Thursday, December 2, 2010

Everything Is Happening (Finnegans Wake, Day 7)

I realize that the level of reader interest in these Finnegans Wake posts is small, but them's the breaks. It's the book I'm reading and so it's what's on my mind and possibly only a handful of people on Earth are also reading it and the odds of them stumbling across this blog are slim, so this is a one-sided conversation and I know it. Yet, if nothing else, I sort of promised a few people that I'd write about reading this difficult text, so this is what you get for now.

I am at the end of the second chapter, and I realize that I'm reading this book very slowly--more slowly than I usually read--because a lot of the meaning (or at least the immediate impact) of the text results from the sounds of the words and so I am pronouncing each word in my head as I go along, sometimes more than once with stress on different syllables because often enough the words are puns, when you find the proper accent, and the sentences sort of unlock themselves and their meaning. So the book is a slow-moving puzzle for me.

Though I'm not exactly reading at a snail's pace. After a hundred or so words I usually manage to catch the rhythm of the prose and I can read along quickly enough, though the feeling is less that of reading a book than riding a roller coaster or being tossed about in a little boat by a heavy sea of alliterative verse. I never quite know what's happening in the book; there is a story in there, but Joyce is giving me impressions more than exposition. People are talking, a rumor is spreading, HCE has done a Bad Thing, but there are so many other things going on with the narrative, right on the surface, that the story is fairly obscured.

Which gives the narrative a weird sense of having no motion, of time having stopped and Joyce is not describing action to us so much as he's minutely describing photographs or portraits or murals, maybe. Things stand still, the narrative rolls along and over and under and through these frozen moments and everything in those moments is cast into high relief, but there is so much everything that your eye doesn't know--to continue the photo metaphor--where to settle and what to look at. Everything is happening.

So when I pick the book up to continue reading, there's no real way to see right off where I left off, because asking "what happened last in the story?" is a hard question to answer, because "next" and "last" and "now" and "then" are all meaningless in this narrative, which is a loop in time anyway, where Finn is about to come back again but not quite yet and though the book has a first page, the story doesn't and the sentences are so long that your grammarian nuns in parochial school would sooner become bawds than diagram them.

Anyway, I am enjoying the book, but I must say that I'm experiencing it more than reading it.


  1. I enjoy experiencing a book. And, maybe this question makes me sound dumb, I'm not sure, but how do you read without hearing the words in your head? That's a serious question.

  2. Well, I think you can read quickly and not really pause to pronounce each word, sort of glossing over and knowing what the language means but that process is faster than speaking. I don't think that each syllable is actually "heard" in the mind in normal reading. I think a lot of that is skipped to get directly to meaning. I have no empirical evidence to support that claim. Read a passage of a book and then read it again out loud, and that's sort of the difference.

  3. Interesting. When I read, I hear every word in my mind, clearly as if it were being spoken to be, though perhaps a little more quickly than someone might normally speak.

    That goes for fiction, non-fiction, and casual written communication. Even signs. It's just how I read. I'm not sure I can even begin to understand reading without the (admittedly imaginary) auditory component.

    Oh, not just reading either -- writing, too.