The trouble with discussing what you’re reading is that you might sometimes be clobbered by someone else’s dislike of the book you’re reading, a dislike sometimes felt and then expressed without their having read said book. It’s something I’m sure to have done, too, with books and just about everything else, forgetting the wise admonition to never “yuck somebody’s yummy”; and, perhaps in some kind of karmic retribution for my past, and surely upcoming perpetrations, of said admonition, when I’d recently mentioned I was reading Finnegans Wake (I’ve since finished it, falling way short of my goal to read it in as close to a single sitting as possible (it took me seven days, the significance of the number exaggerated in my mind)), trying to stay up while reading about someone who was, presumably, asleep, I received a few “yucks,” including, “I tried reading it, but I only know how to read English,” or something of the sort, the comment meant as nothing more than a joke, but, as we know with most jokes, it revealed an underlying belief, and the belief here was that Finnegans Wake is at best incomprehensible to readers, excepting the few academics still wheezing around in the dusty stacks, expert at splitting all kinds of exegetical hairs; or is, at worst, just a hodgepodge of navel-gazing jabberwocky. Joyce, however, quoted in Derek Attridge’s The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, would disagree: “If you take a characteristic obscure passage of one of these people [modern writers] and asked him what it meant, he couldn’t tell you; whereas I can justify every line of my book.”

Notwithstanding the various inconsistencies in the book (surface research reveals as much), and despite my general skepticism about what artists say about their work, I unhesitatingly trust Joyce; first, because of the authority and sheer mastery evinced in all of his other books (though I’ll quibble that his poems and play don’t measure up to his major works); and second, because even after reading only a page or two of this novel, this epic poem, really, I found myself overwhelmed by its wordplay, its music, its tapestry of sound and sense, and could say with certainty that it wasn’t simply a word salad tossed with the aplomb of a foaming at the mouth babbler falling from the roof of the Tower of Babel, but a carefully composed work of art, an art that made me feel like Gaston Bachelard, who in Fragments of a Poetics of Fire wrote that:

To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry. In endeavoring to experience these poetic flashes, both the large and the small,…I discovered that poetic language opens a door upon the very heights of language. Here language beyond language, a poetic language, gives transcendence form. One might live double lives if only one might live poetically, speaking the language of poetry instinctively, as if one meant it.

The trust I feel for late Joyce is similar to the trust I feel when listening to late John Coltrane, the saxophone titan, who, having mined the riches of the harmonic spectrum, within carefully circumscribed compositional forms and improvisational frameworks, finally embarked to the farthest reaches of sound and rhythm, the intensity and integrity of which would, perhaps, be less persuasive, less pummeling had it not been derived from his mastery of the musical traditions he’d been working, arguably masterfully, within. But ultimately what matters is the matter, not where it came from, or even how it was made, as interesting and informing as it may be, and that matter, that is, what it accomplishes on the page, is the ultimate measure of Finnegans Wake.

Yes, Finnegans Wake is renowned, perhaps notoriously, for its supposed inscrutability, for its frustrating of attempts at (to borrow words from Finnegans Wake) “explosition” of its “strangewrote anaglyptics” by readers with a “volupkabulary” (readers who are “strikingly brainy and well letterread”); for how easy it is to get lost in the “picaresqueness of [its] imarges”; for its polysemy, its seaming of, it’s estimated, somewhere between sixty and seventy languages, or rather a smattering of phrases and sentences quoted and derived from those languages, within the overall text; but, Finnegans Wake’s smorgasbord of languages, its puzzles, its difficulty, its defiance of rote outlining, of simple synopsis, its frustration of easy exegesis, and its resistance to immediate understanding does not make this an impenetrable work, and should not discourage people from reading it. Even without plunging into the vast troves of Joycean scholarship, the book proves itself to be full of delights, full of literary riches, bursting with humor, brimming with wordplay, and contains indelibly drawn characters like Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Anna Livia Plurabelle, their children, Shem, Shaun and Issy, and a number of minor characters, offering up the things they “had heard or had heard said or had heard said written,” the text overflowing with “Fantasy! funtasy on fantasy, amnaes fintasies!” beginning with the moment where Anna lays out Finnegan’s cadaver as a meal for his mourners; to the metamorphosis of two washerwomen, one into a tree, the other a stone; to the book’s final transformation, where Anna turns into a river.

But before I go any further, please allow me a cheeky aside by offering another example of Joyce’s power, the power, that is, that a select few have, like Nostradamus, for instance. Finnegans Wake finds Joyce anticipating the internet’s various social media platforms, Joyce revealing his savviness, and perhaps for some, I’d imagine, the best example of his contemporary relevance: “We’ll do a whisper drive, for if the barishnayas got a twitter of it they’d tell the housetops and then all Cadbury would go crackers.” Actually, by the time Joyce had written this it was old news because he’d already twittered in Ulysses; but unlike most written twitterings, Joyce’s is actually worth the time:

THE KISSES

(warbling) Leo! (twittering) Icky Icky micky sticky for Leo! (cooing) Coo coocoo! Yummyyum, Womwom! (warbling) Big comebig! Pirouette! Leopopold! (twittering) Leeolee! (warbling) O Leo! (They rustle, flutter upon his garments, alight, bright giddy flecks, silvery sequins.)

Perhaps even more astounding about Finnegans Wake is that Joyce predicts search engines, inexplicably looking over a future shoulder of a rather lascivious individual clicking and stroking: “One chap googling the holyboy’s thingabib and this lad wetting his widdle.”

Back to the argument at hand, another prevalent mischaracterization of Finnegans Wake is that it is plotless. On the contrary, though not immediately apparent, the book has a number of plot elements, which I won’t detail here, since for me a book’s plot is usually not very interesting to talk about, but it should be understood that plot’s tick-tock wasn’t Joyce’s primary concern, as he explained in a 1926 letter to Harriet Weaver: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” And the “great part” that Joyce explores and reveals in his epic book is the dreamstate, or, as I’ll explain below—and I write this in whispering timidity, in the face of that mountain of Joycean scholarship—the state of being comatose.

Yes, Finnegans Wake is in many ways Joyce’s exploration of the dreamworld, its logic, its disjunction, its ambiguities, its inexplicable shifts from event to event, but after repeatedly reflecting on the circularity of the text, of its eternal return, how it eats itself like an ourobos, I couldn’t help thinking that what Joyce was capturing was the range of the state of being comatose, the varying levels of altered consciousness that Finnegan may have experienced following his fall off the ladder at the book’s outset; that some of the appearances and events Finnegan experiences, like some of his wife’s appearances, reveal Finnegan’s varying degrees of motor and verbal response, of eye movement; that what we’re sometimes offered are recordings of what he sees, not just what he thinks while unconscious, that his eyes sometimes open in response to external stimuli, like touch and speech, or other sounds, or open spontaneously; and that Joyce is sometimes depicting a comatose Finnegan’s moaning, his incomprehensible utterances, his random or articulated speech, revealing the shifting levels of Finnegan’s consciousness. This aspect of the book offers what is perhaps its greatest dramatic tension, one in which I continually wonder whether Finnegan will ever awaken. And I can’t help wondering whether Anna’s final appearance in the text is not simply some dreamworld apparition, but may actually be Finnegan’s wife attempting to wake him up, and that her turning, once again, into a river, now disappearing at dawn—dawn a sign of awakening—is a depiction of Finnegan falling in and out of consciousness once again, into perpetuity. Anna’s attempt to stir Finnegan awake, out of his coma, is beautifully rendered:

Soft morning, city! Lsp! I am leafy speaking. Lpf! Folty and folty all the nights have falled on to long my hair. Not a sound, falling. Lispn! No wind no word. Only a leaf, just a leaf and then leaves. The woods are fond always, as were we their babes in. And robins in crews so. It is for me goolden wending. Unless? Away! Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long! Or is it only so mesleems? On your pondered palm. Reclined from cape to pede. With pipe on bowl. Terce for a fiddler, sixth for makmerriers, none for a Cole. Rise up now and aruse! Norvena’s over…

Not having any of the various annotations to Finnegans Wake, my explication of the passage above will necessarily be slight, but here we find Anna, speaking as “leafy” or as Liffey, the river, announcing the “soft morning,” the arrival of the dawn. “Norvena” is, I would guess, an allusion to Nirvana, which the Madhyamikas regard as the “coming to rest of the manifold creations of the mind.” And the punning allusion to Robinson Crusoe: “And robins in crews so,” reminds me of another reference to another famous novel, found earlier in the book: “Or the birds start their treestirm shindy.” Writing about the early drafts of his book, Joyce, in a letter to Eugene Jolas, revealed his debt to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

Time and the river and the mountain are the real heroes of my book. Yet the elements are exactly what every novelist might use: man and woman, birth, childhood, night, sleep, marriage, prayer, death. There is nothing paradoxical about all this. Only I am trying to build many planes of narrative with a single aesthetic purpose. Did you ever read Laurence Sterne?

My attempt to read Finnegans Wake in as close to a single sitting as possible, while intended as a kind of total immersion, as a way of challenging its supposed inscrutability, or rather the seeming impossibility of ever completing it (the reading thwarted by my unwanted, but inevitable, and probably necessary, wavering away from it, in order to read other things, only to come back even more confused), was ultimately silly, since this book is meant to be savored, page for page, word for word, sound for sound. Some books are just simply meant to be read that way. Better put, as Sir Francis Bacon wrote:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

William Gass echoed this idea in his famous Paris Review interview:

If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connecting the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write.

The kind of surface reading that Gass describes above is one of two “systems” of reading described by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text; one system “goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, ignores the play of language (if I read Jules Verne, I go fast: I lose discourse, and yet my reading is not hampered by any verbal loss—in the speleological sense of the word)…”; the other “system” of reading is one that

skips nothing; it weighs, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages—and not the anecdote: it is not (logical) extension that captivates it, the winnowing out of truths, but the layering of significance; as in the children’s game of topping hands, the excitement comes not from a progressive haste but from a kind of vertical din (the verticality of language and of its destruction); it is at the moment when each (different) hand skips over the next (and not one after the other) that the hole, the gap, is created and carries off the subject of the game—the subject of the text. Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen to the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away,” the seam of the two edges, the interstice of bliss, occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of the utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover—in order to read today’s writers—the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers.

I deliberately quoted that lengthy passage, knowing that most editors, acting on the behalf of readers, would want to chop it into digestible bits, reduce it to as close to bullet points without the black holes to mar the page. Did you skim the passage in order to get the gist of its content, in order to get back to the essay proper, to the thoughts of an essayist who, through the use of cumulative sentence patterns allows his sentences to layer like so much sediment? Or did you, knowing that Barthes is a masterful stylist, relish every word? Finnegans Wake is a text that demands the second system of reading that Barthes describes above, a slow, thoughtful, careful reading, demanding, and creating through the close reading of it, “aristocratic readers.”

Barthes, in that same book, distinguishes a “text of pleasure,” which “contents, fills, grants euphoria,” which comes “from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading,” from the “text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.” With these distinctions made, Finnegans Wake, then, must be considered a text of bliss since it fulfills all of the criteria as listed by Barthes. Reading it, especially within the short time that I demanded of myself, imposed a feeling of a loss of time and place, or, rather made me feel, as Joyce writes, even further “Loonley in me loneness.” The discomfort it caused was plainly revealed anytime I’d lose focus, a repeated occurrence, its longeurs almost demanding me to give up, fall to the wayside as its flood of words rushed past. It unsettled, to varying degrees, my assumptions, and, unlike any other book (the only competitors being the poetry of Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Gerard Manley Hopkins) engaged me in an ongoing battle to parse each sentence for meaning, to question my thoughts about every word I was reading, forcing me to read most of it aloud, in order to unlock more of its mysteries, while still confounding exegesis.

I’ll end this by briefly reflecting on some of my favorite passages from the book, providing as little context as possible, simply to revel in what Barthes would call the bliss of the text. As a text of bliss, Finnegans Wake, to quote from Barthes again, “prove[s] to me that it desires me. The proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself.)” Early in the book, I found what I think of as an invitation to those very pleasures:

(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many.

There are numerous stories woven within the folds of Finnegans Wake. Here’s “The Tale of the Prankquean,” beginning with a variation of “Once upon a time…”:

It was of a night, late, lang time agone, in an auldstane eld, when Adam was delvin and his madameen spinning watersilts, when mulk and mountynotty man was everybilly and the first leal ribberrobber that ever had her ainway everybiddy to his lovesaking eye and everybilly live alove with everbiddy else, and Jarl van Hoother had his burnt head high up in his lamphouse, laying cold hands on himself. And his two little jiminies, cousins of ourn, Tristopher and Hilary, were kickaheeling their dummy on the oil cloth flure of his homerigh, castle and earthenhouse.

The ant and grasshopper, from Aesop’s fable, appear, too, here as the Gracehopper and the Ondt, the former appearing first:

The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity, (he had a partner pair of findlestilts to supplant him), or, if not, he was always making ungraceful overtures to Floh and Luse and Bienie and Vespatilla to play pupa-pupa and pulicy-pulicy and langtennas and pushpygyddyum and to commence insects with him, there mouthparts to his orefice and his gambills to there airy processes, even if only in chaste, ameng the everlistings, behold a waspering pot.

The ant appears soon after those words:

Grouscious me and scarab my sahul! What a bagateller it is! Libelulous! Inzanzarity! Pou! Pschla! Ptuh! What a zeit for the goths! vented the Ondt, who, not being a sommerfool, was thothfolly making chilly spaces at hisphex affront of the icinglass of his windhame, which was cold antitopically Nixnixundnix.

I lust for lists, and Finnegans Wake brims with them:

Not olderwise Inn the days of the Bygning would our Traveller remote unfriended, from van Demon’s Land, some lazy skald or maundering pote, lift wearywilly his slowcut snobsic eyes to the semisigns of his zooteac and lengthily lingering along flaskneck, cracket cup, downtrodden brogue, turfsod, wildbroom, cabbageblad, stockfisch, longingly learn that there at the Angel were herberged for him poteen and tea and praties and baccy and wine width woman wordth warbling: and informally quasi-begin to presquesm’ile to queasithin’ (Nonsense! The was not very much windy Nous blowing at the given moment through the hat of Melancholy Slow!)

And another:

…the murky light, the botchy print, the tattered cover, the jigjagged page, the fumbling fingers, the foxtrotting fleas, the lieabed lice, the scum on his tongue, the drop in his eye, the lump in his throat, the drink in his pottle, the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind, the grief from his breath, the fog of his mindfag, the buzz in his braintree, the tic of his conscience, the height up his rage, the gush down his fundament, the fire in his gorge, the tickle of his tail, the bane in his bullugs, the squince in his suil, the rot in his eater, the ycho in his earer, the totters of his toes, the tetters on his tumtytum, the rats in his garret, the bats in his belfry, the budgerigars and bumbosolom beaubirds, the hullabaloo and the dust in his ears.

Actually, my favorite list is the one that “Earwicker, that patternmind, that paradigmatic ear, receptoretentive as his of Dionysius,” invokes, recounting “all abusive names he was called,” one hundred and eleven, to be exact:

Firstnighter, Informer, Old Fruit, Yellow Whigger, Wheatears, Goldy Geit, Bogside Beauty, Yass We’ve Had His Badannas, York’s Porker, Funnyface, At Baggotty’s Bend He Bumped, Grease with the Butter, Opendoor Ospices, Cainandabler, Ireland’s Eighth Wonderful Wonder, Beat My Price, Godsoilman, Moonface the Murderer, Hoary Hairy Hoax, Midnight Sunburst, Remove that Bible, Hebdromadary Publocation, Tummer the Lame the Tyrannous, Blau Clay, Tight before Teatime, Read Your Pantojoke, Acoustic Disturbance, Thinks He’s Gobblasst the Good Dook of Ourguile, W.D.’s Grace, Gibbering Bayamouth of Dublin, His Farther was a Mundzucker and She had him in a Growler, Burnham and Bailey, Artist, Unworthy of the Homely Protestant Religion, Terry Cotter, You’re Welcome to Waterfood, signed the Ribbonmen, Lobsterpot Lardling, All for Arthur of this Town, Hooshed the Cat from the Bacon, Leathertogs Donald, The Ace and Deuce of Paupering, O’Reilly’s Delights to Kiss the Man behind the Borrel, Magogagog, Swad Puddlefoot, Gouty Ghibeline, Loose Luther, Hatches Cocks’ Eggs, Muddle the Plan, Luck before Wedlock, I Divorce Thee Husband, Tanner and a Make, Go to Hellena or Come to Connies, Piobald Puffpuff His Bride, Purged out of Burke’s, He’s None of Me Causin, Barebarean, Peculiar Person, Grunt Owl’s Facktotem, Twelve Months Aristocrat, Lycanthrope, Flunkey Beadle Vamps the Tune Letting on He’s Loney, Thunder and Turf Married into Clandorf, Left Boot Sent on Approval, Cumberer of Lord’s Holy Ground, Stodge Arschmann, Awnt Yuke, Tommy Furlong’s Pet Plagues, Archdukon Cabbanger, Last Past the Post, Kennealey Won’t Tell Thee off Nancy’s Gown, Scuttle to Cover, Salary Grab, Andy Mac Noon in Annie’s Room, Awl Out, Twitchbratschballs, Bombard Street Bester, Sublime Porter, A Ban for Le King of the Burgaans and a Bom for Ye Sur of all the Ruttledges, O’Phelim’s Cutprice, And at Number Wan Wan Wan, What He Done to Castlecostello, Sleeps with Feathers end Ropes, It is Known who Sold Horace the Rattler, Enclosed find the Sons of Fingal, Swayed in his Falling, Wants a Wife and Forty of Them, Let Him Do the Fair, Apeegeequanee Chimmuck, Plowp Goes his Whastle, Ruin of the Small Trader, He — — Milkinghoneybeaverbrooker, Vee was a Vindner, Sower Rapes, Armenian Atrocity, Sickfish Bellyup, Edomite, — ‘Man Devoyd of the Commoner Characteristics of an Irish Nature, Bad Humborg, Hraabhraab, Coocoohandler, Dirt, Miching Daddy, Born Burst Feet Foremost, Woolworth’s Worst, Easyathic Phallusaphist, Guiltey-pig’s Bastard, Fast in the Barrel, Boose in the Bed, Mister Fatmate, In Custody of the Polis, Boawwll’s Alocutionist, Deposed…

And there are innumerable examples of wonderful “langwedge” and “langscape,” words that indicate Joyce’s own belief that language is matter to be broken, shaped, formed, sculpted like so much wet clay, that language is a field, an environment, a vista of possibility: Then, while is is odrous comparisoning to the sprangflowers of his burstday which was a viridable goddinpotty for the reinworms and the charlattinas and all branches of climatitis, it has been such a wonderful noyth untirely, added she, with many regard to Maha’s pranjapansies. (Tart!) [….] You last led the first when we last but we’ll first trump your last with a lasting. Moments of alluring alliteration, like the ones contained in this passage—all those bullying B’s:

This battering babel allower the door and sideposts, he always said, was not in the very remotest like the belzey babble of a bottle of boose which would not rouse him out o’ slumber deep but reminded him loads more of the martiallawsey marses of foreign musikants’ instrumongs or the overthrewer to the third last days of Pompery, if anything.

Speaking of B’s, here’s another splendiferous example: “…a boosted blasted bleating blatant bloaten blasphorous blesphorous idiot who cannot tail a bomb from a painapple…” How about some tees? “Totalled in toldteld and teldtold in tittletell tattle.” There are many funny iterations of the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built” sprinkled throughout the book:

“…the ward of the wind, that lightened the fire that lay in the wood that Jove bolt…” [….] “…the tout that pumped the stout that linked the lank that cold the sandy that nextdoored the rotter that rooked the rhymer that lapped at the hoose that Joax pilled.” [….] “This is the glider that gladdened the girl that list to the wind that lifted the leaves that folded the fruit that hung on the tree that grew in the garden Gough gave.” [….] “—That legged in the hoax that joke bilked.”

Puns are de rigeur here, Joyce perhaps following Shakespeare (of whom he writes: “As Great Shapespeare puns it.”), so much so that one of the character says, “If you don’t like my story get out of the punt.” Wordplay abounds, like “Bethicket me for a stump of a beech,” a play on “son of a bitch”; puns on familiar phrases: “is plumply pudding the carp before doevre hors,” a clever play on “putting the cart before the horse.” And this one: “Psing a psalm of psexpeans, apocryphal of rhyme.” And this: “All moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday till the fear of the Law.” And this: “—He shook be ashaped of hempshelves, hiding that shepe in his goat.” And this: “Lard have mustard on them!” And this hilarious indictment of humanity: “In the name of the former and the latter and their holocaust. All men.” And this one: “What’s good for the gorse is a goad for the garden.” And this one: “…every toad, duck and herring…”; and this one: Ouhr Former who erred in having down to gibbous disbag our darling breed.” And this one: “For we’re all jollygame fellhellows which nobottle can deny!” Portmanteaus are another of the book’s textural signatures. Some of my favorites include the following: “murmurrandoms”; “sweetmoztheart”; “Epistlemadethemology”; “thuthunder”; “thinkamuddles”; “husstenhasstencaffincoffintussemtossemdam-andamnacosaghcusaghhobixhatouxpeswchbechocashlcarcarcaract”; “freeflawforms”; “fabulafigured”; and “throughsighty.” A letter from the twins exposes the cheapness behind holiday cheer:

Nightletter

With our best youlldied greetings to Pep and Mammy and the old folkers below and beyant, wishing them all verry merry Incarnations in this land of livvey and plenty of preposterousness through their coming new yonks

In the end, this “wordybook” is a delight, and while it is easy to get “confused by this tonguer of babble,” how could you not revel in all these chewy passages, passages made “by the mouth for the ear,” like this one?:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilical graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild when Ralph the Retriever ranges to jawrode his knuts knuckles and her theas thighs; one gugulp down of the nauseous forere brarkfarsts oboboomaround and you’re as paint and spickspan as a rainbow; wreathe the bowl to rid the bowel; no runcure, no rank heat, sir; amess in amullium; chlorid cup.

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JOHN MADERA writes fiction and nonfiction, and sometimes likes to blur the two. His work is forthcoming in Conjunctions, The Believer, Mud Luscious Press, Jaded Ibis Press, Willows Wept Press, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Publishing Genius; and may be found in Opium Magazine, Featherproof Press, elimae, Everyday Genius, ArtVoice, Underground Voices,Little White Poetry Journal #7, Corduroy Mountain, and hitherandthithering waters. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism may be found in 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Bookslut, The Collagist, DIAGRAM, Fiction Writers Review, Flatmancrooked, The Millions, The Prairie Journal: A Magazine of Canadian Literature, The Quarterly Conversation, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly,The Rumpus, Tarpaulin Sky, and Word Riot. He is editing a collection of essays on the craft of writing (Publishing Genius Press). He edits the forum Big Other and journal The Chapbook Review. Former fiction editor at Identity Theory, he’s senior flash fiction editor at jmww. He also sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.

6 responses to “A Reader’s Log(orrhea) #5: 
Finnegans Wake

  1. […] out my latest “A Reader’s Log(orrhea)” column, ” entitled “Mr. Tellibly Divicult!”: James Joyce and the Joy of Must-Read Books, Like Finnegans […]

  2. Greg Olear says:

    Wow, did you give yourself a difficult assignment! Well done, on one of the harder topics going.

    Joyce remarked that it took him 18 years to write FW, and it should take the reader 18 years to read it. He also said it’s best read just before bed, as your brain shuts down and works its way into the dreamstate. It’s the opposite of a thriller.

  3. John Madera says:

    Thanks, Greg! I hope my scratching of its surface will encourage people to do more than thumb through it and actually read it. There’s so much joy to be derived from its exuberant language. Though I have to say that fanning its pages, letting my eyes land on some words, reading random passages are things I’ve done many, many times, and can see myself still doing in the future, if just to the soak myself in its marvelous soundscape.

    You know, I’m pretty sure it took Joyce seventeen years to complete it, and that he thought it should take at least as long for readers to understand it. But this quote, in a wild example of the game “Telephone,” exaggerates the claim:
    “The book, even more dense and difficult than Ulysses, took seventeen years to write. Joyce once bragged to a friend that it would take three hundred years for professors to decipher its meaning.”

    Here’s the source of the quote.

    I couldn’t find a primary source for Joyce’s claim, so it may be apocryphal. Whether the claim was made or not, and whether it’s true or not, a complete deciphering of the Wake (and considering its many ambiguities it’s questionable whether this is even possible) is not necessary to enjoy its “punns and reedles,” among its many other delights.

    And you’re right, it definitely is the opposite of any thriller, or any page-turner, since it demands the reader (the “page-hugging” reader, as Gary Lutz would say) to slow down, relish every word, fall into its rhythms, and revel in its music.

  4. Doug Bruns says:

    J ~ Thank you for the effort the time the discipline. This essay is wonderful, but you must know that. Though not previously familiar with phrase, I have spent a life wanting to be an “aristocratic reader” and, though I’ve tried to pay my dues–Proust, Joyce (Ulysses), and for me, the philosophers, Nietzsche, Sartre, et.al.–I have been lacking. A year or so ago I was assigned to review David Forster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and I did the opposite of your approach, breaking it down to just ten pages a day, the density being that challenging for me. What must it be like to read a work like FW in just a few days? Difficult assignment, indeed. FW has for me, always been symbolic of the highest wall, the edifice at which prayer is not welcome. But you have breached the wall and demonstrated that not only prayer, but honest-to-goodness bliss can be therein practiced. Thank you for that. I tip my hat.

    • John Madera says:

      Thanks, Doug. If you’re reading Proust, Joyce, and Foster Wallace, especially if you’re savoring each page as you did with Infinite Jest, then you definitely have the makings of an aristocratic reader. You know, though it took seven days, I wanted to read Finnegans Wake in a single day as a kind of inverted reflection of the text itself, the text being about someone sleeping, lost in the dreamstate, and discovered that it was simply impossible, or impossible for me, at any rate. This epic poem defies binge reading. Even so, I did receive a lot from the total immersion of it, and I think my mind and body are still reverberating from its rhythms, although with all the other noise around they are fading. Another thing: Finnegans Wake, as with any great book, or any great art, for that matter, must be returned to over and over again. Who was it that said, “We don’t read great books, we reread them”? This, to me, means that there’s no possible way that we can ever really absorb a great book the first time through.

  5. […] And here’s an odd assortment of reviews and miscellaneous things: Review of Norman Lock’s Shadowplay (Review of Contemporary Fiction, 2010); Review of Peter Handke’s Don Juan: His Own Version, translated by Krishna Winston: (Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2010);  “The Whatness of Our Whoness: On Reading”: (The Laughing Yeti, July 2o1o);  “How I Decide What to Read Next” (Guest post at the National Book Critics’ blog, July 2010); Review of Jane Unrue’s Life of a Star (Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2010); A Reader’s Log(orrhea): “Lyrical Language and Luminous Bits” and “Mr. Tellibly Divicult!”: James Joyce and the Joy of Must-Read Books, Like Finnegans Wake. […]

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