Is 'Finnegans Wake' unreadable?
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
The answer in a word is no. Although Seamus Deane writes in his 1992 Introduction to the Penguin edition (with its caricature of the author by César Abin on the cover, above), “the first thing to say about Finnegans Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable”. By which he means that the reader “must forgo most of the conventions about reading and about language . . .”. It is, he goes on to say, a book “written in the English language, and also against the English language”; in fact, Joyce has drawn on sixty-five different languages.
None of this makes the book unreadable of course but, like many, I have for years been daunted by the Himalayan challenge the book presented, and I won’t deny I feel a certain satisfaction in having now read it cover to cover. What are the pleasures to be derived from the novel James Joyce took seventeen years to write (1922–39), “to keep the critics busy for three hundred years”?
What kept me reading – and I’m sure this is the case for most readers of Finnegans Wake – was the exuberantly, endlessly inventive language and wordplay, which can sometimes be extremely funny. “I am only an Irish clown, a great joker at the universe”, said Joyce.
Ian Pindar, whose excellent brief Life of Joyce (2004) is not without its own humour – “Reading Finnegans Wake can be a frustrating experience. Why can’t Joyce tell his tale in pure undefallen engelsk?” – recently described the book to me as a “long modernist poem”, which is an interesting idea: over 600 pages of dense, lightly punctuated prose aspiring to the condition of poetry.
And as Deane says, it is “a joyous work”. Joyce described it as “pure music” and suggested that “if anyone doesn’t understand a passage, all he need do is read it aloud”. That can work.
Needless to say it hardly found universal favour on publication. Joyce’s long-suffering younger brother Stanislaus wrote to him in these harsh terms: “With the best will in the world I cannot read your work in progress. The vague support you get from certain French and American critics, I set down to pure snobbery. What is the meaning of that rout of drunken words? . . .”
And what of the words? Here are some that will strike a chord: “Ghinees hies good for you”; “Roamaloose and Rehmoose”; “It’s an allavalonche that blows nopussy food”; “. . . the twattering of bards in the twitterlitter . . .”; “Bad Humborg”; “and we list, as she bibs us, by the waters of babalong”; “In the name of Annah the Allmaziful . . .”; “A king off duty and a jaw for ever!”; “Also Spuke Zerothruster”; “Se non é vero son trovatore”; “the man in the Oran mosque”; “Childe Horrid”; “Where it is nobler in the main to supper than the boys and errors of outrager’s virtue”; “Bottisilly and Titteretto . . .”; “Gee wedge!”; “See Capels and then fly”; “. . . one man’s fish and a dozen men’s poissons, . .”; “beyond the boysforus”; “. . . when he’s not absintheminded, . .”; “. . . my shemblable! My freer!”; “urban and orbal, . .”;
Then there is the alliteration: “Right rank ragnar rocks . . .”; “(the calamite’s columitas calling for calamitous calamitance)”; “this Calumnious Column of Cloaxity, this Bengalese Beacon of Biloxity, this Annamite Aper of Atroxity, . .”; “tel a Tartaran tastarin toothsome tarrascone tourtoun, . .”.
It can at times feel strangely modern: “You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy?”; “Is you zealous of mes, brother?”
James Atherton’s The Books at the Wake (1959), as well as having chapters on major influences on Joyce’s work, contains fifty-eight pages of “Literary Allusions”, many of them to obscure writers. Atherton’s earlier chapters move from Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico to “The Irish writers” via Swift, Carroll, the Church Fathers, to the Bible, Koran, The Book of the Dead, the Eddas. It is all utterly daunting.
Complementing Atherton’s book in some respects is Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody: An introduction to James Joyce for the ordinary reader (1965). Joyce and Burgess have always seemed a natural fit: both polyglot, both musical, both Europhile and both addicted to playing with words. Burgess is one of Joyce’s most lucid expositors and his long chapter on Finnegans Wake in Here Comes Everybody is an almost pointlessly brilliant tour de force. And as always with Burgess, there are the arresting aperçus: “Whatever Finnegans Wake may be, it is not a highbrow book”. Language may be the novel’s “only character”.
For Umberto Eco, Joyce was “the anarchist of language”. “It may seem that Ulysses violates the techniques of the novel beyond all limit, but Finnegans Wake passes even this limit”. Joyce’s close friend and model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, Oliver Gogarty, called the book “the most colossal leg pull in literature since Macpherson’s Ossian”. J. G. Ballard more recently called it “the best example of modernism disappearing up its own fundament”.
And what, you may wonder, did the TLS make of the book on publication? Under the lordly heading “Mr Joyce expresses himself”, the reviewer wrote that “the style and language which Joyce was in the process of developing have become exclusively and extravagantly his own. Those who have found “Ulysses” difficult but quite intelligible will obviously not yield to a first impression which suggests that this new book is gibberish” (shades of Evelyn Waugh’s assessment of the “lunatic” Joyce’s work in that last comment). But after expressions of mild exasperation, the reviewer begins to find a way in: “The best first approach to it is through the ears, not the eyes”. And the anonymous reviewer is swept along: “. . . the author presents it all with so much gusto and animation . . . as to make us feel that he is not in the least concerned about the goodness or badness, ugliness or beauty, of his exceedingly remarkable world, . .”. He concludes: “But heaven forbid that it should be imitated. This is Mr. Joyce’s individual mode of self-expression, and therefore nobody can do anything properly comparable with it without doing something quite different”.