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May 20, 2013 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Finnegans Wake, Joyce's famously unreadable masterpiece (read it online here), was considerably more readable in one of its earlier drafts. Watch Joyce cross out decipherable words and replace them with less decipherable ones! Watch him end, not with a whimper, but with a slightly less impressive whimper! Sadly, Shem's schoolbook, which in the finished version is a House of Leaves-esque compendium of side columns and footnotes, was not written until much later (according to the footnotes of that section). The introduction to this draft by David Hayman, who assembled it, is worth a read.
posted by Rory Marinich (54 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Finnegans Wake is not famously unreadable, it is famously unread.
posted by chavenet at 6:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


I have an MA in English literature and I'm proud to say I never touched FW. There's no there there.

Still, nice post.
posted by bardic at 7:01 AM on May 20, 2013


On the contrary, I think there's more there in Finnegans Wake than there is in many authors' entire bibliographies. It's a testament at once to the grandeur of reality, the strangeness of language, and the astonishing nature of the mind.

What's curious about the draft (and partly the reason why I posted it) is that while it's easier to read, it's far less powerful. Joyce gained something vast for what he took away.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:03 AM on May 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Can an unreadable book really be a masterpiece? You can't mean that it's unreadable. Do you mean "unreadable by most"? How can the majority of us believe it's that great it we can't read it? What's great about it? Can something difficult to read really have that much emotional impact? Or is it technically brilliant? Or poetically?
posted by rubber duck at 7:06 AM on May 20, 2013


How can the majority of us believe it's that great it we can't read it?

It's the first link in the post, broseph. Give it a gloss.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:13 AM on May 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I have an MA in English literature and I'm proud to say I never touched FW. There's no there there.

First course: display of tail feathers
Second course: arrangement of said feathers to aggressively signal ignorance
Dessert: Gertrude Stein

My favourite café!

Fucking peacocks.
posted by Wolof at 7:15 AM on May 20, 2013 [30 favorites]


This is nifty. I'm in the thought-FW-was-kinda-cool-but-never-finished-it camp, and -- well, I don't know what this says about me, but I'm finding it completely fascinating to look at the edits and changes. Somehow that's grabbing my attention in a way that reading the finished text never did. (Then again, I was also the kid who read all the footnotes-on-alternate-readings in the Bible, and skipped straight to the appendices in Lord of the Rings, so maybe this was inevitable.)

What I really want is an interactive interface. Maybe something Wayback-Machine-style?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:21 AM on May 20, 2013


Crap this post reminds me that I have yet to touch that fucking book.
posted by angrycat at 7:27 AM on May 20, 2013


I have an MA in English literature and I'm proud to say I never touched FW. There's no there there.

Never take pride in ignorance. Never pronounce on a subject of which you admittedly know nothing. You have an MA in English literature. Be smart.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:31 AM on May 20, 2013 [24 favorites]


Fustian again?
posted by TedW at 7:34 AM on May 20, 2013


rubber duck Do you mean "unreadable by most"? How can the majority of us believe it's that great it we can't read it?

Having read through it a couple of times now I offer this as somewhat of an explanation. I am unable to figure out the overall story or the major plotlines, or more accurately how it all connects together. What you can do more successfully is kind of get small sections. You can read a lengthy passage and parse the puns and misspellings and foreign language puns (!) and you'll actually understand, to some extent, what's being said. It's this kind of treasure hunt through seemingly meaningless walls of text that's part of the allure for me. You get that there's plenty of there there and when you suss out parts of it that's the reward.

Can something difficult to read really have that much emotional impact?

Emotional impact is a tricky thing. Personally I never look for emotional impact from any book, film, piece of music, painting, etc. It always seems so simplistic ("ooh, look, we're supposed to feel Sad here!") and condescending. Anyway, if there's anything one should take from 20th century art it is that you can have great works of art that don't create some kind of strong emotional response from the audience. We do not need emotional arcs. Great art can have those things (let's face it, 99.99% of all art tries for this) but it doesn't have to have them. At least that's my approach to engaging with art and especially with modernist art.
posted by bfootdav at 7:37 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


What's curious about the draft (and partly the reason why I posted it) is that while it's easier to read, it's far less powerful. Joyce gained something vast for what he took away.

Definitely. Which is why I'm not going to read the rest of it. The book loses its magic when you see the process.
posted by bfootdav at 7:39 AM on May 20, 2013


I read bits, and run into a few folks that (claim) to have read it, even more than once. Really how much harder can it be to get through than GoT or other doorstop fantasy tomb?

There is one section that riffs of nursery rhymes that I saw and would like to find again, it needs a better index...
posted by sammyo at 7:41 AM on May 20, 2013


Really how much harder can it be to get through than GoT or other doorstop fantasy tomb?

posted by sammyo at 3:41 PM on May 20


Dude.
posted by Decani at 7:45 AM on May 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


One of my friends from university (I think he's a PhD biochemist nowadays) used to read FW... pretty much all the time. I remember him saying that once you'd "finished" reading it, you now had the capacity to read it again and find out where it started and ended, and now you could start reading the work. I also remember that he smoked one cigarette a day, and kept 200 hits of acid and a .357 handgun buried under a bush in his parent's front yard.
posted by sneebler at 7:50 AM on May 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


Gotta take care, it loops around at the end and you may never actually finish...
posted by sammyo at 7:50 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Joyce's Song of Ice and Fire would force you to infer the rest of the plot from a day in the life of Sansa Stark.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:51 AM on May 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


I also remember that he smoked one cigarette a day, and kept 200 hits of acid and a .357 handgun buried under a bush in his parent's front yard.

In all seriousness this sounds like the target audience for FW to me.
posted by elizardbits at 7:52 AM on May 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


“The book, even more dense and difficult than Ulysses, took seventeen years to write. Joyce once bragged to a friend that it would take three hundred years for professors to decipher its meaning.”
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 7:54 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can something difficult to read really have that much emotional impact?

The art which impacts me the most is the sort for which emotions strike at tangents, rather than directly. In a piece I've been writing I put it like this: if you're aware of an artwork's intent, then you can reduce the entire thing to that single intent. People who look for tropes in movies do this: oh, here's the part where the protagonist tells her best friend how close they are, so that when the best friend dies later we'll feel sad. The best art is either highly deceptive, and tricks us away from realizing what we're really looking at, or else it doesn't have an intended meaning to begin with, so whatever we gain out of it emotionally is wholly unmanipulative on the artist's part.

I find that the very style of Finnegans Wake strikes a deep emotional chord with me. It's not just a work about cycles and reoccurances and the way that everything is a part of everything; it's written in a way that takes advantage of the many, many connections between different languages, the allusions between various works, and so on, so that a single word can strike you in six or seven different ways based on what you go into it knowing. And it's so blatant about the attempt that, instead of coming off as pretentious or stuffy (YMMV), it always feels like the comic novel Joyce meant it to be. The fall of Eden is likened to the fall of Humpty-Dumpty. The resurrection of Christ becomes the resurrection of a drunk Irishman who died while masturbating in public. It is completely lewd and banal, and in the process it proves Joyce's theory: that consciousness or humanity is so interconnected that there are echoes of the greatest tragedies in the most ridiculous drinking songs. Which is as poignant and profound, to me, as it is hilarious.

Because Finnegans Wake starts where it ends, I tend to read it in both directions at once: I'll move forward for a little ways, and then I'll skip to the end and read up to the beginning again. The middle of the book is still largely a mystery to me, but the ending in particularly brings me to tears – I could be misreading this entirely, but it reads like the monologue of a woman (or young girl) either dying, or falling asleep, floating along in a vast river or sea. The snippets that do make sense are kind of heartbreaking:
I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt salt sick and I rush, my only, into your arms.
And the mashings of words and meanings starts hitting in ways that are almost sentimental, but for the fact that they're hitting on a dozen sentimentalities at once. There's imagery of a tree wilting that's also a book ending that's also a mind shutting down. Final recollections of memory. Final sounds of the world.
A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee mememormee! Till thousends thee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the
and then you're back to the beginning. I keep slowly trekking through it, because I want to understand the story better so that the ending might make even more sense. But some of Joyce's playthings, which might be too clever by half without the emotional anchoring, are powerfully affecting for how simple the rest of it is. ("Mememormee!" is at once a plea, "me me more me!", and a lament, "my memory!", and a even an echo of a dying request, "remember me!" And the fragments of sentences, the fragments of words. Lps!)

In a weird way, Finnegans Wake was one of the books that convinced me, when I was very young, that cheap entertainment was a kind of art, and that art had the potential to be entertaining. If something as convoluted as this can be so simply, plainly affecting, if something this high-concept can be this wonderfully filthy ("when a mon merries his lute is all long"), then there's no excuse for the rest of us not to be at once playful and ambitious and indulgent and compassionate. It's one of the books that told me what kind of a writer I wanted to become.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:59 AM on May 20, 2013 [33 favorites]


Gather together a diverse group of people who are willing to commit some time. You read five pages a week. Once a week you all come together to read it OUT LOUD and talk. Also have food and drink. These weekly gatherings can become a major thing in your life. This is a social book. It must be heard. It must be shared.
posted by njohnson23 at 7:59 AM on May 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


Favorite cheat sheet for FW: A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell (yes, that one) and Henry Morton Robinson.
posted by jfuller at 8:00 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whenever I talk about the merits of impenetrable works of arts with friends, I generally take the stance that things are worthwhile because their difficulty is usually overstated. Gravity's Rainbow forces you to just accept vulgar absurdity, Infinite Jest opens up once you get used to its rhythm and science fiction-y conceits, and reading Proust is also about a rhythm, an incredibly slow and internal rhythm. Even Lost is pretty straight forward once you accept it was more a show about mystery in general rather than a show about a specific mystery needing to be solved.

My two exceptions to this stance are Mulholland Drive and Finnegan's Wake. I don't yet have a compelling argument why anyone should ever bother.
posted by midmarch snowman at 8:11 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Aw but Mulholland Drive is so easy! At the beginning it asks you "who wants this dark-haired girl dead?" and at the end it tells you. Perfectly straightforward stuff.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:13 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ugh, I regretted that comment immediately. Everything about it sounded super arrogant. Didn't mean to threadshit. I'm interested in Joyce, intrigued by his ambition, and am saving this FPP because I'm hoping to find the argument that changes my mind on actually readying Joyce. Carry-on, carry on.
posted by midmarch snowman at 8:15 AM on May 20, 2013


Oh man now my perspective on what art is supposedly 'difficult' is apparently really askew. Gravity's Rainbow? Lost?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:19 AM on May 20, 2013


Yeah, FW is hard to "understand" because it is the dreamtime.. Ulysses is awake time (day) and FW is dream time (night). The pleasure is in the text, reading re-reading, feeling like there is something there, but no there really, in a concrete sense. If there were a there there, like we all want, it would cease to be such great art, but easily disposable after a quick read.

Not being able to quite grasp it, but following and tugging at threads, desire, is the great pleasure.
posted by snaparapans at 8:21 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am twenty-eight pages in to Finnegan's Wake and have been for nearly ten years.

Ulysses took me six weeks to read the first time, and takes me about two weeks to re-read, on average.

Prior to reading Joyce, I had never encountered a work of literature I couldn't tackle in three days or less, up to and including Proust. Most books I get through in a few hours. Ulysses pretty much ranks #1 on my "list of favourite books" and I would be further into Finnegan's Wake except reading it produces a physical response in me not entirely unlike rolling around in 200 tabs of acid. I love it, I love reading it aloud, but when I start at the beginning page 28 is where I lose consciousness and think I can see God.
posted by annathea at 8:29 AM on May 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


I read somewhere that someone figured out the original text of FW, and the entire sequence of edits, by examining the pattern of pinholes in the draft pages as the typesetter pinned them to his board at the linotype. A new page inserted into the stack had one less pinhole. Any single instance of the stack could be determined by one pinhole aligned on every page in the stack.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:37 AM on May 20, 2013


The trout will be so nice at brookfest (from the original last passage) didn't make the final cut?! *

* OK never mind, it did survive, just with brookfisht. So a good example of how he put a lot of last twists in the final edits.

Anyway, very nice post, thanks for this.
posted by Eyebeams at 8:42 AM on May 20, 2013


I've never read FW straight through. I've barely read a fifth of it, all told. But I've recently changed my approach to one in which I open the book at random and read a page. Joyce was a brilliant bridger of cultures—high/low, ancient/modern and pan-European—and it's a treat to taste that. In some ways, I think of FW the way I think of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew: so rich and varied that you never get used to it.

But if it's helpful to any who've been intimidated by the hype of FW, try not treating it as a book.
posted by the sobsister at 8:45 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


> The best art is either highly deceptive, and tricks us away from realizing what we're really looking
> at, or else it doesn't have an intended meaning to begin with

Another big-name modernist (Eliot) once compared meaning in a poem to the piece of meat a burgler brings for the watchdog. Meaning keeps the reader's mind occupied and distracted while the poem does its real work with its rhythmic and sensuous qualities.
posted by jfuller at 8:49 AM on May 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


But I've recently changed my approach to one in which I open the book at random and read a page.

John Cage, who was a huge champion of the book creating numerous works both musical and poetic about the book, at one point admitted to only having done the same as you. I cannot find the quote now, so some salt is worth considering, but I believe he felt like he had read through the whole thing having read so many bits at random. I think this was fairly early in his career so I don't know if he did ever get around to reading the whole thing straight through but I suspect he had to by the time he composed Roaratorio.

When I read it now that's how I do it: take passages at random.
posted by bfootdav at 8:56 AM on May 20, 2013


This is also how I read the book on my first try - not in exact order, but flipping through so much of it in random snippets that I (probably?) read the entire thing in some fashion. Really, I endorse any approach to this book that cuts down the reputation of it being inpenetrable and difficult. It might be the ultimate bathroom book! Knowing Joyce's taste for the lowbrow, he'd probably laugh and nod if you told him that. Rather than being only accessible to scholars and cloistered professor types, it's incredibly generous. It doesn't matter if you have a great deal of western education, or if your background is hanging out at the pub singing traditional drinking songs and getting shitfaced. Either way you'll get stuff on every page (and not get stuff on every page.) I guarantee you'll pick up on much more than you'd expect, and maybe what you picked up on is unique to you. The reputation is all wrong because the book is both accessible and inaccessible at once, like the esoteric mystic texts that read you as much as you read them. And rather than being "no there there," the there is there on every page, recurring over and over, rewarding you constantly for digging and paying attention, or really even rewarding you for turning off your brain and just flowing downstream with the damn thing. It's open to such a variety of backgrounds, approaches and temperaments from readers if you're willing to just dip in and see what it offers you.
posted by naju at 9:24 AM on May 20, 2013


Oh, and I'd like to do a "Summer of the Wake" reading with y'all. Maybe start June 1st?
posted by naju at 9:39 AM on May 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Prior to reading Joyce, I had never encountered a work of literature I couldn't tackle in three days or less, up to and including Proust.

Wow. You're good at reading!
posted by Unified Theory at 9:47 AM on May 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


A favourite English prof of mine once described FW as "the greatest novel written by someone who wasn't insane." I have yet to finish the book, but so far, that's a pretty strong working theory.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:53 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


naju: I am so down for that.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:54 AM on May 20, 2013


I've always intended to someday read Finnegan's Wake - perhaps today is the day! To begin, I mean.
posted by Mister_A at 10:28 AM on May 20, 2013


sammyo: "Gotta take care, it loops around at the end and you may never actually finish..."

What, no [SPOILER] alert on this?
posted by chavenet at 10:51 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can hear part of one of the most poetic chapters read by Joyce himself here. This is the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter. FW is a "dream book" written with dream logic. Some characters change their names but keep their initials (HCE, ALP). The ALP chapter is told by two washer-women on opposite sides of a river as they move along the river (and turn into trees--dream logic!) Hundreds of names of rivers are woven into the text of this chapter...

From a rank beginner on FW...
posted by Schmucko at 10:52 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


On the Chinese edition.

Also: If you are a regular, er, visitor to the smallest room in the house, for pensive moments, put a copy of FW there and just dip into every once in awhile, as if it were the Book of Lists or (more appropriately) the Guinness Book of World Records. It is perfect for this, especially if you need time to, er, work through tough passages.
posted by chavenet at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


An article on the Nursery Rhymes for those with JSTOR access.
posted by chavenet at 10:59 AM on May 20, 2013


FW recently got translated to Greek and I respect anyone who attempts that. What I love most about the book (the original) is the quality and the constant barrage of puns. Thanks for the post.
posted by ersatz at 12:07 PM on May 20, 2013


For those reluctant to take up the book, here is a link to the FILM by Mary Ellen Bute based on a play version of FW. It's one approach to the book. You get to hear the text and see what might be happening. I grew up with the soundtrack LP.
posted by njohnson23 at 12:18 PM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can an unreadable book really be a masterpiece? You can't mean that it's unreadable. Do you mean "unreadable by most"? How can the majority of us believe it's that great it we can't read it? What's great about it? Can something difficult to read really have that much emotional impact? Or is it technically brilliant? Or poetically?

RTFAs
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 3:35 PM on May 20, 2013


Also, there is a 5 hour abridged recording by Naxos... read by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan.
posted by snaparapans at 3:37 PM on May 20, 2013



I have an MA in English literature and I'm proud to say I never touched FW. There's no there there.


be proud of not touching an amazing work of literature/song/poetry. i haven't got into it properly yet, but every year at Bloomsday people do readings of it (mostly the Anna Livia Plurabelle bit) and it sounds amazing. approach it humbly, and admit that it should be your life's work to grok even a sentence of Joyce's. don't be arrogant

I am unable to figure out the overall story or the major plotlines, or more accurately how it all connects together. What you can do more successfully is kind of get small sections.

forget 'story'. forget 'politics'. none of that is life, literature, poetry, Joyce. all of life is just a series of non-sensical sensations that at most strives for beauty. Joyce gets that. actual facts/coherance/linearity don't matter

Gather together a diverse group of people who are willing to commit some time. You read five pages a week. Once a week you all come together to read it OUT LOUD and talk. Also have food and drink. These weekly gatherings can become a major thing in your life. This is a social book. It must be heard. It must be shared.

Yes this. if you haven't been to a Bloomsday reading you haven't lived.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:42 PM on May 20, 2013


I don't know how complete they are, but I believe there exist even more readable early drafts of FW than that linked here. I'm sure I'm stepping into critical territory where I don't have a great idea about what's what, but this slideshow has some of the examples I recall.

Here's a line from what it calls the first draft:
1st copies of most original masterpieces even the most venerated impostures were not spared slipped from his pen
And the second draft:
One cannot even begin to imagine how really low such a creature really was. Who knows how many unsigned first copies of original masterpieces, how many pseudostylous shamiana, how few of the most venerated public impostures, how very many palimpsests slipped from that plagiarist pen?
And here's the published version:
One cannot even begin to post figure out a statuesquo ante as to how slow in reality the excommunicated Drumcondriac, nate Hamis, really was. Who can say how many pseudostylic shamiana, how few or how many of the most venerated public impostures, how very many piously forged palimpsests slipped in the first place by this morbid process from his pelagiarist pen?
When you look at selections from it this way, FW is so accessible that it can be given to freshman composition students (link goes to an expensive edition, but the earlier editions are fine and very cheap). The FW section is just ~3 pages near the end.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:06 PM on May 20, 2013


Well, my bad--both of those quotes are in the linked book, in separate chapters relating to different drafts: page 108 and page 117.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:32 PM on May 20, 2013


MeTa for a group reading.
posted by naju at 9:39 AM on May 21, 2013


bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur
posted by edgeways at 11:54 AM on May 21, 2013


-nuk
posted by edgeways at 11:54 AM on May 21, 2013


Address at Simon Fraser (excerpt)
by P.K. Page

If we’ll but give it time, a work of art
‘can rap and knock and enter in our souls’
and re-align us — all our molecules —
to make us whole again. A work of art,
could, ‘had we but world enough and time,’
portray for us — all Paradise apart —
‘the face (we) had/before the world was made,’
or, to compound the image, vivify
Plato’s invisible reality.

But is there time enough? This turning world
we call our home, or notre pays — could
become inimical to humankind —
humanunkind as cummings might have said —
in fewer years than I have walked this earth.

So, what is there to tell you? Only this.
‘Imagination is the star in man.’
Read woman, if you wish. And though we are
trapped in the body of an animal,
we’re half angelic, and our angel ear,
which hears the music of the spheres, can hear
the planet’s message, dark, admonishing,
as the archaic torso of Apollo
admonished Rilke, ‘You must change your life.’

Art and the planet tell us. Change your life.
posted by namasaya at 3:01 PM on May 21, 2013


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