Sunday, April 25, 2010

James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

Most of us have read or been obliged to read, by a high school English teacher or college professor, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Many have read the indelible story collection Dubliners. Hardly any of us have got past the first few chapters of Ulysses, let alone the entire book (even if it was crowned No. 1 in Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels back in 2003). But who among us has the intellectual fortitude (or masochistic compulsion) to get through all 628 pages of Joyce’s nearly impenetrable, nay, opaque final work, Finnegans Wake?

Don’t worry, I have no intention of suggesting you read a book I’ve never read myself, but there is a case to be made for everyone reading just the first chapter (the first 29 pages) of this work of fiction like no other.

I won’t try to tell you what it’s about because I couldn’t. I’ll let the scholars synopsize the unsynopsizable. The “story” seems utterly beside the point, at least to me. Finnegans Wake is an attempt to replicate dream in the form of language. To squeeze between two covers every trick, technique, and figure of speech in the English language — synecdoche, euphemism, metonymy, synesthesia, and the pun (especially!) to name only a few — into the creation of a linguistic equivalent of the hypnagogic state we all drift through on the verge of sleep. The portmanteau word is the coin of its realm, and the double (triple, quadruple, sextuple!) entendre is what it purchases for the reader. For example:

He addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur. Wither hayre in honds tuck up your part inher. Oftwhile balbulous, mithre ahead, with goodly trowel in grasp and ivoroiled overalls which he habitacularly fondseed, like Haroun Childeric Eggeberth he would caligulate by multiplicables the altitude and malltitude until he seesaw by neatlight of the liquor wheretwin ‘twas born, his roundhead staple of other days to rise in undress maisonry upstanded (joygrantit!), a waalworth of a skyerscape of most eyeful hoyth entowerly, erigenating from next to nothing and celescalating the himals and all, heirarchitectitiptitoploftical, with a burning bush abob off its baubletop and with larrons o’toolers clittering up and tumbles a’buckets clottering down.

Over the years I’ve read this passage dozens of times and still have only a vague notion of what it’s “about,” but it never fails to make me smile (in no small part because of its bawdy nature, I confess). Or this:

What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through successive ages that shabby choruysh of unkalified muzzlenimiissilehims that would blackguardise the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven. Stay us wherefore in our search for tighteousness, O Sustainer, what time we rise and when we take up to toothmick and before we lump down upown our leatherbed and in the night at the fading of the stars! For a nod to the nabir is better than wink to the wabsanti.

Wink, indeed. (If you have small children, try to get them to say “muzzlenimissilehims” or “heirarchitectitiptitoploftical” from the first example. My grown daughters still remember them!)

Probably the most descriptive word for this language is “poetry.” It’s certainly closer to poetry than prose, and its pleasures are more in the language than any narrative we could chisel out from beneath the words. And, here, I go out on a limb. It seems to me that the poetry in the first chapter is more compelling than in later chapters (at least those I’ve read), except perhaps for the famous (relatively) Anna Livia Plurabelle section. Here are a few lines quoted at random from later in the book:

But now, talking of hayastdanars and wolkingology and how our seaborn isle came into exestuance, (the explutor, his three adesiters and the two pantellarias) that reminds me about the manausteriums of the poor Marcus of Lyons and poor Johnny, the patrician, and what do you think of the four of us and there they were now, listening right enough, the four saltwater widowers, and all they could remembore, long long ago in the olden times Momonian, throw darker hour sorrows, the princest day, when Fair Gargrate waited Swede Villem, and Lally in the rain, with the plank prints, now extincts, after the wreak of Wormans’ Noe, the barmaisigheds, when my heart knew no care,…

Maybe it’s just me, but where the first two passages seem prism-like, the latter just seems cloudy — Joyce muttering to himself. I offer the comparison simply as further rationale (my own and only mine, for sure) why it’s okay to read just the first chapter, instead of the whole book.

While just a little of Finnegans Wake goes a long way, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of the experience. Because that’s what it is, an experience sui generis.

Other recommended works: Stephen Hero (an early draft of the Portrait), Exiles (a play), and "The Dead" (the long concluding story in Dubliners).

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