The only argument against James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ being the most difficult novel in the English language is that, one, it’s stretching the definition of ‘novel’ and, two, it’s stretching the definition of ‘the English language’. A fragmentary babble of non-sequiturs and beautiful made-up words, it’s utterly intoxicating for about ten pages, at which point your brain explodes and you start to question exactly what you’d get out of reading the rest of it.
There’s no such problem with Irish actress Olwen Fouéré’s ‘Riverrun’, an hour-long performance of the portions of the book detailing the 'voice of the river'. It’s a long-held argument that ‘Finnegans Wake’ makes more sense spoken aloud, and Fouéré proves it so. To me it felt more urban than pastory: the abiding impression left by the language that tumbles from her mouth is one of good-natured bustle, of being submerged in the fragmentary sounds of a busy street. It’s not un-reminiscent of a more upbeat version of Beckett’s ‘Not I’, and certainly the shared DNA between the two great Irish writers couldn’t be more apparent.
There is contrast in the hour: whispered portions that speak of dark places, sections where Fouéré lets go of language entirely, whistling beautifully or stepping back to let Alma Kelliher’s ambient score blaze discreetly.
It is surprisingly funny – partly because of the peculiar little phrases that filter through, largely because of Fouéré‘s performance, which is mirthful, mischievous, ritualistic and weird (there are moments when she both looks and sounds like the backwards-talking dwarf off ‘Twin Peaks’).
Over-analysing why ‘Riverrun’ works would be as maddeningly as trying to do the same for its parent novel. But it does work – it’s the sound of life itself, washing over and through you.
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