To quote Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson in their essential companion volume, A Skeleton Key To Finnegans Wake:

"Running riddle and fluid answer, Finnegans Wake is a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind. It is a strange book, a compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare--a monstrous enigma beckoning imperiously from the shadowy pits of sleep. Its mechanics resemble those of a dream, a dream which has freed the author from the necessities of common logic and has enabled him to compress all periods of history, all phases of individual and racial development, into a circular design, of which every part is beginning, middle, and end."
James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake as "the ideal book for the ideal insomniac." It was designed as the perfect bedside companion, which is why so many people have trouble with it in school.

In order to achieve a "successful" read, it is imperative that the reader eschew goal-oriented "understanding" of the book. The book is non-linear. It is unproductive to apply traditional narrative requirements to a work that tells the same story over and over again from different points of view in a totally revolutionary manner. Finnegans Wake is virtually impossible to read all the way through right out of your B&N bookbag. Better to dive in anywhere, to swim along in the full-flood of the river metaphor.

Write in the book. Get intimate with it. Read it in unusual places. Especially, read it out loud. Sing it. Use it the way you'd use a friend who knows you well. Grab a word or a phrase or a paragraph or a chapter that catches your eye and hang on tight.

Once you get wet, Finnegans Wake will carry you places you've always imagined you'd like to go.

It's Dr. Seuss for grownups.


A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1944


Shades of Joyce:

a nice cool glass of Joyce
Anna Livia Plurabelle
Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell
Finnegans Wake
Finn MacCool
Garry Owen
HCE
Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker
Issy the Teenage Rainbow
Lucia Joyce
Mina Purefoy
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress
riverrun
Shaun
Shem the Penman
Ulysses is not pornography
Volta Cinema
Finnegans Wake is considered by some a monumental work of literature, but by most an inaccessible bundle of nonsense.

An experimental novel by Jame Joyce. Abstracts of Finnegans Wake appeared under the title Work in Progress from the years 1928 to 1937, and was published in its entirety in 1939.

Finnegans Wake is written in Joyce's own dream language, an amalgamation of English and dozens of other languages. The use of this dream language adds to the theme of universality that Joyce is trying to convey in the book. The family portrayed in Finnegans Wake are individual, but represent any and every family of the world. The main point of the book is taken from the teachings of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. In Finnegans Wake Joyce is trying to convey that history is cyclic, repeating itself. The most obvious example in the book is how Joyce finished the last sentence of the novel at the beginning of the book.

The story and subsequent song called Finnegan's Wake (note the apostrophe) describe a drunkard, Tim Finnegan, who one day died in a workplace accident as a result of alcohol. At his funeral a conflict broke out between Biddy O'Brien, who was deeply saddened by Tim's tragic passing, and Maggie O'Connor, who mostly just wanted to have a good time at the funeral wake. In the ensuing fight between all the mourners, which Biddy started, a bucket of whiskey spilt over Tim. In Gaelic, the word for whiskey (according to the Clancy Brothers) is ISH-kah-BAH-ha, which translates to "water of life", and so, Tim awakens from the dead.

In this little story, Joyce saw quite a bit. Although few, if any people can actually figure out what the book is about, I have it on good authority that it has something to do with what Joyce saw as the cycle of life: Birth, Life, Death, and Rebirth.

Finnegans Wake: A Survivalist's Guide

Finnegans Wake could well be the most challenging book you will ever read (it certainly was for me). For my first couple of hours with it, my face was frozen in an expression of sheer perplexity. A couple of hours later (when I finished the first page), I decided I was really rather enjoying myself, even if I was not quite sure why. On the other hand, I have spoken to people who seemed to possess a simple intuitive understanding of this masterpiece. Don't fear if this isn't you. These folks are in the minority, and are generally savants, bluffers or extremely fortunate. Being Irish also helps. I can't exactly help you out in this department, but I can offer the tricks I picked up as a person grappling with this great volume.

1. Read Ulysses

For the first time Joyce reader, Finnegans Wake can seem insurmountable. Not only does one have to get to grips with the complexity of the language and the esoteric nature of the symbolism, but also Joyce's use of the interior monologue and phonetic transcription. A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners are undoubtedly fine literature, but it is in Ulysses that Joyce perhaps best exemplifies what makes him one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. When one has Ulysses under their belt, so to speak, they will be far better equipped to unlock the mysteries of Finnegans Wake, already possessing some understanding of Joyce's technique and style. Additionally, the mind-expanding nature of Ulysses makes an excellent preparation for the reading of Finnegans Wake. Ulysses can act as something of a literary gateway drug.

2. Read the introductions, annotations and forewords

There are often, particularly in classic works, fifty pages or so at the beginning of a book which most readers will skip past: Translator's notes, bibliographies and references. When it comes Finnegans Wake however, I would suggest that these make for essential reading. Knowing the context in which Joyce worked is essential to understanding the work- it is so intrinsically a part of himself as a man and an artist, and it contains so much of his character, that this is central to the book. Joyce himself was keen to promote discussion and theorisation of his own work. He would even write into literary magazines to discuss or refute the analysis of others. I can personally recommend the Penguin Modern Classics edition, with introduction by Seamus Deane. If you’re really struggling, many reader’s guides have been produced, although I cannot vouch for the quality of any of them.

3. Read it aloud

Finnegans Wake is primarily a phonetic work. In order to simulate a dreamlike state, Joyce employs language which while being recognizable as English, in fact is something entirely different. James Joyce lived in an age before electronic spellcheckers. While his prose reflects the semi-coherent beauty of a mumbling subconscious, it does not make for speedy comprehension. Throughout the book, Joyce will often write for the sake of writing itself- not to progress the story or to infer meaning, but rather to take pleasure in art of language and poetry. As such, much of the pleasure from this work will be derived from its many puns, rhymes and cadences. In a sense, it is music set to paper.

4. Relax

Some parts of the book will not make sense to you. It is wrong to suggest that Finnegans Wake is meaningless. On the contrary, it is a book with so many layers of meaning that each reading is as, if not more, rewarding than the last. All the same, as mentioned above, Joyce’s fondness for wordplay means that he will often sacrifice consistency and homogeneity for what is frankly a bit of fun. It is also important not to treat every line as great literature. Joyce’s contemporary, and pervious admirer of his work, Ezra Pound essentially described Finnegans Wake as “toilet humor”. Joyce is fond of lowbrow humor of the Jay and Silent Bob ilk. When he is not making references to Greek literature, or profound insights into the human psyche, he is often making fart jokes. Sometimes, he can do all three at once. Enjoy yourself.

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