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Finnegans Wake

James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, ione of the easiest).

‘Well, almost any  photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’

A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.

There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter that offers evidence of guilt and innocence, and a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.

The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The book does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.

 

 

 

 

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Finnegans Wake

After I left college and spent a year at a table in a flat in Acton reading Ulysses.  It’s a difficult book, riddled with pastiche that is difficult to penetrate.  But it is a novel of novels and if anything, it shows what can be done with a story.  And it’s a day in the life – June 16th, I forget which year.  The hero wanders around Dublin, looking for his dad.  I read it, as well as all the books I could find that would help me understand it, decode it, unravel it.  Friends went off to South America and Japan, I stayed in Acton, above the glaziers, reading Ulysses.  I finished it, too.  If you have a year to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.

But this blog isn’t about Ulysses, its about Joyce’s other massive work, Finnegans Wake.  (n.b. – no apostrophe).

If I ever take a gap decade, possibly in my sixties, I shall endeavour to read Finnegans Wake.  I have had several goes, but never reached the end.  Not that there is an end.  I have a copy in which I’ve written the place where I have attempted it: London, Wexford, Newport, Mid Wales, each about three years apart.

The first 200 pages are thumbed and littered with marginalia, then, like stars fading at dawn, they disappear and the pages look younger, healthier, unadulterated.

Finnegans Wake is written in Joyce’s own language, a sticklebrick, portmanteau goobledegook.  (His notes for the book he called Scribbledehobble).

Excerpt:

“Or, if he was always striking up funny funereels… with tambarins and cantoridettes soturning around his eggshill rockcoach their dance McCaper in retrophoebia… to the ra, the ra, the ra, the ra, langsome heels and langsome toesis, attended to by a mutter and doffer duffmatt baxingmotch and… pszozlers pszinging… Ho, Time Timeagen, Wake!

It’s a funny book, bristling with puns and madness.  Read aloud it makes more sense.  It’s also full of codes, repetition, wheels within wheels and the rhythms and chants of music.

If Ulysses is a day in the life, Finnegans Wake is a night in the life, or a nightmare.  The central character HCE, is seen everywhere “Here Comes Everyone” “Haveth Childers Everywhere” and so on.

There is no beginning and no end, the book begins in mid sentence and ends so.

It is infinite.

If you have an infinity to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.

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