Are We There Yet? A Journey to an Understanding of Finnegans Wake

Review from The Record, March 17th, 2017

Apologies to Thérèse Pelchat and Lucille Lefebvre and also to intrepid readers who went to the Library this week expecting paintings and who found instead an exhibition of the Sherbrooke Photo Club. Mixed communications and publication dates…. But, to be sure, the photo exhibition has much to be said for it!
Final fanfare! Canada Reads and so does Lennoxville. Safe to say the trauma of this week’s wintry blast will have faded into memory and we’ll all be ready for some spring-like entertainment next week. So, next Thursday, March 23rd, at 6:30 p.m., come to the Library to see this year’s rendition of our ever-popular battle of the books. This year’s presenters are Kathleen Adams, Stephanie Brown, Melanie Cutting, Ross Murray, and Anne Ross. For more details consult our website and facebook page.
Now to business of the most serious kind: St Patrick’s Day business. What could be more suited to the occasion than a paean to the great James Joyce—specifically to his final, towering, 17-years-in-the-writing-and-thoroughly-perplexing Finnegans Wake? The mere mention of the title elicits groans and bemused looks from even the most serious of readers and critics. As it was first published in installments in the 1920’s and 30’s it garnered hostile reviews, even from some of his staunchest supporters. Yet it is widely considered one of the most influential (and least read) works of the 20th Century.
The work’s title comes from the popular Irish music hall song dating back to the 1850’s. In this ballad, Tim Finnegan is a hod carrier (chap who carries bricks) with a love of liquor. One day, somewhat the worse for drink, and falls from a building, cracks his skull, and dies. This is rendered in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake thus: “…wan warning Phill filt tippling full. His howd feeled heavy, his hoddit did shake. (There was of course a wall in erection) Dimb! He stottered from the latter. Damb! He was dud. Dumb! Mastabatoom, mastabadtomm, when a mon merries his lute is all long. For whole the world to see.”
Of course there is a wake (i.e. Finnegans Wake) at which, after much drink taken from the “bockalips of finicky fore his feet. And a barrowload of guenesis hoer his head”, an argument ensues. Then, predictably, a fight breaks out in the course of which some whiskey wets the lips of the recumbent corpse and miraculously, Tim Finnegan comes back to life!
But not so fast! Tim’s fate is held in abeyance as Joyce works the death and resurrection theme into a many layered work. Tim Finnegan, in his comatose state, is stretched out (geographically) from Howth Head (north-east of Dublin) with his body “extensolied” to the southwest through Phoenix park (i.e., “fionn uisce” park, Irish for “clear water” park.) His feet fetch up against the magazine (Magazine Fort) wall. Somewhere is the middle region is a proudly erect and very conspicuous Wellington monument. In fact, the prostrated figure of Finnegan becomes a mythologized male form. It quickly becomes evident that any traditional notions of plot, narrative and character development, and form will not do you any good in attempting to understand this work. We are confronted with a series of central male characters: Tim Finnegan, H.C.E (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker a.k.a Haroun Childeric Eggeberth a.k.a. Here Comes Everybody), Jarl Van Hoother, the Festy King, Finn McCool, Charles Stewart Parnell. Typically they are involved in some shady goings on (incest, voyeurism, treachery, adultery, cowardice, exhibitionism) which are never clearly specified, but become, nonetheless, the stuff of gossip, popular songs, and legend.
We are introduced to a more limited cast of female figures: Anny Ruiny, A.L.P (Anna Livia Plurabelle), the “pranquean”, and Kitty O’Shea. They spend their time goading, cajoling, upbraiding, teasing, nurturing, betraying, frustrating, and complaining about the main male characters.
There are rival duos, sometimes brothers (Shem the penman and Shaun the postman, Kevin and Jerry); sometimes ill-defined entities (the Mookse and the Gripes); and comic characters (Mutt and Jute). Typically they play out dramas involving Irish history, ecclesiastical debates, philosophical arguments, and ways of knowing or perceiving.
Wait a minute, are you lost? That is precisely the problem and the reason Finnegans Wake is such a daunting work. Even if one could ever get the characters straight, getting them straight actually works against the intent of the work. This is a book of the night, a book of dreams. There are allusions to the Egyptian Book(s) of the Dead, the Bible (particularly the Book of Kells), the Q’ran, the Torah, the Upanishads. Characters shift and blend in these backdrops, assuming different transient roles. It seems that Joyce is depicting the nature of our own representations of ourselves—to show how our identities are constructed more often than not “delusionally”—through myths, religious beliefs, political convictions, through family legends, through childhood interactions, imagined and misunderstood slights, even through playground jingles and popular songs! Put philosophically, How do we know what we know? and How do we know who we are? And within these questions, what is the essence of human nature? In Finnegans Wake, we are led to believe, Joyce is creating his own Book of Kells which presents the pageant of human history and psychology.
In Finnegans Wake, Joyce also creates his own unique language, and one that plays with the history that is hidden in the etymology of each word. He uses upwards of 60 world languages, some living, some dead; artificial languages like Volapuk and Esperanto; several different regional varieties of English and Irish; and also several English pidgin dialects. Syllables and units of meaning rub together and create sparks of insight and significance. Very often Joyce will make the reader’s tongue follow certain patterns of rising or falling as he literally gets inside one’s head! His English teaching experience in Trieste no doubt provided much of the inspiration for this kind of experimentation, as well as his obsessive interest in languages. Also, the fact that he suffered throughout his life from various eye disorders (iritis, glaucoma, cataracts) meant that he was more than usually obsessed with sounds. So this work absolutely must be read out loud and with no competing sounds in the background. As you might appreciate, reading in this way is fraught, to say the least (“Shhhh! I’m reading Finnegans Wake”), with social consequences!
Alas, the Lennoxville library doesn’t possess a copy of Finnegans Wake, but an interesting edition can be had via inter-library loan from the Haskell Library (introduced by formidable Wake guru John Bishop!). If you don’t mind reading online there are several complete e-versions that provide much needed glosses for his rather arcane linguistic, social, and historical references. Allow yourself plenty of time (perhaps a year?) and derive comfort knowing that a full understanding of this work is, in fact, impossible.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
—Stephen Sheeran

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About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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