Stephen Crowe is a graphic designer who lives in France and has what he calls “an intense love-hate relationship with James Joyce.” That relationship plays out through the project he’s titled A Wake in Progress, in which he attempts to illustrate all of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The result is weird and wonderful – and an amazing visual ladder into the notoriously difficult text. Today we have the pleasure of hosting an interview we did with Stephen this spring for the Library as Incubator Project. Laura

What was the impetus for Wake in Progress? Why Finnegans Wake in particular?

Basically, I stole the idea from Zak Smith. I saw his book of illustrations of Gravity’s Rainbow, and the idea stuck in my mind. Later, I found I was frustrated by how hard I was finding it to practice design and illustration in my spare time, and I realized I needed a project to get me working. The choice of Finnegans Wake was based on three factors. First, I wanted to choose a book that would really benefit from illumination – I didn’t want to just draw people talking to each other in different rooms. Second, I’d long wanted to reread it more carefully (I read it once before and understood as much as I could of it). Finally, it was a kind of cowardly hedge against self-doubt. I knew that there were many illustrators better than me, but I bet that very few of them had read Finnegans Wake. So it was like my own personal niche.

What is your process like when it comes to the drawings? How do you choose what to draw from the text?

When I started, I was basically just picking out phrases that gave me a strong visual idea. Literally illustrating what’s happening in the text doesn’t tend to work very well, because there’s normally more than one thing happening at a time, so I try to find visual metaphors that suggest the same sort of thing. Lately, I’ve been trying much more to create an impression of thematic and narrative development. So my general method is to read each chapter several times, worry over the hardest parts for what seems like years, and try to choose a sentence from each page that both suggests a visual metaphor and leads the narrative forwards. Sometimes I just have to give up and draw a pretty picture. Sometimes I’ll struggle for weeks to come up with a strong image, and sometimes it will come to me all of a sudden.

Does drawing the project affect how you perceive or understanding the text? Has it changed your previous relationship to the text at all?

It has completely changed my understanding of the book. I’d only read Finnegans Wake once before I started the project, some years ago now, and obviously I didn’t really understand it. Who does? In retrospect, I think I was quite naïve about the level of close reading I’d have to do. I thought I could get away with being quite impressionistic. But as I got further into it, I realized that I’d have to really understand at least a couple of levels of meaning at any given time, or the whole thing would be impossible. So I’ve ended up having to read it incredibly closely, as well as critical texts and books that Joyce used as sources, like The Golden Bough. There are a few passages where I really feel like I cracked the code in a way that I haven’t read in any of the critical studies. But most of it is still quite baffling, of course.

The primary focus of our project is to look at the relationship between artists and libraries – the physical space of the library, and the material they contain and make available. Can you speak to your own relationship with libraries (if you have one)?

I’ve always been a self-motivated learner, and in many ways, the work I do now is the culmination of all the random subjects that I’ve spent my time reading about in libraries when I should have been doing something productive.

When I first read Finnegans Wake I was completely dependent on my university library for critical studies and annotations. But the random browsing and personal research that I did into all kind of different subjects, from creation mythology to primitive art, have all informed the project. More prosaically, when I first came up with the project, my copy of Finnegans Wake was still in a box in my in-laws’ basement. So I was very lucky that my local library here in Paris had a copy of Finnegans Wake that I was able to constantly renew for about six months. I don’t think there was much demand for it.

Do you have a favorite library? What makes that library stand out in your mind?

The library that’s had the greatest personal impact on both my work and my life is Shakespeare and Company, actually a bookstore and library in Paris. I first visited when I was 18 and returned again and again, and now I live in Paris with my wife (whom I met there) and child. I can’t emphasise enough how important this place has been to me. As a library, it’s a little idiosyncratic. There’s no catalogue that I’m aware of, nor any apparent rhyme or reason to the choice of books in the collection. But the combination of the books, the readings and events, and (perhaps most of all) the fascinating weirdos that congregate there broadened my horizons and changed my life.

Stephen Crowe is a designer and illustrator who lives in France. To learn more about him and to see more of his work:

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