Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.
About a fortnight ago I had a sudden urge to give Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939) another go, and with books such as this it is always wise to obey the urge. So, I read it, but I want to make a couple of things clear before I go on: firstly, I'm not under the illusion I understood it: I understood probably less than 5% of it, and secondly I'm not trying to give the impression that I understood it. I really didn't, but somehow that didn't hamper by enjoyment of it.
As Finnegans Wake is all about the experience of reading, I'll start with why I wanted to read it. It was during a period of ennui; I was a bit tired of winter, and a lot tired of the social and political climate. The latter is somewhat overwhelming at present, and I miss the times when Brexit, the union, Trump, and far right leaders didn't dominate, and one didn't feel that heavy responsibility of keeping up with the insanity of it. I miss watching the news and seeing a Prime Minister pop up and turn it over because it was "boring". In short I miss other things, other things that matter but from which we are distracted by the stupidity of others. So, in the middle of something (it's hard to remember exactly what it was that upset me as things are coming thick and fast) I decided to read Finnegans Wake because I wanted a break from what is alarmingly close to becoming the 'new normal'. Finnegans Wake demands concentration and leads you down a variety of paths completely removed from reality, and this was very attractive (I realise as I write this I could have gone for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and made my life a little easier), so in that spirit I read it, loved reading it, and am grateful for that holiday from reality.
I suppose, when writing about reading this novel, one must ask what is reading? I saw each word in the order they were written, but that isn't enough. When one reads one, I suppose, understands or at least has a chance of understanding: we interpret the words and their meaning - this is what was said, this is what was meant, this is what I think, this is what I feel. With much of Finnegans Wake that first and second option - this is what was said, this is what was meant - is removed. In reading Finnegans Wake I'm not quite sure what James Joyce said or what he meant, but I still had my thoughts and my feelings on it.
How did he manage it, is the question I want to ask. I know with modern art people look at it and say "My five year old could have done that". That certainly doesn't apply to Finnegans Wake, I think only Joyce could have done that. It feels random and confusing, and that the alphabet has been thrown around roughly, for example, the second page:
What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy-gods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh!
But this does have some meaning: the "Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax!" is in fact a throw-back to Aristophanes' The Frogs (405 B.C.):
Brekeke-kex, ko-äx, ko-äx,
Ko-äx, ko-äx, ko-äx!
[Βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ,
κοὰξ κοάξ, κοάξ!]
What it means in context I couldn't tell you: it's something to do with the Ostrogoths, that's about as much as I managed. The point is, in the most extreme examples of 'alphabet throwing' some meaning may be discerned. But it's not all as random as that. There are some other ways of understanding what is meant. Context is key, and in some examples, working out what words sound like. Example:
... rite continental poet, Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper, A. G., whom the generality admoyers in this that is and that this is to come.
"Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper": Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare. Also, "Madam's Toshowus waxes largely more lifeliked" referring to Madame Tussauds, or "notional gullery" for National Gallery. And another example:
With our best youlldied greedings to Pep and Memmy and the old folkers below and beyant, wishing them all very merry Incarnations in this land of the livvey and plenty of preprosperousness through their coming new yonks
jake, jack and little sousoucie
(the babes that mean too)
"youlldied" - Yuletide, "greedings" - greetings, "Pep and Memmy", pop and mammy, "old folkers", well, we know where he's going with that, "merry Incarnations" - Merry Christmas, and the question of "Incarnation" used instead of Christmas, ... and on it goes.
Another way of understanding certain words is to understand how the word itself is composed. "roman pathoricks" is obviously Roman Catholics; "roman", simple enough, "pathorick" - "Pat" as in Patrick, Saint Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland, the rest of it sounding suitably similar to "...h-olic" to bring "catholic" to mind. Another word that stuck out: "waxenwench". 'Waxen-wench', "wax" to mean not so much made of wax but the opposite of 'wane': to wax is to grow, and 'wench' obviously is a young woman, so "waxenwench" would mean a growing young woman: an adolescent female. Then there is the simple slang: "Scuse us, chorley guy!"; 'scuse', simple "excuse". As for "chorley guy", that I had to look up: it's said it refers to "Sorley Boy MacDonnell", a Scottish-Irish prince born in 1505. Words, in Finnegans Wake, may be random and appear meaningless, but some of them actually aren't; it's a matter of breaking them down and building them back up into something intelligible. But then, after all of that, there are the passages which one feels ought to make sense but don't.
It is, it goes without saying, a very strange reading experience. I got lost in each word, so much so I didn't manage to get a plot out of it, though I gather others have. As the title suggests the novel is to do with Finnegan's Wake. In the early part of the book -
Sobs they sighdid at Fillagain's chrissormiss wake, all the hoolivans of the nation, prostrated in their consternation and their duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation. There was plumbs and grumes and cheriffs and citherers and raiders and cinemen too. And the all gianed in with the shout-most shoviality. Agog and magog and the round of them agrog. To the continuation of that celebration until Hanandhunigan's extermination! Some in kinkin corass, more, kankan keening. Belling him up and filling him down. He's stiff but he's steady is Priam Olim!
I've read that Finnegans Wake can be described as a Ulysses of the night (Joyce himself apparently said his aim was to "reconstruct the nocturnal life"), and to me this makes sense. It has a dream-like (sometimes nightmareish) quality to it, a kind of Freudian, subconscious, random, account of what it is to dream; snatches of reality underneath milleniums of history, politics, and art with darkly sexual elements amongst the beams of light; coherent at times, muddled mostly, even with the odd snatches of rhyme: "Quicken, aspen; ash and yew; willow, broom with oak for you". Dreaming may take us back to our primeval selves, and Finnegans Wake takes us back to the dark ages, pre-Tristan -
Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore [pas encore = not yet] rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war.
- to the times of Finn McCool -
Macool, Macool, orra whyi deed ye diie?
- one of the many references to Fionn mac Cumhaill, an Irish mythical warrior.
For this, it's an astonishingly forceful book; the modernists tried to capture what life was really like. Woolf wrote (in Modern Fiction):
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
Joyce did this for the night, and it's a remarkable achievement. I think there's a tendency to get rather irritated with Joyce for Finnegans Wake, but all of this jumble is in fact meaningful, it's a matter of picking it out and picking it apart and, for me most importantly, accepting that on the whole it's impossible to do so. Joyce broke every rule of writing he possibly could, even, the most famous example, starting the novel on the final page: here are the last and first sentences of Finnegans Wake:
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.
For me, Finnegans Wake is exciting. Again, much of it, 95% plus, I didn't understand, but still I loved to read it. I think there are parts where there appears to meaning when in fact there is none, and there's the fun bits where Joyce appears to predict the future, most notably for me: "iSpace":
acùtely profèššionally piquéd, to=introdùce a notion of time [ùpon ả plane (?) sù ' ' fáç'e'] by pùnct! ingh oles (sic) in iSpace?!
And I can't not mention "unfacts":
Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are to imprecisely few to warrant our certitude, the evidencegivers by legpoll too untrustworthily irreperible where his adjugers are seemingly freak threes but hid judicandees plainly minus twos.
Could Joyce have predicted Kellyanne Conway!?
I loved reading it, in short, and it is possible to read the words and try to get meaning, but the most important part for me was a willingness to fail. In that sense, it is easier to read Finnegans Wake than Ulysses. I would certainly revisit this book and perhaps dedicate more time to it and try and get in much deeper. For now, to quote a part of Finnegans Wake: "I did me best when I was let".