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Sunday 5 July 2015

Finnegans Wake

A few days ago I came across a Twitter account called Finnegans Wake and started following it. As far as I can tell, it’s tweeting the entire novel (written by the Irish author James Joyce between 1923 and 1939) a few words at a time. In an earlier post (Literary name-dropping), I mentioned that “I did go through a phase circa 1975 of trying very hard to read Finnegans Wake”. I can’t believe that was 40 years ago! Sounds like a cue for yet more nostalgic rambling...

Finnegans Wake is a difficult book, and I’m not going to pretend that I read more than a few pages here and there. I probably wouldn’t have managed even that without the assistance and encouragement of other books (some of which are pictured above). Back in 1975 I was 17 years old, and as thoroughly ignorant of history, geography, philosophy, religion, literature and linguistics as it’s possible for a human being to be. After four decades of being a boringly bookish bespectacled bachelor I’m a bit less ignorant, and flicking through the novel just now several things jumped out at me that would have gone over my head as a teenager. But the book is still as difficult to understand as ever!

The most obvious factor that makes Finnegans Wake difficult to read is the sheer number of made-up words it contains. But even if it was written in plain English it wouldn’t be an easy book. Basically it’s supposed to be a dream, which means the author can put anything he wants into it, without needing to be too clear or logical about it. It’s a very erudite dream, too, which flits from one arcane subject to another. There are several recurring themes, including some distinctly Fortean ones – for example Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, and the metaphysical philosophy of Giordano Bruno (The man who invented aliens). James Joyce seems to have had a soft spot for Bruno, who was born in the Italian city of Nola – thus making him a Nolan, and hence a kind of honorary Irishman!

I had a look through the book for a suitably Fortean passage, and found the following account of a kind of spiritualist séance:
That was Communicator, a former colonel. A disincarnated spirit, called Sebastion, from the Rivera in Januero, (he is not all hear) may fernspreak shortly with messuages from my dead-ported. Let us cheer him up a little and make an appunkment for a future date. Hello, Commudicate! How’s the buttes? Ever-scepistic! He does not believe in our psychous of the Real Absence, neither miracle wheat nor soulsurgery of P. P. Quemby.
P. P. Quimby was an American faith healer and mesmerist in the 19th century – clearly someone to be deeply “scepistical” about, along with miracle-wheat and soul-surgery!

As I mentioned in my post about Literary name-dropping, Finnegans Wake is one of the many literary works referred to in Robert Silverberg’s novel Dying Inside, which I read in Galaxy magazine (pictured above, middle-left) in 1973. But the reference is only understandable with hindsight (“Joycean dream-gabble” and “Earwicker’s borborygmi”), and it was another two years before a number of other things made me decide Finnegans Wake was a book worth looking into.

The first and most important was James Blish’s science fiction novel A Case of Conscience (1958), which I read early in 1975. A subplot running through the first half of the book concerns the protagonist, a Jesuit priest, tackling a literary “case of conscience” which “the church had never cracked”. It comes from pages 572 and 573 of Finnegans Wake (“The procurator Interrogarius Mealterum presends us this proposer...”). Right on the first page of Blish’s novel, Finnegans Wake is described as “diabolically complex (that adverb was official, precisely chosen, and intended to be taken literally)”. Later he describes James Joyce as having a “mighty intellect, easily the greatest ever devoted to fiction in English and perhaps in any language.

That in itself would probably have been enough to make me check out Joyce’s work, but – by the kind of synchronicity that often happens – I came across several other references to Finnegans Wake in SF stories I read around that time. I can’t remember all of them now, but two that stick in my mind are Philip José Farmer’s novella “Riders of the Purple Wage” (which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions, included in the picture above), and the Brian Aldiss novel Barefoot in the Head (1969, also pictured above). The latter deals with the aftermath of the Acid Head War, in which the population of Europe is suffering the effects of Psychochemical Aerosol Bombs – making some chapters read like a kind of spaced-out sixties version of Finnegans Wake!

With one exception, all the books pictured above are my own copies bought in the 1970s. The exception is The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick, which wasn’t published until 1981. My copy is the first British paperback edition, which I bought as soon as it came out in March 1982 (sadly, in the few days between buying the book and reading it, I heard the news that Dick had died of a stroke at the age of 53).

Finnegans Wake is referred to in the very first chapter of The Divine Invasion. The protagonist, Herb Asher, interprets Joyce’s word “talktape” (in the line “tuck up your sleeves and loosen your talktapes”) to mean “magnetic audio tape” – the invention of which, he believes, postdates the writing of the novel. That isn’t actually true (and from the context it doesn’t sound like Joyce was thinking about a recording device anyway)... but that doesn’t stop Asher launching into some characteristically Dickian speculation:
It’s impossible that James Joyce could have mentioned talktapes in his writing, Asher thought. Some day I’m going to get my article published; I’m going to prove that Finnegans Wake is an information pool based on computer memory systems that didn’t exist until a century after James Joyce’s era; that Joyce was plugged into a cosmic consciousness from which he derived the inspiration for his entire corpus of work.
At another point Dick says “He also has them sitting around a TV set” – and in this case he’s absolutely correct: television plays an important role in Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s portrayal of TV is quite prescient – not in terms of the technology, which already existed when the novel was written, but in terms of its social acceptance. When Dick says “them” he means the customers in a Dublin pub... and pub televisions were still a thing of the future in 1939. So Finnegans Wake was almost certainly the first mainstream novel to portray TV as a commonplace rather than a newfangled novelty.

Joyce made up so many new words in Finnegans Wake you can find almost anything you look for in there. As an example – after a bit of googling (for googling) I found “Feastking of shellies by googling Lovvey” and “One chap googling the holyboy’s thingabib”!


Kid said...

Oh dear. Sounds a bit of a headache to be honest, Andrew. Think I'll stick to Finian's Rainbow. (That would work better if it was Finnegan instead of Finian, to be true. And if it was a book instead of a musical/movie - but I did my best.)

Andrew May said...

It's certainly tough going if you try to tackle the whole book all at once, Kid - that's why the Twitter feed is such a good idea! Now that it's out of copyright, maybe someone will do a comic book adaptation of it too!