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".


  1. brother... speechless, he is, yess... admirable that you did this: and apparently liked it... some of what you cited above is interesting, but i have to say, WHY?... from a purely philological standpoint the book has some fascination, but it still seems narrow... i might give it a try if i was thirty years younger, but i'm afraid i don't have that much time left; still, it might while away a rainy night if taken in bits and/or pieces, but only if there were no other books in the house... tx for opening a window into a dark, murky, unknown room located on the outskirts of bookdom...

    1. Why? Simply out of interest and in the spirit of fun, that's all really. Curiosity too, of course. It's fascinating, I do recommend even just little bits :)

  2. I started to read FW a few years ago reading a few pages at a time but I soon tired of it. Everyone who is into books should read a bit of FW (as everyone should read some de Sade IMO) but I soon tired of the gibberish. In the end I just can't see the point of writing a book that only the author can understand. Still, I'm kind of glad it exists.

    So weenybeenyveenyteeny.

    1. I think even just bits is enough, it definitely should be looked at, even just glanced out. I didn't so much tire at the gibberish but at times I did have to bring myself back as it were, sometimes it was hard to concentrate :)

  3. Wow, I've had such a brain-numbing couple of months that your Finnegan's Wake examples almost make sense to me. LOL!

    I always get the feeling with Joyce that he's thumbing his nose (to put it politely) at his readers, and I just can't stomach it. I'm still looking for someone to really convince me to read him.

    I have to say that I agree with Mudpuddle on this one. If I'm running out of classics to read, I'd probably give it a try but until then I'll content myself with reading fascinating reviews like yours. Give yourself a pat on the back! :-)

    1. I know what you mean re. thumbing his nose. I don't know enough about Joyce to say one way or the other, but I do think you're right. If that is the case, I'm glad I defied him! :)

  4. You get the sense from "The Dead" that Joyce is mocking you?

    1. It's been so long since I read that... I seem to think I took against Joyce after Dubliners, so perhaps... :)

  5. You're a better reader than me. I've only read The Dubliners by Joyce...I've never managed to work up the nerve or the desire to try reading this book or Ulysses. But I loved your review of it! :)

    1. I'm not a better reader, I'm a stubborn reader :D

  6. So what are you both seeing in Joyce that makes you think "thumbing his nose"? I mentioned "The Dead" in particular because that is such a warm, lively, human work, not all puns and play like Finnegans Wake. But even in the latter, what are you seeing that sounds like mockery, rather than Joyce writing the book he wanted to write, the book filled up with the things he loved?

    I am asking - as always - because I am trying to learn what is in the books. What are you two seeing?

    1. Hmmm .... I'm not sure I can give you an explanation that will satisfy you, but here goes ... when I read, I not only form a type of "relationship" with the work, I also like to try to make some sort of connection with the author through their work. When I began to read Ulysses, I had a disconnected feeling that I have felt with certain authors, as if Joyce was writing for himself only and that there was a certain anger or frustration coming from the pages. At this point, it was a vague uncomfortable feeling only. Then, when the Goodreads group Classics and the Western Canon decided to read Ulysses, I read some of their posts at the beginning and came across an article --- honestly, I don't remember where or exact details, but the gist of it was that Joyce was frustrated --- I believe it was with some of the responses to his writing ---- and that he deliberately created a novel that was going to be a puzzle and really could have cared less who understood it. It was then that I developed the feeling of "mocking".

      I don't doubt his love for Dublin that permeates the work. And it's not that I will never pick up another Joyce book (I actually never did finish Ulysses), far from it. This same feeling of the author being detached from his readers I felt with Dostoyevsky and I struggled through about 3 of his novels before he became one of my favourite writers. I suppose I learned to accept him as he is to an extent but also to understand him better. I don't expect that fondness to transfer to Joyce, but I do hope to gain a better appreciation of him one day. Until then my feeling remains and I haven't yet got past it.

    2. Thanks, that's very helpful. It seems that this is entirely about Ulysses, then? That's why I mentioned "The Dead" above - your "always" was very confusing. Honestly, I do not believe that you will find a hint of that feeling in "The Dead," which is a work of great clarity.

      It is also, at this point, probably the consensus pick as the most important short story in English, the source for a million others. That is a reason for a student of literature to read it.

    3. Tom, I wasn't clear in my comment, afraid I was rushing out (I should have waited til I had more time to write!) - sorry about that.

      When I first read Ulysses I found it very hard but hoped a second crack at it would help. Then I read Dubliners, and about that time I read something similar to what Cleo was referring to - that Finnegans Wake was designed to be unreadable etc, and I was irritated by that. I seem to recall finding Dubliners a tricky read (do keep in mind I'm referring back quite a few years now!). So, I had a sort of love-hate relationship with Joyce - I admired him but felt the mockery of which Cleo speaks.

      Yet, I gave Ulysses a second chance and got along slightly better, at which point I decided to read other works - Stephen Hero, Exiles, and Chamber Music. After that Ulysses got a third chance, and my main feeling for it after the third time was a warm admiration. Yet, I still felt irritation at Finnegans Wake, finding him to be a bit of a git in writing it.

      But, as I said in the post, that irritation phase has passed. Reading FW a second time made me really appreciate it. Of course I don't understand it, but *I* got meaning out of it (which of course is up for debate, I'm sure people take different things from it) and I really do admire him.

      All that said, I do think it's entirely possible there was an element of mockery to it (I don't know one way or t'other), but I'm not irritated by it any more, it just amuses me a little. I am fond of him, judging him by his works of course. No idea about the man.

      And yes, the love of Dublin - that's clear, and I love that too. It's interesting as well, his love of Ireland I mean. I grew up during the Troubles, English news was naturally dominated by it, plus of course the not-infrequent evacuations, threats etc, and being aware at a very young age of the Brighton hotel bombing (I was too young to remember the actual day) and all the other awful things. Now time has passed and it's all calmed down I'm interested to see the Irish perspective of the England / Ireland relationship. Part of the reason I enjoyed reading Spenser too.

      Anyway, I'm off-topic! Just to say I do very much admire Joyce now, and the Irish element is, as ever for me, fascinating, and, yes, there's a potted history as to how I came to finally love reading him!

    4. My "always" comment didn't encompass just my personal reading experience, what I've gleaned from other readers as well. However, I've heard some good reports of The Dubliners, so that is probably a good place to start. Thanks for the recommendation of "The Dead"; I will not pass it by.

      And O, I think your experience with Joyce is a very important point. As a parallel, I know a person who irritated the heck out of me when we first met but since I've gotten to know him better, I've learned to appreciate the depths of his character (what's truly important) and learned to ignore or accept those annoying little personality traits (not so important and we all have them), and he's become a truly valued friend. Knowing someone better or more deeply expands our appreciation of them, and I think you found that with Joyce.

  7. very interesting and sensitive series of comments; it makes me appreciate J more... i'll probably still never read him but it's because of my personal limitations, not because of the author; i now realize that: tx...


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