Inching forward with “Finnegans Wake”

Ah – the plans one makes for retirement! So many things I had wanted to do, but had told myself I would do once I was retired, when I no longer had the pressure of work to contend with, that day-to-day grind. What one doesn’t take into account when making such plans are the increasing physical tiredness that accompanies age (although, having only just turned sixty, I flatter myself I’m merely on the lower slopes of old age), and, more importantly, sheer damn laziness. Nonetheless, two ambitions have survived: the first is to learn French properly, so I could, some day, read Molière’s Le Misanthrope rather than Molière’s The Misanthrope (that project has begun, and is progressing, albeit slowly); and the other is to read Finnegans Wake. These last few months, I have been inching my way through it, and only last week, I finished the first of its four parts – which is roughly one third of he length of the book. And currently, I am taking a wee break from it, while basking in a sense of smugness and self-satisfaction.

But mention of Finnegans Wake raises eyebrows. Even when speaking to someone online, I can sense that eyebrow raised. Even more so than Ulysses, it has a reputation of being a book utterly unreadable, indeed, utterly nonsensical – a mad, meaningless joke that is not to be taken seriously, and, perhaps, best left alone. Why on earth would I want to read something like that? Something that makes no sense, and is, most likely, no more than a grotesque practical joke?

I think my answer is that I do not believe that the writer gifted enough to create Ulysses would spend seventeen years of his life just to create a meaningless practical joke. After all, had I given up in the face of difficulty, and not at least have tried to penetrate what had initially appeared impenetrable, I would never have got to know Ulysses.

Of course, I know there are some who say Ulysses isn’t difficult at all, and that they took to it right away. They may even say the same for Finnegans Wake. Well, if so, then all I can say is that their minds are very different from mine. Mine is quite slow, and I find I have to work at everything. But I like to think that what my mind lacks in agility, it compensates with a certain doggedness – in this case, a bloody-minded determination at least to understand what that mad eejit Joyce was up to. Now that I have read the first part of this volume, I ask myself if it makes sense, and the answer, I think, is “No, not really”. But, once upon a time, I did graduate in physics, and though I have forgotten much, I do remember from the lectures in quantum mechanics that certain things do not need to make sense to be nonetheless true.

So why Finnegans Wake? I blame Anthony Burgess, to be frank. In my teens and my early twenties, Mr Burgess was, in effect, my literary mentor. Not that I knew him personally, of course (although he did sign a copy of A Clockwork Orange for me after I had attended one of his lectures): but not only did I enjoy his fiction, I enjoyed also his literary non-fiction – his various books and articles and essays. I used to look forward eagerly to his articles as they appeared every Sunday in The Observer (in those days, its literary editor was Terence Kilmartin). As a science student in a university oriented towards sciences and engineering (Strathclyde), I did not personally know anyone who was interested in literature, and with whom I could share my own literary interests: Anthony Burgess, in a sense, filled that gap. It was something of a one-way conversation, of course, but it would have remained one-way even if I had known him personally: I was (and remain still, I think) more interested and enthusiastic than I was knowledgeable.

And so I followed the leads he provided. His three main literary heroes were Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James Joyce. Shakespeare I was already absorbing, but the other two I knew only by reputation. And, as I read Mr Burgess’ sparkling prose about their works, I was determined to get to know them also. Of course it was difficult. One doesn’t come to “The Wreck of the Deutschland” or to Ulysses expecting plain sailing, and, lacking nimbleness of mind even then, it was a slog. But once these works did penetrate through my thick skull, they stayed there. Part of the prism through which, for better or for worse, I see the world, is constructed from these works.

And so on to Finnegans Wake. Once I had got to a stage where I could truthfully say that I have read Ulysses, and, what’s more, understood it (at least up to a point where I could love it), I obviously wanted to get on to the next one. After the magnificent Symphony of Daytime with its resplendent major key coda, what could that “next one” be but that mysterious and elusive Song of the Night, in which our unthinking and yet unsettled minds elide together all the solidities of the world, and in which all forms and shapes, and all people and all times, collide, merge, and melt into each other in a state of infinite plasticity?

I tried, I did try, but my young mind, already stretched to its limits by Ulysses (not to mention the lectures on quantum mechanics), couldn’t take it in. Not even armed with Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake and with Roland McHugh’s Annotations, and, of course, with Burgess’ own writings. Eventually, despite my doggedness, I admitted defeat. But only temporarily. I would come back to this once I had retired, I told myself, retirement being in those days so distant a prospect that it was not a state I could even visualise. But now that I am retired, it’s time to keep that youthful promise to myself, no matter how many eyebrows are raised in the process.

Finnegans Wake famously starts and ends mid-sentence, and the unfinished half-sentence at the end may be completed by the unstarted half-sentence at the beginning. So the structure is that of a cycle, and one can, in theory at least, read it for ever, turning back to the beginning once one has reached the end, and travelling repeatedly around the cycle. This structure is taken from Giovanni Batista Vico, who saw time itself as cyclical – first a theocratic age, then an aristocratic age, followed by democratic age, and then a ricorso, a return back to the theocratic age. Whether Joyce subscribed to all this, I do not know, but it did provide him with a structure for his myth-making: the four books of Finnegans Wake reflect the four stages described by Vico: first, corresponding to the theocratic age, there’s the Book of the Parents (consisting of eight chapters, four for the Father and four for the Mother); the next book, corresponding to the aristocratic age, is the Book of the Children, who supplant their parents; then follows, for the democratic age, the Book of the People; and finally, there is a shorter book, the Ricorso, leading back again to the opening. The parents, the creating God and the nurturing Goddess, are overthrown by a newer generation, who become the aristocracy, until they too, in turn, are replaced, this time by the people in an age of democracy; and, finally, when the democracy collapses under the strain of its plurality, the theocratic age establishes itself again. Whatever reservation we may have about such a schematic view of human history, it is holds together the massive mythopoeic contents of the book into a coherent structure.

The father is Finnegan himself, whose wake, after all, we are at. And, in a fashion that we are accustomed to from Ulysses, Joyce blends together the mythic with the everyday, thus deflating the mythic in a sense, but also, in another more important sense, elevating the everyday. For Joyce is dealing with big themes here – the nature of time, the rise and falls of generations, the history of mankind itself; but his materials remain low, and ordinary. The very title of this book, after all, is taken from a popular comic song “Finnegan’s Wake”, describing a builder, Tim Finnegan, who falls from his ladder, is thought dead, but who, at his own wake, comes back again to life when some whiskey is accidentally spilt upon him. But in the title of the book, the apostrophe is omitted: if history is indeed cyclical, there are many Finnegans, and the wake refers to their resurrections as well as to their deaths. The lowbrow comic song sets the pattern for endless human cycles of falling and rising, of deaths and resurrections.

But who is this Finnegan? He is Tim Finnegan, the builder in the song, who falls off his ladder. He is the mythical giant Finn McCool. He is the primal being, the modern man, Ibsen’s Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, who fears being supplanted by a younger generation, and who falls off a ladder at the end). Finnegan can be anyone you like, really. Personal identity never stays stable here. All identities, all personages, collide and merge into each other. This book itself Joyce describes at one point as a “collideorscape”.

If all this doesn’t sound mad enough, there is the language. The language we use in our waking hours is not adequate to describe the unrestrained drifting of the sleeping mind. It’s not the syntax that is difficult: that stays quite straight-forward throughout. It’s the vocabulary. Most of the words aren’t really proper English words at all, but are composites, a colliding (or scaping) of many different words, sometimes from many different languages. So a single word here can have multiple meanings, or multiple associations, multiple references. These references can be to history, to mythology, to folklore, to popular music-hall songs, to anything and everything – there are no boundaries in a dream. Some of the words are simply nonsense words, existing for the sound alone.

At this stage, encountering a book with no fixed time or space, with no character who can keep their identity for long without being transformed into someone (or something) else, it is tempting simply to throw up one’s arms and declare the whole thing to be impossible – mere gibberish. But sometimes, one has simply to trust the author, and given my past experience with Joyce’s works, I trust Joyce. So I armed myself with Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, which, page by page, disentangles every single of these compound words, pointing out its different levels of meaning, its different references. But that didn’t really work. It slowed down my reading to an impossible pace, and whatever music, whatever momentum, whatever sense of continuity the writing had, I wasn’t getting any of it. It was merely checking each nut and each bolt, but not really understanding what the nuts and bolts are there for.

The chapters on Finnegans Wake in Anthony Burgess’ Here Comes Everybody helped in this respect, but only up to a point: if McHugh’s Annotations were at too low a level, Burgess’ writing, splendid though it is, was at too high a level. Help came eventually in the form of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and by Henry Morton Robinson, and soon, I settled into a mode of reading that, at least, worked for me (I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone). I would read a passage, getting as much as I can out of it (and it is quite incredible how much can be communicated simply by the sounds and the rhythms of the prose); I’d then turn to the Skeleton Key to get a better understanding of the import of the passage; and, then, once I have a good idea of its outline, I’d return to the passage again, this time with McHugh’s Annotations, to examine at least some of the nuts and bolts. Of course, progress is excruciatingly slow, and, even with all this help, I don’t understand it all: most of it, indeed, remains mysterious and probably always will, even when I have lived with this book for a while and become more familiar with the text than I am now. But I was expecting progress to be slow; and as for understanding – how much of a dream can one reasonably expect to understand anyway?

But is it worth it? Many readers, I know, will find the very idea silly that a book can only be read with the aid of other books. Perhaps. I won’t argue with that. Each reader will have to decide this point for his or her self. Speaking for myself, I am enjoying the struggle. Once I had accustomed myself to this kind of reading, I found I could sense, sometimes even without the aid of the Skeleton Key or the Annotations, a veiled magnificence, a shadowy majesty. I could sense the presence of something behind layers of veils, something elusive that I couldn’t quite capture (dreams cannot, after all, ever be captured), but something that is, all the same, resplendent, and sublime.

Out of all this, characters, of a sort, do emerge. After the fall of Finn McCool (or Finnegan, or Bygmester Solness, or whoever), he is replaced by a foreigner, who had originally come from somewhere in Scandinavia. (There are passages referring to the influx into ancient and medieval Ireland of people from abroad.) This foreigner is, it seems, the keeper of apub in Chapelizod, and his name, it seems, is Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker. No, don’t believe that either. But these initials, HCE, are embedded throughout the book, and refer always to various incarnations of this character. And it is he, Humphrey Chimpden Earwhicker (and I still don’t believe it) who appears throughout this book in various guises. He has his fall too: in Phoenix Park, Dublin, he had “behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants”. We are never sure what this “ongentilmensky immodus” is, but when, later, he is asked the time by a passerby, he becomes very defensive about it all, stutters guiltily, and protests his innocence at quite considerable length. Soon, rumours start spreading, and collectively, the stories circulating about the Fall of a Man in a Park take on epic proportions. He is tried, sentenced, and is buried deep under Lough Neagh, or under “lough and neagh”. But, like the Tim Finnegan of the song, or the Finn McCool of the myth, whom he had replaced (and who, confusingly enough, is also a form of himself, HCE), he rises. You can’t keep a good Finnegan down.

His wife, known as Anna Livia Plurabelle (the initials ALP represents throughout the feminine principle as insistently as HCE represents the masculine), writes a letter in her husband’s defence, but the letter is lost, and later, it turns up in a rubbish pile, unearthed by a hen. There is much pseudo-scholarly examination of this letter, which turns out to be not unlike the Book of Kells. Anna Livia Plurabelle is also a river – the River Liffey that flows through Dublin; and, indeed, she is all the rivers of all the world, watering the land with her nurturing grace.

And there are twin sons, who, it will later turn out, are, or may be, named Kevin and Jerry, but who are, to begin with, named as Shaun and Shem – Shaun the postman and Shem the penman; or as Burrus and Caseous (Brutus and Cassius, butter and cheese); or stone and stem (the unchanging, and the developing); or space and time; or the old Irish church and the Catholic church that supplants it; or any other pair of opposites one may think of. For among the themes that emerge from the mist is that of opposites meeting, or colliding, and becoming one. This theme Joyce traces to Giordano Bruno – or Bruno the Nolan (as Bruno originated from Nola). Which is rather convenient, as there was at the time a Dublin publisher called Browne and Nolan. And these two names appear in all sorts of guises throughout the text, always signifying opposites that are essentially a single unity, and which will, eventually, merge, and be seen as such.

And there is a daughter, Izzy. Or Issy. Or maybe Isabel. Or something. One can never be too sure. Maybe she is the Iseult to whom the chapel (Chapelizod) is dedicated. Or the Isolde from Wagner’s opera (she appears at one stage as a certain Mildew Lisa – a reference to the opening line of the Liebestod in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “mild und leise”).

There are a few minor characters as well – the elderly cleaning lady as HCE’s pub, who is, really, another version of Anna Livia herself. There’s old Joe, who also works at the pub. And there are the twelve mourners at Finnegan’s wake, who are also customers in the pub. Or maybe, they are all manifestations of HCE and ALP and their children – who knows? It’s hard to be specific about anything here.

The question remains: is it worth all this effort for this madness? For madness it is. It was madness sitting down to write it; it was madness spending seventeen years of one’s life working over it; and perhaps the greatest madness of all was expecting people to read it. I don’t know if I am yet in a position to answer this question. I do admit that there are times I have doubts – grave doubts. But the doubts are, more often than not, dispelled by the wit; by the audacity; by that glint in the eye that is, admittedly, sometimes the glint of megalomania, but is, more often, the glint of good humour; and, perhaps most importantly, by the music of the prose. In the famous recording made by Joyce himself of the concluding passage of the first book, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter, it is the musical sounds and rhythms that make their impact, even before we start looking for the meanings of the words. And this, I think, is how we should approach the book: the sound comes before the sense. Indeed, it is the sound that conveys the sense. The rest are but the nuts and bolts.

And the vague, shadowy vision that becomes apparent underneath all these layers of veils is magnificent indeed. It is nothing less than a mythologised history of the whole of mankind. And yet, as in Ulysses, the magnificence of this vision is built from often everyday materials.

In that last chapter of the first book, we have two washerwomen, standing on either side of the Liffey, washing clothes, and gossiping about Anna. As the chapter progresses, we come further downstream, and the river widens, till the two washerwomen cannot hear each other from the opposite banks. And, Ovid-like, one turns into a rock, and the other into a tree, a stem and a stone – one growing in time, the other still.

As Anthony Burgess writes in Here Comes Everybody:

The language is cosmic, yet it is the homely speech of ordinary people. We seem to see a woman who is also a river and a man who is also a city. Time dissolves; we have a glimpse of eternity. And the eternal vision is made out of muddy water, old saws, half-remembered music-hall songs, gossip, and the stain on a pair of underpants. The heart bows down.  

I shall be starting on the next part soon, but since it is thanks to the urgings of Mr Burgess that I am reading this book in the first place, I may as well let him have the last word for now. I hope to be returning here to write more of my impressions once I have read the later books.

12 responses to this post.

  1. I have mentioned this several times in the past, but I had the privilege of studying under Jack Hirschman at university and he revealed that his thesis advisor recommended he read lots and lots of comic books before attempting to comprehend Finnegans Wake. Having read the Wake in pieces and in its entirety, I endorse this sage advice; however, comic books in the 50s and 60s were far different from those being published today (and far cheaper). Would the comic books (graphic novels) of the present day provide any lubricant to grease the way into the Wake?


    • I’m afraid the comic books I read in my childhood days were titles like Beano, Beezer, Dandy, Sparky, and the like, which were very different from the American comics. I enjoyed them a lot, and still like to be reminded of them, but I’m not sure they help me understand Finnegans Wake. But I don’t really expect to take in too much more of the book than an outline – not at first reading, anyway: afterwards, I have to live with it, as I have done with Ulysses. Maybe I should look at a fe graphic novels to see if they help!


  2. Well done – I salute you, sir!


  3. Posted by Sue Drott on July 1, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    I have not finished ‘Finnegans Wake’ yet because I have to stops after every word, phrase, and sentence to enjoy the many meanings hidden in them. I am enthralled by the layers of meaning. I tell my friends that everything is in the book. References, to literature history, science, the arts, I really believe it represents the end of literature. Nothing else can reach the beauty and profundity that this work has. It encapsulates the entirety of human experience. As you can begin to sense, I cannot praise if enough not can I plumb it to its depths. Therein lies its worth and fascination. I am looking forward to your next posting on ‘The Wake’.
    Sue Drott


    • Thank you or that. I have now started the second chapter of the second part – “Nightlessons” – and, I must confess, I am finding it even more difficult than I did the earlier chapters. It’s doing my head in, to be frank! But I find I’m rather enjoying having my head done in!

      In a sense, it is the end of literature: no-one has been mad enough to try to build upon this novel: every other writer has gone on writing pretending this novel didn’t really exist. Some may use the term “dead end” – except it isn’t dead: when I read it, it is very much alive.

      I will certainly write more on this novel, but right now, I am taking my time over it, and am not setting myself a time limit.

      Best wishes,


  4. I read Finnegans Wake seven years ago this summer. There was a lot I did not understand, mostly because I didn’t know the historical references. A lot of the language becomes clear if you read it aloud with an Irish accent! This book contains multitudes, a history of Ireland, a history of mankind from the Fall in Eden onward, and a tragic story of a wife with a philandering husband. The final sixty pages, Anna’s monologue, are quite powerful and at the time I thought them the saddest thing I’d ever read. What a great book this is. I remember that after I finished it, for a long time nothing I read seemed to have any real power in comparison.

    I made two attempts on the book, the first time in 2011 I think, only managing 100 pages. The second time I started and just kept going on to the end, and the thing accumulated meaning as I went along. I tell myself that I have time to read it again someday. I hope so.


    • Hello Scott,
      This is very encouraging, as this is my second attempt too. I first tried it in my early twenties, immediately after finishing Ulysses, but didn’t get too far. I expect this is a book that I will need to live with: the first reading is really not much more than to get an idea of the outline.

      Among the things I love about Joyce is that, despite all the huge themes he deals with, his basic materials are always everyday. The myths of creation, the emergence of mankind … it’s all encapsulated in children studying their lessons. Reading Joyce, our small, day-to-day lives suddenly seem huge, and magnificent.

      And it’s funny: as Joyce himself puts it, “Loud, heap miseries upon us yet entwine our arts with laughters low!”

      Best wishes,


  5. Bringing the learned conversation down to earth with a loud bump, I’m afraid I’ve not read ‘Finnegans Wake’ (except for a few very short passages, to try to get the flavour of it). But when I was 18 I read Anthony Burgess’s ‘Nothing Like the Sun’, his novel about Shakespeare, and was entranced. I recently acquired a new copy, and it’s sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to revisit it more than 40 years later. I’m rather trepidatious, in case what seemed so delightful in my youth will now appear pretentious.


  6. I have still not completed Ulysses – I have still not started Finnegan’s Wake. But that’s life. I will reblog this.


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