Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce

Reviewing Finnegan's Wake is an impossible thing. Well, that's going too far, I could review it. I could even write a somewhat funny review. But I could not write a review that would actually be useful. The only information in a review that would be useful would be more easily picked up in a Wikipedia article. The rest of the review would be about me, not about Finnegan's Wake.

So, I am not going to review Finnegan's Wake. I am not going to give it a star rating, I'm not going to tell you that I loved it or hated it, or suggest whether or not you should read it. Instead, let me tell you what I felt, reading this very strange book, because Finnegan's Wake, in a way that no other I've read can approximate, is an experience far more than it is a book.

On Tuesday, I was reading the book as I walked across the breezeway at work (this isn't uncommon for me. I also type while walking. Yes, I know, I'm a geek). It's pretty common for someone to comment on this. Usually, this leads them to asking what I'm reading.

The woman who asked me was a small woman, with a very, very quiet voice, with red, greying hair, and birdish nose and eyes. I'd done a ticket for her once before. She smiled and told me it was nice to see someone reading, and asked what it was. I showed her the spine, and she was very excited.

This was a unique reaction. I've been reading Finnegan for about four months, and it's not the first time someone has noticed it. Most people don't know what it is. But, I work for a publisher, there are many who do. Most who do out and out laugh at me. Some of them ask me why I'd ever read it. Once in a while someone tries to impress me with their knowledge of Joyce. Sometimes someone purports their superiority over the book. I make this sound bad, it really isn't. People find the idea of the book either ridiculous or threatening. I can sympathize: I have in many parts of the book found it to be ridiculous or threatening.

The tiny Irishwoman who I was speaking to now did neither. Instead, in an animated whispery voice, she started to tell me all about James Joyce, about what happens to her when she reads, about the ways it feels like home, and life, and people she knew. The details are interesting, but not really pertinent, here. It was the feeling that mattered to me, a feeling as if I could, indeed, mean what I was doing.

I guess it sounds silly, but the experience of reading Finnegan is actually a really threatening one, and not because of the book. Finnegan's Wake is sort of the Abortion Issue of books. Some people feel like it is deeply important, others like it is an abomination, written to destroy literary culture. Others simply think it's trash. The problem is, none one of these camps is a comfortable one to interact with while actually reading the book. The camp who considers it trash is fine, and the best of the three, they're simply somewhat uninterested. The camp that thinks it an abomination is obviously uncomfortable. It is the third camp that surprised me. I'm not a huge scholar, I never really interacted with academia, and I do not know how common this is generally, but in terms of people talking about Finnegan's Wake, there is this terrible, unwelcoming, and very, very lonely feeling of self importance. It's hard to put a finger on, and I don't think it's always conscious. But talking about Finnegan's Wake seems to always end up being a conversation about the cleverness one exhibits in knowing and being able to talk intelligently about Finnegan's Wake. Which, when one has not read Finnegan's Wake, and feels patently unclever about what one has read, is discouraging and unhelpful.

The book I picked up in conjunction with this has been helpful in this effort: Joseph Campbell, of Hero of 1000 Faces fame, wrote I think the first comprehensive guide to Finnegan's Wake in 1944. The book is now, apparently, pretty outdated, many of his suppositions being 'disproved', some of his scholarship incomplete, etc. I'm sure all this is true, honestly. But it didn't matter, because Joseph Campbell really, really seems to love Finnegan's Wake: Finnegan's Wake, after all, is the book that invented the term 'monomyth'. And, reading Joseph Campbell's retelling of the book (because that is more or less what it ends up being) was a beautiful experience, sort of a slightly disconnected experience of watching someone see themselves in someone else's piece of paper. I did not read the same story Campbell did, when I read Finnegan's Wake. But, then, I don't think that's because his story isn't there.

That's the strange thing about Finnegan's Wake. It's an alive sort of book, as stupid as that sounds. It's very vagueness seems to wrap itself around whatever guideposts are already inside your brain. When it was Guy Fawkes Day, and I was learning about the background I ended up reading this line:

...ony twenny minnies moe, Bully his Ballade Imaginaire which was to be dubbed Wine, Woman and Waterclocks, or How a Guy Finks and Fawkes When He Is Going Batty...

When I was thinking of my poem about Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, I read my line about trying to infuse poetry into my own bones:

I'd take the bones,
And plant them deep
like tulip bulbs
Perhaps to sprout -
Perhaps to bud - and then
Like necromancy - bloom and seed
"A Lazarus show" in
An "unlocked rose"

Then, read this line from Finnegan:

...appropriately, this Esuan Menschavik and the first till last alshemist wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body...

Frustrated with my children one day, I read:

The pleasures of love lasts but a fleeting but the pledges of life outlusts a lieftime.

And realized I sounded as ugly as the speaker in my grouching. I would find references, it felt like, to computer coding, to current events, to the feeling of being in an old, broken down Chevrolet, a thousand tiny things that are impossible for Joyce to have considered while writing the book, but were strikingly, presently real. Because, that's the thing about the text. It leads you along for pages and pages of things you don't understand, and then there will be one line, one image, one little snatch that seems stupid when you quote it (as above, sorry!) but feels absolutely, irrevocably real in the moment.

And after hundreds of hundreds of pages of slow, steady confrontation with your own ignorance, and then these short bursts of unnatural light, illuminating sometimes very unattractive corners of your own psyche, you become very, very exhausted. The book, unwillingly, became a sort of piece of me, a "dream of favours, a favourable dream. They know how they believe that they believe that they know. Wherefore they wail."

And so I hated the book, in a very odd way, a way I hadn't hated any other book, in a sort of possessive, preserving kind of hate, the sort of hate that feels more like self-loathing.

So, when I could have someone speak to me about it, and feel a bubbling sort of vision, a reflection of bright eyes that had already been down the pages of the book, it was liberating and comforting in a strange, powerful way:

Ah dew! Ah dew! It was so duusk that the tears of night began to fall, first by ones and twos, then by threes and fours, at last by fives and sixes of sevens, for the tired ones were wecking, as we weep no with them. O! O! O! Par la Pluie!

Perhaps that's why the end of the book touched me so deeply. In the end, the main female protagonist (such as there is one) who is also a river, is flowing out to the sea, even as another she is being reborn from the river springs, in the eternal unending life-death of a river. She thinks back on when she was what she somewhere faroff in the mountains is at that very moment: a pure, lonely little rivulet running by at a quick, pretty pace. And even as she thinks of that, she, now the dirty, mother, all loving all accepting end of the river, oozes muddily out to sea. And when I felt that river, the river that I know wraps all through the book but which I so seldom could even consciously sense was there, losing itself in the great ocean, I almost cried, today, sitting at my little desk doing nothing important that will ever, ever matter at a little job in an enormous company I don't believe in. Suddenly, I realized that outside of all the hatred, boredom, confusion, disgust, and everything else, there was a little something alive in this book, and perhaps in myself, that I loved:

I'll wait. And I'll wait. And then if all goes. What will be is. Is is... Sometime then, somewhere there, I wrote me hopes and buried the page when I heard they voice... in peace and silence. I could have stayed up there for always only. It's something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come... They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it... make me seasily saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.
(Image from Mlle Mathilde, inspired by the lines just after the last quote: "Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me.All. But one clings still. I'll bear it on me. To remind me of.")


Amanda said...

I still say congratualations on finishing. It's really impressive.

Caniad said...

After reading your post, this book just moved way up on my to-read list. I'm inspired to give it a serious try.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - Thanks, I wasn't sure I'd get to the end for a while there...

Ms Caniad - I'm really glad to hear that. I kind of figured my review would be more of a curiosity than a useful resource, thanks for your comments. I didn't recognize you right away! Have to get used to your new name :D

Jeanne said...

My sense of the pretentiousness of bragging about having read Finnegan's Wake in Academic Circles is that it's a bit like bragging that you've read Infinite Jest. I've never read it--in fact, you're the first person who has ever made me think I could. Because the way you describe your reactions to it has something in common with the way I've read and loved other things by Joyce.

Aarti said...

I admit I have no idea of what Finnegan's Wake is actually about. I still don't know, but I really enjoyed the way you tried to describe how the book made you feel, and how it elicited reactions and conversations from other people.

I attend events in Chicago put on by a company called 2nd Story, in which the basis is that someone (professional) tells a story, then the lights dim and the wine gets passed around, and you take the time to tell a "second story" that relates to the one shared by the storyteller with the people around you. Your review reminds me of that experience, and it's really lovely how literature can do that.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Jeanne - It really is beautiful, but you'll doubt me more than once in the process of the book. It's actually something that would be really fun to read as a group - but you'd want to stretch it over, oh, a year or so :D.

Ms Aarti - I just read the book, and I'm not sure what it's about either :D. But more seriously, yes, I love how books can become something individual, and that's one of the reasons this book was interesting to me - is it almost demands that. I'd never heard of Second Story, that's fascinating!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I tried reading this many times, and never got very far, but each time, I would remember another extremely clever phrase that no one but Joyce could have fashioned. My favorite is "she was jung and easily freudened."

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Rhapsody - It's easy to stop - I pretty much just had to force myself on more than once - it's kind of like eating one of those steaks that, if you finish it, you get everyone's meal for free. It looks big at the start, but when it's half gone, it somehow looks even bigger.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Rhapsody - But yes, the 'clever phrases' really are clever :). The one thing one can say - noone could have written this book other than James Joyce.

Emily said...

You say you expect your thoughts to be more a curiosity than actually useful, but I think what you've written is very useful - more useful than attempting a slick, plot-based, newspaper-style review. Because I think what people often miss about Joyce is that they can experience his prose, that they can connect with it and that it can mean something to them - they think reading a book by Joyce is somehow substantively different than reading a book by anyone else, that it's all intellect, no heart, and that it's all an exercise, as you say, in being able to "get it" and sound intelligent while you're talking about it. So what you point out is SO valuable - that this book, like all books, elicits different responses in different readers, and that's just as legitimate in Joyce as it is in, I don't know, Janet Evanovich. Thank you for sharing so beautifully your own subjective experience of Finnegan's Wake!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - This is was my fourth in my goal to read Joyce's four major works this year, and that has been what was most surprising to me, was just how much love was in his writing. He certainly wasn't a perfect man, he was very much 'in his time', but he just loves the world and all the people in it so much, and that was wonderful to experience :).

Nymeth said...

See, I knew I'd be glad NOT to listen to you and skip this post.

...in terms of people talking about Finnegan's Wake, there is this terrible, unwelcoming, and very, very lonely feeling of self importance.

This is so familiar. I think I know just what you mean.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - The revelation for me was the feeling of lonelinness underneath. Normally arrogance bothers me (it's like I tell Amanada, I don't like people who are like me), so I try to understand it. Lots of arrogant people just seem so lonely...

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm not certain I'm up for this Joyce. At all. But I really enjoyed reading you thoughts on your experience reading it.