It came as little surprise to me, to not care for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It is unreadable, which is reason enough not to read it. I did try, once I achieved the last word — “Yes” — of Joyce’s previous Ulysses, Molly’s use of it being for me the finest moment for the word in the English language. But I admit it had taken me quite a while to get to that last word. Ulysses is a linguistic tour-de-force for those who care about the minutiae of words and their internal sources, and a pain in the neck for someone who relishes a good plot. Really, Ulysses needed a strong-minded editor with a sense of story.
There is a plot in Ulysses, large parts of which are very worth reading. The first chapter, in the Martello Tower in Sandymount, for example, is a moment of fine sustained comic writing. Some of Leopold Bloom’s odessyan wanderings from funeral to pub to restaurant to brothel as the day of the novel unfolds are famously filled with Dublin neighborhood details and more-than-occasional wonderful description. Bloom’s encounter with Gerty McDowell on the Sandymount strand is a fine example. “Mayhap it was this, the love that might have been, that leant to her softlyfeatured face at whiles a look, tense with suppressed meaning, that imparted a strange yearning tendency to the beautiful eyes, a charm few could resist.” Gerty’s longing for love and the sadness that her longing brings to her (that suppressed meaning) gets the best of Joycean attention, and even more of Bloom’s. Also, very occasionally, there are moments of convincing moral confusion or failure, as when Stephen Dedalus, returned to Dublin from Europe to visit his dying mother, refuses her last wish of him. Buck Mulligan, who lives in the Martello Tower, first describes the moment: “You wouldn’t kneel down to pray for your mother on her deathbed when she asked you. Why? Because you have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way. To me it’s all a mockery and beastly.”
Throughout the novel, Stephen worries memorably about his refusal of his mother.
But Ulysses is easily twice as long as it should be, and spends way too much of its capital on the history of language and the internecine conflicts within the various tongues of which English is made. Ulysses is a great source for pedagogical noodling on the part of devoted academics. But this is a miniscule, and not very interesting, readership. If you really care for fine fiction of plot-driven completion and a good story, look elsewhere.
Page 114 of the original manuscript of Finnegans Wake.
Finnegans Wake is worse. Far worse. I admit that I have never been able to make anything of it. I also admit to having read only the first fifty pages or so, which makes no sense to the dignity of my wish to dislike this book. You have to have read something in its entirety in order really to dismiss it. I did use the time-honored practice of reading ahead, to see what was possibly out there that might make it worthwhile to continue in Finnegans Wake. It was that tactic that had brought me, after all, to the glories of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I rejoice at having begun impatiently to shuffle the early pages of that novel, an action that brought me to one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. The same for A House for Mr. Biswas.
But Finnegans Wake doesn’t give back. It defies the reader in every moment, although at least it is the possessor of the finest title of a universally unread book that I have ever found. The most precisely elegant criticism of the book that I know came from Irish novelist Roddy Doyle some years ago, when he appeared at the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue, to celebrate the publication of his novel A Star Called Henry. A man with a heavy Dublin accent raised his hand to ask Doyle, “So what did you think of Finnegans Wake?” Doyle did not hesitate. “The first page was all right. But the rest of it was the biggest piece of shite I ever read.” I wondered on that occasion whether Doyle had indeed read the rest of it. Given my own experience with the book, I expect he had not…and has not.
It may not sound like it. But I write all this negativity with some pain. For me, the James Joyce who wrote Dubliners was one of the great writers of the twentieth century and, in my opinion, beyond. I read that book once a year, and — I hope with others who have read it — the last three paragraphs of the story “The Dead” are my favorite English prose paragraphs of all. I believe that, to some degree in the writing of the later Ulysses, and greatly so in that of Finnegans Wake, Joyce was losing his mind, perhaps because of the terrifying pain of his ocular difficulties, maybe because of his constant disastrous money troubles, or his amazing consumption of alcohol. I see the alcohol often in Joyce’s later writing, especially, and formidably, in Finnegans Wake.
For me, the last word on Finnegans Wake comes from Stanislaus Joyce, James Joyce’s younger brother. They had a lifelong relationship, sometimes very close and affectionate, often at difficult emotional odds with each other. James was getting a lot of flack from people who had supported him emotionally, financially, and with publishing help throughout the composition of Ulysses. Ezra Pound was instrumental to the early publishing of much of Ulysses’s chapters as Joyce was writing it, and had difficulty understanding what the exile Irishman was up to with Finnegans Wake. Yeats, Elliott, and others of such literary grandeur, who had touted Ulysses to friends and readers, were flummoxed by Finnegans Wake. But Stanislaus Joyce stands out among all these as a bearer of the kind of truth that exposed his brother’s follies to all…or at least to James himself until the letter Stanislaus wrote on August 7, 1924 finally became public.
The letter excoriates James’s work in Finnegans Wake, and it gives no quarter. “I have received one installment of your yet unnamed novel in the transatlantic review. I don’t know whether the drivelling rigmarole about half a ball hat and ladies’ modern toilet chambers (practically the only things I understand in this nightmare production) is written with the deliberate intention of pulling the reader’s leg or not…. Or perhaps — a sadder supposition — it is the beginning of a softening of the brain….. It is unspeakably wearisome.” The several-hundred-words-long sputter of brotherly vitriol that Stanislaus’s letter represents must have been terrible for James to read, no matter how much he may have wished to dismiss the criticism it expresses. (James often questioned Stanislaus’s intellect by comparison to James’s own.) But so well-written a dismissal of a major writer by a person of such longstanding familial importance to that writer is difficult to find anywhere in the history of literature.
In any case, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to look into Finnegans Wake, read Dubliners instead. Dubliners is the very antidote to “drivelling rigmarole.”
Terence Clarke’s sixth novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published on April 15, 2020.