Words at Play: Jabberwock by Dara Kavanagh

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By Dara Kavanagh

When does the composition of a novel begin? In one sense, Jabberwock, which is launching this October 5th in Dublin’s Hodges Figgis, set out on its long and perilous journey to publication at the turn of the millennium. That’s when I set down the first tentative paragraphs of a work in progress at the time entitled Semantics. I’d recently completed the manuscript of The Last European, which three years later would become my first published novel, and was preparing my doctoral thesis on the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, finding in his dour carnival laughter and distorted vision a surprising affinity with Beckett and Kafka.

But in an equally important sense, the germ of what will be my fifth published novel was sown the afternoon I first came upon the astonishing lines: ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe’. I was nine, and was so blown away by the poem that I remember racing downstairs to show my dad – he was rather less impressed.  Then came Humpty Dumpty’s equally fantastic exegesis: ‘“Brillig”: four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner. “Slithy”: lithe and slimy. “Toves”: curious creatures that are something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews.’ How could a poem made up of nonsense conjure such clear images – a vorpal sword, a manxome foe, the frumious Bandersnatch? It was a first encounter with the marvellous that lies coiled inside words.

Several years later, in secondary school, we looked at Orwell’s 1984 – spurred on because the titular year was fast approaching. Here was something equally astonishing – what happens when someone deliberately impoverishes language, so as to make certain forms of thought impossible? I was no great shakes at languages in school, with the exceptions of Latin and Greek, whose mathematical logic intrigued as much as their quaint subjects. Prior to reading about Newspeak, it had never occurred to me the degree to which thought might be a shadow cast by language. It is no accident that the Hereditary Director of the arcane Royal Academy of Language in Jabberwock is named O’Brien, though his interviews take place in room 404 rather than 101.

At about the same time, we were introduced to Hopkins, the acoustics of whose art made words palpable:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

high there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…

Dara Kavanagh

The raw materials of the novel were at hand, had I the wit and the leisure and the confidence to see them. But, as so often happens, life intervened. An engineering degree, a H-Dip, a succession of foreign countries and as many failed attempts at a more conventional novels in the run up to The Last European.

Returning, thirty years on, to the germ that Lewis Carroll’s marvellous nonsense had sown, I had on the plus side of the balance sheet become fluent in another language – Spanish, along with written Portuguese – and had encountered in the original the anarchic imaginations of the Latin Americans – Machado de Assis, Borges, Rulfo, Márquez, Donoso, Cortázar. One of the first literary projects I undertook on my return was to translate from the Portuguese, for John F Deane’s Dedalus Press, a selection of poetry by that inveterate prankster, Fernando Pessoa. And upon completion of my PhD, I became Education Officer at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin, where it became my job to interpret how Joyce had foregrounded language, in all its guises and registers, as the very substance of identity and consciousness.

Borges writes: ‘every writer creates his own precursors’. Few novels look quite the same after a close encounter with Ulysses – with its earthiness and bawdry, its irreverence and protean energy far more than its supposed literariness and erudition. Ulysses sends you back to Rabelais and Cervantes, to Sterne and Swift, to Defoe and Diderot and Edgeworth, to a boisterous era when what a novel might be was all to play for. Then it sends you forward, to Beckett and Flann O’Brien, to Grass and Bulgakov and Saramago and a host of post-modern mischief-makers. If my new work in progress was going to conjure the ghost of language and set it playing, it was not going to succeed within the confines of conventional realism.

From the first, Semantics as it was then called envisaged a dastardly plot by disgruntled republicans to bring down the British Empire from within by the spreading of a counterfeit language. If their steps are dogged by the Semantics branch of CID, they are finally foiled by the bungling intervention of a down-at-heel Dublin journalist named Hackett. It is set in a recognisable if imprecise facsimile of the 1930s. Through its various manifestations, drafts, rewrites, visions and revisions over the two decades that followed, this kernel remained intact. In an early manifestation, Hackett was an inmate in Grangegorman whose equivocal testimony was being tape-recorded by a narrator who was himself less than reliable. And with each new draft, in the fine tradition of Lewis Carroll, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, puns and paradoxes proliferated alarmingly.

As the manuscript morphed and evolved, so the world was changing. Year on year, cyberspace and social media commandeered an ever larger slice of humanity’s fickle attention span. Information overload ensued. Conspiracy theorists flourished. Entire political factions began to disappear down rabbit-holes of disinformation, alternative facts and fake news. In response, the manuscript began to sprout footnotes, many of them spurious, some directly contradicting others. In the second-to-last draft, there were in excess of three hundred of these, making a ‘straight’ read-through for plot as daunting as it is in the Baroque tangles of Tristram Shandy or Jacques the Fatalist. Etymologies could no longer be trusted – thus Jabberwock, from the old Bavarian feast of ‘Jabber Woche’ a week when women’s gossip was openly tolerated, and Bandersnatch from ‘Banders Nacht’, a night of musical revelry. But interspersed were glimpses of the bizarre but true – the electric vans of the Swastika laundry which hummed around the Dublin of my youth, Sir Roger Casement’s melancholy observation that he was being ‘hanged on a comma’; the curiosity that it was Irish scribes who ‘invented’ the spaces between words.

At one level, then, Jabberwock can be read as a commentary on the concatenation of media phenomena that has made the unthinkable (read Trump and Brexit) possible. Have I hopes that a mere novel could change anyone’s thinking, in the best of all possible worlds? As the story begins, Hackett is considering ‘whether the nothing that poetry makes happen is the same nothing as the nothing that philosophy makes happen.’ At the risk of one of those dreaded mise-en-abyme which so dog the character, one might expand this to include the nothing that fiction makes happen. So, why write it? In the immortal words of Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

(c) Dara Kavanagh

Jabberwock by Dara Kavanagh is launching alongside Eoghan Smith’s A Mind of Winter in Dublin’s Hodges Figgis on Thursday evening, October 5th.

About Jabberwock by Dara Kavanagh

Imagine if Flann O’Brien, with a little help from James Joyce, had rewritten Alice in Wonderland or Laurence Sterne had sent Don Quixote on a voyage alongside Lemuel Gulliver, then you have entered the world of Jabberwock – an anarchic novel full of delights and fromulous pleasures.

It tells the story of Ignatius Hackett, once the toast of 1920s literary ‘Dubilin’ before he is undone by words and dispatched to Swift’s Mental Asylum. With Europe on the brink of war, his journalistic skills are remembered and he is sent across the water to investigate a spate of verbal outrages in a topsy-turvy world in which fonts and footnotes flourish while puns and paradoxes proliferate at an alarming rate. Spurred on, he travels to France and into the dark heart of Germany, and gets caught up in a sinister chess-game of police and informers, of spies and revolutionaries behind which moves the shadowy Ouroboros Brotherhood. Who can be trusted, when words themselves are no longer content to be bound in dictionaries, but are in danger of being pressganged as wonder-weapons in the new World War?

‘JABBERWOCK fizzes with wit and ingenuity – a linguistic riot of hiberno-anarchy.’ Ronan Hession, author of Leonard and Hungry Paul.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Dara Kavanagh is a writer, academic, translator and poet. A native of Dublin, he spent more than a decade working in Africa, Australia and Latin America before returning to settle in Ireland. He is the author of several books and poetry collections.

Dedalus has published his 2 novels Prague 1938 (2021) and Jabberwock(2023).

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