DECRYPTING FINNEGANS WAKE (2002)
This Sunday is BloomsDay, the annual celebration of James
Joyce and his works. (On June 16, 1904, Joyce and Nora
Barnacle first went for the walk he later immortalized
I thought I'd do a little low-key celebrating myself, with
some Joyce-related reading in the days leading up to
Bloomsday. I did Dubliners
ago, but Ullyses,
according to British author Martin Amis, can "take a week
to read, if you do nothing else."
No deal — a project like that would cut into my reading. If
I was going to be defeated by a Joyce tome, I perversely
figured, it might as well be the heavyweight:
So I prepared myself with a bit of Joyce scholarship.
Published in 1939 by a reluctant TS Eliot — himself no
slouch in the obscure reference department — Finnegans Wake
remains the most famously inaccessible literary work in
English. British author Martin Amis describes Joyce
ratcheting up the difficulty, from Dubliners
before he " girds himself for the ultimately
reader-hostile, reader-nuking immolation of
every word is a multilingual pun."
Joyce apparently assembled FW with 12,000 notes left over
from Ullyses. The central character of FW is Humphrey
Chimpden Earwicker, or Here Comes Everybody, or Haveth
Childers Everywhere. It’s that Everyman thing, and his
wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is Everywoman. Her name also
connotes the River Liffey that runs through Dublin, rain,
the life force, and damn near anything else you can find
with a Liberal Arts decoding ring.
Sounded daunting. Too daunting — so I figured I'd take FW
like a potent medicine, a few pages a day, for the week
leading up to Bloomsday. And I did just that, with a
battered Penguin classics copy, and some outside help (Amis
So there I was in a North Vancouver coffee shop, with my
laptop and the Penguin. Jacked up on two Americanos and
ready for anything the author could throw at me, I cracked
open Joyce’s cryptobrick.
"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, frsom swerve of shore to
bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of
recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."
Not bad for an opening sentence, with the river's flow
mirrored in the structure of the sentence itself. I could
tell that even without knowing what a "vicus" is. But I'm
afraid it was downhill from there:
"Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had
passen- core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the
scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his
penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream
Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios
while they went doublin their mumper all the time..."
And that’s only halfway through the sentence. As I flipped
through the book, I could see little in the way of anything
my understanding could light upon. It was Greek to me,
literally: Joyce apparently incorporated something like
forty languages in his multilingual puns. I didn’t need
Cliffs notes for FW — I needed simultaneous translation
from the UN.
According to Joyce scholars, the book is, at least in part,
the story of HCE, his wife, and their three children: both
the primal family of human origins and Everyfamily.
Underlying the wordplay is a central idea, inspired by the
18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, that
history is cyclic. Joyce demonstrated this beginning the
book with the end of a sentence left unfinished on the last
page. And the first word to puzzle me — “vicus” — is a
distortion of Vico’s name.
But I wanted the thoughts of someone other than a Joyce
scholar. Knowing of no one who's ever tackled FW before, I
logged onto Amazon.com, to check out other reader's
reactions to FW.
"I still understand enough to know that I like what I'm
reading," writes a self-described 17 year old high school
senior." And even when I don't understand, it doesn't
matter - simply the sound of the language is enjoyable. "As
we there are where are we are we there from tomtittot to
teetootomtotalitarian. Tea tea too oo." What the hell does
that mean? Who knows! But it doesn't matter, it rocks!"
Well, if a high school kid could get more out of FW than
the WWF, surely I could too. The next morning, I cracked
open the Penguin as soon as I was awake, to have at the
first page again without even the benefit of caffeine.
"The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and
later on life down through all christian minstrelsy."
I tossed the Penguin to the floor.
Maybe he was going for some watery onomatopoeia with that
"bababada" bit, but I couldn't be sure. Is this the music
of the spheres, or the sound of one mick wanking? Even the
experts aren't so sure. Daniel J. Boorstin, formerly the
Librarian of Congress, put it this way in
Creators: "Why has
so eloquent and lucid a writer as Joyce spent his energies
teasing us with a book of colossal proportions, with its
puzzling plenitude of invented words, multiple puns, and
onomatopoetic inventions? Is it inconceivable that this
master of the comic may have launched the biggest literary
hoax of history?"
We continue to believe that the problem lies not with
Joyce’s words, but with our limited intellectual resources
in decoding them. Boorstin cites unsourced "knowledgeable
interpreters" who described it as "notoriously the most
obscure book ever written by a major writer; at least, by
one who was believed not to be out of his mind."
As for Joyce himself, he also seemed to be uncertain about
what the book was about. "It's hard to say, " Joyce
reportedly told a sculptor friend of his work in progress,
in 1923. "It's like a mountain that I tunnel into from
every direction, but I don't know what I will find." By
that time he had christened it Finnegans Wake, excising the
apostrophe because of the subplot concerning the death of
Finnegan and resurrection of all Finnegans (Finn-again).
I decided to give Joynce another shot. Maybe if I read FW
at bedtime I could get the gist better without stumbling
over his many neologisms. I opened it at random.
“Venuses were gigglibly temptatrix, vulcans guffawably
eruptious and the whole wives' world frockful of fickles.
Fact, any human inyon you liked any erenoon or efter would
take her bare godkin out, or an even pair of hem, (lugod !
lugodoo !) and....“
To mythologist Joseph Campbell, one of the few academic
interpreters to have swallowed FW whole and spat out a
thesis on it, the book is “a huge time capsule, the book is
a kind of terminal moraine in which lie buried all the
myth, programs, hopes, prayers, tools, educational
theories, and theological bric-a-brac of the past
I wouldn't know. I never read the thing through, having got
only as far as the second page. It was a technical knockout
The biggest and weirdest word-game ever penned, FW is
famous for lending its obscurity to that of atomic physics.
When Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Man wanted a name for
the ultimate constituents of matter, he remembered a line
from Finnegans Wake: "three quarks for munster Mark." In
the novel, a quark is a kind of cheese — and FW itself, I
suspect, is a kind of tease: a half-mad folly of worldplay,
designed to drive anyone less brilliant (or crazy) than the
author to drink.
Worked on me. So here's to you, JJ: a pint raised to your
nutty rearrangement of the English language, your
Eliot-approved Tower of Babble. Whatever the Hell it means,
you built it with your own hands, along with an academic
cottage industry. Happy Bloomsday.