It was a soft Tuesday evening, the dimming of the day that first brought the promise of thaw.
And on this evening, as it has for the last 18 years, an eclectic group of readers gathered, their book club devoted to a single novel: “Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce. This roiling magnum opus published in 1939 is notorious for its difficulty, its impenetrability, its circular structure, its dream-within-a-dreamness, its onion layers, its allusions, its puzzles, its double, triple, quadruple entendres. Itin the middle of a sentence — with the word “the” — and begins on Page 1 in the middle of the same sentence. It took Joyce 17 years to write. Experts estimate about 60 languages appear in its 600-plus pages. For the Thirsty Scholars, as this band of “Wake” enthusiasts is known, it took 13 years to make it through the book the first time. In 2010, they started it again.
There’s no reading this book alone; it’s too daunting, too dense, too lonely an enterprise. “We’ve all tried it,” said Richard Cosma, an engineer and cofounder of the group. “It doesn’t work,” he said, of tackling the text solo. It’s a book that rewards a bunch of brains bringing to bear their varied expertise, interests, and obsessions to the unpacking and untangling of Joyce’s lines. “We’ll take one sentence and have 10 interpretations,” said Cosma, “and every one is right.”
And the club is eager for new members, particularly young ones. “Young being anyone under 60,” Cosma said. The only requirement? Interest in the book. Based on this evening, a sense of humor doesn’t hurt.
The group used to meet at the Thirsty Scholar on Beacon Street in Somerville, but over the years as numbers swelled they outgrew the pub. Now they’ve upscaled it to the Red House in Harvard Square where, on this particular Tuesday, fires burned in the fireplaces downstairs despite the warming weather. In a small second-floor room with a long farmhouse table, the group began with talk of bivalves and glasses of wine appeared. Ten people collected around the table. An architect, a biochemist, an engineer, an artist, a writer-poet, another architect (this one an actor as well), a librarian, an academic. With such varied backgrounds, what brings them all to the “Wake”?
“I’m a librarian,” said Lina Coffey. “I couldn’t figure out why people would check this out.” The group gave a knowing chuckle. “I still don’t know!” she said to harder laughter all around.
“It appeals to people who like puzzles,” said Tim Ahern, who recently published “Seventeen Improvisations on a Book by James Joyce,” a collection of narratives, each related to a chapter of the “Wake.” (“It’s an English translation of the book,” quipped David Butz, a man with a trim white beard, sitting at a corner of the table.) Ahern’s relationship with the “Wake” started in high school when he heard it was the most difficult book ever written. He’s been reading it ever since, “with time off for good behavior.”
Michael Koran, Gandalfian with a big white beard and twinkling blue eyes, offered a paraphrase of something W.H. Auden said, that we live our lives as though a great crime has been committed. We don’t know what the crime was, or who committed it, and “we read ‘Finnegans Wake’ for some answers.”
High-minded, yes, but not stuffy. The room buzzed and crackled with the energy created by the specific friction of a group of passionate, eager, and curious people. A warmth and enthusiasm was manifest in flushed cheeks and bright eyes. Of the 10, almost all had gray hair and lines around their eyes, but all possessed youthful fire as they joked and talked about this wild, unwieldy dreambeast of a book. A well-honed sense of mischief united the crew as well.
“I’ve learned more about four-letter words from Joyce than I did from my three sons,” said Mary Otis Stevens, an architect with an interest in the split between creators and interpreters.
Cosma shared an anecdote from a Joyce conference, suggesting that when it came to the raunchier side of Joyce (and, my oh my, is he raunchy), it’s the women who approach those parts head on. A young woman at a conference suggested: “Women have to be more aware because we have to beware.” Lee Cooke Childs, a real estate broker with a crocheted hat and no-nonsense voice, said it better still: “Less beating around the bush.” It takes the prize for line of the night, a perfect Joycean summing up, dead on and naughty. The belly laughs took time to die down.
Each week, after the first hour of chitchat, the group turns to the book. They pick up where they left off and read aloud a page and a half to spend the rest of the evening discussing. It doesn’t sound like much? A page and a half? No wonder it took them nearly a decade and a half to make it through? A sample sentence from the evening’s reading: “Shaun yawned, as his general address rehearsal, (that was antepropreviousday’s pigeons-in-a-pie with rough dough for the carrier and the has-say-ugh of overgestern pluzz the ’studesday’s shampain in his head, with the memories of the past and the hicnuncs of the present embelliching the musics of the futures from Miccheruni’s band) . . .” and on for another not atypical 136 words. You can see why the going is slow.
And what a thing to hear it read aloud. Cahal Stephens, architect, Irishman, and actor with The Here Comes Everybody Players (the troupe’s name a reference to a primary “Wake” character known as HCE), started off the oral part in a lilting brogue, with a boyishness that belied his gray beard. Around the table it went, each member reading a number of lines before breaking off and letting the next voice enter. Now and then an appreciative “wow” from Koran sounded like the response to a particularly impressive jazz solo, or a moving line of scripture.
After the reading comes the discussion, both focused and freewheeling. The “pigeons-in-a-pie” reference sparked a five-minute riff on nursery rhymes; their place in “Finnegans Wake” was former professor Sandy Tropp’s thesis topic. Like pop guns going off around the table, you heard curds and whey, Jack Horner, Little Miss Muffet, Christmas pie, blackbird pie, “so I got the wrong bird!” And on the conversation went, translations, clarifications, the noting of allusions and echoes. Tropp, excited and coaxing as though talking with her seminar, read the loveliest moment of the section: “me and yous and them we’re extending us after the pattern of reposiveness.” Extending after us like a wake in water, she observed. Those gathered seemed not just impressed, but moved.
Like the novel itself, the group ends where it began, rereading out loud the section they discussed. It takes on new depth the second time through. The way Joyce’s countryman Samuel Beckett described “Finnegans Wake” applies to the Thirsty Scholars too: “[Words] are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear.” The Scholars show no signs of fading, not yet. “We marry the sacred and profane,” said Koran of the group with his winking way. “We’re good at one of them. I won’t tell you which.”
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.”