Finnegans Wake - the purest blarney you never heard
There are few novels in world literature more unapproachable than James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
Even Ulysses, recently voted the most important novel of the 20th century in a New York poll, tends to lose many of its readers before the end of the third chapter (sadly, since after that it gets much easier).
Finnegans Wake, it is safe to say, adorns most bookshelves with hardly a dozen of its pages thumbstained. Despite this fact, the book managed to achieve eleventh place in the same New York poll. (One wonders whether this would have been the case if voters had been asked to answer correctly a few simple questions about the plot.)
Clearly the book's greatness is widely understood, even if the book itself is not. This may be due in part to the enormous and
continuing efforts of the many thousands of Joyce scholars who turn the wheels of the international Joyce industry, a large
part of which is devoted to the elucidation of the author's last great testament. For help is readily at hand for those who
wish to reach a deeper understanding of Joyce's intentions. There are books to help us appreciate the historical and Irish
political background to the novel. There are essays on the philosophical, psychological and theological threads which run
through this literary labyrinth. Musical and literary scholars have catalogued the vast array of references and allusions which
litter the text; and there is no shortage of biographical material to confirm that, in part at least, the subject of the novel is
(once again) Joyce himself, or at least Dublin as Joyce knew it.
With all this assistance from such a dedicated support group, it may seem odd that the book remains so mysterious and unread.
The problem is that an understanding of underlying themes and surface allusion does not, in the case of Finnegans Wake, go far enough in helping to unravel the words on the page. It is sometimes held that because Joyce incorporates elements from many languages, simultaneously, in a kind of multilingual punning exercise, the work can only be fully appreciated by a reader equally adept in Sanskrit, Dutch, Norwegian, Urdu etc. Were it true, this would close the book for all of us - possibly even for Joyce who was certainly not fluent in all the world's languages. But the truth is that a linguistic explication (code-cracking) of a given sentence, while generally fascinating, does not necessarily reveal the sentence's primary meaning. Nor is it easy to find a sentence, in fact, where English is not the predominant language. Usually the imported language serves merely to colour the poetry of the sentence, - to give it rhythm or add depth or strangeness to a commonplace word, such as 'regginbrow' for 'rainbow':
'...and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.'
If the predominant language is English, the predominant accent is certainly Irish, and understanding this is often a large part of the solution to the problem of reading the Wake. Try it with this sentence, - the words of an elderly female museum guide - (bearing in mind that 'Willingdone' in this context is the Duke of Wellington, and 'Lipoleum' is Napoleon):
'This is the wixy old Willingdone picket up the half of the threefoiled hat of lipoleums fromoud of the bluddle filth.'
Understanding the tone and character behind the language is the key to the book. In Joyce, of course, (as we know from Ulysses) this can change frequently and without warning, but once the appropriate voice is discovered, difficulties fall away quickly, often revealing broad humour and tender poetry. Sometimes the tone is Biblical, sometimes journalistic, and often it is that of everyday blarney:
' Arrah, sure, we all love little Anny Ruiny, or, we mean to say, lovelittle Anna Rayiny, when unda her brella, mid piddle med puddle, she ninnygoes nannygoes nancing by.'
Sometimes, such as when the tone is academic, (there is a marvellous spoof lecture on the analysis of a rediscovered, partly
de-composed letter), one has trouble following the details of the argument - an experience familiar to most students. But if
the words are 'heard' in the correct tone and with the correct rhythm, the details may not matter.
Roger Marsh is a composer and Professor of Music at the University of York. He has abridged and produced all Joyce's novels for Naxos Audiobooks, most recently Finnegans Wake.