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Degas and Dublin

By Nicolas Soames

1 March 2007


The last time I was in Rupert Degas’ studio in West London he was immersed in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, delivering some of the most unusual characters, from the kooky schoolgirl May Kasahara and the objectionable Noboru Wataya to the lugubrious Lieutenant Mamiya. The result is an astounding panoply of characters.

And there, on Monday, I was back again to hear him in very different voice – the cooler narrator of Franz Kafka’s The Trial: a voice more sinister by implication than characterisation. Rupert is still starring in The 39 Steps, which won an Olivier Award this month, and this exhausting production means he has less time and energy to devote to audiobooks. It is our loss.

But The Trial is a key twentieth century classic, and particularly timely now as covert surveillance by the authorities, trial without charge and other limitations to personal liberty becomes increasingly prevalent. Joseph K initially believes that the authorities are fair and he wants to be the good citizen. But…

The recording of this new translation will be out in the summer.

NORTON ON THE LIFFEY and other memories

I came to Rupert’s studio having been in Dublin for a short time. It is always a particular pleasure to go to the city of James Joyce and wonder around those oh-so-familiar streets. I ran the Dublin Marathon one year – I still enjoy the memory in a masochistic kind of way – partly because I felt I would be encouraged by those incomparable Georgian doorways. (In the event, there was too much sweat and pain for any appreciation of porticos).

Every visit to Dublin follows much the same pattern. I do a little pilgrimage – out to the Martello Tower at Sandycove, then to The James Joyce Centre in North Great Georges Street and then to the Dublin Writers Museum in Parnell Square.

Only then do I start on the bookshops. Into Hodges and Figgis where on quite a few Bloomsdays, Jim Norton has presented passages from Dubliners or Ulysses; cross the road to the Waterstones, and down the road to Easons. All publishers do the same thing – we check the titles on the shelves, tut at all those that are not there… initially cursing the bookseller before convincing ourselves that those key titles have probably just sold out.

Ah yes – a good stock of Joyce and all the Becketts lined up there… nice… Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is going to look good beside them… and who, I wonder, is going to buy that copy of Bill Homewood’s boy’s own recording of King Solomon’s Mines which is sitting in the adult section… hmnnn… maybe, it should be in the junior classic section…

Sounds like one of Bloom’s interior monologues.

And then more memories.

I always muse, while drinking a glass of champagne in Davy Byrne’s Bar of an afternoon, of that extraordinary week of Finnegans Wake a few years ago. At 9.30am, Jim Norton and the producer Roger Marsh would meet at a studio tucked behind the Liffey. Roger went into the control room and Jim into the small voice booth where, unusually, he perched like a double bass-player on a tall bar-stool, with the script on a music stand.

And he read Finnegans Wake. Abridged to a 4 CD set it is true. But still remarkable.

Tolv two elf kater ten (it can’t be) sax.
Pedwar pemp foify tray (it must be) twelve.
And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep. White fogbow spans. The arch embattled. Mark as capsules. The nose of the man who was nought like the nasoes. It is self tinted, wrinkling, ruddled. His kep is a gorsecone. He am Gascon Titubante of Tegmine – sub – Fagi whose fixtures are mobiling so wobiling befear my remembrandts.
She, exhibit next, his Anastashie. She has prayings in lowdelph. Zeehere green egg-brooms.

On and on Jim read. He would stop from time to time to ask Roger – what was this word, or this sentence about? Professor Roger Marsh, of York University, composer and music professor, but a Joycean by night, would explain. And sometimes he would say with arcane joviality – ‘no one knows any more.’ Apparently someone once said that he asked Joyce the question and Joyce answered fully. But the man forgot. Or was it Joyce who had forgotten already? No-one knows now.

It was more fun and more exhausting than you can imagine. Even to watch. At 4.30 pm or 5 pm, Jim would stop, cross the Liffey and walk up to The Gate Theatre where he was starring in Conor McPherson’s smash hit The Weir. He would sleep for a bit in his dressing room, go on stage and perform to a full house, then go home to his sister’s home, study the next day’s section of Finnegans Wake for as long as he could keep his eyes open. Next day, 9.30 am, bright as a button, he was there at the studio, on the bar-stool, for more Joycean runes.

And so it went on. They were remarkable days.

I was reminded of them partly by being in Dublin, and partly because Jim rang me the other day. He was in Cambridge, taking McPherson’s The Seafarer (for which he has just won an Olivier Award for best supporting actor) on tour. We chatted about this and that, fame, Dublin, Los Angeles where he spends some of his time and I could hear him saying, asking, wondering, though not an audible word was said: ‘Are we going to do Finnegans Wake unabridged?’

In those totally inaudible tones I could hear Jim telling himself he had to ask even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to ask, though he did really. It is a monoconversation all marathoners have with themselves, whether tripping over uneven Dublin tarmac or Tolv two elf kater ten (it can't be) sax.

Ah Jim – we must talk some more.

Nicolas Soames

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