Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Reading 'Finnegans Wake', by James Joyce

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.


  1. I'm wondering. If a book is so hard to understand that even someone who obviously read a lot struggle to get through it. Is it the kind of book for pretentious "intellectuals" like The phenomenology of the mind by Hegel? A book that looks better on the shelves than its content?

  2. You know, I bought my copy from a charity shop and was told that whenever FW was donated, they'd put it in the window, and within an hour some hipster would have snaffled it up. So, either there are lot of good intentioned hipsters out there, or a lot of good looking shelves :)

    And I don't know how to answer your question, but I do think about it from time to time: my gut instinct is that if it is impossible to understand a book then something's gone wrong somewhere. If I read your favourite book and don't get it, you could say (if you were feeling particularly harsh) I had failed to grasp the meaning. Perhaps a less damning version of that would be "it just wasn't for me". It would be hard to say the author of your book had failed, because clearly he or she didn't. I might say he or she had failed me. I don't know.

    But FW is a whole new ball game, because it is so widely acknowledged to be "unreadable". If literature is about communication, then you could argue that it has failed because it has failed time and again to communicate to a great many people, people who are used to reading damn difficult stuff.

    In 'Art Objects', Jeanette Winterson wrote something along the lines of, "if you want to see the great view, you have to climb the mountain" and I agree to an extent, but I don't agree that 'intelligent' books should be difficult for the sake of being difficult (and I was irritated to see Barnes's 'The Sense of an Ending' to be criticised for being "too readable"). So, if Joyce wrote FW for the sake of being a pretentious ass, then that would be deeply annoying. But I'm not sure he did. I have hated Joyce for many years for writing an unreadable, but now I'm skirting around the edges of it, I think there is something there that is worthy of climbing this mountain. I don't think it is quite as easy now to dismiss it as being unreadable. I think, for me, to appreciate FW, I need to understand the intentions, what it, or he (I keep thinking of it as entirely distinct from anyone, reader or writer), wanted to say and what he wanted to provoke.

    In short, I don't think Joyce is one of the many "look at how clever I am for writing this and how stupid you are for failing to grasp it" (keeping in mind I am new to Joyce, and need to do some more work - I might be wrong about this). I think working hard for this might really pay off.

    But, I might be completely wrong. Maybe this is better left on the shelf, and I am determined to find meaning where there is none, and by reading it and writing about it, I'm just showing myself up as someone who has entirely missed the point. And if I get further in, and think that may be the case, I'll hold my hand up to it! I think for now, though, I'm going to look a little deeper.

    What do you think?

  3. Here's how my reading group in New York reads FW. About 20-25 of us get together every month for 2 hours. At the outset, we listen to a very good professional recording of a voice actor reading that month's selection -- usually about a page. This gives us a sense of how the language flows, rhythms, tones, accents, etc. (reading or listening to FW is a must; much is missed by reading it silently). Then we take turns reading a line or two of the selection out loud. Then we start digging into the first sentence of the month's selection, using sources such as Fweet ( -- it takes a bit of learning how to use this FW search engine, but well, well worth it), text annotations ( -- though Fweet contains most of McHugh's notes; still, it's nice to have if you can find a used copy) and -- most importantly -- the collective intelligence of our group to "unpack" words, meanings, contexts, etc. That's why it's so much more fun reading FW with a group. Some of the folks in our group have been immersed in FW for decades, and are excellent amateur Joyce scholars, some are graduate students, but most are just flat out intelligent but otherwise non-scholarly people who love language (hey, it's New York, after all). There are many boisterous but friendly arguments, lots and lots of laughter, and generally a great time is had by all (the wine flows freely, adding the appropriate Dionysian balance to the sometimes too-Apollonian approach such a knotty text can engender -- if you don't laugh, you've likely missed the point). FW can be read -- MUST be read -- on multiple levels, and no one person can "see" it all, so the group really becomes a sort of "super-intelligence" that's quite appropriate to getting the most out of FW's references. A few people in our group, for example, really know the songs (and there are tons and tons) in FW (one woman is a professional soprano, so we sometimes get to hear some of these songs!), while other folks are quick to elucidate, sometimes to great depth, some historical or linguistic references. I think it's possible to recreate some of this online, though I urge anyone in the position to do so to find or simply form a group (you'd be surprised how many FW fans are out there once you get the word out). FW is, if nothing else, an *embodied* work; you need flesh and blood to "get it."

  4. As for those who think that FW is pretentious and deliberately obscure, I can assure you that once you find the right key(s) (again, there are many, many keys to this text, all valid and necessary, to some degree), the text opens up like a universe of its own. In fact, FW IS a universe, OUR universe, OUR history, OUR future, OUR world, right there on every page. It's not a novel in any ordinary sense, so you can't approach it like you'd approach the latest best seller or even some of the high-brow lit that people label as "difficult" or "experimental." It's a "supernovel," one that will endlessly give back the more attention you put into it. You don't "read" FW; instead, it "reads" you, meaning it makes you understand humanity at a very basic, almost DNA-like level. And it doesn't matter where you start -- it's a hologram, in a way, so that almost every sentence "contains" the entire storyline, such that it is (it's actually a very simple storyline). I was intimidated by this book for two decades; stole (shame, shame) my copy from the library when I was 17, memorized the first paragraph (oh, the language is supremely musical), then stopped because I didn't have the right keys to open those pearly gates. Fast-forward 20 odd years, I stumbled on the NYC reading group, and the book's treasures suddenly didn't seem so buried. I can't tell you how much I enjoy reading FW with this group, how much I've learned from all the smart folks there, how much joy and awe at being alive I've reaped. You don't have to have a group, secondary texts, Wi-Fi or whatever else to really enjoy FW, but these are some of the tools that can elevate it from simply being an interesting, reference-filled text to something approaching the sublime.

  5. You read Finnegans Wake over the weekend, just sat down and read it?

    That's wonderful. I am tempted to say: congratulations! I have never read more than scraps.

    And what a good post you got out of the experience.

    Frabjous - and speaking of great, what a reading group!

  6. I greatly admire your courage and stamina in reading FW over a weekend-I have never read more than a few paragraphs and it has been decades since I contemplated the idea-I think your approach of diving right in and getting what you get is the right approach-reading it in a group might also be worth while-

  7. Frabjous - Thank you so much for all your information there, and that sounds like a great reading group! I looked at that search engine - yep, definitely needs a tutorial, but when I re-visit FW I'm going to have a good look at that site and all the links you sent me on Twitter. Thank you once again, very inspiring :)

    Tom and mel u - Thank you :) And if you do want to read it, as I say, and as Frabjous says, reading it aloud is definitely the way forward. I don't know if I did it the "right" way, but it definitely got me into it, and I do believe I did it the right way for me. I find with a lot of things I find hard (another example would be Shakespeare - I really struggle, whereas most people on the blogs don't seem to at all) I find that a "hit" is better than taking time over it. That's why I'm still aiming to go through the complete works at a fairly rapid pace, then come January (with Allie's Shakespeare month) I'll be in a position to revisit my favourites and spend more time thinking about it. And it's the same for FW - I found it easier just go dive right in better for me.

  8. I have attempted to read it also and I have stopped after 120 pages. This is useless. It's not fun or enlightening or enjoyable. It's just a really big cypher about Irish culture. Don't torture yourself O., you won't get anything from it.

    You know, most critics are raving about Ulysses (which is difficult, but makes a lot of sense), but a lot of the same critics think Finnegan's Wake is garbage. Including Nabokov.

  9. Wow, I am really impressed that you managed to read Finnegan's Wake at all! I really, really wanted to read it, I love Ireland and I thought it would help me understand the Irish culture better, I had only the best intentions, I was interested, motivated and determined to understand this book BUT THE SENTENCES JUST DIDN'T MAKE ANY SENSE! I didn't get what he was writing about, to be honest I did not even have the slightest clue: I doubt I had understood less had it been written in Hebrew.
    Since I am a foreigner who has always taken pride in her 'good English' this was a very disappointing experience...
    Congratulations, anyway!

  10. I think I'm going to try Ulysses before I read this one, but I do intend to read it. I appreciate the suggestion to "just let it wash over you." The excerpts I've read make no sense, but they are beautiful!

    I might plan to read this one aloud. I just LOVE Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses, especially when performed...

    I read last year that Joyce begins the opening sentence of Finnegan's Wake in the final line, and opens mid-sentence, and I was INTRIGUED. I love the concept of that - the circle!

    I own Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist already, so I'll probably start my exploration of Joyce with those...

  11. Ben - I'm still divided! But I like Nabokov... I don't know, it'll do me no harm to go a little further :)

    Cassandra - You shouldn't be disappointed at all for not understanding: it's hell as it is for someone who speaks English, it's hell for people more used to Irish accents, it's absolute murder for everyone! Your English is excellent, that's not to blame at all :)

    Jillian - I need to re-read Ulysses - read it donkeys ago and hated it. And I've not read Dubliners or Portrait either - I'll be reading those as well before I attempt FW again! And yes - out lud is the way forward for sure.

  12. I had actually never heard of this book before reading this post. I greatly admire your courage for sitting down and actually getting through what seems like an almost impossible read.
    I really liked what you said about reading it but not conquering it- I've felt that way sometimes. And really, a lot of books are meant to be read at least twice if you want to grasp some of its meaning.
    Great review!

  13. Your post made me laugh because I went through what you went through reading Wake. I didn't do it in 36 hours, but I didn't spend graduate school with it either -- I just read it. Or tried. I read every word on every page.

    I posted about FW on Rose City Reader here:

    Do you mind if I add a link to your post on my post?

    The really great part about finishing FW, for me at least, was that I got to tear through the other books on the Modern Library's Top 100 list. It was the huge obstacle. The others were a cake walk in comparison.

  14. Hey, sure, by all means link my post to your post, and I'll do the same :)

  15. Congratulations on your feat! I'm a lifelong fan of the Wake, and it's encouraging to see a book blogger who appreciates Joyce's comic masterpiece. So many otherwise intelligent people think it's clever to deride the book as "useless" or a "literary practical joke," I'm impressed with your motivation!

    I enjoy your blog, and I hope you're enjoying your first week of thirty-ness.




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