How to Approach the World of Finnegans Wake (Excerpts from the Interviews Appeared in The Abiko Annual #21)
By Tatsuo Hamada (Editor & Interviewer)
“Framed by the dream-induced experiences of Dublin publican, Finnegans Wake (FW) recapitulates the cycles of Irish history, and in its multiple allusions almost reveals a universal consciousness. In order to present this new reality Joyce manipulated and distorted language that pushed the work to the furthest limits of comprehensibility. Because of the complexity FW is perhaps more talked about than read, and despite the publication of the manuscripts and drafts of the novel in 1938, probably will never be completely understood (from The Columbia Encyclopedia, 1431p, 1993).” The previous Abiko Annual #21 aimed to give average readers a guide on how to read and understand FW through editor’s interviews to many distinguished Joyceans. In those interviews following questions were asked.
Can we read through FW?
Can we understand FW?
How can we best read FW?
Is there a plot in FW?
What are the riddles or enigmas of FW?
Are there too many sexual matters in FW?
What did Joyce want to communicate in FW?
Why did Joyce invent tough, mighty words in FW?
Did Lucia’s illness affect FW?
What techniques are to be learned from FW?
Is FW translatable?
How do we evaluate our reading of FW?
The following are summaries of the answers to each question. It is the interviewer’s great pleasure if these may help readers to approach the world of FW.
1. Can you read through FW from the beginning to the end? Are there many parts which cannot be understood?
Fritz Senn said ----- Yes, many parts cannot be “understood”, whatever we mean by understanding. The high proportion of such occurrences has troubled me. I naturally is not arguing for such a chimera as complete understanding, all of Joyce's works undermine such a notion. But a minimal understanding would sometimes be a help. --- [Another question: If you think the reading difficult, what are the major causes?] If we knew the causes, some of the difficulties might go away. Main cause is my obtundity, what I cannot figure out. Some such obtundity is likely to be shared, though not felt, by many others, to judge from publications. It is just conceivable that the able work done by genetic scholars (studying notes and drafts and galleys) may throw light on some obscurities. But if that is the only (almost) way towards such clarity, this would be an esthetic argument against the Wake. (“Obtundity” means being obtuse, dumb, insensitive, lack of perception, insight. As when one simply cannot “hear” a meaning that may be in a phrase. Not being smart enough.)
Michael Patrick Gillespie said ----- I think that is the most important question that one can ask about Joyce's writings, for to me Finnegans Wake is a radical challenge to readers. It overturns the linear, cause and effect mode of thinking that has been a formal part of reading (at least in Western culture) since the Enlightenment. It embodies the pluralism of language that stands as a key feature in the way that we perceive the world, but, at the same time, remains at best at the margins of any public pronouncements. Finally (if such a word can be used with regard to Finnegans Wake), it resists all formal literary criticism because it does not submit to the exclusionary positions that any methodology necessarily adopts. (By exclusionary, I mean the characteristics that set one methodology apart from another. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce shows a marvelous ability to go beyond the limits of any single critical approach.) --- Having said why I think that the question is important, I am afraid that I must go on to say how little prepared I am to answer it. First, let me respond by explaining my own critical biases. For me, the goal of reading literature is always pleasure. If my aim were instruction, I would read technical manuals, metaphysical works, or directions for programming my VCR. Because I seek pleasure from literature, I see the experience of reading as highly subjective. Knowing how Finnegans Wake pleases or frustrates another reader cannot increase or decrease my own gratification, just as knowing that someone is a vegetarian will not blunt my appetite for roast beef. --- I think that every reader of Finnegans Wake struggles to come up with a personal system for reading it. I do not think that these systems have a broad application, but I do believe that when an individual finds a method of use to him it becomes possible to take a great deal of pleasure from reading Finnegans Wake. When I ask myself if I can benefit from reading Finnegans Wake, I find myself unsure how to answer. Thinking of it purely in an instinctive fashion, I must say that I do not enjoy it as much as Ulysses, and perhaps not as much as A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man or Dubliners. This may be a reflection of my own limitations as a reader. Whenever I take up Finnegans Wake, and I have read it through perhaps a half dozen times or so, I do so with the feeling that I must comprehend it as a whole. This is admittedly a very linear, Cartesian approach. I feel a good measure of frustration because I can never find sufficient connections to produce in my mind a unified impression of the work. If I read criticism that makes those connections for me, I come away feeling that too much of the text has been omitted.
David Hayman said ----- I confess that the first time I read it through, 50-odd years ago, I took over a year to do so. At the time I had Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key to help me with the book's structure. There were plenty of passages that gave me pause and pause I did, but I was bent on finding evidence for a thesis that I no longer believe in and that meant I had to do a careful, line by line and word by word reading. I don't recommend that procedure. It dampens the joy. I have since read it through a few times, but I tend to read only passages or chapters these days. Finnegans Wake is not in any sense a conventional novel, but it has a clear structure and certain novelistic characteristics: character, situation, action, development, etc. However, there is only the most rudimentary suspense, for which it substitutes 'interest' the quality adhering to the word play and the details but also to the reiterative or rhyming aspect, the fact that, as we acclimatize ourselves to the many components, we find ourselves engaged in the system of echoes: e.g., the names and attributes of persona. Beyond that there is the surprise element which functions on many levels but begins with the shifts in style and approach and is allied with the joys of recognition and even of awareness. It is fun to see through puns to unexpected meanings or fresh associations. This is a text with which we play games that are deeply engrossing in part because the challenges are both real and surmountable. There are still, after all these years plenty of passages that I find challenging, a fact that keeps rather than dampens my interest since I have every confidence that someday I will master them. But master is not the word. One of the sources of pleasure is our sense that the text is infinitely mysterious, that no matter how much we know, no matter how many keys we have, no matter how deeply we go, we will never exhaust the potential of this book.
Margot Norris said ----- Yes, I have read FW through from beginning to end several times. All texts--by Joyce and by other writers--offer possibilities for different levels of understanding. I believe all parts of FW can be understood on some level, but no part of FW can be perfectly or totally understood. (I think this is true of all other literary texts as well). However, some parts of FW are much more difficult, on a first or second reading, than other parts. I personally find Book III the most difficult. --- I consider a text to be somewhat more complicated than a communication by an author through language with a reader. For one thing, the author writes through a fictive persona, a narrator in fiction, a lyric voice in poetry, a character in drama. By the same token, a "reader" is not only the individual who is reading a text, but also an interlocutor of the text, someone to whom a narrator addresses a discourse, and the "reader" is thereby turned into a fictional construct, for example, a listener to a narration who might be called "narratee." In FW this already complex negotiation between the narrating voice, its language, and its listener is complicated even more because each of these terms may be multiple or split. For example, in the "ALP" chapter (Book I, chapter 8), the washerwomen may also be the "sons," Shem and Shaun. ALP may be the mother or the river Liffey, and if she is the river, then it is banks of the river that seem to be doing the talking. Since the washerwomen conduct a dialogue about ALP to each other--where does the "reader" fit in? Are we put into the place of one or the other washerwomen? Are we listening in or eavesdropping on a conversation we are not meant to hear? The reader's "understanding" takes the form, among other things, of recognizing that the text poses these kinds of questions. Put differently, one of the levels of "understanding" in reading FW is a metatextual understanding.
C. George Sandulescu said ----- Yes, FW is indeed meant to be read through. There are parts of the Book which are more readily understood than others, without any doubt. But if Joyce is sure to have understood everything, so can we! We are still, sixty years after, most humbly learning from him: In all respects. The ones who still reject any part of Joyce's writings considering them as failures will one day repent. If they are still alive. The understanding of understanding--or Understanding Understanding, for short--is a HERMENEUTIC problem which, I thought, stands, on account of its complexity, quite outside the scope of the present interview; initially I had a passage about it which I left out for its being too philosophical. Here is a quick tentative reply to your query: A text once definitive stands on its own two feet―be they FORM & CONTENT... The fundamental problem is that, in FW, Joyce fuses the two: The thing obtained circulates, but in another Cosmic dimension. That baffles Critics & Readers alike. And nonMaterialized (in the Text!) authorial intentions come to naught. They simply do not exist! Mine is a text-oriented approach. Not an author-oriented one. But Joyce's mind was so linguistically vast that no careful Reader can ever hope to find something in there that Joyce had not envisaged at least in part. Just scrutinize the Beckett "Come in!" controversy, as told by Nat Halper...
Sam Slote said ----- I can and have read FW from beginning to end several times (as well as having read chapters or passages individually many times). There are far too many parts that I can't understand at all; there are many parts where I would say my understanding is tentative at best; and in certain places, admittedly few, after much work, I've reached a level of comfortable, but still incomplete, comprehension. I'm not sure that this is the same as claiming that there are parts that cannot be understood *at all*. I would say that provisional comprehension is perhaps the best that can be achieved, but this is not quite the same as utter incomprehensibility. --- I simply mean an interpretation that does not cover everything; there are gaps and so on. It's something tentative, a first (or second or third) step; but never a final step, not something definite, that closes and resolves the matter definitively. To a large extent every interpretation is provisional, with FW I would say that most interpretations that are worth anything are somewhere aware or conscious of their limitations. --- FW certainly forces its readers into learning how to read again. It can't be read in the same way as a traditional novel and thus requires something different, an approach that comes slowly, after many years of engagement with the text. I certainly approach other texts differently now. --- I don't think that there is any single mode of reading that can be applied 'en masse' to literary texts. Each text suggests its own protocols of reading, which should always be viewed with some degree of skepticism, i.e. they should be questioned. I think this might be a good way of characterising how I approach texts differently now after the Wake. (This is something that Nathalie Sarraute calls the "ère de soupçon", the age of suspicion.) --- I usually say something along the lines of: don't worry about not understanding it, find something to latch onto, you may be wrong in that choice, but since you'll probably never be right about FW anyway, there's no harm in being wrong. In fact, being wrong about FW is more enjoyable than being right about many other things.
Joe Schork said ----- No, I personally do not (and have not) read the WAKE continuously, from start to finish; rather, I read selected pages and puzzle through them. There are many parts which are very difficult to understand, even for readers who have gone over the pages many times. I suspect that almost every reader uses Roland McHugh's ANNOTATIONS for basic help with facts (linguistic, cultural, historical) buried in the text. --- My first extensive and thorough reading of FW was in the 1980’s, after l had examined the facsimiles of the NOTEBOOKS and was interested in tracing Joyce's use of a series of notes (from a popular biography of P.T. Barnum). Before that I had merely tried to make sense of a few passages here and there in the work.
Leslie Hedley said ----- I believe it fair to say that the ideal way to read "Finnegans Wake" is to have several dictionaries at hand: Gaelic, Latin, Greek, French, Middle English, and an ear for Irish speech patterns. But we know there's no ideal way. I entered the struggle with FW (when much too young) by plunging into the book from beginning to end and from end to beginning trying to retrace myself. --- Did I understand it? No. I required help from Tony Burgess. There are parts only a few might understand or presume they understand. The book is a challenge, but not a combat. It is similar to exploring a dark cave of language. One requires patience. You need to take it portion by portion. This is hardly a quick read as too many American novels are. The reader will watch the machinery of language at work, for this remarkable book is a word game. No one can absorb this work after only two or three readings. --- [Another question: Is Tony Burgess the same with Anthony Burgess? How did Tony Burgess help you?] Yes. Having received a brief note from Burgess expressing his admiration for my satirical fiction, I naturally read his booklet* about FW. It was a good guide. I've forgotten it's name. (*Anthony Burgess: ReJoyce, 1965).
Mikio Fuse said ----- My "Finnegans Wake Experience" started about ten years ago when I got duly acquainted with Ulysses and felt I wanted to see what more this unique artist had achieved. It was my essential companion when I stayed in Dublin in 1991-93, and it has uniquely inspired my life ever since. As with any literary work, I read Finnegans Wake for no other purpose than to critically activate my way of seeing things. We "seeing see not," as the man said. And he quotes it from the Old Testament. It's an ageless problem of human beings, and I believe reading literature is an essential means to see the problem clearly, not to say to solve it. You can cultivate your sense of seeing through reading literature.
Donald Theall said ----- Yes, I have read it through a number of times, since my first reading in 1950 - a small reading group which included Marshall McLuhan and my wife, Joan. I think it is important to read it as the learned satire that it is. This is why in the early readings of the Wake, it was frequently pointed out how central Swift, Sterne, and Rabelais were in the Wake (and to a bit lesser extent Pope). Joyce signals this by the constant play with Swift and Sterne's names in the Wake. Reading it in the spirit of learned satire, that is, playing with a multiple series of levels enriches the experience, but also brings one closer to Joyce's playing with myths and religions - another motif of the early discussions of the Wake. This is also genuinely in the spirit of the Wake being a book about books in an era where the book is being transformed by the new electric era. --- I first encountered Joyce's major works as an undergraduate at Yale in late 1948 when I read Ulysses in a seminar on great epic works. Because a close friend was doing a baccalaureate thesis on Giambattista Vico, I began playing around with Finnegans Wake at the same time. But my first major encounter with the Wake began in 1950 when I moved to Toronto and met Marshall McLuhan. In early 1951 as a graduate student working on a thesis under McLuhan's direction, he, my wife and myself and a varying group of two or three other people began to read the Wake a few days each week. Sometimes McLuhan and I did further readings on our own. This persisted over three years. During that period I was writing a doctoral thesis under McLuhan's direction on Communication Theory in Modern Poetry: Yeats, Pound, Eliot and Joyce, which included a substantial section on Ulysses and the Wake. I also wrote an article on Joyce's Wake, which appeared in the journal associated with McLuhan's first Culture and Communication seminars, Explorations, entitled "Here Comes Everybody" - an article which was praised in a letter from Carola Giedion-Welcker. She and her husband had been friends of Joyce who arranged his emigrating with his family to Switzerland during the Second World War. The activity with McLuhan was more than a reading, since it was an ongoing interactive dialogue about Joyce and his context, including casual readings of a paragraph or two at virtually any time during the day. His personal sense of humor made the reading particularly rich, since he had a natural affinity for the Joycean style of wit (puns, portmanteau words, verbal overlayering, etc.) which permeated his later writings on communication, media and technology. --- It is obvious that there are parts of the Wake that will elude most readers, but whether this is a question of their not being understood or rather a question of limitations on the time or attention that any reader can give to explicating an extremely complex, multi-level book. The work of so many Joyceans, such as David Hayman, Adaline Glasheen, James Atherton, Roland McHugh, Clive Hart, Louis Mink, Fritz Senn's A Wake Newslitter - and many later writers who have extended their researches into other areas such as children's games and lore, science and technology, popular culture, Greek and Latin references, linguistics, etc. - increasingly suggests that there are no parts of the Wake that do not provide perceptual, if not conceptual, significance to all of the text. While there may be parts that at one reading or another I don't grasp, does not mean that they cannot eventually communicate a significance and have an effect. Frequently, it is a question of acquiring further knowledge, particularly in areas such as history and the history of literature and the arts.
Joan Paternel said ----- My first reading of the Wake, like the course of true love, did not run smooth. I proceeded on my own--that is, outside of any literature course, credit or non-credit, and with no reference books, no Wake guides or companions. I was thoroughly confused, of course, but "stunned" might be more accurate. On the first page of the novel, I stumbled over that big word which, I later learned, the author intended as a dream version of the cosmic voice of God. The Wake being the rendering of the unconscious of an individual dreaming through one whole night, God's voice could not be expressed in a straightforward way, as it is, for example, in Genesis. --- I could not understand much. If I had consulted a guide or companion at that first reading, I would have learned that the tremendous word is composed of parts of the word for thunder in at least ten languages. (Primitive peoples associated thunder with God.) However, even with the guidance provided by the explications of this novel which have appeared over the second half of the twentieth century, the reader today will find the language of the Wake daunting. Joyce tells this story of falls and rises in: puns and double entendres; malapropisms and spoonerisms; portmanteau or blend words, words formed by fusing elements of two other words; hybrids, words having elements of more than one language; and neologisms, new coinages. The story is told, furthermore, with many allusions--to literature, history, geography, religion, philosophy, science, etc.-to every field known to a reader of the widest range at the beginning of the twentieth century. But again, the allusions are in dream language. For example, Joyce tells us on his first page about the first fall, the Fall, the one that happened before Moses or Christ--"nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick." Before Christ founded his Church on Peter, and even before the burning bush spoke to Moses. (The “mishe mishe” from mise, Irish for “me,” the “tauftauf” from taufen, German for “baptise.”)
Laurel Willis said ----- FW is like speaking in tongues at Pentecost. It is a schizophrenic salad which delights. I ignore the irreverent parts; those pertaining to his twist on Biblical sculpture and the Trinity. I remember as a little girl that everyone used to call me shy. I was never shy. But l never said anything. I didn't want to say anything using the English language I heard around me. I wanted to express myself differently but I lacked the imagination to do that. I hated to hear people saying the same things in the same way. I didn't want to be like that. Somehow I overcome my ‘shyness.’ Then I read Ulysses and it affected me so strongly I couldn't utter a single word. I asked Fritz Senn, “What is the meaning of it, in one word?” and he said 'failure.' I don't believe that now. (I thought he meant human failure. Could he have meant failure of the language?) When I started writing the words l wrote in their sentence structures started suggesting other meanings hidden in the words and relationships of words. English just wasn't working for me. Crazy meanings were popping out of my sentences and I never got past the first paragraph until I came to Japan where I write English the way I hear it as an English lesson in the Rag (Abiko Quarterly). Before that in Hawaii I would work away at writing in my room wishing I could create something wishing my husband would lock me in and make me write like Colette's husband did. Now I think I was in a state of mind similar to Joyce's theory of language or whatever when he conceived of Finnegans Wake. I wish now I would have just kept on writing changing the spelling to match the meaning that suggested itself to me from behind my words. I could have written a crazy version of Finnegans Wake! Now I never could. I am immune now to Joyce. People ask me why I tried to read FW. I said, “I'm not interested in anything in the whole world, especially modern novels. I like FW because it has everything in it and it fires my imagination when I read sources of FW.” --- [Another question: You were particularly interested in the letters in FW. Would you explain why the letters are so important in FW?] Now l understand the letter found in the dung hill could be a missile. I thought finding a letter there was funny, but now I think it is irreverent! The letters and Issy seemed to be intertwined. I chide myself now that I enjoyed the idea of finding a letter in a dung heap when it was a missile. Some people come to Joyce because they like all the dung. I don’t think I did -- especially the irreverence to the Trinity. Joseph’s being cuckolded intrigued me though as I pondered it.
2. Can you understand the plot while you are reading? What did Joyce want to describe in the book?
Fritz Senn said ----- No. We have some traditional summaries, also some put in circulation by Joyce himself. I find them most unsatisfactory and unhelpful, they usually leave out the hard parts and recirculate what we already think we know. I simply cannot believe that FW would be as blandly uninteresting as those summaries suggest. There is also A Plot Summary by John Gordon, an excellent, provocative scholar. His outline adds gratuitous complications to me and does not tell me what I need to know. --- There is another book, “Understanding FW” by Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, two Dublin experts who are among the most knowledgeable readers of the Wake. It is a sort of update on the Skeleton Key. My problem with it is that it does not live up to its title, it more or less summarizes/explains what I think I find out for myself and blithely skips over the parts where clarification is required. --- I never make statements about what “Joyce wants”, out of my ken. --- Great challenge, with unique reading experiences and correspondingly great frustrations. Certainly very funny and often touches chords deep down that we cannot explain. ---It is done all over the world by readers who do not have to do it but often invest a great deal of time, energy, etc. Finnegans Wake may even spoil us and make us feel “ordinary” books are flat and insipid by comparison. (That goes for Ulysses too).
Katarzyna Bazarnik said ----- The question is what one understands when one says 'plot'. If one means the sequence of events, that is a very questionable notion as regards FW, as one should probably first define what sequence one means: linear, cyclical or perhaps we are dealing here with some kind of simultaneity where everything what's happening takes place at the same time and is presented to us, readers, from some kind of divine perspective in which 'time' becomes an irrelevant notion. So the image one would get in this last case would resemble a photograph taken with a broken camera in which several or several dozen images/shots have overlapped. However, if you mean whether I know (more or less vaguely) what's going on in a particular passage/chapter, or, in other words, if I know what I am reading about in a given passage, the answer is: sometimes I do (and I am fairly sure about it ) and sometimes I only have a very vague impression, but I am not sure at all if I am right, or I only get glimpses, but some passages/paragraphs remain a total mystery to me. Certainly, it is very hard to see what's going on when you are reading it for the first time. This improves with time and the number of times/years you have been reading the book, but the fascinating thing about FW is that a passage which once seemed fairly 'clear' can become obscure again and you have a feeling that your initial understanding/reading of it was completely wrong. I always find something new even in a passage which I seem to know almost by heart, which isn't the case with most traditionally written books. And most of it depends on the language: its multilingualism and multisemanticism (to use Fritz Senn's phrase). If I may use a metaphor: for me reading FW is like exploring a jungle. You hack your way through it to get to your destination, but when you want to return by the same path after some time you can find only a vague trace of it. It's been taken over by the wilderness, new plants have grown and perhaps you will find another, more appropriate way to go back. And then again, after some time, you can hardly find that new path you had cut through the jungle so you must begin everything again - "the same anew". But by this time you have gained some experience, so you know which trees to avoid, which are poisonous, and which are fairly soft so that you can hack them easily. You have learned something about the jungle's geography, environment, its dangers and fascinating aspects but it doesn't mean you have explored it, that you have mastered it. Of course, to extend this metaphor: you can deforest the place and get a flat, even, and cultivated plain, that is, to summarize, give an outline of the 'plot' or even 'translate the book' into plain English but then the jungle is lost. You lose all the richness and mystery of the 'jungle' and the adventure of experiencing it, and amazement, awe and frustration of learning/ reading/ recognizing/ discovering and rediscovering its texture. --- I would be cautious using the phrase 'story line' with regard to FW. What is the story line in Ulysses? Virtually none. There is a sequence of Bloom's activities and Stephen’s activities and we get glimpses of so many other people doing various things, but I wonder if they form 'a story'. If by 'story line' you mean a sequence of events in FW, yes, I suppose one may see it― all the people giving us skeleton keys or summaries see that. But that is not to say that that sequence of events forms any cohesive 'story'. Some people may see it, some may see rather a picture or a spatial image. I see FW as 'a situation' located in a particular place but also mysteriously expanding and invading other spaces and finally becoming 'a space' - 'a situation becoming space, situation creating space'. This is looked at from different angles, different points of view. When the reader re-constructs it in his/her mind, it is no longer a flat text but a spatial object. It might be a globe. I think I have found some evidence in the text which allows for such a reading. Clive Hart, who is a fantastic reader of FW, has found other spatial structures which he described in Structure and Motif in FW. --- It's really difficult to guess whether Joyce did have a model in his mind when he started writing and whether a model we construct is the same as his. I believe his method of writing and his comments indicate that he might have one quite early. He compared writing FW to making a tunnel in a mountain by two teams. He compared it to constructing an engine with a wheel with no spokes and the one which is perfectly square. These imply some kind of structural skeleton beneath the text. Besides, I think his concept(s) must have undergone many changes/revisions. It is simply impossible to work on something for so long - seventeen years - without any reflection, without meditating on it - and this inevitably entails modifications, changes, revisions. The core of the project perhaps remains the same, but everything else may change and, I am sure, does change. I have observed a similar process when my husband (Zenon Fajfer) was writing his book. The main idea has been preserved but the book hardly resembles its first draft, which reminds me FW so much.
Joan Peternel said ----- Another cause of my bewilderment on my first reading of the Wake was the number of versions of the plot and characters. On the first page of the novel, the plot is given as the Fall out of Eden. The names of Adam and Eve appear on that page, as well as the tremendous word. But as I turned the first dozen pages of the book, I found more falls. H. C. Earwicker, owner of a public house in Chapelizod, a village just outside Dublin, has fallen in what is described as "this municipal sin business," an event that took place in Phoenix Park earlier that day. "Of the persins sin his Eyrawyggla saga." And this event is being "retaled" in bed, so we can assume that the hero has fallen asleep and is dreaming about the happenings of the day. Then there is the fall of Tim Finnegan, a character appearing in the lyrics of a popular song ("The Ballad of Finnegan's Wake"). Brick layer, builder of cities, he has had too much to drink and falls while he is working. While his "funferall" is in progress, he revives. Humpty Dumpty is also mentioned in those early pages, and a broken egg becomes a recurring image throughout the book. And Troy is mentioned there--"Gricks may rise and Troysirs fall." (Did the hero lower his trousers in the park?) The reader does not know which version of the plot he or she will find on the next page. --- [Another question: Do you think understanding the plot is important in reading the Wake?] Yes, of course. The plot is simple enough: falling and rising. The way down and the way up. The downward movement of tragedy, and the upward movement of comedy. The descent into flesh, the ascension into spirit. --- [Another question: Can you find some meaning in the numerous letters?] The Wake is one question after another. The reader is wondering, the characters are inquiring, the author is asking. The reader is trying to understand the world of this novel, and the author appears to be trying to explain - through a tale, dramatic dialogue, a fable, ballad lyrics, a riddle, a sermon, gossip, etc. And a letter, just another kind of text. A letter is found by a hen scratching on a dump in section I.5. The letter, much damaged, was mailed from Boston, but from whom? And to whom was it addressed? And what does it mean? At the conclusion of I.5, Shem the Penman has signed his name. As if he has written the "letter" that is I.5, and, indeed, he has done so, since Shem stands for Joyce. At the end of the novel, Anna Livia Plurabelle says "Every letter is hard but yours sure is the hardest crux ever." She seems to be saying this to Shem, to Joyce. It could be said that the Wake is about the interpretation of texts - ultimately, the interpretation of the "book" that is Nature, or the World.
Margot Norris said ----- I don’t believe FW has a plot, in the novelistic sense, but it contains many episodes that have some sort of narrative line. Some of those narratives are more accessible than others, and I believe I have a sense of many of those episodic plots. Some of the little stories in FW echo recognizable tales or fables--for example, The Ondt and the Gracehoper is a parody of the fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. Often, when I reread a chapter, new narrative lines will come to my attention, so that I consider the plots of FW as constantly proliferating and multiplying and changing. --- Thank you, very much, for the kind words about my book (The Decentered Universe of Finnegans Wake). I believe I was very lucky to have begun a dissertation on FW at the very dawn of what we now call "critical theory," when the first Derrida essays and books were becoming available in translation, and acute attention was being paid to the theoretical works of early twentieth century linguists. I especially benefited from having my attention focused on the linguistic and poetic implications of Freudian dream theory--which gave me a theoretical handle on the work's punning and portmanteau words, and on the instability, shifts and multiplicities of the work's figures, with their anxieties and guilts and passions. We have a much broader and richer array of critical theories now, than were available in the early seventies, but I believe I used what I had at hand to make the work's seeming irrationalities more comprehensible to myself. --- Joyce wanted many things. Language, when it is cut loose from sense and from conventional rhetorical purposes and gives pleasure mainly through sound. Thoughts and feelings that are transgressive and repressed in waking thoughts. The poetry in the gossip of working washerwomen. The verses and little songs in children’s games. Pedantic lessons. An absurd trial. Riddles that have no solution. Prayers or snatches of liturgy. Accusations of absurd behavior. Excuses that are ineffective because they don’t make sense. Non-human things. Light on water that breaks into prisms. Clouds that precipitate rain. A river flowing out to sea. A tree or a book that is losing its leaves. A landscape with hills and mountains. A rainbow. A chicken that is pecking at rubbish. Husbands and wives walking and talking about their children. Boys quarreling over a girl. A girl wisecracking. Babies. Thunder. Myths. Poetry and fiction and philosophy. Fables. Insects. Clothes. Men listening to a radio. Wars. Museums. Writing. Dying. Many things. --- Joyce already pays a great deal of attention to symptoms of the "unconscious" in Ulysses, for example, when Bloom suppresses a painful thought or makes a slip of the tongue. There is also evidence that Joyce read Freud with care, and was aware of Freudian theories of dream work and the unconscious. I do believe, therefore, that he planned to write FW as a dream work right from the start. John Bishop's brilliant Joyce’s Book of the Dark further elaborates the text as a kind of performance of the sleeping body.
Catrin Siedenbiedel said ----- Even though the process of understanding FW resembles, as I said, rather a constant 'work in progress', there are fragments of plot that are understandable: part of the story, for example, is reflecting on the particularity of the text itself. Accordingly, an important aspect of the contents of the text is what you perceive immediately: the text's hermetic language. --- I think readers who are not interested in "exploring the language so much" will not really be interested in FW anyway, because it is a text about language, about writing and about the difficult connection between language and reality. But indeed you can read the book without knowing the storyline. I think you will find bits and pieces of it while reading, and the more you study the book, the more familiar you will get with its structures and story bits. --- I think the importance of what Joyce wants to 'describe' is called into question by the fact that in FW that function of language which Karl Bühler calls 'representation' - in contrast to the one Eco calls its 'aesthetic function' - is rather insignificant. I think FW is not to be seen as an attempt to describe something in particular, but as a play, an experiment with language and its functions. A plot is only traceable in fragments and distorted images. Joyce experimented on the difference between representation and reality, between fact and fiction, between literary language and everyday language. --- Karl Bühler (Sprachtheorie, 1934) developed a model for the function of language: the Organon model. This model shows three main functions of language: Representation (of a thing or a topic), Appeal (towards the receiver) and Expression (of the speaker). These three functions are implicit in different degrees in every message. A message that expresses a feeling ("I am cold") can be decoded as an appeal ("Would you shut the window please?") or a representation ("It's bad weather today!"). If you look at FW in terms of a representation of a story, you quickly lose yourself, because, as I said above, it is so hard to see a coherent plot-line in all these signifiers. That is why I said that what works here is what Eco calls an "aesthetic message", in which breaking with the norms of language tells us something about the nature of representing world in language. --- FW is a work of art which is dealing in an experimental way with language and literature which is unique but simultaneously marks a summit of a development in the history of experimental literature. It has therefore on the one hand an important position in world literature but on the other hand is due to the enigmatic language only perceived by a few readers, primarily by those with a scholarly interest.
Aida Yared said ----- Most often, it is very difficult to understand the plot and there may actually be no plot at all. There certainly is some "action" going on but with no linearity to it. --- The way the "plot" if any is structured, is akin to what you may find in Shakespeare's Mid-Summer's Night Dream or in the Arabian Nights, with shifting identities and a storyline constantly distracted and diverted. --- I think Joyce wanted to describe what writing is at its most basic level. The process of writing, the way letters look on the page, the difficulty and purpose of it. In many passages, he may be battling his own problems: the illness of his daughter, his eye problems, toothache, questions about intimate relationships. Very importantly in my opinion, he is describing the anxiety of death and the afterworld, and trying to push that moment away. --- There are very frequent references to death, the afterworld, judgment day. The references draw on the Bible, Islam, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and certainly many other sources. Quickly leafing through FW, I notice the presence of Israfel the Summoner (the Angel of Death) on p.49, the soul in Islam getting handed from angel to angel on p.191, many frightening images of death on p. 549. All of chapter II.1 (The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies) may be taking place in the afterworld. I think one of the reasons Joyce was particularly interested in the Arabian Nights is that the storyteller Sheherazade is trying to defeat death by telling her tales, stringing them together or enclosing them in one another so that there is no definable "end." Such storytelling may be a way of fending off death. Joyce further crams into FW countless reference books so that the amount of storytelling in FW, or rather through FW, is practically endless, and would keep one so busy as not to have time for fear, war, death and the such. There is a wonderful letter from Joyce to his daughter-in-law Helen in 1935, where he wishes for her to tell him tales to fill "the nights of the Imbecidrivelling war" (JJLIII, 381). --- I think this is a great book. It reminds me of a movie by the French moviemaker Alain Resnais called "Toute la Memoire du Monde" from 1956. In it Resnais visits and talks about the French Bibliotheque Nationale, and how it is a repository of human memory. Finnegans Wake seems a condensed version of the same. Joyce in fact used to go to the Bibiotheque Nationale and work there on a regular basis. If you were asked which book you would take on the proverbial desert island, and decided to take Finnegans Wake, you would have, included in it, fragments from or references to an enormous number of volumes. Some are "references" in the usual sense of the term, others are less known works of doubtful importance; but all are there, present somehow in Finnegans Wake. To name a few, the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the 17 volumes of Burton's Arabian Nights and the Bible would provide you with plenty of reading material.
John S. Gordon said ----- Yes but the relationship of one subplot to another keeps changing. --- I haven't read A Plot Summary since I wrote it. I'm sure that it contains more than a few mistakes, which I'd correct now if I could, but its central thesis - that FW takes place chronologically, according to a fixed set of temporal and spatial coordinates, with certain identifiable characters and stage properties - seems to me rock-solid, one that needed saying only because the Zeitgeist always has one particular way of being an ass, and at the time that way consisted of denying the reality of reality. --- Joyce wanted to describe: 1. A family. 2. The family. --- I think that there is a specific family at the center of the book, that this family has certain identifiably derivative affinities with Joyce's family on one end, and that at the other end it is made to stand for all families everywhere. --- He was fascinated with the production of meaning, and the one human experience in which that process is most immediately encountered is the learning of a new language. So he made his readers learn a new language, at the same time showing them how, according to his lights, language came to be in the first place. At no phase is either the generation of language or the learning of language a simple business; neither, for that matter, is reality: all meet or exceed our cranial capacity for comprehension. So a book along the lines he laid out should do the same. The linguistic (and non-linguistic) world of meanings we inhabit is bottomless; therefore a book about it should be too.
Joe Schork said ----- If "plot" means the presence of the basic characters and the repetition of primary themes (as determined and constantly modified and refined by experts), yes -- after many years of examining the text itself, working on the underlying NOTEBOOKS, and reading the critical suggestions of experienced scholars, I feel fairly confident in following the general movement of the WAKE (which is nothing like the "plot” of a conventional novel). If "plot" means following the action and the characters involved in it on every page (as would be necessary in a conventional novel), hell no! --- Granted the cultural/religious aspects of Joyce's youth and his education in elite Jesuit schools, it is natural that the saints of the Roman Catholic church were as much a part of his early life as the heroes and heroines of Classical mythology or the figures of early Irish history. Thus, when he wrote about turn of the century Ireland, saints played a significant role in his fiction. This is a matter of background, not belief. I share the same of the cultural and educational background (but in the United States, not Ireland), thus I have written a book on the impact of hagiography (saint-lore) on Joyce's work --especially since I have found out that most Joyceans know very little about this esoteric topic. The detection of saints and their usually humorous contributions to Joyce's fiction is just one of the many ways that scholars can help others to understand and enjoy the sometimes difficult task of getting at ULYSSES or FINNEGANS WAKE. --- In my judgment, Joyce wanted to do at least two things in the WAKE: first, create a sustained work in which the language, techniques, and structures are very different from any other book; second, incorporate into that work elements from many cultures from different eras and places -- with a natural (because that is what he knew best) emphasis on material from western European civilization, ancient and modern. The WAKE has no moral, political, social, or religious purpose; it is a literary experiment. Thus, it describes its own execution. And, always and everywhere in its conception and evolution, humor is the most important element. (By "execution" I do not mean "legally sanctioned death," but "the process of putting the work of art together," "the creating, making of the work, in all its details." Thus FW is about its own creation.) --- A huge success for those who (like me) enjoy working on 628-page multilingual, polycultural, funny crossword puzzles. I like a good laugh, even at the expense of days of trying to figure out what the joke is, and in what languages. Those who are no turned on by language-study and exotic references to minute bits of world history, all jumbled together, will be totally frustrated by even a few lines of the WAKE. Those who attempt to find in it a social or political message, expressed in some buried code or key, are wrong and usually boring. --- Those who want to examine and find universal significance in Joyce's use of father-son, rival brothers, father-daughter relationships in FW are certainly welcome to do so. I personally find that a concentration on such issues usually stems from a desire to find parallels in Joyce's personal life or to construct some cosmic theory based on FW. That process does not interest me.
Finn Fordham said ----- No. Not conventionally. At the moment, the main story for me is how Joyce wrote it, how he smashed words and disparate articles of abstruse knowledge together: each word or phrase or sentence tells a story therefore. --- I'm more interested in specific and particular meanings (than universal significance in Joyce’s treatments on father-son, rival brothers, and father-daughter relationships). If you lay down notions of universal significance, then you find the world is full of exceptions! I find the idea of universal significance (a dominant one in early criticism of Finnegans Wake) too normative and prescriptive. It was a symptom of post-war humanism: a healing search for a common humanity. Joyce does seem to have chosen "characters" of a "family" who, some argue, represent the basic types of the human race. But what he does is, layer on layer, find analogies for these types, none of which are a perfect fit: so you get a composite picture which is a kind of muddle. The types in Finnegans Wake are huge cumbersome entities into which have been poured so many different candidates for the type - but none of them fit the job description perfectly. Finnegans Wake, I begin to think, is as much a parody of the quest for universal significance: that a consequence of such a concept is to end up with such impossibly swollen and unstable "people." The particular keeps falling onto the universal, denting its reputation and threatening to knock it over. Having said that, I can't help finding significance that reflect and echo with Joyce's structures. Even the recent New York bombings echo in the first page: "The fall (bababada etc) of a once wallstrait old parr." Shem and Shaun are Palestine and Israel - but you can't take that very far either. --- Ummmm - here's a stab at this difficult question (what did Joyce want to describe?): the order and the muddle of the human and non-human world, and the comic inability of ordinary language to code that order and muddle. --- Joyce wanted to evoke the otherness of dreams, their fragmentariness, their shifts, their openness to interpretation, their lack of censorship. But he does so without being mimetic of a dream (which never last as long as the Wake). Moreover, it's not clear that he started with the idea of a dream: it looks more as though the dream was a structure that was imposed gradually as he wrote, in an attempt to unify disparate sections. Part of the unification comes from thematic preoccupations taken from dreams and theories of dreaming.
Geert Lernout said ----- No. I greatly admire scholars who claim they can. There are little coherent plot lines and Book I as a whole seems to be going somewhere, but overall I don't see a plot at all, at least not in the normal sense of that term. --- Not only the theories of Lacan and Derrida but every single new theoretical approach has had Joyce as its hero. Whether that says something about FW or about those approaches, I don't know. It seems clear at least that Joyce's work is still important enough to challenge new theorists. --- Even on the basis of what Joyce himself claimed about his book, it is impossible to answer the question. He seems to have been happy explaining words and passages, but only spoke in very general terms when discussing the whole book. --- My attitude to such endeavours (to find hidden messages in FW) is similar to that of other paranoid ventures along the lines of the X-files. All other attempts to find such meanings have been unsuccessful and though they might be of interest in a distant and fictional fashion, it is hardly to believe that they have anything to do with the real world. --- I would recommend this book to people who like puzzles and libraries, who find delight in getting to grips with something quite difficult. But this is definitely not a book if you want plot or character or milieu. That FW does not interest the most general of "general readers" is clear but that has something to do with the large investment that has to be made, not with the presence or lack of philosophical meaning.
Richard Kostelanetz said ----- Yes, because the plot of relations (conflict) among five people is nearly always present ― a father, a mother, a daughter, and two sons. --- The best explanation known to me of the ramifications of these relationships is the chart by L. Moholy-Nagy in his VISION IN MOTION(1946). A masterpiece of graphic literary criticism, this chart identifies various forms taken by these five figures. I've reprinted it more than once, most visibly perhaps in my anthology THE AVANT-GARDE TRADITION IN LITERATURE(1982). --- Joyce wanted to describe his image of the relevance of at least parts of this five-person conflict toward understanding all human experiences. --- This book is among the most extraordinary achievements of esthetic modernism. Esthetic Modernism is one way of characterizing the high modern art to which I am especially devoted. That is the bias behind my DICTIONARY OF THE AVANT-GARDES (1992, 1999), which contains hundred of entries. --- Don't expect to read from beginning to end, as one would a conventional book. Rather, dip into it here and there, probably in increasingly larger batches. --- Since the plot is continually present, while the narrative structure is the continuous presence of the plot, you need not read the WAKE from beginning to end.
Sam Slote said ----- There is a great temptation for readers these days to focus on plot--at the detriment of other facets of the "literary experience". I try to avoid looking for plot in FW but the temptation is always there: it's easy to think you understand something if you can reduce it to a plot. I strongly doubt that FW tells a story that was then "mucked up" by all those puns. In a sense, I try to avoid "understanding the plot" when I read FW--but then I don't always succeed in this. I don't want to rule anything out, if the Plot Summary by John Gordon helps fine, but be aware of its limitations. Gordon is very knowledgeable about JJ and FW and his approach is very scholarly. One way his book is useful is to show the limitations of a "plot analysis" of FW.
C. George Sandulescu said ----- Let me tell you the following story: Somebody went to Joyce once and said "I've read your Ulysses and I don't understand it!" And Joyce asked in his turn "How many times have you read it?" And the man said: "I've read it twice over, sir." "Then read it ten times over!", replied Joyce commandingly. It is the same with FW: which reading are we talking about―the very first, or the very twelfth? Each and every one of us have so far done hundreds of readings of it, in part or in toto, and every time we discover new things. I'll tell you another one: Sergiu Celibidache ― the famous Rumanian-German conductor of the Berlin, Munich, & Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestras, who never made a single intentional recording in his life, out of pure principle ― said the following to the press: "When I scan a music score of genius the very first time, I don't understand absolutely anything. I read it ten times over: that's when I begin to understand its underlying patterns. I read it a hundred times: I know it better than its author!" Not quite so with Joyce, where even the two editors of the Wake Newslitter gave up in despair, and stopped publication of their most useful periodical more or less at the same time with the collapse of the Soviet Union, after a solid quarter century of endeavours. But the Celibidache procedure helps a lot: for, as the saying is, 'to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.' Another important point here: FW, just like Ulysses, is thoroughly episodic; so was in part Dubliners (mere sketches!), and the Portrait of the Artist (ultimately, a carefully hidden set of "prospective" & retrospective Diary entries & jottings down). And last of all the Epiphanies: so very short, but so overwhelmingly important. So significant that the term bobs up so frequently in the last thirty or so pages of the FW Book, where everything is so very important.
Donald Theall said ----- Since there are multiple plots in the Wake and as plots they are not central to the nature of its structure, it is relatively straightforward to understand the various plots. But being a learned satire (a contemporary Franco-Anglo-Irish transformation of what Bakhtin has discussed as Menippean satire), the plot is not the central feature in the way that it might be in a traditional novel or in Aristotlean poetics. The obvious plot(s) have been pointed out since early on in critical discussions of the Wake. But it is an action like that of Lewis Carroll's Alice books - an imaginary dream action reflecting and refracting the everyday world in which plot elements actually become perplexing complexes of semantic ingredients. The famous letter is a prime example of this; the rainbow is another. Joyce constantly gave guidance to the significant elements, which are partly, if not largely marked by the earliest sketches that were to mark what Hayman in The Wake in Transit has described as the nodal system of the Wake. --- I believe it is best to set the goal of reading the whole of the Wake, but the beginning reader must be aware that he will from time to time wander around in different parts of the Wake. Since Joyce's work encourages intellectual play while still providing intense feeling and perceptual activity, there is a natural desire to seek complementary sources of information, while reading. When I first did it in 1950, the guide we used was the then highly regarded Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, but we supplemented it by looking at those books that Joyce used as basic frames of reference which we could recognize - i.e., the Bible, classical sources, the great spiritual books of the East and West, major writers of all periods, atlases, encyclopedias, etc. People often lose interest in the process of reading the Wake because they try to approach it like an ordinary novel (or perhaps long, relatively prosaic poem), while the work itself is an entirely new mode of oral, literate and graphic multiplexity which Joyce himself indicated repeatedly. The words ought not to be difficult if they are treated as puns, particularly multilingual puns and if they are listened to for their music as well as their sound and their graphic alphabetic structure. It helps to think of dream, nonsense writing and literature as constituting the code (Roland Barthes) and to think of Joyce as establishing transverse communication as described by Gilles Deleuze in his work on Proust. This transverse aspect causes some of the difficulty, since it is relatively unusual in literary material to lead the participating audience-reader back and forth throughout the work across the surface. This is why the motifs listed in Clive Hart's study of the Wake reveal a key aspect of this type of writing (i.e., motifs like "felix culpa", thunderwords, "fiat lux", Buckley and the Russian General, etc.). ---"Describe" seems a strange word to use in relation to what Joyce is about in the construction of a waking dream. If it aims at asking about the core visions of the book, then it should be said Joyce is using learned satire on religion, myth and science to celebrate the re-embodiment of a faith in the world within the human person, fully recognizing that such a fleshly re-embodiment is situated in a world in which an embodied person is an electro-machinic construction of nature. For Joyce this re-situates in his world the love, respect and mutual support of the traditional familial relations through the primacy of the woman. In the process he is critiquing the continual war that rises out of paternalistic or power oriented belief systems, whether as religions, mythical systems or the power-oriented aspects of science and technology. His satire, in the tradition of learned satire, is a mixture of praise and blame, celebrating the sacredness of everyday life, while condemning the multitude of modes of power, paternalism and control which threaten it. --- Each of the characters is interesting (not necessarily likable) in a different way and I would be hard pressed to choose between them. Besides such judgments may not be relevant since the characters are constantly undergoing metamorphosis throughout the Wake so there is a certain inconsistency to their nature when compared to the characters in a straightforward novel. HCE is largely an anti-hero (as Bloom is); Shem is a medley of the poet-intellectual and a trickster-con artist permeated by conflicting bouts of insecurity and ego; Shaun is a great study of the manager-politician-bourgeois: ALP, a medley of the feminine, like Molly and the mother goddess; and Issy is the embodiment of sexuality, virility, youthfulness, seductiveness and teasing.
Patrick A. McCarthy said ----- There are plots within FW, but whether or not there is "a plot"--one central narrative--is a question on which readers are divided. I personally think that there is not a central, continuous narrative, but that does not mean that summaries of the main subject matter for each chapter, or part of a chapter, are not helpful. Early attempts at summaries were made by Edmund Wilson and by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson; each of the three editions of Adaline Glasheen's Census of FW has a summary that I find helpful; there are synopses by John Gordon, in FW: A Plot Summary, and by Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, in Understanding FW; and I have offered one of my own, in part of a long essay entitled "The Structures and Meanings of FW," in A Companion to Joyce Studies, edited by Bowen and Carens (1984). Anyway, there are continuities and discontinuities in the narrative elements of FW, and l think most agile readers who are patient enough will start to make connections. --- I don't know whether Joyce would be pleased with the sort of critical work being done; writers tend to like critics to pay attention to their works, but they often resent analyses that differ from what the writers imagined they were doing. Surely Joyce would like the fact that FW receives so much attention, but I imagine he would be perplexed, and perhaps even discouraged, by the fact that FW gets far less attention than Ulysses. He considered FW his best book and his most important book, but there are many Joyce scholars who focus solely on the early works and Ulysses. l think this is a shame. --- There are clues to Joyce's intentions in his letters, notes, and statements to friends, but I think we are a long way from being able to summarize his artistic aims with any degree of precision. --- Some of the letters are quite revealing: take, for instance, the famous letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver about I.8 (“a chattering dialogue across the river by two washerwomen who as night falls become a tree and a stone”) and the one in which he described the symbols that he was using for the characters. These were both written in March 1924, and apart from providing useful information about the book they also demonstrate how early some of its most important features were fixed --- I think FW is Joyce's supreme achievement, greater even than Ulysses. It is endlessly fascinating. It takes the formal experimentation of modernism as far as it can be taken--or perhaps even farther. --- If you primarily want to read for plot, then you are likely to be frustrated rather than energized by reading FW. Those who read the book largely for what they imagine is its social meaning might or might not be right about that meaning, but the amount of effort required to read the book certainly must limit its social impact. Those who read for the pleasure of immersing themselves in this strange book have a distinct advantage, since it is in their interest not to have the book reduced to a plot or a social message. I'm reminded of a wonderful passage in the second half of Beckett's Molloy, where Jacques Moran thinks about the nature and significance of the "dance" of his bees: "And in spite of all the pains I had lavished on these problems, I was more than ever stupefied by the complexity of this innumerable dance, involving doubtless other determinants of which I had not the slightest idea. And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand." I think there is a similar pleasure to be gained from FW.
Sheldon Brivic said ----- I can understand the plot in many different ways, but I find a good explanation in Joseph Campbell and Henry M. Robinson's Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (FW). The main thing is to realize that any understanding of the plot one may have is arbitrary. --- The history of humanity from the beginning to the end and back again. And how this history unfolds in all directions at once. The view of history in the Wake includes sharp insights into social problems, which are seen with extraordinary depth because they are linked to the greatest totality of human experience.
Leslie Hedley said ----- The plot (if plot is necessary)--personally I don't think so--is about a Dubliner (Everyman) observing human behavior. He's married to what he considers a quintessential woman (ALP), their three children, two being sons (Shem and Shaun ). --- [Another question: Do you recognize that FW concerns the dream world or unconsciousness as you read?] Today's real world, surreal world, and dream world are the same. To quote Stephen (Joyce): "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
David Hayman said ----- Yes, but there is not always a plot in any conventional sense. --- Joyce is evoking a sense of the universal, using archetypical situations. The book depicts a universal night or a universe of nocturnal activity in which all aspects of creation participate. --- [Another question: In relation to the universal night, doesn't FW reflect a strong influence by Lucia on its dualities, wordplay and human relationships similar the influence of Nora on Ulysses?] That would be hard to prove, though she may have had some impact. Nora's influence has been overstated. --- (About FW books): Skeleton Key, my First-Draft Version of Finnegans Wake, the Introduction as well as its text, the forthcoming book by Crispi and Slote which covers each chapter in sequence, and John Bishop's new introduction to the Penguin edition.
Roland McHugh said ----- The term 'plot' is of limited utility in FW. The discoveries one makes in reading are not like the uncovering of the plot in a conventional novel. It is true that at one level a small number of personalities with particular mutual relationships may be discerned, but one can hardly fail to be aware of these whilst reading. Grasping them is hardly the matter which gratifies or illuminates. --- Ultimately, what one gets from reading FW is similar to what one gets from reading Ulysses (U). Concepts formed from the superposition of several seemingly irreconcilable images, forced to cohere in beautiful fragile clouds through accidents of language. Usually their logic and the grotesque picture it conjures conspire to produce humour. Sometimes I have to get off the chair and lie on the floor because I can't stop laughing. --- Well, what you get from reading U isn't exposure of a plot, is it? The plot is almost non-existent. What you get is what Stephen Dedalus calls 'aesthetic pleasure'. --- Two constraints are valuable in evaluating FW. Firstly, exposure to the environment of Dublin helps one to decide how much one is justified in reading into the text. Secondly, awareness of the kinds of material used to construct it produces the same feeling of objectivity. The main source here is the set of J's notebooks at Buffalo. See the forthcoming edited transcriptions The Finnegans Wake Notebooks at Buffalo, eds V. Deane, D. Ferrer, G. Lernout, from Brepols Publisher N. V. (Turnhout, Belgium): the first volume is expected in June 2001. --- The 66 notebooks allow us to identify real words and quotations in the FW text and are therefore priceless. --- Reading FW is very worthwhile, but as I said it provides similar sensations to those obtained from U, so naturally it's good economics to read U several times first, and then when one starts getting less from it, to begin phasing in FW.