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.