Shelf Care Interview: Barry McGovern, Marcella Riordan, and Roger Marsh

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks with book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Naxos Audiobooks.

In this episode, audio editor Heather Booth talks with the team behind Finnegans Wake: narrators Barry McGovern and Marcella Riordan and composer Roger Marsh.

Barry McGovern is a Dubliner. He was born in Eccles Street, graduated with a BA from the University College, Dublin, and lives in Chapelizod. He is perhaps best known for his appearances in the work of Samuel Beckett. His two one-man Beckett shows, I’ll Go On and Watt have played worldwide, and he played Vladimir in the Beckett-on-Film Waiting for Godot.

Marcella Riordan began her career at the Abbey School in Dublin and has worked in theaters all over Ireland and the UK, including Druid Theater and Lyric Theatre Belfast. She has worked extensively on the BBC Radio and RTÉ. Her previous work on James Joyce’s texts includes playing Gerty MacDowell in Anthony Burgess’s Blooms of Dublin, Zoe in Ulysses, and Molly Bloom for Naxos Audiobooks’ recording of Ulysses.

Roger Marsh is a composer and former professor of music at the University of York. His music has been performed, broadcast, and recorded worldwide. In 1995, he abridged Ulysses and produced it for Naxos Audiobooks, and then went on to produce all of Joyce’s major novels, as well as Dante’s Divine Comedy, also for Naxos. He currently lives in the South of France, where he continues to write and compose.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.


HEATHER BOOTH: This new production of Finnegans Wake is truly epic. It’s fully produced with music. It’s 24 hours long. This must’ve been quite a project. How did each of you prepare for it?

MARCELLA RIORDAN: Well, the only thing to do is read it and read it and read it to get as much information as you can from as many sources as you can. I’ve got to say, I fell down many rabbit holes as I went through, researching pronunciations or just the history of a word. And if a word has two or three meanings, I was trying to get all two or three meanings into the word. I realized afterward that was a huge mistake, because there’s no way you can possibly do that. It’s also full of tongue twisters, and you want to make it trip off the tongue. So I spoke it aloud an enormous amount of times, all day, everyday. And so that was essentially my preparation.

BARRY MGOVERN: I’m much the same. I’m one of these nerds; I actually got a copy of Finnegans Wake on my twenty-first birthday, which says a lot about me. I didn’t read it all then, but I dipped into it over the years and my copy is falling to bits now and marked up. But of course, since I got onto this project, I decided I was going to read the full book from “riverrun” to “the” that year.

And you can go through this all your life and still not make head nor tail of some bits of it. But there’s a fantastic music to the book. There is a sort of a plot; basically there’s a family involved: Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle. It’s later on in the book, towards the end, we discover their names are really Mr. and Mrs. Porter, who live in a pub in Chapelizod, where I happen to live, by sheer chance. And they have twin sons and a daughter. And these five characters take on all sorts of names throughout the book. It really refers to the history of the world and families and tribes. There are myths and legends all over the place. And even though there is a sort of a setting around Chapelizod and the Phoenix Park, it’s really a universal thing.

It takes place at night in a dream world. Ulysses was Joyce’s book of the day, and he had to write a book of the night. And as Marcella was saying, all these words take on so many different meanings, because a lot of them are like Lewis Carroll’s words: they’re portmanteau words joined together. Sometimes a word can have so many different meanings, but as the flow of the chapters goes by, we get a general sense of what sort of is going on.

Nothing is very clear because it’s nighttime and it’s dreamlike, but there’s a sense of the history of the world and of battles and of family squabbles and everything. Even though it’s mostly about Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, one of the great chapters in it, chapter eight, is the washerwomen at the Ford. It’s all about two women discussing things as they’re washing their clothes in the river. And of course, Marcella has that wonderful chapter, which is probably the most famous chapter in the book.

And she also has the wonderful final 13 pages, where the River Liffey flows out to sea. And that last 13 pages are so wonderful—the best part of the book. Even though I have the vast majority of the book to read, my two favorite sections are the sections Marcella reads. So there you are. It’s a playful book. It’s very difficult, but it’s also very wonderful.

MARCELLA RIORDAN: This book is so musical when you’re reading the text you don’t have to battle with it. It offers you the most amazing rhythms. And even though it’s difficult, it literally flows like a river once you actually get into it and understand it. It’s extraordinary that way.

ROGER MARSH: I guess that’s my cue because I’ve been described as composer, but in this context, I’m not a composer: I’ve just produced the audiobook. I’ve read Finnegans Wake off and on all my adult life. And I first got attracted to it, I think, because of the musicality of the book, which Marcella just referred to. It’s like a huge poem in one sense. And I think for many people, it doesn’t really get far beyond that level because the beauty of the words, the sound of the words, the fun in the words, is almost what the book is about. But as Barry has explained, it’s vastly more complicated than that. And I think I’ve spent my whole life trying to get to the bottom of what Finnegans Wake is about.

I’d already produced Ulysses for Naxos as you mentioned, but I was asked to produce an abridged version of Finnegans Wake, which is a very challenging thing to do, but in some ways that was the easy thing to do because you cut out all the difficult bits. So this time around it wasn’t quite so easy because we had to grapple with all the difficult bits. And at that point I found out how much of Finnegans Wake I still didn’t quite understand. And it was a great pleasure going through it all with Barry and Marcella. And I must say, Barry has been a font of information about aspects of the book, with his intimate knowledge of Dublin and all those nuanced references to Dublin, which really would have passed me by as a non-Irish.

BARRY MGOVERN: I think that’s a very good point, I don’t know how anybody could possibly get a lot of the references if they a) weren’t Irish and b) weren’t a Dubliner.

And Marcella is a Dubliner like me; you came from Tallaght, right up in the Dublin Mountains. And I was born in Sandymount, near the River Dodder. So the River Liffey, the River Dodder, all those things, the Phoenix Park beside which I live now at the Magazine Fort, and the Wellington Monument . . . There’s so many allusions to figures of speech, to little songs that would hardly be known outside Dublin, ways of saying a phrase in Dublin that are so local, even though it is about the universal, it comes from the local, but there are local things in it that are very important.

Joyce has always intimidated me, but hearing the performance, I begin to think this is possibly something I can approach and understand in a different way. I wondered if your understanding of Joyce’s work has changed by performing or by producing, by being involved with his work. Has it changed how you connect to it or how you understand it?

BARRY MCGOVERN: Well, from my own point of view, yes, absolutely. I always describe Joyce as a poet who wrote in prose, and all his works—from Dubliners through Portrait, and especially in Ulysses—it’s just so musical and so poetic that I’ve learned so much. I mean, I’ve done readings of Joycelive and recordingsbut this is the first time I’ve recorded Finnegans Wake. I mean, how many times in your life do you record Finnegans Wake? Once. But it’s been a fantastic eye-opener for me—and ear-opener. I got the recording sent to me, and I’m halfway through it, and I’m learning so much from just listening that I didn’t even notice when I was doing it. So you could spend a lifetime and still be learning. Of course, Joyce loved that. He wanted the scholars to be working at it for hundreds of years and still not getting to the bottom of it. And you can’t, cause the allusions are so tiny sometimes, and so local. But yet it seems to work on a kind of level that is magic and mystical. It’s like music, you can listen to a Beethoven string quartet, or a symphony, and you still discover new things in it.

ROGER MARSH: Some of it is very funny. And I have to say that some of that comedy might pass you by as just a reader, unless you can hear it. There were lots of times during the recording when I was listening to Barry reading and suddenly I would just be in fits of laughter because the way it was read and the way the performance came across.

BARRY MCGOVERN: That could mean one of two things [laughter].

ROGER MARSH: It meant that I thought “I understand this page,” but suddenly I didn’t realize how funny it was . . . until I heard you—it’s a tone of voice sometimes, quite often the accent that you would put into it. And the same with Marcella. I literally did fall off my chair at one point when Marcella was reading. Because it came up to a passage and I was thinking to myself, “Here comes the car crash . . . this is going to be terrible,” because if was so difficult, and it just went perfect!

MARCELLA RIORDAN: When I was running it in order to let it trip off the tongue, I was rolling around on the sofa, making myself laugh so much. You know what I mean? Going, “That is hilarious!” So, you know, it happens all through the book.

BARRY MCGOVERN: One of the other things that happened was: I would be following the book and listening to the recording and say, “Oh God, that’s an allusion to something.” And this is always going to happen when you read it and then you hear it, but ideally you really need to read it and hear it together, because there are things on the page that you could read it way A, and then as way B, and then way C, perhaps—sometimes you have to choose when you’re reading it out loud. Whereas on the page, you can hear it in the mind’s ear in various ways.

That makes sense. Watching the video of you all, of the recordings, it was wonderful to see the performance, too. You seem physically involved in the recording. I don’t think that people who listen to audiobooks always understand how physical that performance can be, so that was wonderful to see.

BARRY MCGOVERN: I had 20 days of recording: four weeks of five days a week. And I used to go home absolutely shaking. I mean, I had to come down. I was literally, physically wrecked, as if I played a big football match at the end of the recording. And sometimes we just had to stop and say, we’re leaving it there for today. Even if I was on a roll. Sometimes when you’re recording you’re on a roll; other days, it’s just not coming out right. I don’t know if Marcella agrees with me, but there are some days that flows, some days it doesn’t. It’s human nature. But even when it was flowing, it affected me much more than I realized.

MARCELLA RIORDAN: Barry, I think it’s like watching somebody run up Mount Everest and talking about the physicality of it and being so tired afterwards. That’s what it’s like. Because once you start, you just don’t stop. And the mountain doesn’t stop being in front of you. There’s no point at which in Finnegans Wake you can actually rest.

BARRY MCGOVERN: No. And you’ve done a lot more audiobooks than I, but I’ve done a few, and you’re pretty tired at the end of the day doing them, regular English. But this language is so, so different. And sometimes you almost don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t mean that in a way that you haven’t worked at it, but no matter how you work at it, sometimes, when you’re listening, it made sense in a musical sense, even though I couldn’t tell you what it literally meant. Some passages, a lot of them, are very, very funny. A lot of them are much are easier than others. But there are some very dark and difficult passages where I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m being a complete charlatan.” But in fact I was doing my best. It’s praising Joyce, because he’s written this in such a way that it comes out in a sort of an understandable flow of something. And it certainly was very different to any other audiobook I ever did. It’s so tricky. It does wipe you out, but it’s such a challenge. It’s like, as you say, Mount Everest is. It’s worth it. It’s worth trying once in your life to read it or to listen to it or whatever it is, because it’s unlike anything that’s been written before or since

MARCELLA RIORDAN: It is. And it offers you so much as well. My first introduction to it was when RTÉ Radio did a version of it many years ago; I was involved in that. And I had always thought this great literary book was going to be somehow sort of stiff and tight. And what struck me was the humanity of Joyce, actually: the minutiae of the little insecurities and thoughts, and the whole psychology of it was a huge revelation to me, because I had thought it was going to be about something much drier and less psychological and emotional somehow. I mean, he’s extraordinary that way. His understanding of the way people tick.

Oh, that’s fascinating. Like we were saying before, I do think that hearing it brings that to the fore and helps the reader understand that so much.

ROGER MARSH: It definitely does. There’s another aspect to this, which you kind of forget once you’ve been all through it: I’m not sure if anybody ever taught Joyce punctuation, or if they did, he chose not to think about it! And so there are whole sections of Finnegans Wake where the punctuation is either not there at all or minimal and you just have to work out how to divide this thing up. And I think that’s another way in which this audiobook really brings to life something which, for a reader who’s not so familiar, would really be hard work to try and work out just how the sentences fall.

And I think that’s something that’s wonderful about the classics on audio is that it helps the listener or the reader connect with it and understand it so much more than just having it on the page. There’s a person there with you, leading you through it.

MARCELLA RIORDAN: There is. And just to say something about the washerwomen, for instance, you have choices on them. One is older, one is young, and sometimes I wasn’t terribly sure which one was saying what. Sometimes the logic of it guides you, but sometimes it doesn’t. So I had to plump for a particular one and hope that Roger would turn around and say “I think you’re absolutely right,” which he did. And I was so grateful because you could spend hours going, oh, which one is that?

BARRY MCGOVERN: I’m the same. Sometimes there’s these four old men, and they overhear things and they comment. They’re like the two guys in the Muppets up on the box. And I wondered “Who am I?” at different accents. Because sometimes Matthew speaks in an Ulster accent; Mark in a Munster accent; Luke in a Leinster or Dublin accent; and then John, he’s in the Galway accent or a West Ireland accent. So sometimes you just think, God, am I in the right accent? Because your head plays tricks on you. And even though you’ve marked it, you’ve done all the work, it just becomes a head spin eventually. And you’re rolling along. At times I felt myself just saying words, like almost being in a trance. And I’d say, I’m not really reading thisI must be making mistakes. And if I was, Roger would stop me. But you know, it was just an amazing experience, quite an out of body experience at times.

Well, it certainly is wonderful to listen to as well.

Thank you all so much. It’s been lovely to speak with you. I feel like I understand the work more just in hearing what your processes were in recording and producing. So thank you so much, Barry, Marcella and Roger, for joining us today. And one more big thank you to our sponsor, Naxos Audiobooks. Happy reading.'

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