Monday, December 11, 2006

Goodnight Stories

My daughter, who'll be five in February, is very serious about having stories read or told to her. She pays close attention to every detail and takes great joy in discovering the slightest variation in a tale retold. Sometimes, it's next-to-impossible to find an end to storytime, and pleas of "just one more story" can enter an endless loop, delaying her sleep and a few child-free evening hours for the parents.

My responsibility in our bilingual household is for the English storytelling (or rather that approximation of English I make) and have tried to keep a broad repertoire. This includes all the trustworthy old songs and rhymes and stories, but lots of invention on my part and some off-beaten paths as well. Bits of Blake and Nash, Lewis Carroll and Gorey, to be sure. And lately, her favorite has also been one I committed to memory years ago, the tale of Jarl van Hoother and the prankqueen from Finnegans Wake. This little story (pages 21-23 of the Viking Centennial Edition) is a portmanteau of many fairy tales, beginning with a typical once-upon-a-time formula (It was of a night, late, lang time agone...), continues with the hero going through a typical set of three trials, and ends with everyone living happily ever after (The prankqueen was to hold her dummyship and the jimminies was to keep the peacewave and van Hoother was to git the wind up) and a heavy moral to boot (Thus the hearsomeness of the burger felicitates the whole of the polis).

While a selection from Finnegans Wake may seem like odd and overly-ambitious (if not pretentious) bedtime reading for a small child, a passage like this is actually perfect for a child. She recognizes the structure and all of the formulas or conventions of the fairy tale form, and and the same time, the strangeness and rough musicality of the actual words is an adventure and entertainment in which she takes great delight, and it's not more preposterous nonsense than much of the other literature she's already encountered or made up on her own.

It's also a great opportunity for Daddy to show off, and the climax of the tale, when Joyce's diction has modulated into stammering, short syllables and suddenly a paranthesis interrupts all with the thunderclap of a 100-letter word (Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!), - the recitation of which is probably the closest I come to virtuoso performance nowadays - is always met with laughter and a smile that'll be kept forever.

(Originally intended to make a point here about the advantage of simultaneously acquiring traditional and experimental literature or music or cooking or what-have-you, but that's obvious enough, isn't it?)


Civic Center said...

That is my favorite Finnegan's Wake riff since the sci-fi writer Philip Jose Farmer played with the tale in "Riders of the Purple Wage," an extraordinary novella from the 1970s. And your story does speak for itself, without any annotation.

PWS said...

You should also read the "last" (or the first three as the book is a circle) three pages to her. Joyce seems to go right back to his childhood, speaking in one guise as a child to his father. It's incredibly moving as the polyglotlanguage, as you point out, has an almost childlike quality.

By the way-your word verification just demanded I type a letter with an umlat or whatever the hell above it-What type of Kraut hicky are you trying to pull Daniel!? (JK).

Also by the way,this post successfully made me more want to be a father.

Daniel Wolf said...


I've complained to Blogger about the üöä's in the word verification. Thanks for telling me about it.

The closing passage is beautiful, too (Cage was very fond of it). When I next have time to memorize something, though, it'll probably be the ent and the gracehopper. I just like stories, I guess.