It's one of the great gaps in my reading that I've never tackled Finnegans Wake. Well, I've finally decided to dive in. Being several months away from my half-century I still have the chance to ensure that the claim 'I read Finnegans Wake before my fiftieth birthday' becomes true. So I'm giving it a go.
It would be pointless for me to offer any pretense of interpretation or critical observation, of course; I barely know the book (it's patently not the sort of book one can 'know' on a single sit-down reading) and know nothing at all about the huge delta of critical commentary upon the book. But I suppose there's no harm in jotting a few things down, as records of my experience.
The main one at the moment is my surprise at the texture of the experience of Actually Reading Finnegans Wake, or ARFW (wife of HCEW) as I shall call it. What I mean is: although I'd not previously read the book, I had a pretty good sense of what Finnegans Wake was like, what the deal was with it, what motivated Joyce to persevere through the 17-year-long project of writing it. I'd read passages. I read some criticism. But none of that prepared me in the least for the experience of just sitting down and reading it, long stretches at a time. I'll explain what I mean: everything else I had read lead me to believe that there was something immensely fine-grained, even fernickerty, about the novel: that I would have to navigate it word by word, unpicking complex multi-layered and interlinguistic puns step by step, picking my way through the massive thicket as a snail might. And it's certainly true that there is a density of semantic generation in the novel; that particular passages provide the learned and/or ingenious reader with such a wealth of possibilities that they could spend long hours just on this sentence, or that. But my experience of ARFW has not proved grittily word-specific after that fashion. On the contrary, it has been one of (often clogged and sticky, but as often as not) flow. The trick, it seems to me, is to defocus one's attention, much as one does when looking at one of those 'Magic Eye' pictures that used to be so popular ten years ago or so.
This is the big surprise (for me, I mean). I had assumed that the building blocks out of which the Wake was made were specific pun-compacted words. I'm now not so sure. I'd say there are three overlapping principles here, or three iterations of the same underlying principle. One is drunkenness, where words gets slurred and people utter unintentional malapropisms and yet still get broadly understood. Two is the tradition of what we might call 'Stage Oirishry', where RP English gets altered and mangled to represent the supposed oddity or idiolectic nature of speaking English with an Irish accent. There's a great deal of this in English Lit, and in culture more generally ('See Seamus, dere's an advart here for "Tree Fellers"'; 'And isn't dat de shame Paddy, and dere's only the two of us!' and so on). It's this that made me wonder if, rather than being one night's sleep, the book isn't rather a week-long Irish booze-up ('wake' being Oirish for 'week' as well as being, well, wake), with many different drinkers slurring their words and speaking idiomatically, sense accordingly swimming in and out of view. Three is ... well, three is what kept popping into my head as I read, and it's this gentlemen:
Stanley Unwin, there, of course. The point about Unwin's comical gibberish is that it was perfectly comprehensible in larger doses, although it's liable to baffle on a word-by-word level. We may not be sure what peeploders are or what cuffle-oteedee means, out of context; but we all grasp the meaning behind the words that were actually read out at his funeral service: "Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee—Oh Yes!"
This has meant that I've been moving more quickly through the book than I thought I would. It's also meant that I'm not recognising the book I thought I would. I assumed, for instance (because I'd read about the work) that it would be a four-part dream narrative, in which a publican named Mr Porter dreamed an alter-ego called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, whose adventures range eruditic-punningly through an ambitious four-part phantasmagoric version of the whole of human history via the theories of Giambattista Vico. Now, obviously, I'm hardly in a position to say that's not what the book is 'about', in some sense. All I can say is that's not the impression the book makes upon me. What I have been getting from it is: a gathering of different people, drunk but awake (in various different degrees of drunkenness and awakedness), chatting uninhibitedly in a venue that tends to render sounds both muffled and clanging. What are they all talking about? Finnegan, I suppose; who is dead and whose wake this is. But the action is a finnegans week long (seven sections to part 1 are seven days; seven sections in total to parts 2, 3 and 4 are seven nights). They talk about the things we talk about at wakes: life and death, reminiscence of happier times, but also sorrow and regret. But more to the point they talk about things the fuller contexts of which we, as readers, are not privy, and so which are often more or less incomprehensible to us. Not just specific referents, but idioms and emphases escape us, and the result is a mishmash. To detune the readerly-sense is to have much more quotidian, if sometimes random and knight's-move-leaping descriptions and conversations, loom into focus. An example from the first section:
Jute. — Yutah!We could say it's a diminishment to read that as follow, except that it's only a sort of preliminary diminishment, one that sets up the possibility of returning to the denser, pun-rich text Joyce actually wrote.
Mutt. — Mukk’s pleasurad.
Jute. — Are you jeff?
Mutt. — Somehards.
Jute. — But you are not jeffmute?
Mutt. — Noho. Only an utterer.
Jute. — Whoa? Whoat is the mutter with you?
Mutt. — I became a stun a stummer.
Jute. — What a hauhauhauhaudibble thing, to be cause! How, Mutt?
Mutt. — Aput the buttle, surd.
Jute. — Whose poddle? Wherein?
Mutt. — The Inns of Dungtarf where Used awe to be he.
Jute. — You that side your voise are almost inedible to me. Become a bitskin more wiseable, as if I were you.
Mutt. — Has? Has at? Hasatency? Urp, Boohooru! Booru Usurp! I trumple from rath in mine mines when I rimimirim!
Jute. — One eyegonblack. Bisons is bisons. Let me fore all your hasitancy cross your qualm with trink gilt. Here have sylvan coyne, a piece of oak. Ghinees hies good for you.
Mutt. — Louee, louee! How wooden I not know it, the intel-lible greytcloak of Cedric Silkyshag! Cead mealy faulty rices for one dabblin bar. Old grilsy growlsy! He was poached on in that eggtentical spot. Here where the liveries, Monomark. There where the mis-sers moony, Minnikin passe.
Jute. — Simply because as Taciturn pretells, our wrongstory-shortener, he dumptied the wholeborrow of rubba — ges on to soil here.
Mutt. — Just how a puddinstone inat the brookcells by a riverpool.
Jute. — Load Allmarshy! Wid wad for a norse like?
Mutt. — Somular with a bull on a clompturf. Rooks roarum rex roome! I could snore to him of the spumy horn, with his woolseley side in, by the neck I am sutton on, did Brian d’ of Linn.
Jute. — Boildoyle and rawhoney on me when I can beuraly forsstand a weird from sturk to finnic in such a pat-what as your rutterdamrotter. Onheard of and um — scene! Gut aftermeal! See you doomed.
Mutt. — Quite agreem. Bussave a sec. Walk a dun blink roundward this albutisle and you skull see how olde ye plaine of my Elters, hunfree and ours, where wone to wail whimbrel to peewee o’er the saltings, where wilby citie by law of isthmon, where by a droit of signory, icefloe was from his Inn the Byggning to whose Finishthere Punct. Let erehim ruhmuhrmuhr. Mearmerge two races, swete and brack. Morthering rue. Hither, craching eastuards, they are in surgence: hence, cool at ebb, they requiesce. Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds. Now are all tombed to the mound, isges to isges, erde from erde. Pride, O pride, thy prize!
Jude. — You there!And so on. This is, clearly, a vastly more dilute, indeed an actively banal text. That's not my point. I'm approximating a way of reading the book, one where instead of continually interrupting the flow, the flow instead smooths the fractal jags of the textbed into smoother shapes. And what interests me is: where does this strange drunken conversation in a Dublin bar between a man with a stammer and an old friend, mocking him with the familiarity of old acquaintance, the two of them reminiscing about the time old Growlson got hammered in this selfsame overpriced pub .... where did it come from? I open Burgess's Here Comes Everybody book, and he describes this same exchange as 'dimly heard dialogue out of the far past', to do with the founding of mythic Ireland and premonitions of the to-come giant. Burgess is sure that, thought demotic and hilarious, the Wake is a book with grandeur, to do with dreams and history and mythic recycling on the most epic of scales. Why don't I get that, when I read it? Is it an index to the pettiness of my imagination? Perish that thought.
Matt. — Pleased to see you.
Jude. — Are you deaf?
Matt. — Somewhat.
Jude. — But you're not deafmute?
Matt. — No! Only a stutterer.
Jude. — What? What's the matter with you?
Matt. — I have bit of a stam- a stammer ...
Jude. — What a [laughing] horrible thing, to be sure! How, Matt?
Matt. — The bot- the bottle, sure.
Jude. — Whose bottle? What d'ye mean?
Matt. — The Inns of Dundalk where I was always to be found.
Jude. — When you stand that side your voice's almost inaudible to me. Be a bit more clearly-spoken, if I were you.
Matt. — Ha-how's that? Hesitancy. Huh. Deafmute. Deafmute is—ugh! I tremble with wrath in my-my ... when I rem-rem-rem ...
Jude. — Well, I take it back. Bygones be bygones. Let me assuage your hesitancy, cross your palm with ... a drink. Here: have silver coin, a piece of eight. Guineas. Guinness is good for you.
Matt. — Lovely, lovely! How wouldn't I not know it, the incredible great cup for a shi- shi- shilling a glug! Except: these are very highfalutin prices for one Dublin bar. Old gri- gri Growlson, he got poached in that exact spot. Hurt where the liver is, ma- ma- mark it. There until Mi- Mi- Minnie came past.
Jude. — Sounds like the story Tacitus tells about our long history. To shorten it, how he dumped a wheelbarrow of rubbish onto the soil here.
Matt. — Boasted he put investment in- in- a brewery over by Liverpool.
Jude. — Lord have mercy! With, what? [knowingly] The worse for wear?
Matt. — Stupified, as if a bull had clomped his head. All rau- rau- raucous roo- roaring, Then, oh I could hear him snore! All on account of that spumy drinking horn, with whiskeys on the side, an- and necking them, I'm certain of it—ask Brian Dufflein.
It's one of the shibboleths of Wake criticism that the text is multivalent, deliberately spawns myriad meanings, and I daresay few Joyce critics would begrudge me my modest little rewriting. Except: this is characteristic of my detuned sense of the whole thing. A patchwork of overlapping voices filling the air with chatter, sometimes in dialogue more often monologuing; sometimes saying interesting things, more often speaking phatically, but all creating in me the sense of a succession of drinking places filled with booze and reminiscence. So I ask: where does it come from, this (as far as I can see) universal axiom that the book relates a dream, with the attendant questions as to the identity of the dreamer and so on? I ask because I really don't get the vibe of a dream, at all. I get the vibe of a pub, and as per the title a wake.
I know that Joyce himself made pronouncements that the whole thing was a night-book to follow Ulysses' day-book, and that it is about a capacious worldmyth dream. But, you know: the one-eyed author is dead. Why should I take his word for it? Then again, there are lots of hints and clues in the text itself to do with dreaming and so on. But then there are lots of hints and clues in the text about a thousand different things. That's the very nub of a text like this, surely. Surely?
The sort of reduction I've (very glancingly) attempted here could be done for the whole book, of course, had I but world enough and time. I wonder what the result would look like? I wonder if there'd be any point in it (I mean the exercise, the redaction; not the original novel) at all?