Reading Finnegans Wake

finnegans wakeEaster 2017 and my reading chums and I finished Ulysses, we absolutely loved it and quickly read (and went to see) Hamlet to explore the father/son motif, read Dubliners so we could spend more time with the characters and went to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday.  We read Portrait of the Artist to get more of Stephen Dedalus, we even went on a course and gave (very short) presentations on different aspects of the book.  We were in awe of his intelligence, his sparkling language – how could we get more Joyce?
Let’s read Finnegans Wake we said!

The first week, armed with Oxford Classic editions and our guide A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (Joseph Campbell) we had a really fun time annotating our copies with the chapter headings that Mr key to FWCampbell provided “to serve as a handrail for the reader groping (their) way along unfamiliar galleries'” and wondered how we were going to read it.

“It is a strange book, a compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare – a monstrous enigma beckoning imperiously from the shadowy pits of sleep.” (Joseph Campbell).  It’s a vast dream, crowded with characters where all time occurs simultaneously. A revolving stage of mythological heroes, remotest antiquity and popular culture.

The title comes from an old vaudeville song about Tim Finnegan who falls from a ladder to his death but wakes up during his own wake to join in the dancing – so he is awake at a wake!  Life and death together.   But this comic beginning is symbolic of Lucifer’s fall, Adam’s fall, the fall of Rome,  Humpty Dumpty . . . all of history is woven through the Viconian Cycle.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) believed that history runs through four phases: theocratic, aristocratic,democratic and chaotic. The last phase characterized by individualism is the nadir of man’s fall. Terminated by a thunderclap it reawakens mankind and starts the cycle rolling again. Joyce follows this circular structure, so the first word of the novel ‘riverrun’ is a continuation of the last sentence of the book, and it’s suggestive of the flowing, circular river of time.

Given this circular structure how you choose to read the book is open to interpretation. The fable of the ant and the grasshopper is a recurring motif, we can choose to read as grasshoppers, opening a random page and jumping about the text for musical phrases and motifs or ant like – start at the beginning and plod through (we are told this is laborious and not in the spirit of the book).  We decided we were ants and prepared to plod.

james joyce

“It’s a massive rap, as in rapper, as in street music, as in lingo, as in the heat of the day and cool of the night captured dreamily and melodiously in words of all shapes and sizes. It’s a mirage.” Said Joyce expert Frank Delaney.

Bored of being confined by conventional language Joyce created words and a language of his own that looks like nonsense but is densely packed with layers of cultural and literary allusion in a mind boggling number of languages.

For example ‘mathmaster’: Math is Anglo-Saxon for ‘mow’ or ‘cut down’, and Sanskrit for ‘annihilate.’ It is also Hindustani for ‘hut’ and ‘monastery.’ This word says: ‘to overpower by cutting down men and annihilating their homes and monasteries.’
(A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake)

It was like wading through treacle but every now and then we realised we were reading with the rhythm of a nursery rhyme (The House that Jack built came up a lot) or that Joyce was having some fun with us. he talks about “a word as cunningly hidden in its maze of confused drapery as a fieldmouse in a nest of coloured ribbons” (has Blackadder read Finnegans Wake?!) and there was some plain fun silliness – “What hill ar yu fluking about” is a line we agreed with!

But patterns started to emerge: if you see three words that begin with the letters H C E then it’s the protagonist (Here Comes Everybody, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Helpless Corpses Enactment and so on). If you see  A L P it’s his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle. She is the River Liffey, running through Dublin but is also all the rivers of the world, resourceful and loyal she is the circular river of time. They have three children. Shaun (the post) sometimes called Kevin or Frank. Shem (the pen) also Jerry or Dolph and a daughter Issy.  There are the 4 – who might represent the 4 cardinal corners of Ireland or the 4 gospels or 4 points on a compass, or the 4 Viconian phases. There are the 12, who are a jury or the 12 tribes of Israel or the apostles.  There are the Maggies, the leapyear girls, usually there are 28 of them but sometimes 29 and sometimes 7 when they’re the rainbow! The great thing about these numbers is that Joyce is almost obsessive about them – if there is ever a list you know it will include 12 or 28 elements and it’s a brilliant way of anchoring your reading when everything else is fluid.

And a story started to emerge: rumours spread that HCE has exposed himself to two maids in Phoenix Park, witnessed by three soldiers.  ALP writes a letter in his defence (with the help of her son, Shem the Pen) which their other son, Shaun the Post is to deliver.  The letter gets lost and is dug up by a chicken, on an archaeological dig.  This is the fall of man from fame and fortune (well, an innkeeper) to rack and ruin told through a sort of music hall history of the world in dream sequences. Everything and everyone appear together, mythological heroes, historical characters, contemporary writers all pop up seemingly willy nilly. The fall of humpty dumpty (the cosmic egg) and the fall of man.

Gradually we got to the middle and into the deepest sleep and it all went wrong, we were completely left behind.  It was so dense with obscure learning that we felt utterly alienated.  Our admiration at his erudition left us, instead of feeling inspired we felt fed up, cross and bored. And we never really recovered.   James Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver “I am making an engine with only one wheel. . . the wheel is a perfect square”. Hmm!

We kept reading and there were still moments of fun with the writing, As Melissa said one day “if it’s a dream, we can interpret it any how we like and we can’t be wrong’! Great thinking – Liz and I nodded enthusiastically, but increasingly there was a feeling of who cares?

manege de cochons

The cover (Manege de Cochons by Robert Delaunay) started to make a lot of sense. The dream narrative runs together with a riverine flow of worlds and wordplay.  The music hall of Mutt and Jeff, Wellington and Napoleon, nursery rhymes, Irish History, the Egyptian book of the dead, a Norwegian Sea Captain, the ant and the grasshopper, Shakespeare, the Bible all come together in Swahili, Gaelic, Norwegian, all swirling and whirling in a never ending cycle.

By the time I got to the end I wanted to throw it out of the window, the sense of relief was immeasurable. But that was in September and now looking over my copy and the underlinings and margin comments it all looks like quite good fun, maybe now I can read it as a grasshopper!

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation
back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

14 thoughts on “Reading Finnegans Wake

    1. Ulysses is great, it’s just different! If you read Portrait of the Artist first that gives you a lead in and it’s a much more conventional book. I hope you do enjoy it!


  1. What a post! What do you mean when you “went on a course”? Preparing presentations is certainly an effective way of learning material. Dubliners is on my list of books to read, but I was so inpressed by the 10 pages I read of Ulysses that it will probably be more first foray into Joyce. Perhaps as soon as I finish Bulgakov…

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    1. It was a course on critical reading, we had to do some really close analysis of texts and then give a presentation on some reading of our own – I did a page from the Lestrygonians episode. I was really out of my comfort zone, but as you say it was a great way to learn!

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  2. Fabulous post! I now understand much more about the book and what he was doing, and am even more firmly convinced than ever never to read it!! However, maybe I’ll try Ulysses one day – I tried it once before and made it to about page twelve, I think. I did enjoy Dubliners very much though, so I’m not a complete philistine… 😉

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  3. Ha Ha!! That’s because Ulysses starts with Stephen Dedalus, once Leopold Bloom arrives it’s much more manageable, and reading in a group kept us going. Enough Joyce for now though!


  4. I’ve just discovered this post in the roundabout way that we litbloggers do… and O how I wish I’d deferred my reading of FW by one year and lumbered through it with you. But no, (with the same skeleton key and also Tindall’s Reader’s Guide) I read it all by myself from March to December 2017, and it would definitely have been more fun with friends.
    Still, it’s an achievement, eh?
    PS I love Ulysses too. It’s my desert island book, I’ve already read it four times and would happily read it again and again if stranded in the tropics…

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    1. I am full of admiration for you, there were times we almost gave up when it was the three of us! At times I felt so cross with him – there we were trying our hardest and it was as if he was laughing at us and making it even harder, urghhhhh!! But Ulysses wasn’t like that at all, I just revelled in his cleverness. I haven’t read it again but will, it really is a masterpiece. Do you have a favourite episode or is that unfair?


  5. That’s a brilliant post – I like Stuart Gilbert’s chart, I remember reading about it but not using it, I had the Oxford Classics edition. But that’s just more incentive to re read with a different edition. My favourite was the Lestrygonians, and the burping guzzling men in the cafe and Blooms horror that he should be like them!


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