Saturday, 28 July 2001

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake (1939)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 888

Joyce's final work could well claim to be the most impenetrable twentieth century novel of all. Even in a time when experimental  techniques have flourished, it stands out as a virtually unreadable collection of immensely clever ideas.

In Ulysses, the most difficult section to follow is the scene where Bloom visits the brothel, which is laid out like a bizarre play. It is full of allusions and wordplays, many of them quite obscure. Finnegans Wake basically begins where that scene left off. Few of the  words are actually standard English; most are transformed to have double meanings (at least!). A typical, if simple, example is the word "hiberniating", which is clearly from the context a transformation of hibernating but with the extra letter to make it refer to Ireland (Hibernia being the Latin name for Ireland). It thus has connotations of Ireland as a sleepy backwater, away from the centre of European affairs. This sort of effect must make the novel a proofreader's nightmare.

In Ulysses the desire to concentrate on the clever surface of the prose at the expense of underlying meaning can for the most part be resisted; in Finnegans Wake, where almost every word has two or three meanings which require an effort to untangle, this temptation becomes almost overwhelming. I found that two things which help are to imagine the text being read in an Irish accent (which makes sense of some of the spelling) and to keep the edge of a bookmark under the line being read (to prevent the eye from straying). The novel is very hard work to read, and it is admiration for its cleverness in the manipulation of language which keeps one going. In this way, it is like a particular kind of poetry (The Wasteland being a good example) rather than
other novels.

So what is Finnegans Wake about? Like almost all of Joyce's prose, the setting is Dublin. This is not the real city in the same way it is in The Dubliners or Ulysses, but more a place which is a metaphor for I am not quite sure what - the world, as the centre of a mythic universe, perhaps. (It is clearly an extension of the relation of Dublin geography to the locations of Homer's Odyssey in Ulysses.) Finnegan is a bricklayer who has fallen to his death, and this is linked to the fall in the garden of Eden in the very first sentence of the novel. (This is probably the best known quotation of the whole novel, being printed on Irish bank notes: "Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's..." - which is also I presume a reference to Eden Quay on the Liffey near the Abbey Theatre.) Other characters combine archteypal significance with personification of Dublin geography - H.C. Earwicker (Here Comes Everybody) is also Howth Castle and Environs.

In the end, the details of what Finnegans Wake is about are not particularly important. It is a novel which is a celebration of the pleasure of playing with language. Its most obvious precursors are Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Lewis Carrol's Jabberwocky, particularly the latter. There are still writers who enjoy playing with language in this sort of way, mainly for comic effect - Spike Milligan is an example - but in the end the novel perhaps marks a bit of a dead end in modern literature, having taken the idea of the pun as far as it can possibly go.

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