Wherein the author tackles James Joyces’ most challenging work, in honour of Bloomsday on June 16.
by Geoff Olson (June 2016)
On June 16, 1904, Joyce and Nora Barnacle first went for the walk through Dublin he later immortalized in Ulysses. I thought I’d do a little low-key celebrating myself, with some Joyce-related reading in the days leading up to Bloomsday.
I did Dubliners years ago, but Ulysses, according to Martin Amis, can “take a week to read, if you do nothing else.” No deal: A project like that would cut into my reading. If I was going to be defeated by a Joyce tome, I perversely figured, it might as well be the heavyweight: Finnegans Wake.
So I prepared myself with a bit of Joyce scholarship. Published in 1939 by a reluctant T. S Eliot — himself no slouch in the obscure reference department — Finnegans Wake remains the most famously inaccessible literary work in English. Amis describes Joyce ratcheting up the difficulty, from Dubliners to Ulysses, before he “girds himself for the ultimately reader-hostile, reader-nuking immolation of Finnegans Wake, where every word is a multilingual pun.”
Joyce apparently assembled FW with 12,000 notes left over from Ulysses. The central character of FW is Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or Here Comes Everybody, or Haveth Childers Everywhere. It’s that Everyman thing, and his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is Everywoman. Her name also connotes the River Liffey that runs through Dublin, rain, the life force and damn near anything else you can find with a liberal arts decoding ring.
Sounded daunting. Too daunting. So I figured I’d take FW like a potent medicine, a few pages a day, for the week leading up to Bloomsday. And I did just that, with a battered Penguin classics copy, and some outside help (Amis and company).
So there I was in a North Vancouver coffee shop, with my laptop and the Penguin. Jacked up on two Americanos and ready for anything the author could throw at me, I cracked open Joyce’s cryptobrick.
“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.”
Not bad for an opening sentence, with the river’s flow mirrored in the structure of the sentence itself. I could tell that even without knowing what a “vicus” is. But I’m afraid it was downhill from there:
“Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen- core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time . . .
And that’s only halfway through the sentence. As I flipped through the book, I could see little in the way of anything my understanding could light upon. It was Greek to me, literally: Joyce apparently incorporated something like 40 languages in his multilingual puns. I didn’t need CliffsNotes for FW — I needed simultaneous translation from the UN.
But I wanted the thoughts of someone other than a Joyce scholar. Knowing of no one who’s ever tackled FW before, I logged onto Amazon.com, to check out other readers’ reactions.
“I still understand enough to know that I like what I’m reading,” writes a self-described 17-year-old high school senior. “And even when I don’t understand, it doesn’t matter. Simply the sound of the language is enjoyable. ‘As we there are where are we are we there from tomtittot to teetootomtotalitarian. Tea tea too oo.’ What the hell does that mean? Who knows! But it doesn’t matter, it rocks!”
Well, if a high-school kid could get more out of FW than FB, surely I could, too. The next morning, I cracked open the Penguin as soon as I was awake, to have at the first page again without even the benefit of caffeine.
“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.”
I tossed the Penguin to the floor.
Perhaps Joyce was going for some watery onomatopoeia with that “bababada” bit, but I couldn’t be sure. Is this the music of the spheres, or the sound of one mick wanking? Even the experts aren’t so sure. Daniel J. Boorstin, formerly the Librarian of Congress, put it this way in The Creators:”Why has so eloquent and lucid a writer as Joyce spent his energies teasing us with a book of colossal proportions, with its puzzling plenitude of invented words, multiple puns and onomatopoetic inventions? Is it inconceivable that this master of the comic may have launched the biggest literary hoax of history?”
We continue to believe that the problem lies not with Joyce’s words, but with our limited intellectual resources in decoding them. Boorstin cites unsourced “knowledgeable interpreters” who described it as “notoriously the most obscure book ever written by a major writer; at least, by one who was believed not to be out of his mind.”
As for Joyce himself, he also seemed to be uncertain about what the book was about. “It’s hard to say,” Joyce reportedly told a sculptor friend of his work in progress, in 1923. “It’s like a mountain that I tunnel into from every direction, but I don’t know what I will find.” By that time he had christened it Finnegans Wake, excising the apostrophe because of the subplot concerning the death of Finnegan and resurrection of all Finnegans (Finnagain).
I decided to give Joyce another shot. Maybe if I read FW at bedtime I could get the gist better without stumbling over his many neologisms. I opened it at random.
“Venuses were gigglibly temptatrix, vulcans guffawably eruptious and the whole wives’ world frockful of fickles. Fact, any human inyon you liked any erenoon or efter would take her bare godkin out, or an even pair of hem, (lugod ! lugodoo!) and. . . .”
To mythologist Joseph Campbell, one of the few academic interpreters to have swallowed FW whole and spat out a thesis on it, it is “a huge time capsule, the book is a kind of terminal moraine in which lie buried all the myth, programs, hopes, prayers, tools, educational theories, and theological bricabrac of the past millennium.”
I wouldn’t know. I never read the thing through, having got only as far as the second page. It was a technical knockout by Joyce.
The biggest and weirdest word game ever penned, FW is famous for lending its obscurity to that of atomic physics. When Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann wanted a name for the ultimate constituents of matter, he remembered a line from Finnegans Wake: “three quarks for munster Mark.” In the novel, a quark is a kind of cheese — and FW itself, I suspect, is a kind of tease: a half-mad folly of wordplay, designed to drive anyone less brilliant (or crazy) than the author to drink.
Worked on me. So here’s to you, JJ: a pint raised to your nutty rearrangement of the English language, your Eliot-approved Tower of Babble. Whatever the hell it means, you built it with your own hands, along with an academic cottage industry. To say nothing of the inspiration your wordplay supplied to everyone from the Beat writers to Beatle John Lennon, and beyond. Happy Bloomsday.
(An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.)
Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writher and idiotorial racoonist.