Reading Finnegans Wake

Michael Wood reviews a scholarly new edition of Joyce's final masterpiece
James Joyce
In this week's London Review of Books, Michael Wood takes on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the work in progress that, for many, feels like a read of regress:
Writers on or introducers of Finnegans Wake regularly imagine three sorts of reader or non-reader of the book. Philip Kitcher, in Joyce’s Kaleidoscope, lists ‘those too intimidated to try to read it, those who have tried and failed, and … those who write about it’. Roger Marsh, the producer of Jim Norton’s and Marcella Riordan’s haunting audio version, names ‘new readers’, ‘readers who have never been able to make much headway’ and ‘those who already have some familiarity with the book’. For good measure, there is also Seamus Deane’s group of untimid abstainers for whom the book’s taken-for-granted unreadability becomes ‘the pseudo-suave explanation for never having read it’. Of course these three (or four) groups may represent quite different people, but it is possible (I speak for myself) for one person to belong to all of the first three: to have tried without regarding what one has been doing as a real try; to have failed by dint of not trying hard enough; and to have written about the book anyway, because ‘some familiarity’ is not entirely nothing. I take comfort from the fact that Jacques Derrida manifestly (in ‘Deux mots pour Joyce’) put himself in this category, and for such a reader the scepticism about grand schemes or total understanding that we find in the best recent criticism is very attractive. John Bishop, for example, says ‘the only way not to enjoy Finnegans Wake is to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order.’ This is a brave claim, but it is true that the book is hard not to enjoy – it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment. Kitcher says he ‘cannot see how to read the Wake as a vast allegory of human history’, and does not believe ‘that Joyce has any great interest in large theories of history or any ambitious theses to defend in this area’. So much for Vico and Jung, and all those epic readings, like that of Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key, and even Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody. Finn Fordham, in Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake, wryly says, ‘It is one of the most enduring universal myths about Finnegans Wake that it is about enduring universal myths,’ and reassuringly remarks that ‘the first impression of a mix of recognisable sense and incomprehensible nonsense will always return, however deeply immersed you get in the book.’

There is an answer to a worry of Derrida’s here, and also to several groups of naysayers who appear like ghostly lawyers in Kitcher’s study, suggesting that Joyce is nothing but an annoying riddler, merely out to baffle his readers terminally. Needless to say, this is not Kitcher’s own view. Derrida reads and admires Joyce but is not sure he likes him, because Joyce writes us into the book we are reading, catches us up into a cultural memory far larger than our own. This is an act of war from the story or land of Babel, Derrida says, an ‘acte de guerre babelien’, and he is not sure we can like this without resentment or jealousy. He goes on to sketch various possibilities of escape from this dominion, but he doesn’t seem to put much faith in them. And yet, at the end of his essay/talk, he provides the answer in a series of brilliant questions. ‘Why does laughter inform the whole experience that relates us to Finnegans Wake … What does this writing teach us about the essence of laughter when it sometimes laughs at the notion of essence, at the limits of the calculable and the incalculable?’ The next sentence includes the phrase that seems to me to put the matter to rest (by refusing all rest, to be sure): ‘a writing of which we can no longer decide whether it is still calculating or not’, where ‘still calculating’, I take it, means still wanting to mean something, or knowing what one means.

Derrida returns to Babel and the war, but surely it’s easy to make peace with a writer who finally lets us (and himself) go in this way, and in their very different terms Kitcher and Fordham offer such a writer to us. ‘Our task,’ Kitcher says, ‘is to find a set of readings … that produce an illuminating pattern on the kaleidoscope – where the reader sets the standard for what counts as illuminating.’ For Fordham, Finnegans Wake is a book that ‘unravels … the universals that it seems to set up … because deviating detail overwhelms those unitary elements that attempt to secure strategies of totalisation’. ‘Deviating detail’ is perfect, and I would want only to linger over the laughter. Why are we laughing, and what can it mean or fail to mean that the book we hold in our hands has a joke in every sentence? [Read more]

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