I had one goal for 2015: to read Finnegans Wake. Well, that and to publish a book. I accomplished both, but today we’re dealing with the first goal, the one I set for myself in January when I first calculated the number of pages I would need to read each week in order to easily get from “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” to the actual start of that sentence, which famously begins at the end of the book: “a way a lone a last a loved a long the”
Yesterday, December 19, 2015, I reached that final page, 628. But as any reader of the Wake knows, there is no end to the book. Sure, it’s a circle that begins midsentence, a fine enough idea for a book though not as mind-blowing as anything between “riverrun” and “the,” but aside from this rather easy manner in which Joyce created a never-ending text there are allusions and illusions, references and shout-outs, digs and puns and portmanteaus packed on every line of every page, enough to drive any serious reader mad. And in this sense, one’s reading of the Wake is never really finished.
I admit the following: I am not a serious reader of the Wake. I am not Henry Morton Robinson or Joseph Campbell or William York Tindall or Anthony Burgess or John Bishop or Roland McHugh or any of the many literary scholars who devoted significantly more time and energy to this all-encompassing book of the dark than I ever will. I have dabbled in the work of these individuals and see that they often agree and almost as often don’t. McHugh especially seems to feel that his is the sole correct reading, or maybe that is just my response to his book The Finnegans Wake Experience. Maybe I was too intimidated by his mammoth annotations.
But here’s the thing: I was only able to get from the start to the end (though again, there is no end) of the Wake when I decided to forgo my usual need to understand what I was reading. This is not a recommendation for you, if you, whoever you are, are daring enough to wade through Joyce’s most difficult (and, arguably, best) work. This is merely how I managed to overcome my limitations as a reader: by embracing them. When I surrendered to the linguistic clusterfuck, I found myself enjoying the book. Actually enjoying it. Anthony Burgess wrote that the Wake is “one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh aloud on nearly every page.” This from the guy who wrote A Clockwork Orange, a truly hilarious book. And guess what: he’s not wrong. Though every page of the Wake created confusion and frustration, nearly every page provided a delight. There are jokes, though, to be fair, some of them are intentional and some may be of my own making.
Let me explain. That first line of the book is packed with a lot of stuff. Let’s look at it again: “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 river here is the Liffey, the Dublin river that runs past a church referred to as Adam and Eve’s and then, if one follows it, to Howth Castle. Seems straight forward enough, but what about "commodious vicus"? It was clear to me upon initial reading that there was a toilet joke in here. A commode, or toilet, also has water running in a circular fashion, much like the dirty river of Joyce’s “dear dirty Dublin.” A vicus? A little research informed this reader that a vicus may refer to an unofficial Roman settlement perhaps populated by workers who mined outside of Rome in the era of the empire. This makes a bit of sense when one considers the qualities of Dublin Joyce wrote of: working class people with vast inner lives (Leopold Bloom in Ulysses and, in the Wake, H.C.E.). So, we have a river, some landmarks, the salt-of-the-earth residents of the city, and a reference to the Roman Empire by way of a shit joke. Oh, and let’s not forget that “vicus” may also (probably) be a reference to Giambattista Vico, 18th century writer whose Scienza Nuova (New Science) informs much of the Wake. Without getting too deep into the ideas of Vico, suffice it to state that he saw the world in stages and history as a cycle, and the one of his era as being at the end of the third stage, the first being the age of gods, the second the age of heroes, the third the age of men, all to be followed by a return to the age of gods as symbolized in the Wake by a thunderclap that shakes humans to their core with awe, humbling them. This cycle provides the framework of Joyce’s text. So, without reading much Vico (I looked up some stuff online, thumbed through a book), this reader was able to see the theme of the book (one of them, at least). What a first line!
What does this have to do with jokes, Joyce’s or mine? Okay, again—the first line has references (Dublin, Rome, Vico) and a toilet joke. I am fairly confident in this reading. But almost immediately I started to see references and gags that made me smile even though they may not have much to do with what Joyce was trying to convey. On page 418, my dog makes an appearance. Seriously, Haru pops up on that page, and while I tried for a bit to decode Joyce's use of this word, which has significant meaning for me, what I found interested me less than what the word made me think of: my lovely dog who was, actually, sitting at my feet as I found him in the Wake. (And, like the people of the Wake, my dog was sleeping, dreaming of everything and perhaps becoming everyone.) This sort of thing happened a lot during my year of reading. Haroun shows up early in the Wake. This is not all that significant save for the fact that (as I blogged previously) last year I spent the summer reading Joyce while my wife read Rushdie, author of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Again, not much of a coincidence, but these sorts of personal connections are fun.
I may have already stated this elsewhere, so forgive me (but since no one is reading this, who cares?). The Wake is like that tree in Empire Strikes Back. You find in it what you bring with you. If you have a dog named Haru, he will be in the book. If you have a wife reading Rushdie, a Rushdie title will emerge. If one can just go with the idea that they as a reader are reflected in the text, the reading will yield singular delights. How many books can do that?
Speaking of Star Wars, my lovely wife bought me a book of Joyce criticism written by John Gordon called Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back (great pun!). Significance: The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the Star Wars movies. And: The Force Awakens premiered this week. Though I loved Star Wars as a boy, in my 40s it's not the force I want to wake but the Wake I want to read.
It is likely I will return to the Wake because, like I keep insisting, I am not finished even after reading each word on each page. I may not return today, but I can see myself dipping back into this river before long. I have a month to read a few other books (written by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Hitchens to name a few writers I'm aching to get to) before my semester begins and I get back to reading student essays, though I may have to spend this month looking over more plot-driven (though the Wake has a plot), direct pieces of writing. Anything claiming to be experimental now seems precious. Nothing is more experimental than the Wake, and nothing is as successful. There are ambitious, challenging books written by capable writers, but they seem lesser than the Wake. Because they are written by lesser writers? Probably not—they just don’t connect with me at the moment. Joyce has spoiled me. If I’m going to wade through some seemingly impenetrable prose or poetry, it better be as fun and engaging as Joyce’s. A tall order, to be sure. Really, impossible to fill.