Dear Straight Dope:
I heared recently that "Finnegan's Wake" was written as a big joke. According to the rumor, the author, James Joyce, simply typed up pages of gibberish and went into uncontrollable contortions of mirth when the critics called it a"masterpiece" and praised it for its "complexity and depth." Should I be ashamed at having pored day and night over Finnegan and its Skeleton Key?
SDStaff Eutychus replies:
And you thought “Ulysses” was a tough read.
But gibberish? One might be led to think so. After all, just dig the opening paragraphs:
“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.
“Sir Tristam, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea had passencore 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 themselves to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick …”
… and on and on and on for about 628 pages. The immediate reaction is “how the hell are they going to make a Classics Illustrated comic book out of this one?”
And you wouldn’t be alone. Joyce’s own brother Stanislaus called it either “the work of a psychopath or a huge literary fraud.” Critic Oliver Gogarty called it “the most colossal leg pull in literature.” Ezra Pound, upon attempting to read it, wrote “Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherization.” Anthony Burgess, however, called it “one of the most entertaining books ever written.” So, even in its time, there were mixed reactions.
It is difficult to establish a plot in ‘Finnegan’ but there is a definite theme of rising and falling. The immediate analogy to this theme is seen in the title, an allusion to an old Irish song, “Tim Finnegan’s Wake.” In this song, Finnegan drunkenly falls from a ladder and dies. At his wake, which turns into a drunken fight, whiskey is mistakenly splashed on his body which brings him back to life.
The traditional view is that Joyce loaded ‘Finnegan’ with as much wordplay and puns as he could possibly fit in. Joyce himself provided a short glossary when the work first began to be serialized, and explained that the work was to be approached as being told in the half-sleep being waking and sleeping; where words and objects begin to take on different meanings. Even then, Joycean scholars have delighted in finding new and unexpected meanings in every single word. One scholar has listed at least 10 different “meanings” to the single word ‘thuartpeatrick.’ Some meanings, it is said, require the understanding of at least 5 different languages to plumb.
Consider also — Joyce spent almost 15 years working on it, at a time when his eyesight was failing. He had already had multiple operations on his eyes and could only read by using a powerful magnifying glass. Correspondence and poems could be dictated, but while working on ‘Finnegan’ it was necessary for Joyce to see the words on the page to edit the spelling. Even a few months before final publiation he was continually reworking, respelling and rewriting in order to load as many different meanings into the work as possible.
So, if it was written as a joke, it was one of the most complex, thoughtful, and literary jokes ever created. Which really puts it in the realm of great literature anyway.
Circumambient peripherization indeed.
SDStaff Eutychus, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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