“down through all christian minstrelsy”: A Few Thoughts on Finnegans Wake

I recently finished reading what is perhaps the most difficult work written in the English language, or something approximating the English language: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Trying to concisely describe the plot of this behemoth work is a bit of a fool’s errand. There are several “summaries” floating around online that do a better job than I could manage here anyway, so instead, I want to spend a few minutes talking about my experience reading the book and what I found most fascinating about it. First, though, a sample paragraph to give you a sense of what you’re up against if you tackle the book.

Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

I began the Wake not long after finishing my PhD comprehensive exams back in the spring/early summer of 2017. A colleague who had finished her exams about a year prior suggested taking some time to read outside of the discipline of history before diving into the dissertation. I’m glad I took the advice, since that reading proved to be particularly influential on the dissertation once I got started with it. (Three of the works I read in that time–Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach, and the Wake–all dealt in some way with the idea of recursion, which became the basis for a chapter.) Having read a fair bit of Joyce’s work before, including a substantial amount of Ulysses for an undergraduate English class, I originally picked up a used copy of Finnegans Wake at the 2nd and Charles in Hoover. However, I quickly realized I needed some assistance with the book and so ordered Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, one of several helpful guides that aims to walk readers through the dense text.

Finnegans Wake is divided into four untitled sections, and because of the investment of time required for any meaningful understanding of a paragraph, much less a chapter or section, I decided to aim for one section per year, with a substantial break in between each. This way, I could continue my research and other reading alongside the Wake. With the aid of Campbell and Robinson, I made my way through section 1 in 2017, section 2 (the most difficult) in 2018, and section 3 in 2019. By that time, though, I was starting to lose interest in the Wake, and since I had several writing projects underway at that point, I decided to call it quits at the end of section 3. (I did at least read the last section in the Skeleton Key, giving some sense of closure to the task.) I donated the Wake and Skeleton Key to the library used bookstore and thought I was finished with it all. I knew what the book was about, had the experience of getting lost in it (in a good way!), and could coherently explain why the work was a masterpiece and not just a bunch of gibberish.

The completist in me, though, wasn’t satisfied with stopping so close to the finish line, and earlier this year, I happened upon another copy of the Wake at, you guessed it, 2nd and Charles. (Technically it was a massive volume containing all of Joyce’s novels, but I digress.) I decided to go ahead and finish the book out, and I’m glad that I did, since one of the best features of the book is that the unfinished last sentence of the book rolls right back around to the beginning of the first chapter, which begins in the middle of a sentence, creating a loop that fits well with the themes of recursion and repetition:

A way a lone a last a loved a long the // riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

There is far more that I could say here, but to keep it concise, Finnegans Wake is every bit as wonderful and terrible as scholars and critics have said. It is a work of sheer brilliance with multilingual puns (many of them laugh-out-loud funny) in nearly every line and is a testament to the resilience and capacity for love of the human race. It is also an absolute slog to read and is, to be frank, too clever by at least half. In the end, I’m pleased that I read it, but I don’t anticipate ever feeling the need to do so again, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone even somewhat faint of heart.

Nevertheless, should you decide to check it out for yourself, here are a few of my top suggestions for making it more feasible.

  1. Buy a copy of the Skeleton Key or another guide. It’s not cheating, I promise, as long as you also read the actual book; it’s simply a means of coming to a greater appreciation of the Wake, much like the use of commentaries aids the reading of Scripture. A useful beginner’s guide can also be found here.
  2. Listen to recordings of the work being read aloud to help train your own internal voice. Joyce was Irish to the core, and the book makes the most sense read aloud in an Irish accent. There are recordings on YouTube and elsewhere and even a full album on Spotify that you can add to your playlist here.
  3. Whenever possible, read the Wake out loud for yourself, since some of the jokes and puns only make sense when verbalized. If reading silently, resist the temptation to fly through the text. Slow down and try to make sure the voice in your head is reading in an Irish accent, too. Helpful in this regard is the Waywords and Meansigns project, which sets readings from the Wake to music.
  4. Read the Wake, but also read about the Wake. Michael Chabon, Billy Mills, and Susie Lopez, among numerous others, have written about their experiences with the book and all of its highlights (and lowlights). These can provide a sense of community as you embark on this significant commitment.
  5. Finally, have fun with it. If you miss something, welcome to the club, and don’t worry; though the book doesn’t quite repeat itself, it does at least echo (perhaps that’s why I like it so much as a historian), and you’ll catch the missing detail the next dozen or so times it is referenced. And if it gets to be a burden to read, set it aside. You can always come back to it later–or, if you’re like me, it will come back to you.

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