Two years ago, I set out determined to finish the Modern Library’s list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century – a list I had been lackadaisically working on since it was published in 1999. At that point, I only had about 30 or so to go of the 121 books on the list. The largest boulder in my path at that point (or at any point on my journey to reaching this goal) was Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.
Before I started FW, I knew nothing about how it was written and had no idea that it was so crazy. I knew that it is Joyce’s magnum opus, that it took him 17 years or so to write, and that he had staff helping him research. I also knew from reading about FW that it all takes place in one night, but is a history of all time, and that the main dream character feels guilt about something he did in a park with two "temptresses" and for vaguely incestuous feelings he has towards his daughter.
I "knew" these ideas only in the sense that I read about their existence. But by 100 pages or so into the book itself, I still had no actual comprehension of them. Or anything, for that matter. The closest I could get would be a vague suggestion of some of these themes from sentences like this:
And so they went on, the fourbottle men, the analists, unguam and nunguam and lunguam again, their anschluss about her whosebefore and his whereafters and how she was lost away away in the fern and how he was founded deap on deep in anear, and the rustlings and the twitterings and the raspings and the snappings and the sighings and the paintings and the ukukuings and the (hist!) the springapartings and the (hast!) the bybyscuttlings and all the scandalmunkers and the pure craigs that used to be (up) that time living and lying and rating and riding round Nunsbelly Square.Yep. That's what the entire book is like. All 620 pages. Made up words, foreign words, amalgamated words – crazy stuff.
I never understood an entire paragraph; only occasionally comprehended an entire sentence, and definitely only short ones; and was delighted at every word I caught. I read it for the experience of reading it, but gave up trying to understand it after the first page. Yes, I tried reading it out loud, and that helped – but only to a point. I decided to just let it flow over me and enjoy the sounds like poetry or music.
And I was so pleased with myself for finishing it. I was free to "shun the Punman" after months of effort. I was also a little concerned, because I seemed to understand it better after about page 500. I hoped this meant it just hits an easier patch as it gets to the end. I hoped it did not mean that I had learned enough FW language to comprehend more, because then I would have been tempted to start over at the beginning!
Of course, that is what Joyce intended. He wanted to publish FW in a spiral binding without covers, so there would be no official beginning or end and people would read it non-stop. As it is, it starts in the middle of a sentence. The final sentence in the book is the beginning of the sentence that starts the book.
Finnegans Wake was definitely the most difficult book I have ever read. It is not that I hated it. It was incredibly frustrating, but it has poetic beauty. I do not think anyone should read it unless they are compulsive about finishing their book lists (like me), or are really into James Joyce. But I like the idea that there is a structure to it (even if I couldn't follow the structure).
For me, it was like that famous Hieronymus Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. I do not like it. I think it is weird. It takes too long to look at and there are so many things in it that I do not understand. But, I admire the mind and talent that created it.
That said, I was thrilled to be done with FW! When I finished it, I keep thinking of that joke about the 85-year-old, widowed rabbi who goes into the confessional at St. Mary's and says to the priest, "Father, I just had sexual relations with a 24-year-old aerobics instructor." The priest says, "But Rabbi, why are you confessing? You aren't Catholic." The rabbi says, "Confessing? Are you kidding? I'm telling EVERYBODY." That was me – I told EVERYBODY.
And now you can "suck it yourself, Sugarstick"!
OTHER REVIEWS OR ESSAYS ON FW
The Clerk Manifesto: Seven Pleasures of Finnigans Wake
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