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Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003) 571-573

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James Joyce. The Finnegans Wake Notebooks at Buffalo VI.B.3, VI.B.6, VI.B.10, VI.B.14, VI.B.25, VI.B.29. Vincent Deane, Daniel Ferrer, and Geert Lernout, eds. Turnhout: Brepols, 2001-2002. $85.00 each (cloth).

On holiday in Brittany with his family in July 1924, James Joyce—supposedly getting rest and fresh air after an eye operation—escaped the increasingly bad weather by making regular visits to the Municipal Library of Saint-Malo. He took with him into the library a small notebook, with a black cloth cover and stitched binding, and as he read he jotted down notes, usually of only a few words at a time. Among the books he picked up in the library was an 1838 study of the Merlin legend, Myrdhinn ou l'enchanteur Merlin, by Théodore-Claude-Henri Hersart de La Villemarqué, one of the leading Breton scholars of his time. He wrote down the title and the shelfmark, and some time later began reading the volume—though not all at once, as his notes from it are interspersed with extensive jottings from, among other things, a book on Breton proverbs and a life of St. Patrick. After jotting down the word "Merlin" he made two notes, "vocal tomba"—a phrase from Ariosto's account of Merlin—and "S. Patrick learns Ir history / from old hag," both in response to the introductory material. His next two sessions with Villemarqué produced a slightly richer harvest, four and eight notes taken from pages 4-98, and his fourth and final session gave rise to some twenty-one notes, including such items as "(Merlin f—- wife)" and "Merlin laughs at leaf / in Ganeida's hair." By this time, his St Malo studies had filled eighty-one pages of his 232-page notebook, and by the time he returned to Paris from the Brittany holiday he had filled another seventy. So much for doctor's orders!

Among the notes Joyce made during his reading of Villemarqué was the phrase "a bit torn," a somewhat free translation of "une rature du manuscrit" ("a deletion in the manuscript"). About a year and a half later, Joyce used the phrase in a draft of what was eventually to become chapter III.2 of Finnegans Wake, as part of Issy's speech as she gives a letter (or handkerchief, or paper tissue, or piece of her drawers) to Shaun, whose siglum, L, accompanies the notebook note. The final version reads: "a jennyteeny witween piece torn in one place from my hands" (458-9). When Joyce had transferred the phrase to the draft, he crossed it out in green crayon. The other notes from Villemarqué were later copied into another notebook by an assistant when Joyce could no longer read his original scrawl, but were not drawn upon in the writing of the Wake.

I've followed one very small thread, chosen more or less at random, in the vast assemblage of information presented in these six volumes; and they are only the beginning of a vaster project. Vincent Deane, Daniel Ferrer, and Geert Lernout are preparing annotated transcriptions of all the extant notebooks compiled by Joyce after the publication of Ulysses. Forty-eight notebooks [End Page 571] containing original notes survive, together with eighteen notebooks containing copied notes. The handsome volumes present small greyscale reproductions of every page and a selection of color reproductions; and each transcribed note is accompanied, where appropriate, by an indication of any identified or hypothesized source together with a brief quotation to provide a context, and information about the use of the note in later notebooks, drafts, and the published text. Since Joyce used a different colored crayon each time he went through a notebook incorporating notes into his draft (a scrupulousness which has never been satisfactorily explained), the color of every cancellation is noted. Each volume begins with an account by one of the editors of the notebook it transcribes as well as a bibliographic description, and a number of ancillary tables...