Editor’s choice: Sixteen Years Work by James Joyce
From the archive: First review of Finnegans Wake from 1939 – New Novel is “Endlessly Exciting in its Impenetrability”
Ken Monaghan (left), nephew of James Joyce and cultural director of the James Joyce Centre, with Bob Joyce, grand-nephew of the author and and chief executive of the centre, sit in the chairs and at the table used by Joyce to write Finnegans Wake in the apartment of Paul Leopold Leon in Paris. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
First published: Saturday, June 3rd, 1939
Finnegans Wake, By James Joyce.
London: Faber and Faber. 25/- net.
The writing of “Finnegans Wake” took sixteen years, short enough, perhaps, beside the stretch of time that could be spent in trying to understand it. For it must be said at once that this way, at least, Mr Joyce gives full measure to the reader. Nothing moves, or appears, or is said as ever before in any book. It is endlessly exciting in its impenetrability. Beside it even his own “Ulysses” is simplicity itself. Around that work a vast and still uncompleted literature of explanation has grown up, which has made its author a legend that even “Finnegans Wake” may not diminish. He will continue to enjoy his sheltered existence in the region of the unknown; for the attempts to explain “Finnegan,” which are sure to come, are likely to do nothing more than add to the mystery of Mr Joyce.
The work is described as a novel, and, although in their essence all the stories of the world may be here, there is no single story that one can grasp. It may be a novel to end novels; for, if there is shape at all, it is the shape of a superb annihilation– as of some gigantic thing let loose to destroy what we had come to regard as a not unnecessary part of civilisation. One feels its power, the kind of gleaming genius behind it, but no communication of anything is achieved, perhaps simply because it is just not intended.
One way of attempting to give a sense of its indefinable quality would be to quote passages which seem, after much pondering of them, to have a meaning and some relation to a plan. But on second thoughts it became clear that this method would not help; for, although such passages would be part of the whole of the book, they would not be part of any whole that the book contains, since it is compact only of chaos and the shape of things all smashed and gone.
There are moments of beauty, the measured sounds of lyrical prose which beat upon the ear, but which do not come into the understanding, and always an airy gesture beyond the words which make it, as if Mr. Joyce had greatly enjoyed doing all this despite the torture of the sixteen years’ labour that it took. Yet pleasure never altogether reaches to the reader; he is faced with an actute bewilderment from the beginning, which is no beginning, to the end, which is no end.
The Convolutions of a Dream
And what of the middle portion of this work of art? There is no middle either. It passes in one night, and the significance of night is upon it. It is the endless folding and unfolding of a dream. It makes its own space in which to have unlimited freedom to complicate itself. It is something alive only in its sleep, and from it comes a muttering beneath hundreds of thousands of subconscious words. The life that can leap from a page is never here, but there is another king of energy, a fierce fluency which becomes a mockery of itself. There is the author’s curious erudition at work upon a vast vocabulary, beating words out of their accustomed shapes into a flux which envelopes the reader, who, used to other ways of writing, finds himself resenting this power to bewilder him.