ALTOONA, Pa. — After the Beatles’ breakup in 1969, the former band mates would enjoy variously successful solo careers, collectively scoring 20 No. 1 hits in the United States and the United Kingdom between 1970 and 2002. But in March 1964 — long before the Plastic Ono Band, Wings, the Traveling Wilburys, and Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band made the scene — the first Beatles’ solo project made its appearance in the form of John Lennon’s “In His Own Write.”
Published by the esteemed British publisher Jonathan Cape, Lennon’s book demonstrates the literary pretensions that would characterize the Beatles’ finest work, while also contributing to the lyrical and musical strides that would grace their vastly more nuanced and intricate later albums. In his review of Lennon’s “In His Own Write,” critic John Wain astutely likened Lennon’s prose to the novels of James Joyce, especially in terms of the writer’s penchant for language games in “Ulysses” (1922) and “Finnegans Wake” (1939). As Wain observes, “The first thing any literate person will notice on reading through Mr. Lennon’s book is that it all comes out of one source, namely the later work of James Joyce.” Although Lennon was relatively unfamiliar with Joyce’s novels at this juncture in his life, his subsequent readings of the Irish master proved to be a revelation. It was like “finding Daddy,” Lennon later remarked.
As a reading experience, “In His Own Write” offered a literary showcase for Lennon’s essays, experimental fiction, and other miscellaneous writings and cartoons. The Joycean aspect of Lennon’s work is demonstrated in the short story, “Sad Michael,” in which Lennon plays linguistic games with such phrases as “good evening” and “deaf and dumb,” among other puns and intentional misspellings. As Lennon writes in “Sad Michael,” “It was strange for a man who have everything and a wife to boot. At 4 o’clock whne his fire was burking bridelly a Poleaseman had clubbed in to parse the time around. ‘Goddeven Michael,’ the Poleaseman speeg, but Michael did not answer for he was debb and duff and could not speeg. . . .”
In 1965, Lennon published “A Spaniard in the Works,” his second collection of essays and stories. The book’s title offers a pun on the British term “a spanner in the works,” which is comparable to the American saying about “to throw a monkey wrench” and upset another person’s plans. As with “In His Own Write,” “A Spaniard in the Works” provides readers with Joycean puns and nonsensical stories. This proclivity is demonstrated in Lennon’s “Araminta Ditch,” in which he writes that “Araminta Ditch was always larfing. She woof larf at these, larf at thas. Always larfing she was. Many body peofle woof look atat her saying, ‘Why does that Araminta Ditch keep larfing?’ They could never understamp why she was ever larfing about the place. ‘I hope she’s not at all larfing at me,’ some peokle would say, ‘I certainly hope that Araminta Ditch is not larfingat me.’”
Although short-lived, Lennon’s literary career was highlighted by the theatrical adaptation, in June 1968, of ‘In His Own Write” by actor and director Victor Spinetti at London’s Old Vic Theatre. At the time of his untimely death in December 1980, Lennon had amassed enough material for a third collection of essays, experimental fiction, and cartoons. Published posthumously in 1986, “Skywriting By Word of Mouth” was largely composed during his five-year hiatus from the recording industry in the late 1970s.
As Lennon poignantly recalled during one of his final interviews, he had begun writing again “when I stopped music and started this househusband business. I got frantic during one period and wrote about 200 pages of mad stuff — “In His Own Write-ish.” It’s there in a box, but it isn’t right. Some of it’s funny, but it’s not right enough. You know, I always set out to write a children’s book. I always wanted to write “Alice in Wonderland.” I think I still have that as a secret ambition. And I think I will do it when I’m older.”