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)