Monday, October 7, 2013

Finnegans Wake: Well . . . I tried

I’ve had a lot of stupid ideas, friends. But reading Finnegans Wake? That was my stupidest idea of 2013. And it wasn’t even an ORIGINAL one.

It all started with this podcast called Literary Disco, hosted by Julia Pistell, Rider Strong, and Tod Goldberg. I like those guys. But this is all their fault. One ill-fated day, they ended up talking about how impossible this book is to read. And then they joked about reading it 5 pages at a time every morning, possibly with the assistance of drugs (to be lovingly dubbed “Finnegans Wake and Bake”). After all, you can get through ANY book 5 pages at a time, right? I used to think so, faithful readers. I used to think so.

Anyway, I took my can-do attitude down to the library, where I acquired a copy. And every morning, I made my coffee and struggled through 5 pages of the most baffling prose I ever hope to encounter. I made it to page 63.

This was my first introduction to James Joyce. I know him by reputation, obviously. Ulysses is a famously difficult book. But at least it has a plot and stuff.

From the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:
There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is "about" anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, "readable." . . .
. . . Students of literature in particular, accustomed as they are to understanding most words in every sentence of every prose work they read, are apt to experience frustration in reading a text constructed along these lines, where it can sometimes seem that one is doing extremely well if one makes sense of only a sentence or two on a single page.
Downright spoiled, is what we are, expecting to understand most words in every sentence.

But I wanted to give it a shot. Finnegan was Joyce’s baby. He spent 17 years writing it. He composed it entirely of puns and riddles (I remember reading somewhere that he was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”). He mixed in words from 70 languages. He loosely modeled the characters (such as they are) on his own family. Basically, he poured every piece of himself into it . . . and then jumbled them all around to create the world’s most impossible jigsaw puzzle.

There IS an artistry here that I admire, and I feel drawn to Joyce as a person. I think I could have had a whiskey or five with him and joined him in laughing about the long-term joke he's playing on the entire literary world. But all the whiskey in Ireland couldn’t get me through this book. I had to get modestly drunk just to write this post.

A note to myself after reaching page 12: “Reading this book is like listening to Mickey the Pikey tell a story. Every now and then, something registers . . . but there’s no context for it because what came before and what follows is nonsensical.”

Any dog’s life you list you may still hear them at it, like sixes and seventies as eversure as Halley’s comet, ulemamen, sobranjewomen, storthingboys and dumagirls, as they pass its bleak and bronze portal of your Casaconcordia: Huru more Nee, minny frickans?
Fifthly, how parasoliloquisingly truetoned on his first time of hearing the wretch’s statement that, muttering Irish, he had had had o’gloriously a’lot too much hanguest or hoshoe fine to drink in the House of Blazes, the Parrot in Hell, the Orange Tree, the Glibt, the Sun, the Holy Lamb and, lapse not leashed, in Ramitdown’s ship hotel since the morning moment he could dixtinguish a white thread from a black till the engine of the laws declosed unto Murray and was only falling fillthefluthered up against the gatestone pier which, with the cow’s bonnet a’top o’it, he falsetook for a cattlepillar with purest peaceablest intentions.
If only the book ALSO had exceptional abdominal muscles.

A Joyce scholar said, in talking about Finnegans Wake, that he believed if you told James Joyce that you were slogging through his book, he would advise you to stop reading it immediately. He wanted people to have as much fun reading his work as he had writing it.

Well, Jimmy . . . I’m not having fun. But this next whiskey is for you.


  1. LOL I DIED when you said you made it to page 63 - way to go, champ! I think I would have read my first 5 and shaken my head.

    "Downright spoiled, is what we are, expecting to understand most words in every sentence." - girl, that is a given RIGHT. I read that teeny passage you posted and was utterly flabbergasted. The 127 hours it took for me to get through was of no fun at all.

  2. So wait, people who aren't students of literature are totally cool with NOT understanding the words they're reading?

    Thank you so much for these Snatch gifs. They make me happy. And I'm going to just choose to believe all of Finnegan's Wake is essentially just his ramblings. Congrats on making in through 63 pages. I couldn't make it entirely through those 2 quotes.

  3. Because non-English students are commonfolk, you see. *smokes pipe*

    I think I might try to read more of this...someday. Mickey keeps trying to convince me with his abs.

  4. I'm proud of you for getting through the excerpt. People keep telling me that the key is to read it out loud to yourself, because the sing-songiness comes out more. And it DOES...but I can't pronounce most of those words.

  5. Mickey's abs might ALMOST convince me to read this. Or at least buy a copy to put on my shelf but never open. Maybe if her narrated the audiobook...

  6. If there's one thing I believe above all other things, it's that James Joyce is kind of like The Emperor's New Clothes of writers- nobody wants to be the first to say 'but... it SUCKS.' because they think they'll look stupid. But I will say it, I will! (Also possibly James Joyce is naked? And... I've lost control of this analogy).

    Anyway. Well done for making it through 63 pages! I hope one day to make it through 63 pages of Ulysses (which I OWN for some stupid reason...) and give up on it in disgust. I owe Joyce that much.

    ALSO- mostly non-related, but I watched that episode of Parks and Rec today!!!!! This is very exciting to me.

  7. Megs.


    I think I like this book.

    I was not expecting this.

    But I have reasons for it.

    And am now a little flummoxed.

  8. Explain yourself at once, madame.

  9. Excellent comparison. I always thought I could be friends with that naked emperor, too. As long as he sat with a pillow in his lap, of course.

  10. You might be on to something here.

  11. Ok, so if looked at like "I will look at these words and try and make sense of them," it's HORRIBLE, but if looked at like "Language is super-fun and let's explore it!" then it is the BEST and I might be reading this soon.

  12. Well that's EXACTLY why I was able to get to page 63. And that's also why I'm not trashing the book...because it's pure genius. It really is. I think the RIGHT way to read it is to just let the words wash over you and not try to dissect it. But I needed a plot to keep me coming back to it every day, and that was where I lost all my mojo.

  13. RIGHT. The word washing. But yeah, I totally get the need for a plot thing.

  14. I've always wanted to read Joyce but I am super intimidated by him. And that's probably good because I gave up on that second excerpt. We should make a Joyce book our next readalong text, because I think that's the only way I'll be able to take one of his books off my shelf and *actually* read it.

    Maybe Dubliners or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - I feel like they'd be 100% more accessible than this.

  15. I'm just impressed you typed out those two excerpts. "Wait, 'he had had had' three had's? That can't be right. Oh, nope, look at that. It is."

  16. I... well... good for you. I am astonished that you did this for THIRTEEN DAYS. That is what I call dedication!

    I would talk more about how blah blah literary this most assuredly is and how I totally skipped all but the first 5 words of the first excerpt because despite my pretensions I really like my nonsense to have more DRAGONS, but I'm a bit mesmerized by Brad Pitt's tattoos and crooked smile. Dear lord above.

  17. I applaud you, m'dear. Not only for getting 62.5 pages further in to Finnegan's Wake than I ever did or ever will, but for putting to good use the best collection of Brad Pitt GIFs I've seen on the internet today. Which is saying something.

  18. I thank you. I didn't mind searching for the perfect Brad Pitt GIFs. *5 hours later* "Nope...not QUITE right. I should keep looking."

  19. I thought if I could conquer this book, I would feel safer with Joyce. And that plan backfired horrendously. I remain intimidated. But yeah...ANYTHING would be more accessible than this.

  20. Spell check was apoplectic. "Are you SURE you want to spell caterpillar like that? THAT'S NOT HOW IT'S SPELLED."

  21. THANK you. I appreciate your astonishment. There may very well be dragons later on in this book. I would be surprised if there weren't, in fact. *looks at Brad Pitt some more*

  22. *ten hours later* Damn, why is the internet such a twisty, turn-filled neverchasm of Brad Pitt GIFs?! Then again, a question that doesn't need an answer. *continues looking at the BAJILLION shirtless Brad Pitt GIFs*