Finnegans Wake by James Joyce - review by John Lanchester

John Lanchester

Opening the Closed Book

Finnegans Wake


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Samuel Beckett began Our Exagmination Round his Factification For Incarnation Of Work In Progress, the first ever collection of essays on Finnegans Wake, with the memorable remark that:

‘The danger lies in the neatness of identifications. The conception of Philosophy and Philology as a pair of nigger minstrels out of the Teatro dei Piccoli is soothing, like the contemplation of a carefully folded ham sandwich.’

Beckett was complaining about the impulse to oversimplify Joyce’s Work in Progress by extracting paraphrasable meanings from it. ‘His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.’ This stands as a warning to all commentators on the Wake. While you are reading the Wake, it contains you; your attention is entirely concentrated within it. When you are not reading it, it seems to be literally and metaphorically a closed book, an object to which you have little imaginative access. Either you are within it or you are without it: and as evaluative criticism involves a shuttling between those two conditions of attention, it follows that evaluative criticism of Finnegans. Wake is hard to come by. The book has often been dismissed, most memorably by Evelyn Waugh whose view was, loosely, that these two Americans called Pound and Hemingway had hired this mad Irishman called Joyce to destroy the English language. It has also had people dedicate their lives to interpreting it, and in that sense Work in Progress is still a good title. But it has not been much read.

As so often, Edmund Wilson gives the best advice.

‘The conditions for reading this book are different, as far as I know, from those for reading any other book ever written. You have to take it rather slowly, a section at a time, and you have to keep on rereading it. Joyce worked on it through seventeen years, and it is equivalent to about seventeen books by the ordinary gifted writer.’

One might add that the aspirant reader should probably not start at the opening, as the first four paragraphs of the book are a kind of thematic overture not unlike that at the opening of the Sirens chapter in Ulysses, and as such, they are in comprehensible until you already know quite a lot about the rest of the book. The two sections which will most rapidly give the feel of Finnegans Wake are the ‘Shem the Penman’ chapter {on pp 169-195}, a kind of burlesque of Joyce himself, and the ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ chapter (pp 196-216), printed at one stage as a separate pamphlet, in which two washerwomen talk by the side of a river as dark gradually descends. The first chapter shows us the strange, hones t, bitter humour of Finnegans Wake as Shem remonstrates with himself, and implicitly with his creator (‘you have become of twosome twiminds forenenst gods, hidden and discovered, nay condemned fool, anarch, egoarch, hiresairch, you have reared your disunited kingdom on the vacuum of your own most intensely doubtful soul.’) The second, the single most famous section in the book, gives us Joyce’s lyricism at its most seductive, and offers as a bonus a gentle introduction to the encyclopedic ambitions of the Wake through the comprehensive list of the world ‘s rivers the chapter has hidden within it. The reader will also need a crib. Cambell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key To Finnaegans Wake, though a little outdated, is a reasonably user-friendly guide to the plot and structure of the book. Roland McHugh’s Annotations is a linguistic key, which you open out beside your copy of the book itself and read in tandem with it. Although intimidating to look at, Annotations is extremely useful and will do wonders for your Old Norse.

Reading Finnegans Wake offers a pleasure that derives from its curious mixture of lyricism, humour, and the sense it offers of decoding a diabolic conundrum. With practice, the shapes and characters in the dream of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker gradually become clearer: HCE, who is all men and all heroes; ALP who is all women; Shem and Shaun, who are all brothers; the four judges; the twenty-eight young girls; the twelve witnesses. Finnegans Wake really is like a dream in its combination of logic and illogic, clearly seen impossibilities and blurred, distorted commonplaces. Perhaps there is an irony in Joyce’s ambition to write a book of the night to match Ulysses, the book of the day: perhaps, in his attempt to represent the constant activity of the dreaming mind, and to find verbal expression for the pre- and sub-verbal processes of sleep – perhaps he succeeded, and in doing so became forever one of the great unread. Certainly Fitmegans Wake has the relentlessness of a dream. Talking about the punning and babbling of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, Northrop Frye has speculated that ‘it is possible that similar sputters and sparks of the fusing intellect take place in all poetic thinking.’ This seems to be what the reader is witnessing in the Wake: a kind of thought and activity which normally precedes the conscious decisions involved in writing. It is a long look inside the mind of one of the most gifted literary artists ever to have lived. But why did Joyce want to write it at all? Cyril Connolly once observed that ‘the love of perfection may prove a projection into the world of art of a sense of guilt.’ Some feeling of this kind seems to have driven Joyce further and further onwards, forcing him to establish his own integrity and isolation by writing the ultimate book. While still a student, he had written about Mangan:

‘Finally, it must be asked concerning every artist how he is in relation to the highest knowledge and to those laws which do not take holiday because men and times forget them.’

Finnegans Wake was his great attempt to live up to that ideal.

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