I “finished” the 600+ pages of Finnegans Wake on May 16th. I read it in fits and starts over roughly 4 months. Why the scare quotes? I didn’t finish so much as I gave up and skimmed the last 3/8 of the book.
The reading experience was difficult—infuriatingly so at times—and fun, but not quite in equal measure.
“This Kind of Thing”
After seven years of work and ten years before the book was published, friends who’d read the work in progress knew it wasn’t going to be an easy read and felt the need to defend it publicly. In 1929, Sylvia Beach published a collection including essays by Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams titled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. One contributor named Robert Sage had this hot take:
Joyce has disregarded the limited time and intelligence of common men. He has drawn from an erudition that can be communicated in its entirety to only a few scholars, especially as his interests are so diversified.
Sage, it’s worth noting, liked it but he was skeptical anyone would get it: “Whether or not a public can ever be trained to absorb this kind of thing seems to me extremely doubtful.”
Sage is doubtful for good reason. Reading the book can be hard. It’s a non-stop ride of erudite but also bawdy neologisms tangled up with obscure literary and biblical allusions, all telling a tale whose narrative strands only surface after multiple re-reads. My capsule synopsis on what it’s about is an oversimplification but I stand by it: Ireland, the bible, and sex.
Common interpretation claims it’s written according to dream logic, which is not exactly logical, but Joyce himself said the book represents, “A nocturnal state, lunar.” A state he represented via a method he called logical and objective:
That is what I wanted to convey: what goes on in a dream, during a dream. Not what is left over afterward, in the memory. Afterward, nothing is left. …It is I who could draw up the best indictment against my work. Isn’t it arbitrary to pretend to express the nocturnal life by means of conscious work, or through children’s games?… Isn’t it arbitrary of me to make use, as I do, of forty tongues I don’t know in order to express the dream state? Isn’t it contradictory of me to make two men speak in Chinese and Japanese in a pub in Phoenix Park, Dublin? Nevertheless, that is a logical and objective method of expressing a deep conflict, an irreducible antagonism. … This book has to do with the ideal suffering caused by an ideal insomnia.
Here’s an example of how he manifested that deep conflict in language:
The spearspid of dawnfire totouches ain the tablestoane ath the centre of the great circle of the macroliths of Helusbelus in the boshiman brush on this our peneplain by Fargaluvu Bight whence the horned cairns erge, stanserstanded, to foran frohn, idols of isthmians. Overwhere. Gaunt grey ghostly gossips growing grubber in the glow. Past now pulls.
Nothing in that quote is misspelled. Even if there were misspellings, Joyce wouldn’t really mind. A story whose source I forget even said that if he liked a typist’s typo, he’d leave it in.
While it’s hard to make sense of the passage above, it still has a sense to it. Potentially, it’s describing a dawn landscape. There’s a large stone circle with a flat, table-like stone at its center and the setting feels haunted and historically significant. The scene is unclear, the words non-sensical, but for the viewer it’s clearly moving.
Here’s a very different set of sentences:
Conk a dook he’ll doo. Svap. So let him slap, the sap!
Reading it aloud the passage becomes:
Cock-a-doodle-doo. Snap [of fingers]. So let him sleep, the sap!
Seems simple enough. But here’s the problem: there’s likely even more packed into the small sentences.
And so we arrive how following the infuriating difficult turns of phrases can be fun. Taking a small phrase that on first read seems like insignificant onomatopoeia we learn as kids, taking that, unpacking it, and finding the potential meaning is, for me, fun. It’s interpretation, but it can also lead to what Umberto Eco called overinterpretation.
Eco knows that some texts—and includes Finnegans Wake in that list of texts—have as their aim to show that “interpretation can be infinite.” Joyce said every syllable could be justified and I’m confident a person could spend a lifetime digging into each and every one of those syllables. But that takes time. Getting caught up in the linguistic fun as I was meant I was running up against what Sage called “limited time.” Put another way, I was taking too long to read the book.
“Conk a dook he’ll doo”
The turns of phrase in FW can be hilarious and it’s pretty clear Joyce thought they were, too.
For example, to me, to “conk a dook” sounds a lot like… dropping the kids off at the pool.1 Of course, I doubt he had that particular interpretation in mind, but Anthony Burgess did find the book to be, “a great comic vision, one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh on nearly every page.” So even if it is a stretch I like to think Joyce would chuckle.
The humor was highlighted for me by reading the book with a friend (who is, as if today, June 5 still going). There’s an overabundance of literature regarding the social function of humor, but it’s probably sufficient to make the uncontroversial claim: laughing is fun and it’s even more fun with a friend. I doubt I have read the book at all and definitely wouldn’t have found it half as funny as I did if I hadn’t read it with someone who also appreciated euphemizing “conk a dook.”
Reading with someone else also foregrounded how my usual way of reading wasn’t sustainable. The difficulty in the reading was partly my fault. I tend to read slowly, carefully, pausing to make sense of what doesn’t make sense. But with a book where virtually every sentence no matter how small or non-sensical is like poem that sends you down not just rabbit holes but black holes… you can’t do that and expect to finish the book in your lifetime.
As I thought about how I read, I realized my friend’s reading style, at least for this book, was different. He read like a cat and I was reading like a dog. He was slinking along with interested disinterest, enjoying how the language worked. He was, while reading, “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
As an example, here’s a sentence that I overinterpreted:
If old Herod with the Cormwell’s eczema was to go for me like he does Snuffler whatever about his blue canaries I’d do nine months for his beaver beard.
I walked him through my reading, starting with the potential bawdy meaning of “beaver.”2And yes the phrase meant then what you might be thinking it sometimes means now.3 When I was done, he said: “There’s no way I can read it like this. I’d never get through it.”
At the end of the day, you’re stuck with the manner in which JJ writes. Why would he make it this way if the meaning behind it was so important? In other words, why not write the decoded line rather than the crazy line he went with? That’s why every way of looking at this writing leads me back to his manipulation of language as the point of it all.
It remind me of what Amittai Aviram said at MLA conference in 1997: “a poem is not a message. …The language of a poem is not communicative discourse.” My friend was able to let go, and not play fetch with every word in the way I did. He was reading like a cat, and I was reading like a dog.
A Lone A Last A Long the Riverrun
The book famously ends where it began. It begins mid-sentence of the ending sentence.
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.
Even the title hints at the recirculation. Finnegan: “Finn” (French for “end”) “egan” (”again”).
This recircling, though, can feel like turning around in a dead end. Werner Herzog said the book is “clearly a cul-de-sac.” He’s pretty harsh on Joyce: “I’ve never been a fan.” The problem? Herzog says we can see how Joyce is writing. In Ulysses, he says, “The tools of the craft are being exposed, and he is trying to show you how new his form of writing is. I have the same problem with actors. I do not like actors—and some of them are considered great actors—when I can see how they are acting.”
In other words, for Herzog, writing that foregrounds itself as writing isn’t great writing. He contrasts Joyce with a poet he likes: Emily Dickinson. You read her, he says, and, “You know it instantly: yes, there’s a great poet.”
I wouldn’t say Joyce isn’t a great writer, as Herzog implied, but as an impatient reader with “limited time,” as Sage said, I wonder if I’d like the reading experience more if it there’d been less of it. Or, put another way: is the length justified? 600+ pages of greatness is so much greatness that it’s maybe too great. And so, I ended up skimming. The near infinite and awe-inspiring inventiveness never lets up. The dog-and-pony show of amazing-ness never lets up. It’s not modernist shock: “what have I endured!” My response was more what Frederic Jameson said laid at the heart of how we respond to some postmodern art: “I have to endure this for how long?!”
In that way, I thought of what my friend says is the greatest American film: Warhol’s Empire. It’s eight hours and five minutes of slow motion footage of the Empire State Building. Eight hours and five minutes. Would it be as great if it was only the five minutes? Maybe. Maybe, like every justified syllable of Finnegans Wake, every second of Empire matters.
Whatever the case, what mattered most in the end, “a last,” for me was remembering that reading is fundamentally more fun as a social act—running along the riverrun is better when not alone.
- Or dropping your lizards off at the groomer.