There once was a man named Michael Finnegan
He had whiskers on his chin-again
Shaved them off and they grew in again
Poor old Michael Finnegan begin again…
I’ve just spent the last 10 weeks re-reading James Joyce’s short stories, novels, Ulysses, critical essays, poems, and at least six literary-criticism books about Joyce. In other words, I’ll probably never be in a better position mentally to attempt to read Finnegans Wake.
Finnegans Wake is one of the only books that has defeated me in my attempt to read it. There are books I’ve given up on because I was bored, books that just got away from me as I got busy with something new, and books that I misplaced. But I think Finnegans Wake is the only book I started reading, kept trying to read, and then finally gave up on. I’ve made it through Ulysses, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, In search of Lost Time and Infinite Jest. But Finnegans Wake got me.
It was about 15 years ago. I had just finished college and was backpacking around England and Ireland. Early on during that five-week trip, I was in a bookstore, and saw it on a bookshelf. At that time too, I had just read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. Why not, I thought? I really knew very little about the book except that it was a notoriously obscure text and the last thing Joyce wrote (it took him 17 years all told).
Over the next five weeks I gave it a try. I’d find a public park somewhere in the city/town I was in (London, Cambridge, York, Whitby, Douglas [Isle of Man], Dublin, Galway, etc…) and try my best to read as many pages as I could. I was rather aggressively annotating the text, so I can tell that I formally gave up at page 195 (out of 628). That’s just before the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter, widely cited as one of the book’s most successful.
What I remember from the last reading is only schematic. There are a handful of “characters” (and here, the etymology really helps – they’re “characters” in the sense that they’re “stamping tools” – this is one of my favorite etymologies of an English word). They’re not “people in a book.” They’re stamped into the book in all sorts of different ways. Who “are” they? Some have initials – like HCE (father, husband) and ALP (mother, wife). Some have names, like Finnegan, Izzy (daughter), Shaun (good son) and Shem (cadson). Some just have numbers – there are clusters of meaning around the number 4 (gospels, provinces of Ireland, compass directions, stages in Vico’s New Science), and 12 (disciples, days of Christmas, jurors, patrons at the pub). And somehow it all adds up to a collective statement of the whole of western culture (with noteable eastern incursions).
Then of course there are the overloaded words, punning across multiple languages, oral pronunciation vs. written appearance ambiguities, etc. It all sounds good in theory; reading it feels like walking into quicksand. Imagine the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses multiplied by a factor of at least 10 in terms of obscurity, complexity and density. And there is very little by way of naturalistic relief… there’s no “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beast and fowl.” This book is much more the triumph of Stephen Dedalus, a portrait of the artist as an old, going-blind, unstable man.
There is obscurity, and in spades, granted, but – there’s poetry too… who can deny the force of the first line:
Riverun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Joyce told Frank Budgen that if an author is really great, some of their actual words should hang in your memory, not just some vague memories of the events of their books. So say what you will about Finnegans Wake, those words are etched upon my memory (only 3 minor mistakes, upon checking against the text itself). That line also used to be printed on the Irish 10 pound note.
I’ve got two weeks off for Winter Break, and the editor’s table of contents (Joyce’s original included no such thing) shows 17 chapters. With any luck (which I’ll surely need) I’ll wrap this thing up just as I go back to work. I’m going to try to post about it as I go along. Feel free to join me (or not, if you’re like “that doesn’t sound even remote fun”, a reaction I totally understand).