Approaching Finnegans Wake

by Paul Mathers

By reputation of all that I’ve read, one of the most difficult books in the (disputably) English language. As far as I know, no one I know in real life has made it through the book.

I had planned for this to be the year in which I finally read The Russians, but it’s turned into the year in which I read James Joyce. Ulysses and Portrait were so brilliant, some of my favorite reading experiences of all time. In spite of what I’ve heard from people who have taken a stab at this book, I simply can’t believe that the man who wrote those two books then went on to spend 16 years writing utter jibberish.

While waiting for Finnegans Wake to arrive, I picked up a Samuel Beckett anthology that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I noticed a piece titled Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce (the periods seem to indicate centuries between the authors named). It turned out to be an essay about Finnegans Wake and turned out to be quite helpful… I think. Beckett gave me two expectations which I think will serve as valuable tools: 1) that most literature divorces form and content, but Joyce is attempting to make form and content inseparable. In this book, form is content, which rather reminded me of a photo I saw recently of Marshall McLuhan’s marked up copy of the book. That’s pretty much McLuhan’s thing in a nutshell, innit? 2) Joyce has, in this book, created a Purgatory (like Dante), but rather than it ascending to Paradise, it is cyclical, never-ending, a “return of same” situation (like Vico. Which I know by way of Spengler).

I bought the Oxford World’s Classics edition. In my experience, they are excellent in highly helpful supplementary material. Again, as synchronicity would have it, they were the edition that helped me to read Dante for the first time, as well as the works of St. Anselm. It has become one of my favorite imprints and if they had an option to subscribe to their publications, a book of the month sort of situation, I would be all about it. Their edition of Finnegans Wake has about 50 pages of introductory material. The long introduction was written by a Wakehead who unpacks some key points (describes the shifting characters, defines the symbols, give an overview of the “story”). There is a chapter by chapter, sometimes line by line summary of what is happening. There is also a timeline of the life of James Joyce. This might seem like a point of general interest, but I also have this suspicion that Joyce’s daughter Lucia might be a key to the book. I doubt Joyce would appreciate me analyzing him like that.

So, did all of this prep work prepare me? Well, I’m four pages in now and my step-daughter just asked me what I think of it so far.

“Um… Well… It’s very dense. You really have to dwell on every word and phrase. You have to read things out loud and sometimes you’re laughing at things that don’t make sense. But I have the sense that it really is brilliant.”

Laurie came in from the other room and said, “Promise me something. If you find you’re just reading this to prove a point, please stop.”

“I’m not just reading this to prove a point. I really think there’s something here. I think there’s a lot here actually. I believe in Joyce. He’s earned it.”

But while Laurie has grave doubts about the mental health of James Joyce, I feel that anyone can understand the music of Johann Strauss, but you have to work to mine appreciation from Arnold Schoenberg (my two year old grandson danced immediately to the former, left the room over the latter). Everyone understands a cheeseburger, but some people have to work to acquire some tastes for, say, sushi or Vegemite. I don’t think it is invalid to have to work for something (nor am I saying that the immediately understandable is “low brow.” I think both have their place in a rich human life). One of the introductions I read (I forget which) compared the book to a complex machine, like a nuclear reactor, which takes some time to learn how to operate, but which is highly useful once you do. They seem to suggest that the usefulness lays in the unique variety of perception afforded to those wading in the seas with St. Tristam.

There is also this thought by Harold Bloom (about whom my feelings are about as mixed as they come):

“Devote an inordinate part of your lifetime to “Finnegans Wake”, and it will reward your labors; that is its design.”

I have one more book planned for this year. If I read anything else, I’ll consider it a bonus.

Also, probably needless to say, I plan to liveblog the experience of reading this book. So stay tuned for that.