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What to Make of Finnegans Wake?
July 9, 2012 11:47 AM   Subscribe

What to Make of Finnegans Wake? by Michael Chabon
posted by OmieWise (52 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Why, I can make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl..."
posted by Etrigan at 11:52 AM on July 9, 2012 [23 favorites]


I love the musicality of Joyce's prose, even I have fuck-all idea what he's saying. In the case of Finnegans Wake, that's the entire book. (Cf. Joyce reading from FW.)
posted by Cash4Lead at 12:04 PM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


If in his poem he erected a kind of statue to his father, then Finnegans Wake was the pigeon that had come to roost on my hat.

Ha! Lovely!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:11 PM on July 9, 2012


I just got the Naxos recording of Jim Norton reading the Wake.. will start in on it soon.. I love the idea that it is the night dream, compared to the day dream of Ulysses.
posted by snaparapans at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2012


I have no desire to yet attempt Finnegans Wake, but I'll read anything Chabon cares to write.
posted by papercake at 12:25 PM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


there's a weird charity to Chabon's writing that's hard to put your finger on. stuff that would seem pompous coming from someone else, from him somehow seems wondering and slightly amazed.
posted by lodurr at 12:27 PM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Finnegans Wake is in my home. It's next to my bed. I was going to say, I have Finnegans Wake, but no. I don't have it. It's here though. And sometimes I read it.
posted by Splunge at 12:29 PM on July 9, 2012


Googling "robin williams reading james joyce" resulted in nothing on point.
posted by Mojojojo at 12:29 PM on July 9, 2012


Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with one of the greatest prose styles in the English language produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of “Norwegian Wood.”

Love this! I remember the shock of finding some of the passages in Ulysses childlike in their wordplay; at the age I first read it, I had this idea that Great Literature shouldn't do that. Joyce shocked me on all kinds of levels.

I took a course on Finnegans Wake and we read like 20 pages in the whole semester. It was wonderful though. The first thing the professor did was read that wraparound sentence out loud.
posted by BibiRose at 12:35 PM on July 9, 2012


I was going to say, I have Finnegans Wake, but no.

I haven't tried it myself, but from what I've heard it's more fruitful to let Finnegan's Wake have you, rather than the other way around.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:54 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bingo! The beautiful thing about this piece of Chabon's is how it both describes and reenacts its thesis.

The beauty of the unknown cannot be articulated in words, so words which attempt to articulate it will end in failure. Joyce knew this from the start. What language can capture, what all great art captures, is the futility of the articulation, the void into which we fling ourselves and never reach the bottom, not in the least because the void is not separate from us, it is us, and our thrusting into it is not unlike a dog chasing its own tail (and it's no less funny either!).

By this measure, I still hold that Finnegans Wake is among the greatest novels, perhaps even the greatest of them all, in that it expresses that futility beautifully, even succinctly, and in a manner which even young children can see and understand. If it was truly meaningless, it would be a lesser failure, because the meaningless is easy to achieve; finding the meaninglessness within an overabundance of meaning is a true accomplishment. And the result is beautiful and heartfelt, hilarious and childish and monstrously intelligent, and you can find all that in whatever given page-and-a-half you can bear to read before returning to works which you might pretend to understand.
posted by Rory Marinich at 1:06 PM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I haven't tried it myself, but from what I've heard it's more fruitful to let Finnegan's Wake have you, rather than the other way around.

Common mistake, but there is no apostrophe in Finnegans Wake -- the first word is a plural, not a possessive. (Envision many Finnegans waking.)
posted by /\/\/\/ at 1:09 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


What to Make of Finnegans Wake?

Make of it what it is: a fantastic, celebratory, drunken party.
posted by chavenet at 1:13 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, a multitude of hangovers, a large number of cups of tea, some sausages and oatmeals.
posted by idiopath at 1:24 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


and, this being joyce, not to forget the many manly morning micturations
posted by idiopath at 1:33 PM on July 9, 2012


Elric jokes in the NYRB? Good god I love Michael Chabon.
posted by freebird at 1:33 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Can't read Finnegans Wake.

Have to hear it.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:46 PM on July 9, 2012


A wonderfully written essay. Thanks to Chabon I feel like I've attained a partial, dim understanding of Finnegans Wake, without actually reading the book. Exactly what NYbooks articles are supposed to achieve!

But that said, I feel compelled to point out (with massive hubris) that he's got the central point of his article backwards. Dreams and unwritten novels aren't better than the reality, they only appear to be better because that's the way unrealized potential always feels. When you see some incredible vision in a dream, then wake up and can't quite recall what it was, that isn't a failure of memory, it's simply a consequence of being in control of one's own mind once again. Your unconscious makes you feel awe and wonder, or fear or arousal or whatever, even if there's no content in the dream at all. When you wake up it feels overwhelming and transcendent, but what you remember is really that feeling of being under the control of an invisible master.

It's the same with art or novels or any kind of project when initially conceived. The novel feels transcendent and beautiful when the idea first occurs to you, but what you're really feeling is the thrill of inspiration, and you're under its thrall somewhat like the dominance of the unconscious mind in dreams. You skim along the surface of the novel, imagining chapters and characters and plots, feeling that thrill - but there's no substance to the initial vision, you don't see the hundreds of thousands of words making up the fabric of the book because they don't exist yet.

To take that airy fairy thrill of inspiration that comes from glimpsing something that's composed of emotion and an initial burst of imagination, then put in the thousands of hours of work necessary to make it real is to me the actual wonder of creation. The artist is bootstrapping transcendence and beauty into the world where it didn't exist before, grinding it out day by day like sausages, based on nothing more than a feeling vaguely remembered from long ago. And to put in seventeen years doing this like Joyce did is just incredible. It's a tribute to the man and the madness of his art that he managed to finish it at all, and that the result is something people are still marveling at so many years later.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:51 PM on July 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Kevin, I don't think he's got it backward so much as he's seeing it from his side. To the recipients of the results, we're better off for the failure; but to many creative artists, the final product will always be, to some extent, a failure. What I see him saying here is that FW has helped him say 'that's OK.'
posted by lodurr at 2:05 PM on July 9, 2012


Dreams and unwritten novels aren't better than the reality, they only appear to be better because that's the way unrealized potential always feels. When you see some incredible vision in a dream, then wake up and can't quite recall what it was, that isn't a failure of memory, it's simply a consequence of being in control of one's own mind once again.

Okay, but a lot of the "point" of Finnegans Wake is the incommensurability of language to its position as the necessary mediator of the human experience of reality, like Rory Marinich mentioned a few comments up. Our reality itself is a waking dream that feels overwhelming and transcendent because we are under the control of the invisible master of language, to adopt some of your terms. Finnegans Wake wants to get at the way "one" (bad terminology in this case, I think, when the whole question is one of subjectivity) might peer around the corners when language breaks down.
posted by junco at 2:06 PM on July 9, 2012


It's an interesting notion, junco, especially since language is a necessary precursor for thought. Almost like communicating the experience of madness without actually being crazy. (Hence Chabon's allusions to Lovecraft.) I wasn't knocking Finnegans Wake, Joyce or Chabon in that post, just writing down my thoughts after finishing the article.

lodurr, I guess my point is that Joyce, Chabon, all the writers and artists haven't failed. They've produced real things and added their richness to the world, based upon inspirations that were never more substantial than a mirage. There's no perfect world of Platonic Forms, but in labouring to make the real world more like that dream one this becomes a better place. That's a success.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:39 PM on July 9, 2012


My dad has an early edition of Finnegan's Wake. He showed it to me when I was a kid. The thing which really impressed me was, there was an inserted list of errata. It was a list of lines like
p.236 ln.7. boomerinstroms should read boomeringstroms
I had a sense of wonder at the poor proof reader who had collated these.

The second time I had occasion to marvel at the book was when I saw two giant leaves from Joyce's handwritten manuscript, in the British Library. The pages were filled with lines in the author's dense scrawl. All but two lines were crossed out.

I still, having never read more than a few words of the book, feel a deep sense of wonder at it.
posted by iotic at 2:41 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wasn't knocking Finnegans Wake, Joyce or Chabon in that post, just writing down my thoughts after finishing the article.

I didn't think you were, and I'm glad that you did. I hadn't thought about it quite in the way you did, and Finnegans Wake has very much to say about the place of the novel, and the artist, etc. I was just pointing out another, related perspective.
posted by junco at 2:45 PM on July 9, 2012


I love Finnegans Wake, though I don't pretend to get it at all. There are long sections of it that are pretty impenetrable, but most aren't (completely).

Just for the heck of it, here's a passage that describes, uh, Finnegan's wake (I.1, p. 6):

Sobs they sighdid at Fillagain's chrissormiss wake, all the hoolivans of the nation, prostrated in their consternation and their duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation. There was plumbs and grumes and cheriffs and citherers and raiders and cinemen too. And the all gianed in with the shout-most shoviality. Agog and magog and the round of them agrog. To the continuation of that celebration until Hanandhunigan's extermination! Some in kinkin corass, more, kankan keening. Belling him up and filling him down. He's stiff but he's steady is Priam Olim ! 'Twas he was the dacent gaylabouring youth. Sharpen his pillowscone, tap up his bier! E'erawhere in this whorl would ye hear sich a din again? With their deepbrow fundigs and the dusty fidelios. They laid him brawdawn alanglast bed. With a bockalips of finisky fore his feet. And a barrowload of guenesis hoer his head. Tee the tootal of the fluid hang the twoddle of the fuddled, O !
posted by Eyebeams at 4:00 PM on July 9, 2012


Finnegans Wake manuscripts from the irish National Library from the Joyce Papers Archive that they hold.
posted by snaparapans at 4:05 PM on July 9, 2012


Irish Times on the Archive
posted by snaparapans at 4:09 PM on July 9, 2012


I made it through something like thirty pages of it before giving up. I guess maybe I'm just a philistine, but I feel that unless Joyce was just trolling*, the emperor has no clothes.

*: In which case, well done, kudos
posted by Flunkie at 4:26 PM on July 9, 2012


ionic: I had a sense of wonder at the poor proof reader who had collated these.
When Finnegans Wake was first published in May 1939, the edition was riddled with errors and typos. Joyce spent the rest of his life listing corrections to be made, which were compiled into an errata catalog that filled several pages.
More on The Restored Finnegans Wake, April 2012
posted by snaparapans at 4:38 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think of Finnegan's Wake as the afterbirth of Ulysses, delivered several years later and in deplorable condition, as you might expect after that long.

Chabon seems to me to be saying something somewhat similar.
posted by jamjam at 4:52 PM on July 9, 2012


...the legend of the book’s impenetrability was obviously a hedge of thorns to snag the unworthy. I could hear the dreaming suspirations of the princess who lay sleeping in its keep.

This. A million times this. Chabon has managed to capture something here, a certain feeling that comes from such erudite archeology, which I am sure many find insufferable but has given me great delight when studying the works of Wallace, Pychon and Joyce. It's a feeling that these men left a great heavy message just for us like them, those who would take the time to puzzle the lock, and for those who would not just a bunch of fancy dress around so many silly words.
posted by sophist at 5:18 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Uh huh. And what's that great heavy message?
posted by Flunkie at 5:20 PM on July 9, 2012


It's locks all the way down.
posted by sophist at 5:35 PM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Uh huh. Glad you got to feel you're like Joyce, I guess.
posted by Flunkie at 5:40 PM on July 9, 2012


Or perhaps, bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnth
unntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!?
posted by sophist at 5:41 PM on July 9, 2012


I love the musicality of Joyce's prose, even I have fuck-all idea what he's saying. In the case of Finnegans Wake, that's the entire book.

It strikes me as an order of magnitude more difficult to read if you're not Irish (or have lived in Ireland long enough to be deeply familiar with regional accents). Reading extracts aloud sounds perfectly natural to me, but I grew up in Ireland, have spent plenty of time in Dublin specifically, have attended drunken wakes in varying states of sobriety and so forth. Even so, I usually feel like I'm missing maybe a quarter or a third of the content because time has gone by since it was written and various localisms or contemporary events have fallen out of use or popular memory, or my limited knowledge of Latin & Greek or my fading fluency in Irish.

Finnegans Wake is like what you'd get if you took a recording of all the conversations at a wake across a whole evening and than handed them off to an expert transcriptionist for whom English is a second language. There's no trolling going on here; I think it was Joyce's serious intent to recreate in words the experience of being his characters from various different perspectives (somewhat similar to this cubist portrait by Picasso of Ambroise Vollard). You're not a philistine for not getting i; the problem with the book is that 'getting it' for most (and increasingly more) readers is something like studying a collection of pressed flowers with the help of a botany textbook as opposed to the feeling of picking a bunch of flowers in the park.

(Cf. Joyce reading from FW .)

That's awesome, thanks.

The Restored Finnegans Wake, April 2012

Had not heard it was out, thanks. Wonderful cover. I'm also very glad to see the manuscripts available, though I could wish the scans had been made at a higher resolution or compressed less for PDF. Not that that is preventing me from downloading them all.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:44 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I give this article credit because to me it is almost as confusing as Finnegan's Wake itself, which is the only way to handle that subject.

I liked this sentence fragment: those curious “pomes,” wearing their spats and dandyish nosegays, occasionally taking up a putative lute to croon promises of theoretical love to unconvincing maidens in the windows of canvas-flat donjons.

posted by twoleftfeet at 8:28 PM on July 9, 2012


Italics run on, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay.
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:31 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a fun and interesting woowoo analysis of FW, from Terence McKenna.
posted by methinks at 10:04 PM on July 9, 2012


Great timing on this. A friend lent me a Chinese "guide to Finnegans Wake" the other day, and man. As a professional translator I tend to take as a matter of faith that everything is translatable, but reading the attempts at a Chinese gloss of the English (?) original is shaking my certainty a bit.
posted by bokane at 10:18 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


a Chinese "guide to Finnegans Wake"

For some reason just reading this phrase made me feel like I was looking down a deep crevasse where unknowable things squirmed at the bottom.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:45 PM on July 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Ulysses would be hard enough, Chinese doesn't even have a proper word for 'yes'.
posted by moorooka at 1:39 AM on July 10, 2012


There are actually two translations of Ulysses in Chinese -- one by Xiao Qian that came out in 1993, and one by Jin Di from 1997. I remember skimming a chunk of one of the translations years ago. Way easier, or so I thought at the time -- don't actually remember much about the translation (the Xiao Qian version, I think), and my Chinese wasn't really good enough at the time to evaluate it.

As for "Yes I said yes I will yes" -- If you're interested, there's a comparison of the Jin and Xiao translations. Jin's version (which uses 真的 for "yes") reads much better to me -- Xiao's 好吧 sounds more like "all right" than "yes" to me -- but (a) I'm a non-native speaker, and (b) considering what a lousy time I'm having at the moment with a decidedly non-literary gig about Ming-dynasty furniture, I'm inclined to cut both translators significant amounts of slack.
posted by bokane at 2:51 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oops - left out 愿意 for Jin's version. He alternates between 愿意 ("[I am] willing") and 真的 ("really") for "yes," which I think works pretty well and does a much better job of communicating the breathlessness of that passage.
posted by bokane at 2:56 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


A beautiful essay by Chabon. It took me a long time to read FW too, but for all its maddening obscurity it's a unique joy to read. I called it a "cryptoglossic nocturne", among other things, in a post about its language and critical reception which I wrote on Bloomsday last year. FWIW.
posted by Stan Carey at 4:42 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


"cryptoglossic nocturne": nice post! thanks for sharing...

Music is often thought of as dreamstate stuff.. very hard to talk about except in formal terms. One can memorize, not that I am suggesting it, Finnegans Wake and perform it, much like they would Beethoven's op 111, or op. 132 (Heiliger Dankesang), maybe more like Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, or even more like Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston

No one needs to translate those pieces into an exact literal explanation. Meaning of those pieces shifts all the time, with each performance, they are abstractions, why treat Finnegans Wake any differently?
posted by snaparapans at 6:44 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the spirit of reading challenges like Infinite Summer, I've been thinking of organizing a "Summer of the Wake" in 2013. Is this something people would be into, or am I crazy?

June, July, and the first week of August, which comes to 10 pages a day in just over two months. Easy, right. The philosophy is that at least on an initial read, you shouldn't get yourself bogged down with dozens of supplements and theories, spending entire days analyzing a single sentence. You should just let the Wake flow through you. A single supplement would suffice so you can easily grasp maybe 5-10% of the references and allusions, and to keep your eyes from periodically glazing over - Annotations to Finnegans Wake would do as a quick page-for-page reference.

There have been group readings before, but none as big, open and friendly as I'm imagining this. The forum discussions, shared discoveries and exasperations would be enjoyable, and I feel like the book deserves to be explored in as unpretentious a way as possible - it's frequently hilarious and is way more accessible than the academics tend to let on. The novel is a playground, not a fortress. And even during the long stretches when you no longer think you're getting anything sensical out of it, it's probably altering your brain and your dreaming life, and you're certainly understanding more than you think on some less-than-conscious level.
posted by naju at 7:59 AM on July 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


I'm in, naju.
posted by BibiRose at 8:42 AM on July 10, 2012


A great idea. A Finnegans Waiki could result.
posted by Eyebeams at 9:04 AM on July 10, 2012


"Summer of the Wake" is a fine idea.

snaparapans: Thanks for reading.
posted by Stan Carey at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2012


Three cheers for Summer of the Wake!
posted by njohnson23 at 10:46 AM on July 10, 2012


Thanks for this; I love Chabon's writing: and of all sleepers, everywhere, busy dreaming in Swahili and Gaelic and Norwegian and even (so lonely!) Volapuk. I love Joyce too (need it be said?) and own two copies of the Wake, one I got so I could keep it at work and take little bites at it when I wasn't busy. I don't know if I'll ever read it from cover to cover, but boy is it fun to play with.
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on July 10, 2012


Man what a writer! Joyce is good too.
posted by jetsetsc at 3:08 PM on July 10, 2012


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