A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, 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. [page 628 - 1, James Joyce, Finnegans Wake]
This is the most demanding book ever written. I want to write about reading this, having now read it over a weekend. The first read. The first real look. A glimpse. Because, let's face it, this is not what anyone is used to: that is the point. You don't treat this like any other book, because it isn't any other book. It has raised so many questions, I honestly do not know where to begin (and I have begun this post so many times, but finally, in the spirit of honesty as well as to get this post written, I'm just going to jump in and write as I think. How appropriate!).
How do you read, for a start. What is "any other book", anyway? I have expectations, you see. I have habits and ways of doing things. For example, I expect to read the first sentence on the first page, not to have to read 628 pages to complete the sentence. And why do you read? Why do you read Finnegans Wake? Why was it written? What is the point? How do you read it? This isn't recognisable as a novel, to me at least. The start is at the end, so the end is at the beginning, or the end of the sentence at least... Finnegans Wake is mind-crushing agony, and it's only just begun. Reading it once is nothing - like I said, it's demanding. I've picked out but a few of it's treasures, to fully appreciate it, do you have to keep walking the circle? Do I finish the first sentence and go from there, because then, I'm in the circle. From that point of view, Finnegans Wake will stay with you for life. People do dedicate their lives to this book, uncovering it piece by piece, discerning meaning, reading what we have been told is unreadable (but apparently isn't). It's like a trap. Here, here is a book that you cannot read. It's reverse psychology - you're told that you cannot achieve something that you've found so easy in the past: we read, we all of us read, and we love books, we love sharing what we've written, and we're all excited about the challenges we've signed up to for 2012. But here, here is a book that is beyond us, we're told. We look, and some of us put it back on the shelf, but others pursue it. Perverse and contrary, we will read this book. Complete it, finish those six hundred and twenty eight pages, and we've fallen in the trap. We've walked the circle and we cannot get out. Or can you? Am I done? One weekend, and back it goes on the shelf? It was supposed to be a victory read, but I feel anything but victorious. I've walked around the perimeters once, just once; like going to New York and standing on top of the Empire State Building, enjoy the views, those spectacular views, but not knowing what you're looking at, not knowing where it begins or ends, yet saying you've "done America". If you read to conquer, as I sometimes do, then you have not finished Finnegans Wake anymore than you've "done America" by standing on top of the Empire State Building. If you want to conquer this, you stay in the circle, and you fight to the death, because you will more than likely die in this process. You're in his circle. Think of Satan, trapped in ice, his attempts to escape makes the problems so much worse, and you might get the idea. Read Finnegans Wake and you're in the ninth layer of literary hell.
Perhaps I'm being bitter, for being caught out. Thinking it was like Clarissa, or any other book I've read where I've thought you start, you read, you finish, and you're done (save any re-reads you may or may not care to partake in). But this... this isn't over.
So what did I do this weekend? Or how do I read, because it's the same question. What exactly did I do for those hours, optimistically holding a 2B pencil and turning those pages? Did I read it, is that what that was?
I read the words, and that's a start. I read them out loud in my best Irish accent, and there is one thing I can tell you with certainty: if you want to get into it, do that. Really. And I am in: I did that this weekend, too. I got into it. I don't know how to advice reading it for the first time, but I can tell you that I managed it through a burst of bloody minded determination. I battled my way in, I launched myself in by sheer force, a brutal thirty six hours or so of grim fighting. I have entered into the circle, yes, I did break into it. But, actually, that is all I have done. And I feel like a criminal. I ought not to be here, I didn't sit each day, reading a page and thinking about it, jotting down notes. I am the pretender, I conned my way into this circle, and I don't belong here. I didn't earn my way in, and I don't know how to advise anyone to earn their way in. I got in through violence. No gentle reads, I staked each and every page to conquer it, but it back-fired and I have been caught.
This is what Finnegans Wake makes you feel. Or it's what it makes me feel. So what now? I've broken in, so now I look around. But how? It needs a map, a plan, a something. If you've looked at the first page of this book, you know it's not so simple. It's richness, the complexity of it, is vast. But there are clues. It reminds me of The Jabberwocky: "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe." What does that even mean? But you know it, you know the poem, you just feel it, just like you "just feel" Finnegans Wake. You know, and this is an easy example, that "Uncle Tim's Caubeen" (page 622) is Uncle Tom's Cabin, and "ysland of Yreland" (605) is "island of Ireland". And "Moll Pamelas"? Surely a reference to Moll Flanders and Pamela. And there are some beautiful passages, like this:
Night by silentsailing night while infantina Isobel (who will be blushing all day to be, when she growed up one Sunday, Saint Holy and Saint Ivory, when she took the veil, the beautiful presentation nun, so barely twenty and still in her teens, nurse Saintette Isabelle, with stiffstarched cuffs but on Holiday, Christmas, Easter mornings when she wore a wreath, the wonderful widow of eighteen springs, Madame Isa Veuve La Belle, so sad but lucksome in her boyblue's long black with orange blossoming weeper's veil) for she was the only girl they loved, as she is the queenly pearl you prize, because of the way the night that first we met she is bound to be, methinks, and not in vain, the darling of my heart, sleeping in her april cot, within her singachamer, with her greengageflavoured candywhistle duetted to the crazyquilt, Isobel, she is so pretty, truth to tell, wildwood's eyes and primarose ahir, quietly, all the woods so wild, in mauves of moss and daphnedews, how all so still she lay, neath of the whitehorn, child of tree, like some losthappy leaf, like blowing flower stilled, as fain would she anon, for soon again 'twill be, win me, woo me, wed me, ah weary me! deeply, now evencalm lay sleeping;
Someone told me to remember, when reading it, the intentions of this book. Don't expect to understand it. Someone else told me to let it wash over me. And I tried, that is the key to reading it: feel it. Just feel it. But when you have your preconceptions, as I have, it's not so easy, and there are times where there are clear sentences, complete: correct spelling, careful grammar, and those sentences made me flinch. They were a wake-up call; sometimes it flowed over me, and sometimes I got hit with a passing branch. I didn't conquer this book. I didn't understand it. But sometimes, a handful of times, I did understand the passages, and that was thrilling. But I think if I look to understand then I won't understand, and if I let it flow over me, feel it instead of reading it, put aside my habits, my expectations, forget it's a novel, and just accept it, then that may be the start of it. Like looking for Enlightenment by forgoing attachment, letting go of everything, even your quest for Enlightenment, perhaps there it will be found. But it needs more work, that much is clear. It's easy to get into the circle, I've demonstrated that, but I won't see the views or be able to explore the landscape without more work. It's not a walk along the river bank, it's Ahab fighting the whale, it's Robert Falcon Scott on the Terra Nova Expedition (I suspect more like the latter). You need more than good intentions to see you through this. But I don't know what it wants from me, I don't know what it needs. It's like it's independent, it's a living thing, almost. It requires more than attention. It needs understanding. I think, I really do think, it is worthy of it. And this is only the start. You should expect more from me on this.
See also Rose City Reader's post on reading Finnegans Wake.
See also Rose City Reader's post on reading Finnegans Wake.