Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005581, Fri, 3 Nov 2000 11:10:59 -0800

Robert Boyle and Nabokov
LEXIS®-NEXIS® Academic Universe - DocumentEDITOR's NOTE. Robert Boyle did an interview-article on VN, the field lepidopterist, for _Sports Illustrated_ (Sept. 14, 1959, E5--E8). Boyd has referred to it as "perhaps our finest moment-by-moment image of Nabokov the man (AY, 383). The item below admittedly has nothing to do with VN but Joyce. It is, however, both brillian and "Nabokovian." Enjoy it.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

July 23, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Section 7; Page 27; Column 1; Book Review Desk
Title: You Spigotty Anglease? By Robert H. Boyle; Robert H. Boyle, the founder of Riverkeeper and the Hudson River Foundation, is the author of "The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History."

WITH trout fishing in full swing, I find it timely to make a revolutionary declaration about the most inexplicable work of fiction ever written, James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," his so-called "Work in Progress" on which he labored for 17 years. My declaration is this: Fish and fishing, fly-fishing in particular, constitute the major theme in the "Wake," as Joyceans call it. The evidence that I have discovered is so overwhelming that the "Wake" must be considered as belonging in great part, albeit a bizarre part, to angling literature.

I got started on the "Wake" accidentally four years ago while engaged on my own work in progress, "Flagrante Delicto Fly-Fishing." I was doing research on Preston Jennings, the first American author to codify the aquatic insects that trout eat so that anglers could imitate them with artificial flies. Jennings published "A Book of Trout Flies" in 1935, four years before the "Wake," and in the course of my research I chanced to run across the photograph reproduced here (near right). It seemed similar to another photograph I'd seen before. I searched my mind, and then I remembered that it was the one on the far right, of Joyce.

The resemblance between the two is extraordinary, down to the optical objects in the right hand. Recalling that Vladimir Nabokov, whom I once accompanied on a butterfly chase in Arizona, maintained that Salvador Dali was Norman Rockwell's twin brother, who had been kidnapped by Gypsies, I decided to write a facetious article stating that Joyce and Jennings had been separated at birth. I thought that just two or three fishing references in the "Wake" would suffice for a short comic piece. Instead, I discovered so many that I could fill a book. A brief sample follows.

For the "Wake," Joyce coined words, took words from 62 languages and dialects and inserted words within words, with every word "bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings." He advised the reader to "wipe your glosses with what you know." Influential Joyceans claim that Shakespeare is the major theme, "the rock mass in which metal, fossils, gems are enclosed or embedded," to quote the scholar Adaline Glasheen. They base this on the number of allusions to Shakespeare and his works, 300 all told in 628 pages, an average of 0.48 for every page. Indeed, in "The Western Canon," Harold Bloom proclaims that Shakespeare "has always guided my reading of the 'Wake.' "

Really? By my count, the number of allusions to fish and their watery world comes to at least 2,200, an average of 3.5 per page. From the very first word, "riverrun," the "Wake" is awash in fishy phrases, such as "Songster, angler, choreographer!," "compleat anglers," "And if you're not your bloater's kipper . . . you're rod, hook and sinker," "Holy eel and Sainted Salmon, chucking chub and ducking dace," "one man's fish and a dozen men's poissons," "catching trophies of the king's royal college of sturgeone by the armful for to bake pike," "Flies do your float" and "My herrings!"

The wordplay on the initials of the major male character, H. C. Earwicker, sometimes has a fishy connotation, as in "Human Conger Eel," "erst crafty hakemouth" and "Ear canny hare" (the hare's ear is a trout fly). His wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, personifies the River Liffey, which flows from the Wicklow Mountains to the Irish Sea and whose delta smells of fish, while son Shem has a "trio of barbels" on his chin, "a salmonkelt's thinskin" and "eelsblood in his cold toes."

Here and there, Joyce checks to see if the reader has caught on to his angling game. Page 16: "You spigotty anglease?" In other words, "You speak angling?" Page 485: "Are we speachin d'anglas landadge?" Page 532: "Angleslachsen is spoken by Sall," which means, to me, "Angling language is spoken by all." Added touch: "lachsen" also stands for salmon, because Lachs is the German for that fish.

There are 100 references to salmonid fish and aspects of their life history, e.g., Atlantic, coho and chinook salmon; rainbow, brown, lake and sea trout; spawn, milt, redd, alevin, fry, parr, smolt, troterella (the Italian for little trout), grilse, gillaroo (an Irish trout with stomach muscles that can crush the shells of mollusks) and sockdolager (angling slang for a huge trout). The word "fish" occurs 85 times alone or in combination, as in "fishy fable," which could be another title for the "Wake."

References to other fish, often multiple in number, include ide, orfe and oarfish (both in "orfishfellows"), argentine, scup, sennet, sergeant major, shiner, rudd, cod, bullhead, blowfish, mackerel, spearing, sprat, stickleback, stargazer, halibut, perch, chub, grenadier, squawfish, tang, tarpon, fluke, flounder, lampern and slippery dick.

"Speckled trousers" stands for speckled trout. "Omulette" means omelet to the Joyceans who contributed to Roland McHugh's "Annotations to 'Finnegans Wake.' "To me, "omulette" is an omelet that has two species of fish in it: omul, the Russian for the prized whitefish from Lake Baikal, and mullet. Joyceans gloss "Untie the gemman's fistiknots" as meaning untie the entanglements in a bride's nightdress made by bridesmaids. To me it means untie the gentleman's fishing knots. Joyceans gloss "greased lining" as greased lightning, but greased line fishing is a way of angling for salmon in low water. Joyceans say that "Reefer was a wenchman" refers to the "Taffy was a Welshman" nursery rhyme, but "wenchman" is the common name for a reef fish, a species of snapper.

The word "fin," alone or in combination, occurs 25 times, not counting the times Joyce embedded it in "Finnegan." The "Wake" names angling methods -- casting, skittering, dapping, trolling, spinning and paternostering -- as well as natural and artificial flies: cinnamon quill, silver doctor, cowdung, grannom, hawthorn, palmer, variant, buzzer and creeper.

The "Wake" also dwells on mayflies, a favorite food of trout. Joyce uses nymph, dun, imago and spinner, all angling terms for mayflies in different life stages, as well as "mayjaunties," in reference to the species with the common name of the Yellow May (jaune is French for yellow). The scientific name of the Yellow May is Heptagenia sulphurea, and the "Wake" notes that "Maikar . . . has been sulphuring."

ANGLING authors abound. Izaak Walton is obvious in "any Wilt or Walt who would ongle her as Izaak did to the tickle of his rod"; "Lang . . . Wurm" is a punning allusion to Andrew Lang, author of "Angling Sketches"; "Humphrey's unsolicited visitor, Davy" refers to Sir Humphry Davy, who wrote "Salmonia, or Days of Fly Fishing"; "scrope" ("stroke" to Joyceans) is William Scrope, author of "Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in the Tweed"; and "scotcher grey, this is a davy" refers to George Scotcher, author of "The Fly-Fisher's Legacy," Sir Edward Grey, author of "Fly Fishing," and Davy.

Similarities in language indicate that Joyce took words and phrases from Grey's book, which was published in 1899. The "Wake": "chuck a chum a chance." Grey: "a 'chuck and chance it' style." "Coquette" is the Coquet, the river Grey fished in Northumberland, where he lived. The "Wake": "Northumberland Anglesey," which to me is Northumberland angler Grey. The "Wake": "Up wi'yer whippy." Grey: "no greater misery than to be using a whippy rod." The "Wake": "Olive quill does it." Grey listed the olive quill as his No. 1 dry fly.

The most widely known fact about the "Wake" is that it contains the names of at least a thousand rivers and other bodies of water, e.g., "hudson," "missus, seepy and sewery," "muddy terranean." Yet this absolutely baffles Joyceans. As James Atherton declared, "Nobody has ever been able to suggest what purpose is served by this inclusion of names."

Hey, "Wake" watchers, wake up! Fish live in water. Have an epiphany on me.