One of the greatest English-language writers of the 20th century, the Dubliner James Joyce, wrote a novel that almost no reader of English can understand. It's called Finnegans Wake.
It was published a few months before Great Britain declared war on Germany (September 3, 1939). As the world plunged into war, Joyce's readers plunged into a book that presented no relief from bafflement. Throw open any page of the novel, let your eyes fall on the middle of the page, and your command of English, no matter how powerful it is, will be instantly dashed to pieces by a sentence like: "I was babbeing and yetaghain bubbering, bibbelboy, me marrues me shkewers me gnaas me fiet, tob tob tob beat it, solongopatom."
The war eventually came to an end. But people to this day are lost in or still dealing with Joyce's final book, Finnegans Wake. One such person happens to live in Seattle. His name is Neal Kosaly-Meyer. He is a composer and a pianist. And for the past seven years, he's been performing memorized chapters of the novel at galleries and music halls around the city.
"John Cage got me into Finnegans Wake with his 1979 work Roaratorio," Kosaly- Meyer explained to me as we sat at a table in a cafe. It was cold outside. "Cage also wrote a lot about Joyce... and I took the bait."
At 25, he picked up Finnegans Wake and tried to read it. He did not get far. He was stopped by a 100-letter word in the middle of the first page. How do you read a 100-letter word, he wondered? "But I'm in music school at the time, practicing the piano every day, and I realize the only way to read a 100-letter word is to practice it like I practice the piano. I memorize the word sound by sound: bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarr-hounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk."
Once Kosaly-Meyer mastered that word—which is ugly to the eyes but sounds beautiful when it flows from his mouth—he began to wonder if that's the way he should approach the whole book, not as a reader but as a musician. At this point, around 1984, he decided to memorize the first chapter. By 1987, he began performing the first chapter for guests at his apartment (he lived in San Diego at the time). A quarter of a century later, he was drawn back to the novel because of an event celebrating the work of John Cage and the realization that no one in the world was memorizing the whole book. In 2012, he devised a program to do just that.
"I decided to learn 37 pages a year," said Kosaly-Meyer. "That would be a page a week [with some breaks]. Learning it at that rate, it would take 17 years... I was 54 at this point. This meant I'd be 71 years old when I'm done. No time to fuck around at my age. I had to get on it right away."
Kosaly-Meyer is now 61. He's reached the first part of the sixth chapter, which is what he will perform on December 14 at the Chapel Performance Space in the Good Shepherd Center.
After that, there are 12 more to go. Life is too short.