Sunday, December 20, 2015


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.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


I’m about seven pages away from finishing Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, one of the books I’m reading this year along with my slow wade through the verbal mud that is Finnegans Wake.  My plan was to read some books during the times I was taking my break from the Wake.  Of course, my other plan was to read 13 pages of the Wake a week, which I did for a while, then stopped doing, then played catch up over the summer allowing me to now be ahead of schedule, slightly.  We all know that making plans is the surest way to make god laugh.         

Dublinesque seemed an ideal book to read during this my year of the Wake.  It focuses a lot on Joyce, Dublin, Beckett, and, mostly, the state of publishing.  Still, I am not very excited by this book.  I do love other books by Vila-Matas, though my fondness for them alternates. Bartleby & Co. is fantastic.  I immediately followed it up with Montano’s Malady, which I found rather dull.  A few years later, I decided to give EVM another shot and read Never Any End to Paris, a great read that got me excited for Dublinesque.  And here I am blogging instead of reading seven pages that will allow me to begin a new book and more the hell on. 

To be fair, Montano’s Malady and Dublinesque are fine books, certainly worth reading.  They, like all of the Vila-Matas works I’ve read or read about, are very much for literary geeks, springboarding from the works of others.  (Savvy readers will recognize that “Dublinesque” is the name of a poem by Philip Larkin.)  They are certainly a lot of fun in that regard, though my ambivalence for some of his books may stem from this nagging feeling I’m having lately that interesting, cerebral ideas are not always enough to really make a book sing.  And I want to hear music. 

Finnegans Wake is the goddamn top example of a wild idea brought to its most extreme conclusion, the grandest instance of the infinite possibilities of the novel.  I dare say that even detractors have to admire the audacity of the thing.  Considering my admiration, awe, and, I’ll say it, love for this book, other literary experiments by other writers should be as pleasing.  But, of course, these other writers are not Joyce. 

I applaud ambition.  Many of my favorite books are wild and maddening and require a degree of patience.  These books—Three Trapped Tigers, Vilnius Poker, The Obscene Bird of Night, The Master and Margarita, The Sound and the Fury—are “difficult” in the sense that they break from linear story telling or are comprised of multiple narrators or they rely heavily on linguistic tomfoolery and couldn’t care less about plot.  But… I have to admit that there’s a lot to be said for straightforward books with engaging stories and well developed characters.  Writers like Pynchon and Perec are fantastic when they are fantastic, but (and this feels like a shocking confession) I find the ideas that drive their books to often be more interesting than the books themselves.  Both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are larger than the conceptual underpinnings that have made them famous.  One gets the idea behind Ulysses pretty early: It all takes place on one day, the thoughts and experiences of these Dubliners are as epic as Homer— okay, fine, but that alone wouldn’t sustain readers for 700 and some pages.

I think Finnegans Wake is spoiling me.  It’s a challenge but the rewards make it worthwhile.  I may only comprehend the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg, but every page has provided amusement as well as bemusement.  It’s more than a well-executed experiment; it is a total work of art, an all-encompassing book with no beginning and no end.  And it has forced me to read in a way that no other book has, showing me my own possibilities.  Subsequently, rather than look for another book along these lines, I feel compelled to read more conventional books, as no other literary experiment will ever match the Wake.

Friday, June 19, 2015


While making dinner earlier this week, I decided to check out Thinky Pain, Marc Maron’s comedy special.  While cooking, I usually watch some comedy videos via Netflix streaming and it was more than time I checked out Maron’s neurosis parade.  One of my favorite bits had to do with Captain Beefheart.  Maron claims Beefheart’s music has always loomed over him, this intimidating thing he knows he is never going to understand, never going to posses the largeness of mind (paraphrase) to really comprehend, but he feels now, in his late 40s, that it's time to dive into the mad world of Beefheart.

This is how I feel about Finnegans Wake.  To borrow Maron’s phrase, I will never, ever have the largeness of mind to fully get what Joyce is up to in the Wake.  And that’s fine—I knew that going in.  But when Maron said that, well, I felt a kinship.  There are things in this world we will never fully get, but that’s no reason to steer clear of them.  Frankly, I feel sad for anyone who avoids the inexplicable.  

I’m about done with book I.  It’s that goddamn chapter 6, the quiz chapter, that really threw me.  In order to assail that fucking wall, I returned to the toolkit: the critical texts, the internet, all the efforts all these years devoted to decoding the Wake.  I’ve done well just reading the book without resorting to a lot of guides, but that chapter was too much.  And the guides proved helpful, but I’m determined to continue without them.  I think reading the book first then reading critical texts will prove more enjoyable.  I’ll likely miss out on a lot this way, but I have the rest of my life to dig back into the Wake.  I just want to get through it once before I set about the lifelong task of trying to make a modicum of sense out of this clusterfuck.

PS: I tried listening to Beefheart while Reading the Wake.  Big mistake.  That's flying too close to the sun.  

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Two chapters finished-- more thoughts to come, but I figured I might benefit from a break form the Wake, so, to honor JJ on his birthday, I read the opening pages of "The Dead", which is often regarded as not only his best story but the finest ever written (in English).  But I couldn't get through it.  It's great stuff, but the prose was too straight forward.  The Wake is poisoning me against standard prose.  

Sunday, January 25, 2015


This week’s Finnegans Wake adventures have been nothing short of fun and a wee bit clarifying as well as, of course, confounding.  Chapter one of the first book has been read and reread, so there’s that.  My goal of 52 pages a month is almost met, so that’s even more.  And more still: the second chapter is noted by many critics and scholars as considerably more approachable, so I feel as though the hard part is over. (Hilarious—the hard part has not yet begun.)

I don’t claim to understand much of this but I laughed at least once a page.  There's plenty to laugh at among the puns and neogolisms and layers upon maddening layers.  And I managed to follow a good bit of it thanks to Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, John Bishop, and Ronald McHugh.  Much has been made of Joyce’s use of Vico’s La Scienza Nuova as the structure of the book, and McHugh especially does a nice job of elucidating the influence, but one other point of his struck me as fascinating (though I admit it is perhaps the least fascinating aspect of all this): FW can be cut in four.  The first and third books compliment each other, as do the second and fourth.  That balance seems to adhere with other Joycean tricks, so I’m willing to believe McHugh, but let’s say that Joyce was intent on using Vico’s idea of the four stages of civilization as his model.  That would mean that the first and third sections, being corollaries, are representative of the theocratic and democratic stages, while the second and fourth stand in for the aristocratic stage and chaos, with the end wrapping back to the start and the old thunderclap coming to bring man back to the wonder of god/theocratic stage.  I’m certain there’s something to these balanced books and something more to be found in viewing the stages and their corollaries.  I don’t know what, but it’s more food for thought in this grand feast.

More coming, god willing. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


As I dive deeper into some scholarship on The Wake, I'll try to keep these words by Patrick Kavanagh in mind:
“Who Killed James Joyce?”

Who killed James Joyce?
I, said the commentator,
I killed James Joyce
For my graduation.
What weapon was used
To slay mighty Ulysses?
The weapon that was used
Was a Harvard thesis.
How did you bury Joyce?
In a broadcast Symposium.
That’s how we buried Joyce
To a tuneful encomium.
Who carried the coffin out?
Six Dublin codgers
Led into Langham Place
By W. R. Rodgers.
Who said the burial prayers? –
Please do not hurt me –
Joyce was no Protestant,
Surely not Bertie?
Who killed Finnegan?
I, said a Yale-man, 
I was the man who made
The corpse for the wake man.
And did you get high marks,
The Ph.D.?
I got the B.Litt.
And my master’s degree.
Did you get money
For your Joycean knowledge?
I got a scholarship 

To Trinity College.
I made the pilgrimage
In the Bloomsday swelter
From the Martello Tower
To the cabby’s shelter.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Last night I read chapter one of Finnegans Wake.  Very soon I noticed the name Haroun mentioned, which struck me as odd because earlier that day I had a conversation with my wife about the Salman Rushdie book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I rather liked.  We decided to decide to keep that book (this was during a four hour pruning of our library) though it nearly got added to the sell pile.  After I told her that Haroun popped up in The Wake, remarking on the coincidence, she reminded me that while I spent last summer reading Ulysses, she was reading The Satanic Verses.  And here was another Joyce-Rushdie connection. 
Whoa. It was almost as if Joyce was drawing a connecting line between himself, this future writer named Salman Rushdie, and the future readers of these writers: us: me, my wife, our summer of reading, our days at the beach with these thick books in hand, the pleasure of letting the hours pass while we read and soaked up some sun and tried not to get hit by footballs flying over our heads. 

Well, of course this is not exactly possible.  Still, this coincidence does confirm what I’d already assumed: the reader of The Wake will find in it what they bring. Since Joyce spent so many years packing the book with everything he could think of (and why wouldn’t he think of Haroun, a prophet of Islam) written in every language within reach (and he reached far and wide) then of course the book will reflect something of your experience back at you.  This is the best means of encouragement for the early reader of The Wake (that’s me!).  Abandon the need to get every reference and joke and delight in the surprising amount of things you find that speak to you.  See yourself in the text.  Engage with the book rather than insist that it engage you.  Marvel at the connections the book makes to all of time, past and future. 
So there, on page 4, I had my mind blown.  Can't wait to see what the other 624 pages bring. 

More soon.