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Convibrating bed – Cherwell Online

All further references can be found in Chapter 16, ‘The Raphael Transcriptions’, of Danis Rose’s ‘The Textual Diaries of James Joyce’.

James was particularly agitated today. Since the release of his little book – or, at least, that’s what she liked to call it, because, as she kept reminding him, it had first come out in The Little Review – he had been stuck short of a cliff edge that was giving him lip and making it awfully difficult to climb back to the height he had been at before. Without much rhyme or reason (much like the critics had been saying about the snippets of his work in progress he had floated to press), he huffed over library books, scribbling out snatches in his notebook before thrusting the works away from him as if they smelled of barge-water. Then, he would go to work squinting at those words he had planted there mere moments ago. While he had taken to wearing white suits to reflect light onto the paper, while he had published ‘the book of the century’, while the seeds of his legacy were already sprouting, while he was a genius, he was a genius that could not read his own handwriting.

Late in 1933, Madame France Raphael, a Parisienne, began work as James Joyce’s amanuensis. It was her task to prepare for him clean, readable transcriptions of the uncrossed and therefore unused entries in those primary, authorially inscribed notebooks given to her.

Raph had just stepped inside the door, holding onto the doorknob, threshold-bound, trying – and busting a lip in the process – not to laugh. He reminded her of Étienne, her little boy, when he was trying to spell; there was a dotty playfulness to James that made her wish to wipe his nose. He was having a tough day – a tough day, creatively. He would need cheering up. She was handing in her latest transcribed notebook.

She had grown to snatching them from him, and should he try and tell her what to do, giving him a piece of her mind. If she was in a rush – there were children to chaperone, meals to cook, husbands to feed (because apparently husbands could not feed themselves) – she would not wait at the door, a lingering lily, peace-bound, but push in, busy and darling, taking the notebook and plopping it into her grocery bag where it mixed with the tomatoes and bell-peppers. The first time she leaned over his shoulder to take it, the image that came to her was of a mother leaning over a small child to cut their meat.

They had been performing this contract for two years. Walking to pick the children up from school one day, she had heard an artist’s groan from a window above the street, some little god deciding which struts of furniture he would rearrange into thunder. The neighbours were only too proud to tell her that they were housing him.

‘James who?’ she asked, a poppy kind of kid. Despite her terrible habit of being very appeasing, she could still have fun.

Offering herself like meat, or a sacrifice to become meat – thinking about the price of meat these days – she slid a note under his door. The next day, a small envelope through her letter box, a humble offer to join the choo-choo train of posterity:

Dear Mrs Raphael,

Many thanks

for your kind offer

of assistance and I

hope it may

lead to a good result.

The note was underwhelming; she was expecting – from a genius – at least a pun. But he sent another note the following day that smelled like whining and made her speak more softly to the dog her children had asked for. And she had been there, a magnet-woman, without much on her mind other than the single-leafed paycheck.

In an ideal world, Madame Raphael would have accurately transcribed into her copy all of the unused material in the source notebooks. This did not happen, of course; errors of transmission and omission arose in all possible ways.

She was very dutiful at first. The position was a good one and she did not want to lose it. Étienne had recently had a tooth removed, and she calculated how much the dentist would cost as she wrote James’s words into the new notebooks in her loopy lolly handwriting that her eye-wandering schoolmasters had beaten into her. Sometimes: yes, she became distracted. But she would always correct the mistakes that were unintentional. Only later would she indulge herself with intentional mistakes, thinking how far the shade of her pen could stretch, how many years it could umbrella.

Raph was not a bitter woman, no more than pepper blots the eyes or lemon the ears. She had a husband and tired hands. She had three children with mouths like sirens. She had to labour merely to stay awake. These were her leisure hours at work, the only hours clocked into payment, escaping the scary unclocked-clockness of all other time. With James’s notebooks, she was neither mother, wife, nor woman, but a set of hands, a duct transporting words to paper and to thereafter’s ever eternity. Here she was an instrument – corrupt and ducky – but an instrument and nothing else, nonetheless.

There was a hiatus in the transcriptions from the spring of 1934 to early 1935, presumably because she had been injured in an automobile accident.

She had been like both the birds hit by a stone. A slam, then a dunk – first the metal bonnet and then the tarmac road. She rolled, and her backside went careening into a fruit stand, pelting her with oranges. No one would believe it, not even if you wrote it down. James had sent a wire to the Raphael apartment that morning with

Come quickly!

and she heltered across the city, considering the worst, knowing the reality – a rush for press, possibly.

In the hospital, Raph woke up not remembering how to wake up – slowly, with too much grog in her eyes. James was reluctant to give her leave. He said he would find someone else for now, but it was really most inconvenient. He meant well, but he was also mean. He was kind, but kind of rude too. She lied in bed, wondering what colour the ceiling was. Her eyes swam yellow. He did not send flowers. She remembered his words in her head – those odd jottings that seemed to live inside her like hundreds of embryos – and wondered if she would ever be remembered as the novel’s incubator.

Stood outside Étienne’s school, a walking stick keeping her upright, scars pulsing like radiators in her forehead, the creased note from James in her hand asking her,

If, Madame,

you could possibly start your transcriptions again,

she decided she did not like James very much. She would have her way with him.

‘Don’t go back,’ Monsieur Raphael said that evening.

‘It’s good money.’

‘If you dislike him that much, don’t go back. He doesn’t appreciate what you do for him, for his work… he didn’t even send you flowers.’

‘I don’t care about flowers.’

Monsieur shrugged. She would have said, I don’t care about flowers, because flowers wilt and die. I would have preferred seeds. But the conversation ended and he did not ask. Monsieur went to the living room to read the newspaper while she cooked dinner and Étienne cried about dead chickens and she conversed with the little girls about which hairbrush they wanted to marry.

Raph went back to work, not at all syphoned off fizz. She went back with alteration on her mind. The world had almost wiped her from the surface like a crumb. But she had stayed – and with a newfound hobby of thinking herself overly significant (near-death experiences will do that to a middle-aged woman) – to do one thing: redirect the flow of his genius.

She played dumb, as others play dead – squinting, tongue-stuck, over the pages. She had the upper hand, because she was the hand. The Wake was in her hands, and she, the disembodied hand, had a disembodied mind that thought of Étienne, of meat, of dentists, of notes and puns and prunes.

Those inventions, which Madame France Raphael, straining to read, plucked as it were out of the blue, thereby unknowingly contributing to James Joyce’s masterpiece.

James, straining to read, plucked, as it were, out of the blue, discombobulates of language to add to his masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Raph composed. Raph translated. Raph worked.

James played in the corner.

She deciphered his perfection into unruliness. She planted seeds among his words that she imagined might spring many years later. James was a real piece of work, and she worked his notes to pieces.

He would not tell her to stop.

He sought to restore the lost sense of manifestly defective elements.

‘I know you’re changing them,’ he would say.


‘I won’t change them back.’

Any plan to subvert, to ruin, to defunct the Wake out of spite, had not gone unnoticed – and it had not worked. She saw these brags disseminated among his writing, lost forever; no one would know they were hers. James loved the inventive interventions, and these little Raphs – as he called them – gave him the inspiration to go on. They had an agreement now. Her legacy was his ability to write a single world. She was the dock that spat his boats into the world.

Some of Madame Raphael’s inventions are exotic creatures whose prototypes could not be guessed at by even the most inspired of reconstructionists.

Raph had spent the previous night staring down at James’s exotic disaster:

^c on vibrating bed

It was not difficult to read, because nonsense should make no sense at all. Something to do with one of his characters, a comment extracted from that book on sleep, the one with a garish turquoise cover the colour of fresh corpses.

She glanced at the bed of Madame and Monsieur Raphael. It was mid-evening, with pricky stars picking up the black sky. Her husband was using the study, and she was yet to clear the dinner table, which meant she was working at the little desk in the corner of their bedroom. James had requested the transcription for this particular notebook by tomorrow. Étienne screamed with his sisters in the other room. She looked at her hand, lying in her lap like a dead fish, before picking it up to write,

Convibrating bed

Neither here nor there, flitting out of existence and back into it, neither past nor future, true nor false, with her always and always fluttering away – a bed, convibrating. A flower-bed pulsating with sprout-gone seeds. She bedded herself convibratingly every night, jimmering with nerves about how to manage a family and feed it and cook for it without cooking it altogether. She jimmered until there was nothing left of her at all. She fed her worries about feeding into the word, pressing something onward. It meant nothing and it meant everything. It meant her word. The latest piece of her mind tumbled onto the paper. And it was beautiful, like chestnut-cherry jam.

He took Raphael’s innocent-looking but erroneous element at face value and transferred it uncorrected into his text.

Finally, tired of watching him squint – and just plain tired – Raph let go of the doorknob and chucked the newly transcribed notebook onto his desk. He flicked through eagerly, a boy with the latest comic, pausing on convibrating bed.

‘I like that one.’ He had been salved, calmed, eased. Her odd creature jostled him forward. Because of her, he would continue writing today.

‘Of course you do.’ She moved to the window, smoking with a limp wrist, as if trying to be a muse.

‘I think I’ll put that one here.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Where do you think?’

She came and looked over his shoulder.


He nodded.

‘Good idea.’

Joyce looked at the transcribed unit, appreciated that it was botched beyond recall and gave up.

‘I  could include your name. In acknowledgements, or perhaps a dedication.’

‘Don’t make me laugh, James.’

‘I’ve never seen you laugh.’

‘I make others laugh. That’s my job.’

She looked out of the window. What would Monsieur say? Of their convibrating bed? What good of it but the suggestion of a scandal? James and Raph in a convibrating bed. The only thing remaining was to decide how history would have its way with her: obscurity or mistress. These were her choices, and both made her want to swallow ash, deep down into her guts.

‘Don’t be silly. You’d never want to pollute your genius with another’s influence.’

‘That’s true,’ he thought aloud. ‘I didn’t want to, not at all. Just thought I’d offer.’

‘I don’t know why. Posterity won’t know you offered.’

He turned back to the desk, humming a melody from Wagner.

‘Alright, Raph, have it your way.’

James’s temperamental wife pushed open the door with her backside and put a tea tray down on his desk. Raph shared a smile with her, as beggars share a piece of bread. James did not acknowledge his wife’s entry, nor the tea she had brought. He simply kept on writing.

Author’s Note

We know very little about Madame France Raphael, a secretary living in Paris and James Joyce’s amanuensis intermittently from 1933 until 1937. During the composition of Finnegans Wake (1939), she transcribed 37 notebooks filled with his illegible handwriting. These were often from unusual and difficult sources, such as Morpheus or the Future of Sleep by D. S. Fraser-Harris. While Joyce’s legacy is, of course, Ulysses, Madame Raphael’s are these series of so-called ‘mistakes’ which occurred in her transcriptions. ‘Convibrating bed’ results from Joyce’s coded note which suggests the character designated by ‘^’ is lying on a ‘vibrating bed’, something from Fraser-Harris’s book. This ‘distortion’ survives into Book II Episode 4 of Finnegans Wake as ‘convibrational bed’. Instead of considering these interventions as errors, as scholars have dismissed them in the past, this story re-imagines their moment of creation, the circumstances Madame Raphael was working in, and the odd legacy left by her ‘little Raphs’.

Image Credit: Ole Fossgård/ CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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