Skip to content
Advertisements

Finnegans Wake: A Literary Practical Joke?

Sometimes I think James Joyce is the early 20th Century version of Ashton Kutcher. I think he punked us.

I imagine him sitting at a table in a café and thinking, They love me. Anything I write is gold. So how can I screw with ‘em this time around? Then he wrote Finnegan’s Wake–his last novel.

In my opinion, Finnegan’s Wake is the biggest practical joke in the history of literature. It’s like painting a red line on a blue background, framing it, and hanging it in a gallery at The Louvre. Art patrons enter the gallery and, with furrowed brows, they tilt their heads and stare at the painting for minutes at a time. “Ah yes, indeed. I do see what he is trying to say with this red line.”

When it comes to Finnegan’s Wake, critics can’t even agree on a central cast of characters or a plot. The book is gibberish. Literally.

Don’t believe me? Here’s how it opens. No, really, this is really how it opens:

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 and Environs.

But, don’t despair, the story really finds its stride later in the novel, here’s a random quote I pulled from page 233:

I have met with you, bird, too late, or if not, too worm and early: and with tag for ildiot in his secondmouth language as many of the bigtimer’s verbaten words which he could balbly call to memory that same kveldeve, ere teh hour of the twattering of bards in the twitterlitter between Druidia and the Deepsleep Sea, when suppertide and souvenir to Charlatan Mall jointly kem gently along the quiet darkenings of Grand and Royal, ff, flitmansfluh, and, kk, ‘t crept i’ hedge whenas to many a softongue’s pawkytalk mude unswer u sufter poghyogh…..

Did he just say twitterlitter? There really aren’t any typos in the preceding paragraph. That’s exactly as it appears in the book.

Finally, I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for you, but the last sentence of Finnegan’s Wake is:

A way a lone a last a loved a long the.

I think, with Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce just decide to flip us all the bird. “See if you can figure this out!” he said, as he threw darts at letters to create new words that mean absolutely nothing. He probably laughed at book critics and literature professors who spent hours slaving over a text that might as well have been written by one of Shakespeare’s monkeys.

But author Hervey Cleckley wasn’t stupid. He knew what was up with Finnegan’s Wake. He said:

It’s a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital.

Oh snap! You set ‘em straight, Herv. James Joyce ain’t gonna punk us, even if he did pull one on The Modern Library, who somehow managed to rank Finnegan’s Wake as the 77th best novel of the 20th century (Ulysses was first).

But at least this novel didn’t fool our buddies with Time Magazine, who left it off their list. It didn’t fool Vladamir Nabokov either. He called the novel “horrible.”

I find it difficult to believe that a critic can give such high praise to a novel if he can’t even tell you what the book is about.

Again, James Joyce totally punked us all. If you haven’t had a enough, you can listen to a statue of James Joyce’s head reading from Finnegan’s Wake in the video below.

Am I wrong? Am I missing something about Finnegans Wake?

101 Books is now on Facebook. Connect with me and other blog readers here!

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Advertisements
50 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hannah #

    Yikes! I thought Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt was a gibberish-filled practical joke when I read it as an undergrad, but looking back it wasn’t half as bad as Finnegan’s Wake seems. Watt actually has a defined central character and (kind of) a plot.

    Like

    February 15, 2012
    • I’m guessing that might be a walk in the park compared to this one.

      Like

      February 15, 2012
    • Roderick Beck #

      Hannah,

      It is not gibberish. It is laden with puns and very tightly tied together.

      And yes, Finnegans Wake does have a central character.

      Liked by 2 people

      July 11, 2012
  2. This is just making me anxious. I have plans to read Ulysses at some point in the not to distant future from all the references and comparisons to the books I love, but reading about Finnegan’s Wake just makes me wonder if I’ll have a chance of understanding any of his works. Worth a shot though.

    Like

    February 15, 2012
    • I’ve read Ulysses, and it’s more readable than Finnegan’s Wake. But, still, it’s a tough, tough book to read.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 15, 2012
    • Jon Grandstaff #

      Check out Joseph Campbell’s( Hero with 1,000 Faces) first book The Skelton Key to Finnegans Wake. Also Robert Anton Wilson’s commentaries on Finnegans Wake. There are tons to fond quite easily. Then reread the excerpt from the article OUTLOUD without trying to pronounce it exactly speaking normal speed and you’ll hear it.
      “Twattering of the bards in the twitterlitter”
      Tweeting of the birds in the twilight
      Joyce didn’t spend 18 years writing a joke. It’s unbelievably intricate and deep I feel the 8 years I’ve spent reading about it and trying to decipher it as I read is merely a start.

      Oh that last sentence is a fragment. The rest of it is the first sentence ” riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of….”  The central characters are HCE and his wife APB their sons Shim and Sham and their daughter.
      Enjoy. This is Carroll’s rabbit hole indeed.

      Liked by 2 people

      December 23, 2015
  3. The idea that “Finnegans Wake” is a practical joke is one that’s been floating around since its publication. On the surface it seems plausible, but Joyce himself never gave any indication that this was so. Even after he died, his widow said that he had often told her that “Finnegans Wake” was “the important book”. She also said that he had emphasized that the meaning of the words was not as important as the SOUND of them. He wanted to do with words what Nature does with running streams, crashing waves, etc, which is why some readers insist that “The Wake” is best when read out loud..

    It may help to know that “Finnegans Wake” is written in the style of a dream, and as such it is written in a sort of nighttime dream language where every word may be interpreted in several different ways (a word like “penisolate”, for instance, may be “pen isolate,” “pen is so late”, “penis isolate”, “pina soleil”, or even “peninsula”). Some see it as a counterpart to “Ulysses” which mostly takes place during the day.) Joyce was fascinated that human beings spend such a significant amount of their lives in a state of unconsciousness and wanted to explore that part of our existence. Ever wake up from a dream and say, “Whoa. What was THAT about?” but then start to decipher certain things that happened? “Finnegans Wake” is like that.

    I’m no scholar on the subject, and I won’t claim to be well-versed in the book’s in and outs – just saying, for what it’s worth, that it may be better to view it as a game, puzzle, or riddle than a joke. That’s my $.02. Now, as I step off my soapbox, please allow me to direct your attention to “Do Not Collect $200” — a short play written by yours truly, and which features James Joyce as one of its main characters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDN1aiKZzII

    Great post as always, by the way. Where did the video with the talking statue come from?

    Liked by 2 people

    February 15, 2012
    • Great info. All of that tells me that Finnegan’s takes entirely too much work to read. I think I’d rather read Infinite Jest backwards.

      I just found the video on YouTube last night. Not sure it’s origins, but thought it was pretty funny.

      Like

      February 15, 2012
    • I liked the video, too. Thanks for sharing it!

      I saw the video Finnegan’s Wake many years ago. The action took place at an Irish wake (of course). It was very dream-like in the way that a dream can be chaotic. The nonsense words almost made sense in that context.

      Like

      February 15, 2012
  4. Seems as plausible as any other explanation for a book that most readers either avoid or only pretend to understand. I am one of the avoiders, and I have no plans to EVER tackle it. 🙂

    Like

    February 15, 2012
  5. Oof, I can’t believe you’re really reading this one…I mean, ARE YOU? I figure, if even Nabokov has dismissed the thing, I can safely dismiss it from my to-read list. Ulysses, I may still have to try one day…but Finnegan’s Wake, never.

    Like

    February 15, 2012
    • No way! It’s not on the Time list, thankfully. I’m reading Ulysses as my last book, even though it’s not on the list either.

      Like

      February 15, 2012
  6. I suspect your posting the incorrect title of the book indicates that you haven’t read the book yourself. Finnegan’s Wake is the poem: Finnegans Wake is the novel. Seventeen years of writing, and a blind man to boot: sounds like a practical joke to me.

    Of interest, I read a critic this last week who had a very convincing argument that Nabokov was an overrated hack writer. I totally disagree with this critic but it goes to show you that even literary people don’t have the same responses to literature. Still, several modern schools of literary criticism suggest that understanding and interpreting a novel is as much, if not more, the responsibility of the reader than it is the writer.

    I defer to Raymond Federman who posited that “… literature (or what passes for literature on the best-seller lists) remains all too often an inconsequential network of illusions that perpetrates an obsolete vision of the world.” In the case of Finnegans Wake, the literature goes far beyond the mundane, definitely does not rely on an obsolete vision and challenges to reader to think. Besides that, it’s a lot of fun.

    Try reading it.

    (Of course, Beckett being Joyce’s secretary might have a lot to do with Beckett’s own writing: Two of the greatest writers of the century.)

    Liked by 2 people

    February 15, 2012
    • Mike!

      Where have you been?

      Yeah I haven’t read FINNEGANS WAKE, nor do I intend to. Sorry. I’ve read Portrait and Ulysses (and will be reading it again), and that’s plenty of Joyce for me.

      I’ll trust you when you say it’s a “fun” novel. But I still think Joyce was pulling one on us.

      Liked by 2 people

      February 15, 2012
      • Roderick Beck #

        Robert,

        Frankly your position is silly. You really want us to believe that James Joyce spent the last part of his life on a practical joke? Despite your claims to the contrary, Finnegans Wake is a towering achievement of modern literature and has a complex and tightly woven structure.

        Like

        July 11, 2012
        • Jason #

          Oh god, this is the same thing as Jackson Pollock’s paintings.
          “It’s a ‘towering achievement’ of art, it really touches your soul!”
          Yeah, right. All I see in here is complete gibberish. Anyone trying to make sense of that gibberish is speaking more gibberish. If anything, the only thing that makes me interested are the people who spend their lives trying to interpret this book. Really goes to show how humans have this drive to make sense out of nonsense.

          Like

          September 25, 2015
        • Zoltan #

          You, sir, are worthless and uninteresting.

          Balders walk secondfunk gdhjdhjddh the anguis leapt up the flooty asp were Cleopatra. Noblesse oblige as the monachum of riverspleen chanted vesper. A fool ototototototototototototott splash pavement all over his thimbleworth of dogsbody.

          Now then, I suppose that’s the sort of tripe you like to marvel at. Kindly write out a cheque for me – I spent 12 years composing that paragraph. Heh.

          Like

          November 28, 2015
          • There is really no reason to debate the artistic merits of Finnegans Wake. Perhaps we can leave it with the understanding that the Wake is less a novel than it is a test of the reader’s ability to think critically and to demonstrate the vast differences between the abilities of many people to read difficult books. After all, why read James Joyce when you could be much more productive reading Stephen King.

            Like

            November 28, 2015
        • Yoshi #

          Roderick, please explain, as you have written, how, “Finnegans Wake is a towering achievement of modern literature….” Please help me understand why some consider it so superlatively. I admit to ignorance of its merits.

          Like

          August 24, 2016
    • Incorrect title? James Joyce’s grandson has lectured people like who who think the correct title is Finnegan’s Wake. There is no apostrophe in the title. The correct title is what Robert posted—Finnegans Wake, not Finnegan’s Wake.

      Like

      March 4, 2015
      • I stand corrected. I should have read that post more thoroughly before I responded.

        Like

        March 4, 2015
  7. Just now trying to penetrate Ulysses, and similar thoughts have crossed my mind!

    Like

    February 15, 2012
  8. Hahaha! I loved the image of James Joyce as Ashton Kutcher! Thanks for writing this, secretly James Joyce had always kind of pissed me off.

    Like

    February 15, 2012
  9. It seems that one terminated age of the point of fire the writer. Even finally he disappointed his dream not come true. Finnegan wake again but his dream didn’t come true. It made readers think about himself what about the meaning of their lives. Poor modern men are still under the wave of the thought with no effort and action for every new day…

    Like

    February 15, 2012
  10. Patti #

    I bought Finnegan’s Wake when I was in college – trying to beef up my reading of “classics” – I knew it was famous, so I started it. I’m glad you just came out and called it a practical joke – though I don’t think there’s too much that is practical about it.

    Like

    February 16, 2012
  11. Easily the worst “book” I’ve ever read.

    You know that theory that says a thousand monkeys typing on typewriters for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare? Well, Finnegan’s Wake was what they produced in the first couple of days.

    No other theory explains it.

    -rm

    Like

    February 16, 2012
  12. Bill #

    I am in the process of reading this amazing book now with a small group. It will take a number of years, The book clearly has a cast of characters, and even a couple of central characters. And there is a plot as well — it’s just not your mother’s plot. Here’s a link to a very useful synopsis. By the way, it’s the funniest book I’ve ever read as well — so your joke conceit isn’t completely off the mark. Only not in the way you intend.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 20, 2012
  13. Shem the Penman #

    Got a few issues there, Robert?

    Here I was thinking that James Joyce was a comic genius, creating demanding works of literary art. How odd to learn he was actually an arrogant prick who spent seventeen years of his life mounting a hoax to, um, embarrass his following or something. I’m surprised to hear that Finnegans Wake, the book that has fascinated and amused me with its vast wit, originality, and erudition for years, is actually literal gibberish. By implication, I must be one of the shallow poseurs in the Joyce cult who deserve to be taken down a notch by an intrepid soul such as yourself who dares to say that the emperor has no clothes.

    Wait a minute, though. Isn’t the adoration for Finnegans Wake limited to a very small audience of academics and weird-fiction fans like me? Isn’t just about everyone else on Earth unanimous in the opinion that the work isn’t worth the trouble, at best a “bad joke” or a “failed experiment”? So why do you congratulate yourself for yanking a passage out of context, ridiculing its evident difficulty, and pretending you’re bravely challenging the majority opinion?

    Talk about an inferiority complex.

    It’s funny you should mention Infinite Jest (which I also loved) in your hatchet job, because I see a lot of parallels between the Jest and the Wake. Both are supremely self-indulgent novels, embarrassments of comic riches that somehow add up to less than the sum of their parts. I wish both authors had written books people would actually read instead of monuments to difficulty that people feel no qualms about critiquing without having read. I think what you said in your Infinite Jest review applies to the Wake too: love it or hate it, it’s a reading experience like no other.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 6, 2012
    • Hey Shem. Welcome to the blog. You must be new because you’re taking me way too seriously. Hang around long enough if you’ll realize that I make up 90% of the stuff I say. Did I actually say I liked Infinite Jest? I thought I hated that book.

      Anyway, since you’ve got Finnegan’s Wake down, can you explain this for me: What’s the book about?

      Like

      March 6, 2012
      • Shem the Penman #

        Robert,

        What I meant is that I loved Infinite Jest as well as Finnegans Wake. Since I guess no one is supposed to take what you say at face value, I’ll assume the perceptive things you said about Jest were all just kooky blogger hoaxery. Thanks for sorting that out.

        Hey, it’s your blog, amigo, you’re free to post silly things about Finnegans Wake if you want. It’s not like you’re the first person to revile the novel without having put in any effort to read it. You’re not even the first person to dismiss it as literal gibberish without knowing enough about it to spell the title correctly. The fact that you went to such effort to track down bad reviews of the book and copy and paste snippets of this vast work yanked completely out of context makes it a little hard for me to believe that you’re humble and open-minded about the novel.

        This is a very experimental work on a lot of levels, and you’re surprised that readers have differing opinions concerning what it’s about? (Do you also write nasty blog posts about how Jackson Pollock paintings don’t have enough big-eyed puppies?) This is a story about stories themselves, the rise and fall of humanity as told through the myths, ballads, rumors, texts, and jokes that humans concoct to make sense of it all. Admittedly, it’s not easy reading, and if the effort involved is too much for you, you’re not alone by a long shot. But dismissing it all as an arrogant hoax is too petty for words, even weird Joycean words.

        Shem

        Liked by 1 person

        March 7, 2012
      • I love writing nasty posts about Jackson Pollock. In some circles, I’m considered an anti-Pollockite. So you must have missed my post about Jackson Pollock and the puppies. I love the way the light reflects off their eyelids.

        So, in your long answer, I found one sentence that answers my question as to what Finnegan’s Wake is about. You said it’s a story about stories. That clears things up.

        Like

        March 7, 2012
  14. Shem the Penman #

    Robert,

    Well, you asked, amigo. I don’t know why you should expect anyone to be able to summarize a vast experimental work like Finnegans Wake just so you can play your little rhetorical shell game, but I guess I was wrong to assume you really wanted an answer.

    Are you still being not-so-serious, or have you switched to disingenuous? With you self-infatuated blogger rebels, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Hey! Don’t take me so seriously. This is the internet! Where’s your sense of humor?

    Shem

    Like

    March 7, 2012
    • Recall Portrait: “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

      Even if Stephen was a bit of a prick, you add a little Alice to the alloy and you you’re off to the Wake.

      Liked by 1 person

      March 7, 2012
  15. T.B. #

    “Finnegans Wake” is a novel, like any other — except that it’s written . . . differently. It has all the elements of a novel; characters, plot, etc., etc., etc. (No, I’m not lying.) I realize that Joyce is not for everyone. Only a fool would disagree. But after reading his works for the past 32 years, I’m just beginning to get a grip on things. It takes work; you need to read a little Joyce scholarship before during and after reading “Finnegans Wake,” which is a “comic novel,” not a practical joke. But don’t feel bad; upon its publication, the book puzzled and enraged all of the “great literary minds” of his time. And how wrong was the original book review in The New York Times! Try googling that one for a laugh. I mean really, people, what were we supposed to do, tell Joyce that he should not express himself to his limit? Perhaps Joyce’s influence lies in media other than literature; look around: it’s all Joyce.

    Like

    November 28, 2012
  16. I’m halfway through the book at the moment…and I’m certainly not backing it up with any “Joyce scholarships” along the way. It’s taking me long enough as it is!

    Now…apparently there is a plot…but I certainly don’t see it. But I love the book as much as it confuses the shit out of me. The puns, rhymes and alliteration throughout is superb. And his use of “dialect” with irish, Dublin, Scottish, German/polish and Scandinavian. It’s just that as quick as I laugh about something, I’m confused again as to what the feck he’s going on about. I get the history in his stories, some of the politicizing etc…but then I’m not sure if he’s writing latin, spanish or just made up words (and not even a pun)…

    I’m not sure why I chose this as my first Joyce book, but Ulysses and Dubliners is next!

    Like

    February 1, 2013
  17. wait…are you saying it’s *not* about tim finnegan, a gentle irishman mighty odd, with a beautiful brogue both rich & sweet to rise in the world he’d carry a hod?

    it must be a joke then.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 24, 2014
  18. Moton #

    Finnegan’s Wake is NOT a novel because it doesn’t have the structure of a novel. Moreover, the book is self-consciously intellectual, combining roots of various words to create neologisms, phonemic spellings, puns on homonyms, and when all else fails, writes a number of words backwards. In short, Joyce created an idiolectic language, much as a young child babbles to learns his language.

    Joyce himself remarked that it was a novel (sic) for insomniacs. Just as Joyce used the stream of consciousness in Ulysses, which was first used in a few French novels, he wrote another experimental book, Finnegan’s Wake. This book was based on an Italian historian’s view that history was cyclical. So, we find that Vic’s erroneous view of history is captured in Joyce’s book. In fact, Finnegan’s Wake is really, the Wake of Finn Again, a point Joyce makes in the first several pages.

    Like most avant-garde art, there is always a coterie that hails the innovation as a success because it is a new direction. In point of fact, neither Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake were successful as a new direction because these books were never used as a template by other writers. That is, the techniques were idiosyncratic, which gained both books.celebrity and guaranteed both books a place in the pantheon of literature because of their oddity. But fell far short of creating a new way of writing books.

    In short, one can sum up the reading experience involved in Finnegan’s Wake, namely, reading the book is not worth the effort!

    Like

    December 21, 2014
    • It’s difficult to accept the opinion of someone who doesn’t even spell the title of the novel correctly.

      Like

      December 22, 2014
  19. James #

    I’ve just begun to read “the book” – it’s like being deluged, drowned in, showered with words. It’s amazing. I don’t have the words for it. Reading about it does nothing to prepare one for reading the book itself. It’s intoxicating. I can scarcely wait to read “Ulysses” as well. I wish I’d read both books years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 3, 2015
  20. en #

    Quick note: The first word of the book is uncapitalized because it’s a continuation of the last sentence of the book that seems to just end with the word “the.”

    So it reads. “A way a lone a last a loved a long the 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 and Environs.” Making it a closed loop, a book with no end.

    When I first heard of the Wake I thought it was a joke. But after reading A Portrait of the Artist as a young man and Ulysses and reading about Joyce, I’ve concluded that it’s probably not the case for a few reasons.

    Joyce spent 17 years writing FW. 17 years is an awful long time for someone to spend on a joke when they’ve already created great works of fiction. Such an attempt to destroy his reputation makes no sense. His eyesight was also failing while he was writing it he was already mostly blind in one eye. If that were me I’d want to spend my time creating something that I believed in, not just an alleged middle finger to the masses before I’d have to orate my new works to literary helpers.

    Joyce also allegedly didn’t write a single line of prose for an entire year after the completion of Ulysses. I reckon that he felt he’d exhausted the limits of language and wanted to make something new entirely. All that said I’m not going to heap praise on FW just because it’s impenetrable. Joyce also had syphilis during the writing of FW some say it destroyed his brain and FW is the result of that but who knows.

    I found a complete guide to the book.
    http://www.finwake.com/

    From reading through some of this it appears to be a monolithic puzzlebox. So the question becomes is it worth unlocking, or can it be unlocked?

    Like

    August 29, 2015
    • Kody Mileski #

      I 100% agree with you and I think this is the greatest book ever written.

      Like

      October 20, 2016
  21. Comic

    Like

    November 30, 2015
  22. James Milliken #

    I agree. I’m no well-read critic, but I know a load of old bollocks when I see it and the wake ranks as the number one in the list of old bollocks of literature. I will never, ever be convinced that this book is nothing more than a joke; two fingers to the fawning. Well done, Mr Joyce! But you can’t fool me!

    Like

    July 15, 2016
  23. Kody Mileski #

    Every sentence, every word, in this book has meaning to Joyce and can be defined. It took him 17 years of his life, the last 17 years, to write this brilliance you call a practical joke and it’s the people who open up books to one page read it and judge it write away who aren’t smart enough or open enough to give it a chance and maybe do some research. I can’t imagine Joyce sitting at a coffee table for 17 years thinking screw you here’s a load of crap I made last night. The book has a plot, it’s about a family of four falling asleep at night and dreaming about random things via this inventive language created by Joyce which is actually a large combination of every language which means there was thought behind that too. So just because you were to lazy to get past the first paragraph doesn’t mean this book doesn’t make any sense and in my opinion this is the best example of literature and one of the greatest pieces of art ever created

    Like

    October 20, 2016
  24. Charles #

    Yes, Kody’s right. And even the passages you quote are not babble at all. Plus you fail to notice that that first partial sentence is actually a continuation of the partial sentence at the end of the book, leading to a circularity of writing/history/thinking that is part of what the book enacts.Also, remember that there’s no apostrophe in Finnegans Wake. It’s a book to enjoy, page by page, syllable by syllable. Sound it. Hear it.

    Like

    June 18, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Your Search Questions Answered, Volume 9 | 101 Books
  2. How To Know If You’re A Book Snob | 101 Books
  3. The Illustrated Finnegan’s Wake | 101 Books
  4. #3 In 2012 | 101 Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: