was met “with great applause”. As fellow Joyceans congratulated him, however, he realized they thought he was teasing some other fraud. “You’ve got the type down exactly”, one said. When he protested, “The song’s about me”, they laughed. “Very good!” The upshot was that he was made editor of the Florida Joyce Series.

Eventually Knowles succeeded in reading the Wake. His method? “To start in the middle and work your way out.” Now he instructs students to begin at page 104, read to 216, then skip to 555. Upon reaching the end, return to Chapter 1. To which you may say, “Very good!”. Professor Knowles was recently made President-Elect of the International James Joyce Foundation.

To which I may say, in no particular order, not only “Very good!” but

(a) I should try that.
(b) I slogged through Finnegans Wake in high school to prove that I could. We were reading Portrait of the Artist or maybe Dubliners or possibly both. I didn’t understand a damn word of Finnegans Wake. So in retrospect I guess this doesn’t count as proving that I could do it.
(c) Historians should elect editors of prestigious series based on their ability to pastiche Gilbert and Sullivan.
(d) This reminds me of a period when I thought Irish culture was really important to me, and there is a small anecdote involving my slight acquaintance with the poet Sydney Bernard Smith and a pub in Dublin, but it’s really not worth posting. If you’re going to protest about that, make up your own, indubitably better anecdote with those elements.

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