Illustrating Finnegans Wake

by HRM on September 9, 2011

Interview with Stephen Crowe

Finnegans Wake might be the single most neglected book in history by a major writer.

I first saw Stephen Crowe’s work at Shakespeare & Company, nestled above a refined selection of antique books with beautiful spines in the main room. The page I saw looked like the beginning of an illustrated Grimm’s story. I pointed it out to my friend Lauren – whispering, as there was a reading taking place – and she told me that it was an illustration of Finnegans Wake. Curious about his project, I contacted Crowe to find out more.

Stephen Crowe

1. Why are you illustrating Finnegans Wake? (Where did the interest/idea come from?)
Finnegans Wake might be the single most neglected book in history by a major writer. Which is understandable, of course. I won’t try to pretend that it isn’t a difficult book to read. But a sizeable portion of it isn’t a lot harder than most of Ulysses, for example. If you’ve ever read Chaucer or fiction in a second language, the reading experience is quite similar. It never washes over you. You always have to be working to understand it. Just because something is valuable doesn’t mean that it has to be appreciated by everyone on earth. But anyone with an interest in language and literature should at least read parts of it, because there’s no other book like it. It changes the way you think about reading. It forces you to think in unfamiliar ways about human nature, culture, history and religion. And it’s really very funny.

I first started illustrating Finnegans Wake because I wanted a drawing project that would challenge me and keep me motivated. I got the idea from seeing Zak Smith’s page-by-page illustrations of Gravity’s Rainbow. But his work, and the other projects of that kind that I’ve seen, are inspired by their subjects but not subordinate to them. They don’t try to explain the books they illustrate, which don’t really require that level of explanation in any case. I thought that illustrating Finnegans Wake would be an interesting way to make a difficult book approachable to a wide audience.

Stephen Crowe

2. What is your background in art and/or literature?
Growing up, I was very sensitive to what I saw as pretension and elitism. In high school I rejected Ulysses after about two pages. I wanted to work in animation. For me, Dangermouse represented the apex of western culture. But ironically, to study animation you first have to study art, the nuclear dumping ground where all the deadliest pretension can be isolated from society. I was kicked out of my art A-level after a year, because I used to argue with the teacher all the time about conceptual art.

So I studied film and literature instead. At first the literature was just a sop to justify studying film, but it turns that film studies is an utterly pointless subject, and I dropped it to avoid having to do any more phallus-spotting. By the time I graduated, I’d read Ulysses three times. I don’t really worry about cultural elitism anymore, although I’m still very sensitive to pretension, which puts me in a pretty difficult position with this project.

Stephen Crowe

3. What do you see as the relationship between images and text in a project like this?
My hope is that they are mutually supportive, though not generally in a literal way. Because my aim is to both represent the text and to illuminate it, I’m not interested in producing images that are completely opaque, but I can’t just draw what’s described in the text either. Mostly that’s not even possible, because it’s too abstract or contradictory. But even when the text contains a straightforward visual description, I’ve found that trying to copy it almost always results in disaster. I made this mistake a few times when I was starting out.

What I try to do now is to look for visual metaphors for the ideas and events in the text. I give myself a lot of leeway to interpret it in a visually interesting way, so in many cases the illustration might not be a lot clearer than the text, but taken together, they should illuminate each other. I try to produce designs with at least one aspect of immediate visual interest, and I try never to draw anything that can’t be at least partially understood without explanation. If you need footnotes to understand it, then you may as well just read the book.

Stephen Crowe

Stephen Crowe

Stephen Crowe

Stephen Crowe


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sabrina September 14, 2011 at 1:35 am

These are really amazing designs! He really does some amazing stuff with texts and images! Thanks so much for bringing this artist to my attention.

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