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What to Make of Finnegans

Wake?
Michael Chabon
JULY 12, 2012 ISSUE

1.
Like many admirers of the work of James Joyce, I had imposed
strict terms on that admiration, and around the work I had
drawn a clear ambit, beyond which I was unprepared to stray.
Ulysses and The Dead: crucial works, without which life was
something seen through a sheet of wax paper, handled with
gloves of thick batting, overheard through a drinking glass
pressed to a wall. Between them those two works managed to
say everything a pitying heart and a pitiless intellect could say
about death and sex and love and literature, loss and desire,
friendship and animosity, talk and silence, mourning and dread.
Then there were Araby, A Little Cloud, and Ivy Day in
the Committee Room, each a masterpiece, endlessly
rereadable, from which I had learned so much about short
stories and their deceptive power; one can learn a lot from all
the stories in Dubliners, even the sketchier ones: about point of
view and the construction of scene, about the myth of Charles
Parnell and horse racing in Ireland, about the pain of grief and
of missed chances.

Gisle Freund

James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1938

Beyond Dubliners there was the unlovable A Portrait of the


Artist as a Young Man, which starts well, charting bold, clear
routes, like Araby, through the trackless waters of childhood,
then fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected
horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics, and the Jesuitical
cleverness that, even in Ulysses, wearies the most true-hearted
lover of Joyce. A stamp in the passport, Portrait, a place I must
visit without ever feeling it necessary to return, though I might
want to wander out now and then to drop in on Joyces poetry,
roughly contemporary with the first novel, those curious
pomes, wearing their spats and dandyish nosegays,
occasionally taking up a putative lute to croon promises of
theoretical love to unconvincing maidens in the windows of
canvas-flat donjons.
After that I came up against the safety perimeter, beyond
which there lurked, hulking, chimerical, gibbering to itself in
an outlandish tongue, a frightening beast out of legend.

2.
I got my first real glimpse of that beast in the Burger Chef
restaurant that used to occupy the basement of the Cathedral of
Learning, at the University of Pittsburgh, in my senior year,
when a classmate in Josephine OBrien Schaefers Ulysses
seminar tossed a paperback copy across our table and dared me
to open it to any page and make head or tail of what I found
there. At that moment I was feeling surprisingly equal to the
challenge. Under the captaincy of Professor Schaefer I had
sailed undiscouraged between the wandering rocks of Ulysses,
clear through the books later chapters, in which sense and
intention lay in ambush and rained flaming arrows of rhetoric
on us as we rowed madly past them. So it was with a traveled

optimism that I accepted my friends throw-down that


morning, opened the book to its first page, and wondered, as
readers around the world have done since 1939, at the problem
posed by its first sentence, with its beautiful first word. A word
unprecedented, enigmatically uncapitalized, with a faintly
Tolkienesque echo, to my nerdish ear, of Rivendell and
Rohirrim.1 Indented and dangling, mid-page, mid-sentence, a
sentence twisting like an inchworm from its filament:
riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
Howth Castle & Environs.
So: a river, running past Eden or some Eden analogue,
swerving and bending as it made its way to Howth Castle and
its surroundings, i.e., Dublin on the Liffey, a city whose
geography I knew well enough by now to be able to recognize
at once the name of Howth, the castle hill on whose slopes
Leopold Bloom had proposed to Miss Marion Tweedy. Maybe,
I consideredhaving played Mr. Antrobus, a modern Adam, in
my high schools production of The Skin of Our Teethin this
book Joyce did for the story of Adam and Eve what Ulysses
did for the Odyssey, transposing it to contemporary Dublin to
ironize the indignities and intricacies of twentieth-century life
and consciousness.
Clear enoughapart from that commodius vicus of
recirculation. Of those four words I could manage only 50
percent comprehension, and one of my keepers was of.
Obviously the water in the river was recirculatinghistory
repeating itself?but when it came to commodius vicus
(adjective-noun? Latin phrase describing Dublin as a vicious
commode?), I had nothing. The sentence seemed to have been
smeared over at its center with a greasy thumbprint. A
commodius vicus of recirculation meant nothing to me, and
that central nothingness flowed, like Eve and Adams running

river, across the sentence, obscuring the rest of it, throwing my


tentative interpretation, no sooner had I formulated it, into
doubt. That nullifying flow next overtopped the levee of the
first period, swamping the following sentences, with their
penisolate war and their doublin mumpers and their mishe
mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick before pooling, deep and
murky, at the start of the third paragraph, where I encountered
this:
bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnt
h
unntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!
Here, thanks to Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky, I
found myself on moderately dry ground, since I knew, from
having accompanied every movement of my bowels during the
mid-1970s with selections from their Peoples Almanacs and
Books of Lists, that this was a contender for the longest word in
the English language (but was it English?), and referred to the
sound made by Gods thundering at the Fall of Man. My initial
theory about Eve and Adams felt suddenly creditable. I was
almost proud of myself, except that I had understood no more
than 10 percent, if that, of the prose that preceded the famous
thunderclap.
I pressed on a little farther, skipping across that running river
on intermittent stepping-stones of sense. Allusions to the story
of the Fall, I saw, glinted clear as gold through the turbulent
babel of the novels first dozen pages. Sure, for the most part,
the text looked like the moderately promising output of the
proverbial infinite monkeys with infinite time on their hands,
but the legend of the books impenetrability was obviously a
hedge of thorns to snag the unworthy. I could hear the
dreaming suspirations of the princess who lay sleeping in its

keep.
Now, I know (along with everything else) that I am a know-itall. I avoid contests of knowledgeword games, Trivial
Pursuit, Celebritiesbecause they bring out an omnisapient
swagger in me that I despise. I also try to steer clear of puzzles,
because I have a tendency, in the solving of them, to lose
perspective. There was a broken combination padlock lying on
a coffee table at a party I attended not long ago; though my
hosts knew the correct combination, the lock refused to open.
At this partyor so I was afterward informedone might
have enjoyed excellent hors doeuvres, premium alcoholic
beverages, the company of witty and attractive human beings. I
spent the whole time wedged into a corner of the couch,
fiddling with that lock.2 That morning in the Burger Chef, I
could hear the book calling to me, whispering like the sword
Stormbringer seducing Elric, promising that if I were to lose
myself in it I would becomein the phrase leveled at Joyce by
his ever-skeptical brother, Stanislausa super-clever
superman.
I refused the call, and closed the book, choosing not to
brandish the paltry granules of sense I had so far managed to
pan.
Crazy, I said, agreeing with my classmates assessment.
Its supposed to be this guy whos dreaming, he informed
me. The book is one whole night, like Ulysses is one whole
day.
This information sealed the matter. I had already experienced,
in those first moments of my encounter with Finnegans Wake,
the most reliably dreamlike of its effects: the tantalizing way it
both hints at meaningdeep, important meaningand mocks
it. Dreams are the Sea-Monkeys of consciousness; in the back
pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but
leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried

dust. At the breakfast table in my house, an inflexible law


compels all recountings of dreams to be compressed into a
sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasing
of epic films listed in TV Guide: Rogue samurai saves peasant
village.
I handed back the book to him. I hate dreams, I said.

3.
Twenty-five years passed. At times the book would wash up on
the beach of my life and I would hear the bottled voice of its
djinn, promising everlasting bliss to puzzle hermits,
inexhaustible cred to know-it-alls. I always forebore. In the
meantime I fought my way, in some cases more than once,
through many other famously daunting tomesProusts,
Perecs, Pynchonsand thereby derived release from lifes
more intractable padlocks, and a pleasurable, quietly cherished
boost to my know-it-all amour propre.
Then, in the spring of 2010, I made my second complete ascent
of Ulysses, and came down hopelessly in love. Reading it at
twenty, I had identified with Stephen Dedalus, a grave mistake.
Stephen Dedalus is a pill. Doubtless I was kind of a pill myself
at twenty, but that didnt make Stephen any more appealing
even then. Still, watching Stephen stumble off into the Dublin
night at the novels end, one imagined him carrying on to
fulfill his glorious destiny as the fictional stand-in for James
Joyce, Great Writer; and in those days it was easy enough to
imagine all kinds of parallel literary destinies for oneself, lying
out there beyond the nighttown of Pittsburgh, PA.
Leopold Bloom was only an old dude, to me, that first time
through; charming, touching, good-hearted, but old: a failure, a
fool, a cuckold, crapping in an outhouse, masturbating into his
pants pocket. His uxoriousness was beyond my understanding,
as was his apparent willingness to endure humiliation. His

lingering sorrow over the death of his infant son meant, I am


ashamed to admit, very little to me at all. When I read Ulysses
again I was shocked to find that, first, I was now mysteriously
a decade older than Leopold Bloom, and second, that the tale
of his stings and losses, his regrets and imaginings, was as
familiar to me as the sour morning taste of my own mouth.
Where a bachelor had seen Blooms devotion to Molly as
pathetic, a husband saw it as noble and, at the same time, as
simply her due. In Blooms retention, into middle age, of his
child-sharp powers of observation, his fresh eye (and ear, and
nose) for nuance and telling detail; in his having managed to
sustain his curiosity about the people and the world around him
after thirty-eight years of familiarity and routine that ought to
have dulled and dampened it; and above all in the abiding
capacity for empathy, for moral imagination, that is the fruit of
an observant curiosity like Blooms, I found, as if codified, a
personal definition of heroism.
Ulysses struck me, most of all, as a book of life; every
sentence, even those that laid bare the doubt, despair, shame, or
vanity of its characters, seemed to have been calibrated to
assert, in keeping with the project of the work as a whole, the
singularity and worth of even the most humdrum and
throwaway of human days. I had just begun it when news came
of the death, from cancer, of my best friends teenage daughter,
and over the week that followed I found myself reaching
gratefully into the books pages, tucking my cold hands into its
pockets for comfort and warmth. It was a lighted house in a
dark night.
When I reached the last page I immediately turned to the first
to read it all over again, and then I made my way back through
the stories, the first novel, the poems, unwilling to relinquish
the company of Joyce. I read the letters and the Ellmann
biography, and checked out the lone play, Exiles, even though I

hate reading plays almost as much as I hate listening to


recitations of other peoples dreams.
After that there was nothing for it: the bottle must, at last, be
unstoppered, the safety perimeter breached.

4.
It took a year, on and off; more on than off. I read it in beds
and on beaches, on airplanes, in the orthodontists waiting
room, on the toilet (it is a peoples almanac, a book of lists), in
Berkeley and in Brooklin, Maine. I even read it, in violation of
house rules against dream-contamination, at the breakfast
table. Over the course of that year I acquired five copies, of
varying size and vintage, carried the lightest in my man-bag
alongside phone, wallet, first aid kit, iPod, and a pair of little
plastic doodads that permit maladroit Western children to eat
potstickers with chopsticks, and took to scattering the others in
various rooms of my house, where those children grew
accustomed to the sight of that enigmatic object, the Wake,
ubiquitous as the little black pylon that haunts the Fifties
families on the sleeve of Led Zeppelins Presence.
In the wake of the Wake came, one by one, its courtiers: A
Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Joyces Book of the Dark, A
Finnegans Wake Concordance, The Books at the Wake, and all
those other texts that put themselves forward, like a swarm of
fezzed guides meeting a P&O liner, to ease and explicate the
travelers passage through the teeming cryptopolis. At some
point in the course of that year, my younger son and his
classmates wrote poems about their parents, immortalizing
their most salient aspects and traits, and in my sons poem I am
depicted, arrested for an instant in the midst of the eternity it
must have seemed to him, reading Finnegans Wake. If in his
poem he erected a kind of statue to his father, then Finnegans
Wake was the pigeon that had come to roost on my hat.

Whats it about? the same boy asked me, not long after the
omnipresent bird had first alighted on the paternal tricorne.
This was, distantly, the second-most-frequent question I got
when somebody saw or heard that I was reading Finnegans
Wake, after Why? The latter question was often, I noticed,
accompanied by a look of mild contempt or even disgust, a
wrinkling of the nose. A reader steeped in the work of H.P.
Lovecraft could not help observing that, to many educated
people, there was something unmistakably loathsome about the
Wake, a touch of Necronomicon, as though it had been bound
in human hide.
Ellmann tells us that Joyce himself referred to the Wake, when
composing it, as his monster, a pet name common enough,
perhaps, among writers long indentured to the service of vast,
metastasizing tomes. But in the case of the Wake the
appellation seems to refer to more than its mere bulk, more
than the seventeen years of obsessive and painful labor that the
beast sucked from Joyce, as his eyesight and his health failed
and the literary establishment, even that part that had
acclaimed the genius of Ulysses, hinted in stage whispers that
he was cracked. The monstrousness of the Wake is apparent
even to the most casual visitor, wrought like teratisms into
sentences that seem, as Lovecraft writes of dread Cthulhus
city of Rlyeh, abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely
redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.
Well I began, thinking that if I could explain the book to a
seven-year-old, I might have some hope of explaining it to
myself. Any reader of the Wake soon learns, thanks to that
Lorre-esque rabble of textual ciceroni, the self-appointed
locksmiths and cryptanalytic know-it-alls, that there are a
number of viable ways to answer the question of what
Finnegans Wake is about. The consensus reply, safe and
broadly unmistaken, akin to going with representative

government when asked to explain the point of the American


Revolution, would be that Finnegans Wake attempts to
recreate, by means of an invented language that Joyce derived
from English, the flow and the flavor of a single night as it
passes within the fitful, sleeping consciousness of a Dublin
tavernkeeper named Earwicker or possibly Porter.
There is not a whole lot in the way of external action; by
comparison to Finnegans Wake, Ulysses is Scaramouche. The
sleeper rolls over. He grumbles. He farts. Late in the book,
without quite waking, he fucks his wife, who lies asleep beside
him. At numerous points, her dream narrativealong with
those of their three children, and of all sleepers, everywhere,
busy dreaming in Swahili and Gaelic and Norwegian and even
(so lonely!) Volapukseems to intermingle with the
protagonists, all the narratives running together, like rivers,
into a single great confluent babel of dreams.
Attempting to give some other, perhaps simpler, answer to my
son, I could have found support among derisive critics,
cautious admirers and ardent partisans of the book for any of
following alternatives:
(a) Hell if I know, kid.
(b) Nothing.
(c) Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent
initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent
imagery (giants, towers, heaps and mounds), recurrent
characters from jokes and literature (a Russian general who
gets shot in the ass, Swifts Vanessa), recurrent historical
figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent dyads
(Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets
(the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent
snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations
from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc.
Such recurrence is presumed to be an attribute of dreams,

which thus (another, more dubious presumption, here derived


from a fairly obscure Renaissance historiographer named
Giambattista Vico, partial eponym of that commodius vicus
that had stumped me back in Pittsburgh) becomes a metaphor
for the whole of recurrent human history, from Adam and Eve
to the martyred Parnell, from the Big Bang, a theory which
Joyce seems vaguely to have intuited, to television, whose
advent, in a novel published the same year that RCA
introduced its first practical system at the New York Worlds
Fair, Joyce seems, nearsightedly, to have predicted.
(d) Everything, ever.
(e) Its authors own super-cleverness, the daedalian prison in
which Joyce starved his genius, having forgotten that, since a
labyrinth is as hard to penetrate as to escape, most of
Asterions intended meals must have failed to make it to the
jaws and waiting belly at the labyrinths center.
(f) Rebellion, the style of the book constituting a colonial
uprising in words, its sentences a series of blows against the
empire of English, saboteur sentences that foul the reservoirs,
cut the power lines, leave open the latches, throw infinite
monkey wrenches into the works of the master language,
which it was Joyce the Irishmans bitter and ironic triumph to
have mastered. Vandalism, revenge, the unhinged glee of
insurrection.
(g) The reliable readiness of critics, doctoral candidates, and
know-it-alls to enshrine difficulty for its own sake, to rise to
the bait of erudite obscurity that Joyce laid for us in this, the
greatest literary prank ever played (outside of revealed
religion). By this accounting for Finnegans Wakeone of
whose recurring figures is a deceptive tailorthe clothes have
no emperor, and it is the few, not the many, who fall for the
deception. As evidence for this claim are adduced numerous
eyewitness accounts of Joyces going through the text, as with

a pink semantic eraser, to efface, misspell, confound, delete,


and repurpose the words of sentences that thereunto had been
relatively (and thus excessively) clear and comprehensible.
(h) Joyces helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia,
the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which
James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive
neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense
accounts, genetically, for the schizophreniaat times
characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and
beautiful utterancesthat afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led
to her eventual institutionalization.
(i) Incest, real or imagined, between father and daughter,
between brother and sister; the memory of a sexual
transgression (or of the wish to commit it) that the book
repeatedly buries and exhumes, accuses and tries, denies and
confesses, with a willing and helpless compulsion. Indeed at
times the book seems to want us to understand that (not unlike
Ada, whose narrator attempts to devise an entire alternate
universea dreamlandin which incest can be an act of
perfection and not of shame) its narrative has been constructed
as kind of monstrous apology or rationalization for that crime
or that desire.
I confessed to my son, in the end, that I was not sure.
Sometimes I felt like I almost understood the Wake, and
sometimes I felt like I was not supposed to understand it.
Every so often I got so caught up in the hectic flow of its prose
that I stopped worrying or wondering if I understood it or not.
Read aloudah! read aloudit was fun, headlong fun, as you
shot the rhetorical rapids in a spinning, swamped whitewater
raft.
And check this out, I said. I showed him how to work the
thing, then, how to press the one obvious button on the surface
of this device that was otherwise as impenetrable, as resistant

to being opened, as some intricate new machine from the


deepest skunkworks of Apple, Inc. I turned to the last page of
the book, to the last broken, stutter-stepping sentence, and
showed him how it twists like a Mbius ribbon around to meet
that dangling inchworm at the start.
A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, he read,
skipping from the final page to the first, past Eve and Adams,
from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a
commodius vicus of recirculationstruggling with itback
to Howth Castle & Environs.
His face lit up, at the completion of that circuit, with genuine
pleasure. He went back and forth, back and forth, and for a
moment the book became a massive flipbook, of two frames
duration. Then, looking puzzled, he asked me if James Joyce
meant to suggest, by means of this device, that at the end of a
night of dreaming, the night began all over again. I told him I
guessed that was the general idea.
Im glad my dreams arent like that, he said.

5.
Other than its simple unreadability (indeed its apparent
hostility to being read), the principal knock against the Wake
what Seamus Deane in his introduction to the Penguin edition
calls the gravamen of the charge against Joyceis that, in
Deanes paraphrase, Joyce surrendered the ordinary world,
the world as represented in the great tradition of the realistic
novel, for a world of capricious fantasy and inexhaustible
word-play. Eliot, Pound, Stanislaus Joyce, Frank Budgen, and
other early champions of Ulysses found disappointment in this
apparent surrender, and the truth is that, for all the real,
nutritious, and hard-won pleasure that can be wrested from the
Wakeas from a bucket of lobsters, by a determined reader
with a pick and a crackeranyone who has first loved or

admired Ulysses must, as Joyce himself anticipated, find


disappointment in Finnegans Wake.
Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a
profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled
gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with
one of the greatest prose styles in the English language
produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can
remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the
Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the
Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of
Norwegian Wood. But to find disappointment in the Wakes,
and Joyces, supposed turn away from approved modernist
procedure, derived from Flaubert, which subjects shifting
states of consciousness to the same rigorous accounting as the
bibelots furnishing a provincial ladys sitting room, is to miss
the point.
Finnegans Wake is nowhere a work of fantasy or caprice, least
of all at its most fantastic and capricious. In Ulysses, like
Proust conducting his researches into lost time, Joyce showed
that the clear eye and steady hand of the realist were adequate
to the task of portraying states of consciousness, however
fleeting or fragmentary, however stretched or shivered or
distorted by the passage of time. In Finnegans Wake, with
characteristic chutzpah, Joyce trained that modernist
instrumentation on the stream of unconsciousness, and thereby,
perhaps without meaning to do so, found realisms limit.
Because my son was correct: once the charm has worn off the
ouroboros sentence that begins and ends Finnegans Wake
perhaps the books best-known feature, apart from the
thousands of river names wrought obsessively into the Anna
Livia Plurabelle chapterthe reader is left with a sense of
irrelevance, of wrongness, like that which always follows on
Dorothys Wake: nobodys dreams are like that. Repetition and

recurrence, in dreams, are discontinuous, partial, illusory: often


the sense of recurrence is itself a passing feature of the dream,
as in a dream you might recognize your old apartment in
Louisville, though in waking life you have never even been to
Kentucky.
So, fine, the names of a thousand rivers are cleverly woven
into Anna Livia Plurabelle; in Joyces Book of the Dark,
John Bishop informs us that this catenation of names, from
Aare to Zambezi, is intended to represent the flow of blood
through the dreamers ears, echoing in the silence of the night.
But in fact the river names do not themselves flow or hum or
ring like circulating blood, any more than the names of pastas
fill the belly, and the spectacular artfulness, the undeniable fun,
of that famous chapter conveys nothing more about the nature
of the dream state, in the end, than do three hundred singing
Technicolor midgets finding a way to rhyme witch with
situation.
Joyce seems to have been well aware of the failure that he was
courting in the Wake. As he wrote to Miss Harriet Weaver of
Anna Livia Plurabelle: Either [it] is something or I am an
imbecile in my judgment of language. Joyces cartography of
the dreaming unconscious is faulty, based as it is on false
assumptions (the night is not circular), and on outmoded
theories (dreams turn out to be no more rooted in the
mythosphere than our destiny in the bumps on our heads), but
most of all on the fundamental insufficiency of words to the
task at hand. If modernism in literature may be defined as a
realism of the unrepresentable, then the Wake turns out to be a
proof of realisms impossibility, of the insufficiency of the
instruments of mimesis to capture, convey, or even accurately
suggest the measureless surreality of dreams.
As my year of diving languorously into the murky waters of
the Wake wore on, I came to feel that it was this failure, this

impossibility, this grand futility of the Wake, that constituted its


secret theme, its true aboutness. The Wakes failure to render
up a true account of the experience of dreaming, of the
unconscious passage of a human consciousness across an
ordinary night, was only a figure for a greater failure, a more
fundamental impossibility. All the while that I was reading
Joyces night book, I was busy at my day job: my Wake year
was also my last spent at work on a novel whose composition
had occupied me, on and off, from conception to completion,
since the late 1990s.
As I groped my way toward the point at which Joyces hoop
snake sinks its fangs into its own tail, the book that I was
writing came ever nearer to its final state, and inevitably,
habitually, as I came down the home stretch I began to look
back, to compare the book at hand, four-hundred-plus pages of
English prose sentences, in Times 12, double-spaced, to the
book as I had first glimpsed it: that lovely apparition, hovering
and beautiful as a vision of the New Jerusalem, wordless,
perfect. Set alongside my original visionthat dream novel
the book Id managed to carry across the span of years and
drafts was at best, as always, a mere approximation, an unruly
neighborhood into which had crowded the ganse mishpoche of
nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adjectives. The idea for a book,
the beckoning fair prospect of it, is the dream; the writing of it
is the breakfast-table recitation, groping, approximation, and
ultimately, always, a failure. It was not like that at all.
To write a novel is to betray it, and in this regard Finnegans
Wake is only a book like any other; but its also, at the same
time, a celebration of that betrayal, as wakes are always
celebrations, and an act of defiance against the impossibility of
realizing the dream, as the fallen builder Tim Finnegan, in the
ballad that lends its title to Joyces book, defies death itself for
the sake of a drop of Jamesons. Im at the end of English,

Joyce is said to have declared, as he began work on Finnegans


Wake; and so he ventured beyond that fatal bourne.
This, to me, was the wisdomthe potable water, the fungible
currency, the capering troop of Sea-Monkeysleft me by the
Wake. If the language we have inherited, have had imposed
upon us, proves unfit to our purpose in catching hold of the
darting apparition of our dream book (as it always will, for the
job is impossible), then we must reinvent it. The writing of
every novel, and not just some polyglot punsters babbling
Book of Kells, requires this act of invention, the creation of a
personal Volapk. For each book you must devise an idiolect, a
working creole you compound by embedding the fine-grained
matrix of your mother tongue with the coarse aggregate of the
worlda Yiddish-speaking Alaskan Jerusalem, a four-color
Nazi-haunted Metropolis, a nighttown Pittsburgh of gangsters
and gay boysthat you have dreamed, with its argots and
geographies, ethnologies and etiquettes. The limits of language
are not the stopping point, says the Wake; they are the point at
which we must begin to tell the tale.
Letters

On the Vico Road September 6, 2012

1George R.R. Martin must have felt the same wayit shows up as
a place name in his A Song of Ice and Fire saga.
2I got it open.

Qu hacemos con
Finnegans Wake?

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ANDRS HAX

24-05-2016 James Joyce


Mientras esperamos la versin que prepara El cuenco de plata
de ese libro extrasimo, Hax nos asegura que funciona como
"una universidad secreta".

Por Andrs Hax.


1.
Hay un pequeo truco que cualquier lector o lectora pude realizar sin
mucho esfuerzo y que los har felices, secretamente y por mucho
tiempo: memorizar la primera lnea de Finnegans Wake (1939), la
ltima y casi incomprensible novela de James Joyce.
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.
Tener estas 41 slabas en nuestra memoria es tomar posesin de un
objeto de la cumbre del modernismo literario. Como si fuera una
moneda romana del reinado de Csar que das vuelta en tu bolsillo con
tus dedos sin que nadie se d cuenta, enunciar esta frase te da un
poder secreto. Es el sencillo poder de estar conectado ntimamente
-aunque por solo un fragmento de un fragmento- con la mente de
James Joyce.
Si lo logran, eso ser, muy probable, lo mas lejos que llegarn en su
lectura de Finnegans Wake. Y eso no est mal, necesariamente. Joyce
escribi su ltimo libro durante 17 aos, en un lenguaje hermtico y
personal, con palabras inventadas, compuestas por mltiples palabras,
o cuyos sentidos dependen de la rima o asonancia con otras palabras
(en otros idiomas) que ni siquiera estn en el texto. Estaba casi ciego
y al final escriba sobre hojas enormes, en crayn, o le dictaba a
Samuel Beckett, elegante y melanclico amanuense.
Tomemos riverrun, una bellsima palabra, que en el Oxford English
Dictionary est atribuida a Joyce mismo (o sea, que l la invent).
Combina river (rio) con run (correr). Con lo cual, la definicin del OED
nos dice: "El curso por el cual un ro da forma y cursa por un paisaje"
(the course which a river shapes and follows through the landscape).
A su vez, sin embargo, esta primera palabra de Finnegans
Wake remite a la palabra alemana Erinnerung, que significa recuerdo o
recoleccin o memoria. A partir de este escueto reconocimiento de
territorio verbal uno podra a escribir pginas y pginas sobre qu
significa "riverrun" en esta obra de Joyce: temticamente,
poticamente, espiritualmente, lexicalmente, literariamente.
Cada palabra de su obra se tiene que descifrar y estudiar de esta
manera. Y despus, por supuesto, hay que volver a leer la frase, el
prrafo, la seccin y el libro con estos nuevos
conocimientos presentes.
Teniendo en cuenta estos factores, es asombroso pensar que alguien
se animara traducir esta obra. Y, sin embargo, tras la reciente versin
excepcional de Ulises hecha por Marcelo Zabaloy para El Cuenco de
Plata, la misma editorial prximamente lanzar su versin de
Finnegans Wake al castellano, tambin a cargo de ese traductor.

2.
Pero tenemos que preguntar acerca del Wake.
Vale la pena? Joyce enloqueci? Nos est tomando el pelo?
La respuesta a todas estas preguntas es, enfticamente: s. Pero con
los siguientes condicionamientos.
Vale la pena leerlo, pero poco a poco, como un pequeo hbito que
uno adopta cotidianamente. Como meditar 10 minutos por da o salir a
trotar. Si eventualmente llegs a leer el libro entero, entrars en un
grupo selecto, como el de los que se han parado en la cumbre del
Everest o cruzado el mundo en un velero. Pero, ms all de semejante
hazaa literaria, terminars aprendiendo sobre historia, lingstica,
historia literaria, mitologa, geografa, poesa y varias disciplinas
esotricas. Finnegans Wake es una universidad secreta.
S, Joyce est loco. Enloqueci. Pero tal vez es la locura de Cristo o de
Buda. Para comprobarlo hay que leer su libro.
S, de cierta forma, nos est tomando el pelo. Pero tal vez como nos
toman el pelo los maestros Zen, enfrentndonos con enigmas y
contradicciones que nuestra mente en vigilia es incapaz de resolver.
Hay que entrar en un modo nocturno de pensar, de despertar dentro
de un sueo para poder aunque sea empezar a deambular dentro del
mundo de Finnegans Wake.
3.
sta es una manera excelente de comenzar.
> Ac tienen el texto completo online en ingls.
> Por otro lado, ac tienen el texto entero online, pero anotado,
palabra por palabra.
> Una ltima cosa: ac tienen un audio, extraordinario, de la lectura
completa de Finnegans Wake (son 35 horas). Entre otras
cosas, Finnegans Wake es una obra musical. Escchenla como
escucharan una pieza de John Cage o Brian Eno.
Esta es la base. A partir de ac tienen el punto de arranque para un
proyecto de lectura que no agotarn en sus vidas. Y que, si no se lo
toman demasiado en serio, los har muy, muy felices.
Antes de comenzar, escuchen la voz de Joyce mismo leyendo de la
obra. Mientras tanto, hganme caso y memorcense la primera lnea:
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.
Es como una linda cancin. Es como una oracin patafsica. Es como la
contrasea a una sociedad secreta. Es un pequeo portal a una de las
mentes literarias ms brillantes, ms bellas y ms extraas de la
historia humana.

Para investigar ms
Finnegans Wake the book the web was invented for (The Guardian.
28 abril, 2015)
What to Make of Finnegans Wake? Por Michael Chabon (The New
York Review of Books)
Anthony Burgess sobre Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake | The James Joyce Center
Pginas del manuscrto de Finnegans Wake
The Adventurer's Guide to Finnegans Wake by Ted Gioia