One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot. – James Joyce
Ezra Pound was tirelessly interested in, and supportive of, original and imaginative literature, but with Finnegans Wake he reached his limit, complaining to Joyce that “Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.”
He dubbed it Joyce in Regress, a pun on Work in Progress, as FW was known before publication. Unfair, perhaps, but we can recast the charge of regress as an evocation of return rather than retrogression and degeneration. Where Ulysses was Joyce’s daytime novel, the Wake was his work of the night and its sleeping mind – a restorative regression into which we all slide cyclically, more or less.
Every night we fall out of the familiar world, and every day we awake from our adventures with little or no recollection of what has gone on. Yet in sleep we are just as authentically ourselves; guilty and guileless, paralysed, periodically telling ourselves stories in dream-fragments of promiscuous trivia and significance that take some unravelling. A bit like Finnegans Wake. To the American writer Max Eastman, Joyce said:
In writing of the night, I really could not . . . use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes, of course everything will be clear again. I’ll give them back their language. . . . I’m not destroying it for good!
Using Giambattista Vico’s cycles “as a trellis”, Joyce created what Richard Ellmann in his great biography called “a wholly new book based upon the premise that there is nothing new under the sun”. Marilyn French, in The Book as World, suggests that Joyce tried to turn the nightmare of eternal recurrence (which torments Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses) into a hymn. You could also think of it as a chaotic lullaby, a cryptoglossic nocturne for insomniacs.
Finnegans Wake has been called metafiction, which Linda Hutcheon defined as “fiction that includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity”. Including, in this case, the acts of writing and revising it, and readers’ reactions to its previewed parts. A page and a half here, for instance, offers many examples, such as:
it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles and juxtaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed: it only looks as like it as damn it
The book has a plot – many of them, even, on top of one another – but amidst the polyglot puns, novel portmanteaus and taxing syntax, it is very hard to find and follow narratives and characters without the use of a guide or through a very close reading that sends you on endless etymological detours. “There are in a way no characters,” Joyce said. “If one had to name a character, it would be just an old man. But his own connection with reality is doubtful.”
The Wake is peppered with parts of cognates from scores of languages, more English than others but equally accessible (or inaccessible) to speakers of many languages, and deliberately so. Its style is so freed from familiar norms of structure, though, that the moment we begin to “follow” it, it becomes something else and draws our thoughts in several directions at once, like a dynamic hypertext.
It took me a long time to read Finnegans Wake, and I took breaks. It’s an amazing book, but not one I’d recommend as readily as I would Joyce’s earlier fiction. It’s very pleasurable, strange and slippery and sensual, especially to read aloud, but it’s also exasperating. I never felt it was an elaborate joke (a “colossal leg pull”, as Gogarty claimed) – it has too much music and humanity and depth – but it’s cryptic, halting, ambiguous throughout, and it is a very long throughout.
Critical reactions were mixed and sometimes severe. H. G. Wells wrote to Joyce asking (affectionately) who the hell was he “who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?” He acknowledged it was an “extraordinary experiment”, even if it resulted only in “vast riddles” from his point of view.
Harriet Weaver did not care for “the darknesses and unintelligibilities” of Joyce’s “deliberately-entangled language system”, and thought he was wasting his genius. Nabokov hated the book. Even Joyce’s brother Stanislaus threw his hands up in frustration at it, describing it as “unspeakably wearisome” and “the witless wandering of literature before its final extinction”:
With the best will in the world I cannot read your work in progress. The vague support you get from certain French and American critics, I set down as pure snobbery. What is the meaning of that rout of drunken words? It seems to me pose, the characteristic you have in common with Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, and Moore.
Others defended it, celebrated it, but it never gained the devotion Ulysses inspired. Its widely unread status is understandable but unfortunate. Michael Wood, in the London Review of Books, quotes John Bishop saying that the only way not to enjoy it “is to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order”. (This would be impossible, even to Joyce.) But Wood describes the Wake as “hard not to enjoy – it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment.”
My advice, when bewilderment hits, as it often will, and must, is to enjoy what you can and investigate further if ever and wherever you feel inclined. There’s no shortage of notes and analyses to delve into, should you wish. But the book has infinitely more meanings than can ever be catalogued, so unless you’re a scholar in search of scholarly kicks, don’t feel obliged to try to understand it all or even a modest fraction of it. Trust your own feelings about it. Especially your ear’s.
In April 1925, while Joyce was in a clinic after his seventh eye operation, he was chatting with a visiting friend, Helen Nutting, about earwigs, which he associated with the Earwicker character of his work in progress. Nutting told him of a Yorkshire word for the insect, twitchbell, which delighted Joyce. He put it in the manuscript:
Aminxt that nombre of evelings, but how pierceful in their sojestiveness were those first girly stirs, with zitterings of flight released and twinglings of twitchbells in rondel after, with waverings that made shimmershake rather naightily all the duskcended airs and shylit beaconings from shehind hims back.
Nutting, on another occasion, told Joyce she liked Eliot’s Waste Land but couldn’t understand it. He replied: “Do you have to understand it?” We can ask the same rhetorical question of his Wake. It’s a challenging enough read without the burden of expecting to know what’s going on the whole time. Seamus Deane, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, says Joyce was indicating
that all language that is given to metaphor, trope, poetry (or puppetry) is inescapably secondary. If there is an origin, it is the body. But language is closest to the body, is almost body-language, when it is at its most material, when it loses, as in sleep or dream, the distance that waking conventions, of syntax, grammar, trope and so forth, impose. Indeed, language then begins to lose its word-shapes and melts down to the letters that constitute words. It is these letters that, in their slippages and combinations, most intimately represent desire.
“I have put the language to sleep,” Joyce once remarked. It seems almost contrary to dissect it with the stark acuity of the waking mind, unless bound by a sense of duty. There is instead the option of attending more passively to the fun of the text’s shapes and sounds and polymorphological perfarcity. “Lord knows what my prose means,” Joyce wrote to his daughter, Lucia. “In a word, it is pleasing to the ear. And your drawings are pleasing to the eye. That is enough”.
Read the Wake – or raid it – for the odd and unique pleasure of this comical musical monsterhythmedley. Far more than many a book I’ve read that makes more immediate sense, Finnegans Wake practically has a pulse: the language is obscure and maddeningly multivalent, but it comes alive in the reading, and sometimes lifts into sudden lucid simplicity, like a momentary emergence from a dream that is just as quickly forgotten:
And low stole o’er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep.
Further resources, subject to updates: alphabetical index; FWEET; illustrated Wake in Progress; Jorn Barger’s online shorter FW; online text; and again (errors); annotated text; a new, critically emended edition; the James Joyce Centre; a Finnegans Wake film; a reading by Joyce; Anthony Burgess on Finnegans Wake; previous posts on Joyce and Bloomsday.
Michael Chabon has a lovely essay in the NYRB, in which he writes: “The limits of language are not the stopping point, says the Wake; they are the point at which we must begin to tell the tale.”
Epilogue: Hearty thanks to Frank Delaney for naming my tweeted summary of Ulysses among the winners in his Bloomsday Challenge. This was it: “A man dissolved in many resolved in Molly comes to charms with a day in the life of a city all senses in Bloom.”