Buckle up, friends. Put on your helmet and your kneepads. Duct tape yourself in a cocoon of bubble wrap, strap on some pillows, and pray to Jesus, because this won’t be just a bumpy ride or a Fourth Dimension roller coaster.
This is the literary apocalypse.
Before we heave ourselves into the word-pit of fire, let me introduce you to Mr. James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce was the eldest of ten children and evidently had something to prove. His first book, Dubliners (1914), is a collection of short stories; he followed it up in 1916 with the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His next novel was Ulysses, whose 1922 publication marked a pivotal moment in the modernist literary movement. Finnegans Wake (1939) would be his final work—his magnum opus and his death sentence—and would take him 17 years to write (and re-write, and re-re-write).
Joyce’s career was groundbreaking, and rule-breaking, and then some. In Portrait, he splashed around in the literary techniques he would eventually plunge into: stream-of-consciousness digressions, interior monologues, and unapologetic realism. Portrait tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, a heavily flawed student-turned-artist whose behavior alternates between hedonism and strict religious devotion. Stephen serves as an alter ego to Joyce, an allusion to the mythological Daedalus, and, eventually, the tormented Telemachus of Ulysses‘ Odyssey-inspired cast.
Are you still with me? Great! Now, hold on tight.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a tough read. It takes itself very seriously, drifting in tone between poetry and sermon. It’s stuffy at the best of times, and inscrutable at the worst.
And it’s fucking child’s play—quite literally—next to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
Joyce’s final projects took decades of his life, and probably decades off his life. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are gorgons among books: many-headed, dreadful to behold, legendary, immortal—but not quite invincible. But when I say “not quite invincible,” I mean it would take—has taken—is taking—an army to defeat them.
We’ll tackle Ulysses first.
In a 1956 interview, William Faulkner had this to say about Joyce’s most famous novel:
You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.
A “day in the life” portrait of one Leopold Bloom, Ulysses is a mashup of fragmented thoughts, actions, feelings, memories, and dialogue, collectively intended to mimic the disorganization of the mind. Each episode corresponds to an event in The Odyssey, and each character to one of Homer’s.
Stylistic experimentation further complicates the narrative: In a chapter about music, for example, Joyce opens with a kind of “overture” composed of phrases from the text to come. Sounds such as a tapping cane and jingling car keys lend rhythm to the passage. In another chapter, Joyce’s voice follows the evolution of the English language from Latinate prose to Elizabethan, Gothic, and even American slang styles, among many others.
If I had to make one and only one complaint about Ulysses, it would be that Joyce determinedly prioritizes innovation and novelty over reader appreciation. In other words, it often feels as if Joyce would rather be misunderstood than understood—that he’d rather perplex than entertain—out of a sense of intellectual superiority. But why choose between respect and popularity when you’re talented enough to earn both?
As a form of protest, I have decided not to fear or love him. Instead, I vow to maintain a stubborn indifference.
Last up, we have Finnegans Wake—the most impenetrable book on The List by far. Regularly cited as the most difficult/challenging/inaccessible novel ever written, Finnegans Wake would be exactly as (in)coherent read backward as forward. (And, knowing Joyce, reading it backward may actually be reading it as intended.)
So what is Finnegans Wake about? According to Samuel Beckett, it is “not about something, it is that something itself,” an assessment that manages to be as pretentious as it is unhelpful. Michael Chabon offers nine different interpretations of its subject matter, ranging from “nothing,” “everything,” and “Hell if I know” to:
Recurrence, figured through the heavy use of recurrent initials (HCE, ALP), recurrent digits (1132, 566), recurrent imagery (giants, towers, heaps, and mounds), recurrent characters from jokes and literature (a Russian general who gets shot in the ass, Swift’s Vanessa), recurrent historical figures (Parnell, Napoleon, Saint Patrick), recurrent dyads (Adam and Eve, Mutt and Jeff), trinities (the Trinity), quartets (the Evangelists) and duodectets (jurors, apostles), recurrent snatches and snippets of balladry, recurrent garbled quotations from Swift, the Duke of Wellington, Mark Twain, etc.
Joyce’s helplessness in the face of language, his glossolalia, the untrammeled riverine flow of words and wordplay in which James Joyce plunged, and swam, and drowned; the compulsive neologism that echoes, typifies, and indeed in a clinical sense accounts, genetically, for the schizophrenia—at times characterized by uncontrollable bursts of surprising and beautiful utterances—that afflicted his daughter, Lucia, and led to her eventual institutionalization.
He is possibly right on all counts, or equally wrong.
Recurrence and wordplay, at least, are well-established fixtures of Finnegans Wake, though the latter is more immediately apparent than the former. Nearly every word on every page is corrupted, complicated, or translated into something new or else. The puns come fast and furious; literary allusions abound; onomatopoeia gets a nod; and obscurity of meaning is less a product than a method. In fact, many layers of meaning can be dug out of every word and sentence. William York Tindall, author of A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, dissected the protagonist’s surname, Earwicker, thus:
In it Ear (or time) is combined with wick (village or place, from Latin vicus). Place is space. A union of [Earwicker’s sons] the twins (Shem, time; Shaun, space), Earwicker is time-space. Ear suggests Eire and wicker suggests Ford of the Hurdles (made of wickerwork) or Dublin; hence Earwicker could mean a dweller (wicker) in Dublin, Ireland. In a pub time-place becomes “Time, please!”
Um, OK. Moving on.
Once drafted, each passage was deliberately convoluted, then mutilated further with every revision. “Universal history” became “manyvoiced moodmoulded cyclewheeling history.” “River” became “riverrun.” Historical figures and events were layered over Joyce’s own characters and their actions, and the whole narrative rendered in stream-of-consciousness.
I know, I know, you’re dying to read an excerpt. But didn’t anyone ever tell you to be careful what you wish for?
The following paragraph appears on page 100:
Achdung! Pozor! Attenshune! Vikeroy Besights Smucky Yung Pigeschoolies. Tri Paisdinernes Eventyr Med Lochlanner Fathach I Fiounnisgehaven. Bannalanna Bangs Ballyhooly Out Of Her Buddaree Of A Bullavogue.
And here’s what Tindall made of it:
“Achdung! . . . ,” a confusion of tongues as at Babel, not meant perhaps to be understood. Such confusions are also a comment on the difficulty of communicating. The present instance, a mixture of pig-Danish, pig-Gaelic, and pig-English, seems to mean this: Attention! The Viking king visits beautiful young girls. Three somebodies adventure with the giant foreigner in Phoenix Park. But banana Anna bangs the ballyhoo out of her buddy. (Bally is Gaelic for city.)
So glad to have that cleared up, aren’t we?
I can guess what you’re thinking. The whole book can’t be that bad, right? I obviously selected the toughest excerpt I could find to strike terror into your stout heart, didn’t I? Well, let’s try a little experiment. I’m going to flip to a random page and type what I find there:
Ah now, it was tootwoly torrific, the mummurrlubejubes! And then after that they used to be so forgetful, counting motherpeributts (up one up four) to membore her beaufu mouldern maiden name, for overflauwing, by the dream of woman the owneirist, in forty lands. From Greg and Doug on pour Greg and Mat and Mar and Lu and Jo, now happily buried, our four! And there she was right enough, that lovely sight enough, the girleen bawn asthore, as for days galore, of planxty Gregory. Egory. O bunket not Orwin! Ay, ay.
The book, notably, features words and expressions from sixty languages, many of these tortured into puns alongside their English comrades. The title itself is a pun: “Finnegan’s Wake” is a 19th-century Irish ballad about the wake of Tim Finnegan, who died falling off a ladder—or so his mourners believe. Joyce performed some grammatical sleight of hand (well, OK, he removed an apostrophe) and left us with Finnegans (plural noun) Wake (verb).
This is, of course, fitting, as Finnegans Wake is most often summarized as a dream narrative—a single night inside the mind of Earwicker (who may also, or alternatively, take the form of a Mr. Porter). The abandonment of plot, character development, and other traditional narrative structures is more easily justified within this context… but no easier on the reader.
My take? Finnegans Wake is a long game of Mad Gab, but a lot less fun. It’s Dr. Seuss, but a lot less cute. It is, in the words of one illustrator, “like trying to read while drunk.” No doubt, it changes your perspective on literature—not in some lofty, intellectual way (at least, in my experience), but insofar as it makes every other book seem elementary by comparison.
But most of all, finding myself on the other side of Finnegans Wake, I’m convinced that it’s not meant to be read—it’s meant to be studied. Joyce reportedly said that his goal was “to keep the critics busy for 300 years,” and we’re well on our way. For his Reader’s Guide, Tindall consulted numerous reference books and sat down with grad students at Columbia “in the belief that a committee, reading the text, talking it over, and bringing to it a variety of languages and learning, might do more with the book than I alone.” Decades of research and hundreds of researchers are bound to have both under- and over-analyzed this infamous mad-sterpiece.
Cyclical in nature, the book ends with the first half of a sentence and begins with the end of it. Joyce says on page 120 that the “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” would make his way through “the Wake”
a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim.
To that I say:
Re-Joyce? You’re dreaming.
Are They Three of the Greatest Books of All Time?
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Yawn.
Finnegans Wake: Faint.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night, though he knew it was in God’s power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy.
One single instant was enough for the trial of a man’s soul. One single instant after the body’s death, the soul had been weighed in the balance.
I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.
I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives.
With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never do.
He heard in a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past.
Once by inadvertence, twice by design he challenges his destiny.
Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain!
There is comfortism in the knowledge that often hate on first hearing comes of love by second sight.
And into the river that had been a stream (for a thousand of tears had gone eon her and come on her and she was stout and struck on dancing and her muddied name was Missisliffi) there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears (I mean for those crylove fables fans who are ‘keen’ on the pretty-pretty commonface sort of thing you meet by hopeharrods) for it was a leaptear. But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh! I’se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!
Where in the waste is the wisdom?
Read: 2014; 2016; 2017