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.
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.
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.