Wednesday, March 6, 2013

some of it just deadens my brain

Last night after dinner I read the final five or eight pages of Finnegans Wake and they were marvelous, magical, transcendent in the Kantian sense of lying beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge. Yes, I do mean that, you boys. At the same time, it was all grounded in the earth, the speech of the river forever seeking the ocean, the drowned learning to swim, the sleepers yearning to awaken. It was, I swear to God. Breathtaking music. Poetry. Life and death and love. I have not, however, finished reading Finnegans Wake.

Perhaps I should go back a bit. I'm on about page 105 of the book, in the Modern Classics edition. The judge is hearing evidence about the crime HCE has committed; the letter has been placed into evidence but not, I don't think, read into the record yet. As far as I can tell, the letter accusing HCE of the sex crime was written by ALP, the wife of HCE. I may be wrong about that. The book is famously difficult to decipher.

I've been reading five or ten pages of FW each night, strolling or struggling my way through the narrative, depending on how much I think I've understood during each session with Mr Joyce. When I pick up the book to continue along, I realize every night that I don't know what's just happened in the story, and I won't know what most of the sentences I am about to read are supposed to mean. Some of it's just glorious stuff, as I say in the first paragraph of this little essay, but some of it just deadens my brain with the ongoing lack of real meaning. Perhaps that's Joyce's aim, to put me into a dreamlike state where the images flow past my mind's eye but can't be readily interpreted. I am left with odd impressions, of history and characters and names and attitudes, but I am not left with a sense of action or causation. There's a story going on, but it's happening at some distance from me, and Joyce's tower of babble holds me back from engaging with the story in the way I'd probably rather experience it. So this book, this Waking in the Wake of the Fenians, is not about reading a story.

After a few paragraphs last night, on page 105 or so, I had pretty well decided that I'd just put Mr Joyce's odd novel back on the shelf and find something else to read. There are plenty of ancient Greek plays and poems I want to get to, after all. There are those Shakespeare history plays, too. And uncountable novels written during my own lifetime. I was getting ready to stand up and carry Finnegans Wake over to the bookshelf where we keep the Js but first, I thought, I should read the ending pages. See above. The ending pages are a treasure. When I got to "riverrun" I opened the book to random spots and read a paragraph or a page and I quite liked everything I read. Why do I like reading it like this, I wondered, but not straight through from end to end? What's the difference between following it straight through, and skipping around in the narrative, reading a page or two here and there? It's not like it makes any more or less sense either way.

So I did not put Finnegans Wake back on the shelf, but I don't know how I'll approach reading it tonight, or tomorrow night or the night after that. If I read it out of order, how will I know what I've read, or when I've finished reading it? This book, it vexes me. But either I'm not done with it or it's not done with me.


  1. To me the sign of a good book is whether it makes you want to read more.

  2. Yeah, but why do I want to read more? Part of it is there's a sense of the ecstatic that I find in Finnegans Wake that I think I can turn to my advantage as a writer, part of it's the experience itself, of the music of the prose, but part of it's something else I can't identify but I know is there. Maybe it's just me claiming to be rising to a challenge. I don't know. We'll see how I feel about it tomorrow. I'm also reading a nice book of Victorian detective fiction and a collection of Edwardian lectures about writing. I should read something not from the British Isles soon.

  3. It's intellectual stimulation, which is muti-faceted, and thus a bitch to pin down.

  4. Interesting. I don't know what I would think of a book that drove me past the middle to the ending pages. I've never done that. I've never wanted to do that. Maybe this is why I've steered clear of Mr. Joyce. I don't want to be vexed.

  5. Yvonne, none of Joyce's other prose is anything like the stuff in Finnegans Wake. Everyone should read the story collection Dubliners. "The Dead" is one of the greatest short stories in the English language.