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Finnegans Wake: Unreadable Book or Universal Masterpiece?

Updated on March 27, 2015

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.

The area near Howth Castle

Near Howth Castle: by Gerry Doyle. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Near Howth Castle: by Gerry Doyle. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons | Source

A bit of background.

Why write a book that almost nobody will ever read? Why spend seventeen years writing a book that almost nobody will ever read? Why spend seventeen years battling against failing eyesight writing a book that almost nobody will ever read? Maybe there are some works of art that simply have to be created, regardless of the toll they may take on the poor creative artist.

James Joyce was never rich. At times in his life he barely had enough to live on. By general consent, even among his detractors, he was a master of language. He was intelligent, profound and funny. He could have made a lot of money by writing books that people wanted to read. Instead, he wrote Finnegans Wake. Why? Was it really worth it?

James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882 but lived most of his adult life abroad. He is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and yet his fame rests almost entirely on four works: Dubliners, a collection of fifteen short stories, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses – and Finnegans Wake. Joyce died in 1941 in Switzerland, disappointed at the uncomprehending and negative reaction which his last book had earned.

The song Finnegans Wake, sung by the Irish Rovers

The most obscure novel ever written?

Why is Finnegans Wake so hard to understand? The answer, in a word, is: Language. Finnegans Wake might be classified as a work of English literature, but it isn’t really written in English. English is simply what one might call the “base language”. English words are used to form multi-lingual puns, sometimes punning through several languages at once. Made-up words abound, as do foreign language words, obscure word-play is everywhere, as are references to literature, art in general, philosophy, religion, geography – and everything under the sun.

However erudite a person may be, however much knowledge he or she may have, however many languages they may speak, nobody can fully understand Finnegans Wake at a first reading. Or a second. Or a third. And if that it true of egghead academics, how much truer it must be for the average monoglot English reader? The baffled reader maybe is aware that there is some kind of plot going on in the background but any narrative direction is obscured by words which you won’t find in any dictionary and sentences which, for the most part, are impossible to “translate” into English, or even to paraphrase.

Why did a writer write a book which cannot be understood? And why do readers like me persist with it? I love a challenge, so I’m going to attempt the impossible. I’m going to try to make a case for Finnegans Wake.

Chapelizod village - home of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker

"Chapelizod village - - 537020" by Harold Strong. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
"Chapelizod village - - 537020" by Harold Strong. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons | Source

The "plot" of Finnegans Wake

There is an ordinary human family buried deep in the heart of this book. The “hero” is an Irish Chapelizod landlord called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife is Anna Livia Plurabelle, and they have three children – two boys (Shem and Shaun) and a daughter Isobel. But the book is anything but a family drama. If the book is “about” anything, it is about cycles. There is the typical cycle of life: birth, marriage, childbirth, death, resurrection. Then there is the cycle of the ages of history: theocratic, aristocratic, democratic. Throughout, the theme of fall and rise, death and rebirth, sin and redemption is prevalent. The idea that existence is somehow cyclic is something we encounter in philosophy and religion – in the doctrine of reincarnation, the ideas of the early Stoics and Nietzsche’s idea of the “eternal recurrence”. The book itself is a cycle. It begins with the end of a sentence and ends with the beginning of that same sentence.

James Joyce reading Anna Livia Plurabelle

Is "difficulty" really such an obstacle?

I don’t think that anybody would ever honestly claim to have understood every sentence and every word in Finnegans Wake. I doubt that Joyce himself understood it in that sense. But I would like to re-frame this so-called problem / barrier / obstacle. I think that everybody understands the work because everybody’s reading of the work will be different. There is no universally accepted interpretation of the work as a whole. Your reading or mine simply cannot be judged as wrong. But what is really strange and exciting about Finnegans Wake is that it hold a mirror up to both your brain and heart. You will only see in it what you know. And what you know is liable to change from year to year. So every encounter with it will be different, and in those differences you have an opportunity to learn some fascinating things about yourself.

The River Liffey, flowing through modern Dublin


The real "key" to understanding Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake is a work of astonishing beauty. Just listen to Joyce himself reading from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section and you’ll see what I mean. And yet it has been the subject of a mountain of dry academic analyses offering “keys” to certain passages by trying to unpick the layers of puns, linguistic ambiguities, and so on. This type of work can certainly be useful to you if you want to try to penetrate deeper into the work. But to what extent does it really aid a deeper understanding. If you stare in wonder at a Rothko or Pollock canvas, does it aid your understanding of the work to lean the chemical content of the paint the artist used? Or suppose you find yourself listening to a piece of music that you can’t relate to because you don’t understand it. What would be more helpful to you – an analysis of thematic and motivic development or an attempt to describe how the music is trying to make you feel and why?

And this brings us right to the heart of the matter. The key to understanding Finnegans Wake is blissfully simple: it is to understand that this is not really a work of literature at all – it is a piece of music. I mean this literally. Yes, it is composed of words; no, you don’t sing it. But it acts upon you as exactly as a piece of music does. If you listen to it, an unexpected turn of phrase or piece of wordplay will make you laugh, the sheer sound of the words will spark off all sorts of associations in your heart and mind and this will keep on happening. The literal “meaning” of the book then becomes as irrelevant as the “meaning” of a Bach fugue. If you listen to a Bach fugue then it might be great to know that you’re listening to the retrograde inversion of the countersubject, but that is just a bonus. If you hear the fugue and, at the same time, sense the working of an all-powerful creative spirit which throbbed through every fibre of Bach’s being then I think you have understood the work well enough!

What we need, then, is not more academic theses on the meaning of Finnegans Wake, but a complete recording of it. Fortunately we do have a recording – but only of about a quarter of the whole. But it is a great reading, by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan.

Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night

By Bogdan Kosar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Bogdan Kosar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

In my end is my beginning

A great piece of music doesn’t have a meaning that you can comprehensively paraphrase. But it gives you the sense of a door opening onto something strange and wonderful.

I was walking through the Sussex countryside, listening to the closing section of Finnegans Wake on my iPod. I don’t know why, but I was filled with a euphoria I have almost never felt before. I completely lost track of where I was. I had to stop walking in case I stumbled or stepped into a rabbit hole! I stood there listening, trying to stop tears running down my face. A passer-by would no doubt have thought I was drunk! When I got home I looked at the text and tried to figure out what it was that had got to me so powerfully. I’m not sure of the answer, but I suspect it was that great promise of love and reunion which ends and begins all great cycles. It is all there in Finnegans Wake, for those with patient ears…

In my beginning is my end

Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the


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