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.

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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…


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