One thing that fascinates me about art in a museum is the ability to see the detail of a painter’s strokes or the marks of a sculptor’s fingers. I like the idea of thinking that the mad genius whose work I’m admiring had (Lovingly? Obsessively?) touched the object. This experience augments the human element in the artistic equation. In literature and music this isn’t common. We hear a piece or read a book. The composer or author is there in many ways, but often biography and historical context are the limits of his or her presence. The British Library, however, makes possible an experience akin to the art museum. They have handwritten music by Beethoven on display. You can see Stravinsky’s penciled corrections. There is a property deed with Shakespeare’s signature. Nearby, a letter Elizabeth I wrote rejecting the Duke of Anjou’s offer of marriage. One of my favorites to visit was a display on English literature. It included the original pamphlets where Dickens -paid by the word!- published The Pickwick Papers. It also had a manuscript of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, complete with the author’s corrections. Having already counted myself as one more person who tried and failed to read this book, it was wonderful to see the pages filled with Joyce’s inconsistently sized writing, crossed out words, and lines connecting thoughts with different colored notes. The words on the page did not move in straight lines, but in oceanic waves, floating from one side to the next. Every few weeks the people who curated the museum would turn the copy on display to another couple of pages. They were all the same. One after another, covered in corrections and wild writing. Years earlier, a professor had referred to Finnegans Wake as the exhaustion of the novel. For him, the book was a great scream that pushed the form to its limits. Seeing Joyce’s handwritten manuscript somehow made that argument seem even more precise.
This weekend I read an article in The New York Times. It was about a Boston professor’s efforts to create a definitive edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. The man was described in a way that evoked an eccentric genius who was consumed with the minutiae of his subject. He went so deep that he sort of disappeared and some of his colleagues even thought he had died. I won’t reveal what happened to him, but suffice to say, reading the article brought back memories of the British Library. I hope you enjoy.