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What to Make of Finnegans Wake?

1.

Like many admirers of the work of James Joyce, I had imposed strict terms on that admiration, and around the work I had drawn a clear ambit, beyond which I was unprepared to stray. Ulysses and “The Dead”: crucial works, without which life was something seen through a sheet of wax paper, handled with gloves of thick batting, overheard through a drinking glass pressed to a wall. Between them those two works managed to say everything a pitying heart and a pitiless intellect could say about death and sex and love and literature, loss and desire, friendship and animosity, talk and silence, mourning and dread. Then there were “Araby,” “A Little Cloud,” and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” each a masterpiece, endlessly rereadable, from which I had learned so much about short stories and their deceptive power; one can learn a lot from all the stories in Dubliners, even the sketchier ones: about point of view and the construction of scene, about the myth of Charles Parnell and horse racing in Ireland, about the pain of grief and of missed chances.

chabon_1-071212.jpg
Gisèle Freund
James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1938

Beyond Dubliners there was the unlovable A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts well, charting bold, clear routes, like “Araby,” through the trackless waters of childhood, then fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics, and the Jesuitical cleverness that, even in Ulysses, wearies the most true-hearted lover of Joyce. A stamp in the passport, Portrait, a place I must visit without ever feeling it necessary to return, though I might want to wander out now and then to drop in on Joyce’s poetry, roughly contemporary with the first novel, those curious “pomes,” wearing their spats and dandyish nosegays, occasionally taking up a putative lute to croon promises of theoretical love to unconvincing maidens in the windows of canvas-flat donjons.

After that I came up against the safety perimeter, beyond which there lurked, hulking, chimerical, gibbering to itself in an outlandish tongue, a frightening beast out of legend.

2.

I got my first real glimpse of that beast in the Burger Chef restaurant that used to occupy the basement of the Cathedral of Learning, at the University of Pittsburgh, in my senior year, when a classmate in Josephine O’Brien Schaefer’s Ulysses seminar tossed a paperback copy across our table and dared me to open it to any page and make head or tail of what I found there. At that moment I was feeling surprisingly equal to the challenge. Under the captaincy of Professor Schaefer I had sailed undiscouraged between the wandering rocks of Ulysses, clear through the book’s later chapters, in which sense and intention lay in ambush and rained flaming arrows of rhetoric on us as we rowed madly past them. So it was with a traveled optimism that I accepted my friend’s throw-down that morning, opened the book to its first page, and wondered, as readers around the world have done since 1939, at the problem posed by its first sentence, with its beautiful first word. A word unprecedented, enigmatically uncapitalized, with a faintly Tolkienesque echo, to my nerdish ear, of Rivendell and Rohirrim.1 Indented and dangling, mid-page, mid-sentence, a sentence twisting like an inchworm from its filament:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle & Environs.

So: a river, running past Eden or some Eden analogue, swerving and bending as it made its way to Howth Castle and its surroundings, i.e., Dublin on the Liffey, a city whose geography I knew well enough by now to be able to recognize at once the name of Howth, the castle hill on whose slopes Leopold Bloom had proposed to Miss Marion Tweedy. Maybe, I considered—having played Mr. Antrobus, a modern Adam, in my high school’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth—in this book Joyce did for the story of Adam and Eve what Ulysses did for the Odyssey, transposing it to contemporary Dublin to ironize the indignities and intricacies of twentieth-century life and consciousness.

Clear enough—apart from that “commodius vicus of recirculation.” Of those four words I could manage only 50 percent comprehension, and one of my keepers was “of.” Obviously the water in the river was recirculating—history repeating itself?—but when it came to “commodius vicus” (adjective-noun? Latin phrase describing Dublin as a “vicious commode”?), I had nothing. The sentence seemed to have been smeared over at its center with a greasy thumbprint. “A commodius vicus of recirculation” meant nothing to me, and that central nothingness flowed, like Eve and Adam’s running river, across the sentence, obscuring the rest of it, throwing my tentative interpretation, no sooner had I formulated it, into doubt. That nullifying flow next overtopped the levee of the first period, swamping the following sentences, with their “penisolate war” and their doublin mumpers and their “mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick” before pooling, deep and murky, at the start of the third paragraph, where I encountered this:

bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnth
unntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!

Here, thanks to Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky, I found myself on moderately dry ground, since I knew, from having accompanied every movement of my bowels during the mid-1970s with selections from their People’s Almanacs and Books of Lists, that this was a contender for the longest word in the English language (but was it English?), and referred to the sound made by God’s thundering at the Fall of Man. My initial theory about “Eve and Adam’s” felt suddenly creditable. I was almost proud of myself, except that I had understood no more than 10 percent, if that, of the prose that preceded the famous thunderclap.

I pressed on a little farther, skipping across that running river on intermittent stepping-stones of sense. Allusions to the story of the Fall, I saw, glinted clear as gold through the turbulent babel of the novel’s first dozen pages. Sure, for the most part, the text looked like the moderately promising output of the proverbial infinite monkeys with infinite time on their hands, but the legend of the book’s impenetrability was obviously a hedge of thorns to snag the unworthy. I could hear the dreaming suspirations of the princess who lay sleeping in its keep.

Now, I know (along with everything else) that I am a know-it-all. I avoid contests of knowledge—word games, Trivial Pursuit, Celebrities—because they bring out an omnisapient swagger in me that I despise. I also try to steer clear of puzzles, because I have a tendency, in the solving of them, to lose perspective. There was a broken combination padlock lying on a coffee table at a party I attended not long ago; though my hosts knew the correct combination, the lock refused to open. At this party—or so I was afterward informed—one might have enjoyed excellent hors d’oeuvres, premium alcoholic beverages, the company of witty and attractive human beings. I spent the whole time wedged into a corner of the couch, fiddling with that lock.2 That morning in the Burger Chef, I could hear the book calling to me, whispering like the sword Stormbringer seducing Elric, promising that if I were to lose myself in it I would become—in the phrase leveled at Joyce by his ever-skeptical brother, Stanislaus—“a super-clever superman.”

I refused the call, and closed the book, choosing not to brandish the paltry granules of sense I had so far managed to pan.

“Crazy,” I said, agreeing with my classmate’s assessment.

“It’s supposed to be this guy who’s dreaming,” he informed me. “The book is one whole night, like Ulysses is one whole day.”

This information sealed the matter. I had already experienced, in those first moments of my encounter with Finnegans Wake, the most reliably dreamlike of its effects: the tantalizing way it both hints at meaning—deep, important meaning—and mocks it. Dreams are the Sea-Monkeys of consciousness; in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust. At the breakfast table in my house, an inflexible law compels all recountings of dreams to be compressed into a sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasing of epic films listed in TV Guide: “Rogue samurai saves peasant village.”

I handed back the book to him. “I hate dreams,” I said.

3.

Twenty-five years passed. At times the book would wash up on the beach of my life and I would hear the bottled voice of its djinn, promising everlasting bliss to puzzle hermits, inexhaustible cred to know-it-alls. I always forebore. In the meantime I fought my way, in some cases more than once, through many other famously daunting tomes—Proust’s, Perec’s, Pynchon’s—and thereby derived release from life’s more intractable padlocks, and a pleasurable, quietly cherished boost to my know-it-all amour propre.

Then, in the spring of 2010, I made my second complete ascent of Ulysses, and came down hopelessly in love. Reading it at twenty, I had identified with Stephen Dedalus, a grave mistake. Stephen Dedalus is a pill. Doubtless I was kind of a pill myself at twenty, but that didn’t make Stephen any more appealing even then. Still, watching Stephen stumble off into the Dublin night at the novel’s end, one imagined him carrying on to fulfill his glorious destiny as the fictional stand-in for James Joyce, Great Writer; and in those days it was easy enough to imagine all kinds of parallel literary destinies for oneself, lying out there beyond the nighttown of Pittsburgh, PA.

Leopold Bloom was only an old dude, to me, that first time through; charming, touching, good-hearted, but old: a failure, a fool, a cuckold, crapping in an outhouse, masturbating into his pants pocket. His uxoriousness was beyond my understanding, as was his apparent willingness to endure humiliation. His lingering sorrow over the death of his infant son meant, I am ashamed to admit, very little to me at all. When I read Ulysses again I was shocked to find that, first, I was now mysteriously a decade older than Leopold Bloom, and second, that the tale of his stings and losses, his regrets and imaginings, was as familiar to me as the sour morning taste of my own mouth. Where a bachelor had seen Bloom’s devotion to Molly as pathetic, a husband saw it as noble and, at the same time, as simply her due. In Bloom’s retention, into middle age, of his child-sharp powers of observation, his fresh eye (and ear, and nose) for nuance and telling detail; in his having managed to sustain his curiosity about the people and the world around him after thirty-eight years of familiarity and routine that ought to have dulled and dampened it; and above all in the abiding capacity for empathy, for moral imagination, that is the fruit of an observant curiosity like Bloom’s, I found, as if codified, a personal definition of heroism.

Ulysses struck me, most of all, as a book of life; every sentence, even those that laid bare the doubt, despair, shame, or vanity of its characters, seemed to have been calibrated to assert, in keeping with the project of the work as a whole, the singularity and worth of even the most humdrum and throwaway of human days. I had just begun it when news came of the death, from cancer, of my best friend’s teenage daughter, and over the week that followed I found myself reaching gratefully into the book’s pages, tucking my cold hands into its pockets for comfort and warmth. It was a lighted house in a dark night.

When I reached the last page I immediately turned to the first to read it all over again, and then I made my way back through the stories, the first novel, the poems, unwilling to relinquish the company of Joyce. I read the letters and the Ellmann biography, and checked out the lone play, Exiles, even though I hate reading plays almost as much as I hate listening to recitations of other people’s dreams.

After that there was nothing for it: the bottle must, at last, be unstoppered, the safety perimeter breached.

  1. 1

    George R.R. Martin must have felt the same way—it shows up as a place name in his A Song of Ice and Fire saga. 

  2. 2

    I got it open. 

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