The Books: “Finnegans Wake” (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.

finnegans%20wake.jpgJoseph Campbell wrote, in regards to Finnegans Wake, “If our society should go to smash tomorrow (which, as Joyce implies, it may) one could find all the pieces, together with the forces that broke them, in Finnegans Wake.” James Joyce worked on this, his last book, for 17 years. For many years during that time it was just known as Work in Progress. Because of the atomic bomb of Ulysses, people were, naturally, anxious to the point of apoplexy to see what Joyce would come up with next. The book cannot be said to be written in English – not strictly – although it’s amazing how much sense it does make, if you surrender to it. The entire book is made up of puns, word association games, interweaving webs of connections – He said that since Ulysses, except for that last episode, was a “daytime” book, this one was going to be “nocturnal”. It takes on the qualities of a dream. Where things can be nonsensical and yet logical at the same time. The entire thing is, apparently, a dream of our lead – if you can call him that – Earwicker. Joyce incorporated over 70 languages into the book – and, naturally, there are great “keys” out there, that track down all of Joyce’s influences. There are sections in Polynesian, Dutch, Lithuanian – and many many more. Joyce’s interest (obsession) in language was the main driving force here. I’m not sure that he felt this, specifically, but to me, one of the feelings I get from this extraordinary book (that starts mid-sentence, and also ends mid-sentence) is that we are all one. All languages come from the same pot. We all influence one another. There are no barriers. They may seem real (the barriers) … but if you poke holes in them, you’ll start to see the back and forth flow. This also goes along wtih the river imagery that makes up such a huge part of the book. The book is not strictly about anything – in the same way that you can’t really point to the “plot” of Ulysses. Joyce was never into the usual structures. He wrote the book from 1922 to 1939 – a very rough patch in his life. His eyesight got worse, he had numerous operations – and there were times when he lost his sight completely. Hard to imagine. But I think it makes so much sense that his books, his mature books anyway – have so much to do with the SOUND of things, rather than the LOOK. Finnegans Wake is musical. It’s actually a lot of fun, once you let go of your normal expectations. And that’s what Joyce requires. It’s like a big puzzle … you feel like a rock star when you understand a paragraph, and can recognize 2 or 3 of the references. There’s a little something for everyone here: ancient history, modern literature, psychoanalysis, Irish politics – it is truly a “catholic” book, in many respects.

I can’t remember where I found this, I think it was on the auction block last year – Thornton Wilder’s personal copy of Finnegans Wake – here is just one of the pages:


Joyce corresponded with Swiss writer Jacques Mercanton during the writing of the book and in one of his letters he says:

You are not Irish … and the meaning of some passages will perhaps escape you. But you are Catholic, so you will recognize this or that allusion. You don’t play cricket; this word may mean nothing to you. But you are a musician, so you will feel at ease in this passage. When my Irish friends come to visit me in Paris, it is not the philosophical subtleties of the book that amuse them, but my recollection of O’Connell’s top hat.

Finnegans Wake is definitely the most consciously crafted book of the 20th century. There are stories of final drafts being sent back to Joyce from the printer, and him huddling over them, marking them up. Someone asked him, “What are you doing??” Joyce answered, “Removing commas.”

The thing about a genius – like Van Gogh or Mozart – is that they must do what they must do. They must follow their genius – IT leads THEM. For the most part, it is not comprehensible to us mere mortals why they do what they must do. We reap the rewards in the results they come up with – although often we are still faced with incomprehension: like; WHY? Joyce himself said, mid-way through the writing of Finnegans Wake, “I confess that it is an extremely tiresome book but it is the only book which I am able to write at present.” I am in awe of such certainty. Nora, his wife, looking at the gibberish pages, the ciphers, the codes, said, “Why don’t you write books people can read?”

Now this type of work may not seem to be for everybody – although Joyce felt it was his most accessible work. Of course the general public was better educated back then – and you could assume certain things about what people knew. People knew about Waterloo, people knew about Brutus and Caesar – etc. That’s not so much the case now. But still: Finnegans Wake is actually a lot of fun, even though it’s a challenge. I read much of it out loud when I first read it – and that definitely helps. Again, nothing happens – although characters, of a sort, do emerge. Anna Livia Plurabelle, Earwicker – their sons. But the point is not literal. It is a dream-space, and Joyce was interested in re-creating a dream-space. Associations flowing, the mind let off the hook of consciousness. The characters do not remain static – they morph, transform, become animals, parabolae, rivers, whatever … like Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Nothing is stuck. Everything flows into everything else. A truly Joycean point of view.

The flipside to Nora’s humorous comment I mentioned earlier is that years later, after Joyce’s death, Nora was often interviewed about her famous husband, and all of the questions were usually about Ulysses. Nora was not a big reader, she liked romance novels, basically – which is so perfect that she would be married to Jimmy. Not a literary woman, at all. But one of her comments in these interviews shows that there was a deeply insightful person in there – someone who knew her husband was up to something that nobody else was. She said, “What’s all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book.”

I think the rough Galway girl might be onto something.

My favorite comment about Finnegans Wake comes from Samuel Beckett:

You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.

Here’s an excerpt from the 8th chapter – the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter – which is woven through with the names of almost every river on the planet (sometimes written in such puns that you have to untwist the language to see what he means).

EXCERPT FROM Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.

Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing! My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ’Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace! Aman. Will we spread them here now? Ay, we will. Flip! Spread on your bank and I’ll spread mine on mine. Flep! It’s what I’m doing. Spread! It’s churning chill. Der went is rising. I’ll lay a few stones on the hostel sheets. A man and his bride embraced between them. Else I’d have sprinkled and folded them only. And I’ll tie my butcher’s apron here. It’s suety yet. The strollers will pass it by. Six shifts, ten kerchiefs, nine to hold to the fire and this for the code, the convent napkins, twelve, one baby’s shawl. Good mother Jossiph knows, she said. Whose head? Mutter snores? Deataceas! Wharnow are alle her childer, say? In kingdome gone or power to come or gloria be to them farther? Allalivial, allalluvial! Some here, more no more, more again lost alla stranger. I’ve heard tell that same brooch of the Shannons was married into a family in Spain. And all the Dunders de Dunnes in Markland’s Vineland beyond Brendan’s herring pool takes number nine in yangsee’s hats. And one of Biddy’s beads went bobbing till she rounded up lost histereve with a marigold and a cobbler’s candle in a side strain of a main drain of a manzinahurries off Bachelor’s Walk. But all that’s left to the last of the Meaghers in the loup of the years prefixed and between is one kneebuckle and two hooks in the front. Do you tell me. that now? I do in troth. Orara por Orbe and poor Las Animas! Ussa, Ulla, we’re umbas all! Mezha, didn’t you hear it a deluge of times, ufer and ufer, respund to spond? You deed, you deed! I need, I need! It’s that irrawaddyng I’ve stoke in my aars. It all but husheth the lethest zswound. Oronoko! What’s your trouble? Is that the great Finnleader himself in his joakimono on his statue riding the high hone there forehengist? Father of Otters, it is himself! Yonne there! Isset that? On Fallareen Common? You’re thinking of Astley’s Amphitheayter where the bobby restrained you making sugarstuck pouts to the ghostwhite horse of the Peppers. Throw the cobwebs from your eyes, woman, and spread your washing proper! It’s well I know your sort of slop. Flap! Ireland sober is Ireland stiff Lord help you, Maria, full of grease, the load is with me! Your prayers. I sonht zo! Madammangut! Were you lifting your elbow, tell us, glazy cheeks, in Conway’s Carrigacurra canteen? Was I what, hobbledyhips? Flop! Your rere gait’s creakorheuman bitts your butts disagrees. Amn’t I up since the damp tawn, marthared mary allacook, with Corrigan’s pulse and varicoarse veins, my pramaxle smashed, Alice Jane in decline and my oneeyed mongrel twice run over, soaking and bleaching boiler rags, and sweating cold, a widow like me, for to deck my tennis champion son, the laundryman with the lavandier flannels? You won your limpopo limp fron the husky hussars when Collars and Cuffs was heir to the town and your slur gave the stink to Carlow. Holy Scamander, I sar it again! Near the golden falls. Icis on us! Seints of light! Zezere! Subdue your noise, you hamble creature! What is it but a blackburry growth or the dwyergray ass them four old codgers owns. Are you meanam Tarpey and Lyons and Gregory? I meyne now, thank all, the four of them, and the roar of them, that draves that stray in the mist and old Johnny MacDougal along with them. Is that the Poolbeg flasher beyant, pharphar, or a fireboat coasting nyar the Kishtna or a glow I behold within a hedge or my Garry come back from the Indes? Wait till the honeying of the lune, love! Die eve, little eve, die! We see that wonder in your eye. We’ll meet again, we’ll part once more. The spot I’ll seek if the hour you’ll find. My chart shines high where the blue milk’s upset. Forgivemequick, I’m going! Bubye! And you, pluck your watch, forgetmenot. Your evenlode. So save to jurna’s end! My sights are swimming thicker on me by the shadows to this place. I sow home slowly now by own way, moyvalley way. Towy I too, rathmine.

Ah, but she was the queer old skeowsha anyhow, Anna Livia, trinkettoes! And sure he was the quare old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we’re all their gangsters. Hadn’t he seven dams to wive him? And every dam had her seven crutches. And every crutch had its seven hues. And each hue had a differing cry. Sudds for me and supper for you and the doctor’s bill for Joe John. Befor! Bifur! He married his markets, cheap by foul, I know, like any Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves. But at milkidmass who was the spouse? Then all that was was fair. Tys Elvenland! Teems of times and happy returns. The seim anew. Ordovico or viricordo. Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan! Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. Lord save us! And ho! Hey? What all men. Hot? His tittering daughters of. Whawk?

Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

This entry was posted in Books, James Joyce and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Books: “Finnegans Wake” (James Joyce)

  1. jean says:

    Oh my god I think I want to read this book. I am so deathly afraid of both Ulysses and Finnegan’s wake, afraid that I will FAIL. But your description just made me want to try – I’m frightened antie em I’m frightened! Help me!

  2. Brendan says:

    Me no likey thinky too hard. Me eyes hurt just looky at texty genius alien being magnum opus.

  3. red says:

    Jean – it’s a lot of fun! There is no failure!

    I miss you!!!

  4. Brendan says:

    I just finally read ‘Ulysses’; read ‘The Dubliners’ except for ‘The Dead’ (need a whole weekend for that one…) so I told myself I’d tackle ‘Finnegan’ thisyear.


    Couldn’t I read ‘Gilligan’s Wake’ instead?

  5. red says:

    Gilligans Wake – hahahahahahaha I STILL remember dad’s face when you said that many many years ago. so funny!!!

  6. I admire you for tackling this one. I always think of Woody Allen’s short story “A Little Louder Please” where he assures the reader he is a genius by stating, “Understand, I knocked off Finnegan’s Wake on the roller coaster at Coney Island.”

    If you feel up to it I say nip up and nab it. Do all the diddies in one dedal. Positively it woolies one to think over it.

  7. MM says:

    I have read The Portrait thrice and Ulysses twice and am still holding myself from reading the Wake for some time now. I don’t think I’m ready to do it yeat but so much want to start reading it. Maybe I soon will.

  8. sheila says:

    MM – Have fun with it, it really is a hoot!!

  9. Carol Wade says:

    I read Finnegan’s Wake three years ago. I understood little but loved it. I loved the music of it and the humour. I could hear old Dublin in it. The imagery was so wonderful that I began to sketch as I worked my way through it. Sometimes the words washed over me and other times I bathed in them, but mostly I laughed. Read it out loud and don’t give up. You don’t have to read it all, or read it from beginning to end to enjoy it. There may not be enough time in ones life to understand its full meaning but don’t be put off. Treat it like a piece of music that you may grow to love.

  10. sheila says:

    Carol – Beautiful comment. Agreed on all counts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *