Exploring one of literature's most complex works in 'The Joycean Society'

Feb 24, 2014

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Fest.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

Literature lovers, get ready: This year, the True/False Film Fest will take you to a James Joyce reading group.

For more than 25 years, a group has gathered every week in Zurich, Switzerland, to read one of the most complex works of literature: Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” Line by line, they read and analyze. When they finish the book, they begin again, circling through the text over and over. They’re now on their third read.

Director Dora Garcia brings viewers to this gathering in an intimate way in her documentary “The Joycean Society.”

I spoke to Garcia via Skype from her home in Barcelona, Spain, before the festival. She will not be attending True/False this year, but cinematographer Arturo Solis will be.

How did you get the idea for this film? 

In a way, it’s kind of the last part in time because there might be other parts coming of a trilogy, which I started in 2010. And this trilogy, the first one was in Trieste. And Trieste is a town in Italy where “Ulysses” by Joyce started to be written. And so I was there filming … and I met people there who told me about this reading group. And so, for two or for three years, I had the idea to film them, but it always appeared to me like something very hard to get into – a very close circle. And almost by coincidence, in a trip to Zurich I went there, and they just turned out to be quite easy to know them, and just to be there. I started going there just as a regular reader, and decided to film it.

What were some of the biggest challenges of making this film?

Well, the biggest challenge was to film in a very small room with almost no light, without any extra light, because I wanted to keep the filmmaker apparatus as small as possible. I always work like this, so only with a sound man and a photo camera – actually, it’s filmed with a photo camera. But in this case especially, I didn’t want people to act.

The second one, but was easily overcome by the talent of the sound man, was to record the sounds in such a way that you would feel the space, and the position of people, so that you would really feel that you were in a circle of people talking.

Had you read much James Joyce, or encountered him much, before this project?

Like a lot of people, I read ["A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"] when I was 17, or something like that, and then I read “Dubliners,” so it was early reading – teenage reading, you could say. And then I started “Ulysses,” and like so many people, found it too hard. I am a very disciplined reader, but even that with a lot of discipline 

–especially when I got to the fifth chapter – it really got hard for me. So I dropped it and picked it up, and dropped it and picked it up, and dropped it and picked it up, and then I kept on re-reading “Dubliners,” and then I kept reading “Portrait of the Artist.”

And then, I found “Finnegan’s Wak” through John Cage – many contemporary musicians are big fans of “Finnegan’s Wake.” And of course, once I had a look at “Finnegan’s Wake,” I thought this was so hard – I had to read “Ulysses” before. So I went back to “Ulysses,” and with the help of a few books – because you have what you call secondary literature – I could go through it.  In the end he has been there always, since I was 17.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this film?

So for people that are familiar with the text and with the kind of feelings that it awakens in some people, it’s full of signs and full of little details that only they can understand. 

And for people who are absolutely not familiar with “Finnegan’s Wake,” but a bit with Joyce, then there are, again, other things they can follow and understand – like the snow on the cemetery for people that have read “The Dead,” and like the figure of Joyce for people who know, a bit, Zurich. And then finally, for people who don’t know anything about anything, let’s say, about this … I think it’s quite a journey to an obsession.