October 27th, 1934
FROM THE ARCHIVES:An anonymous reviewer was conflicted by the latest section of James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” (Finnegans Wake) to be published by The Servire Press in The Hague in 1934. – JOE JOYCE
‘We are circumveiloped by obscuritads,” says Mr. James Joyce in the course of his latest instalment of “Work in Progress”, and few will be found to disagree with him.
It is very easy to make fun of Mr. Joyce; almost too easy, in fact. The intellectual world is fairly sharply divided into those who laugh at his latest style and those who look on these amazing experiments in language with profound reverence. The latter position is the more difficult to hold; for Work in Progress is as nearly incomprehensible as anything in print can be. Consequently, it has few friends outside that devoted group which will admire anything so long as it is new and strange.
If Work in Progress were Joyce’s only effort, it would be easy to dismiss him as a charlatan or an oddity. There are many people, however (the present reviewer included) who have read his earlier work with admiration, and are unwilling to believe readily that such a man, in whom the marks of greatness could so clearly be seen, should now be writing things that are quite eccentric and meaningless.
The one argument that most of us can use against Work in Progress is that we do not understand it; we are totally incapable of seeing what it is about or even (except to a small degree) of appreciating the lines on which the author is producing it. Several critics, it is true, have claimed that they know; but the fact that all the explanations seem to differ is a hint that the solution has not been reached yet.
Sometimes one is tempted to ask whether the solution will be worth finding; but we should not dismiss Work in Progress too hastily, nonsensical as it seems to be at first sight. In one respect, certainly, we can see that the method which began in Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, and developed in Ulysses, is being carried on here in a perfectly regular and logical way. Few writers have been so literally obsessed by the magic of words as Joyce, and every fresh book he has written has shown him still further under the obsession. The mere music of words is one aspect; but another is their manipulation. He always was a master in the art of closely-packed sentences – sentences that carry almost more meaning than the words can bear. We may guess, therefore, that he has found everyday language incapable to bear the meanings and allusions with which he would like to fill it, and that he has decided to mould language to his own ends.
The oddities in Work in Progress are a result of this moulding. What Lewis Carroll did in fun with his “portmanteau words” Joyce is doing in earnest – combining one word with another in order to convey two or more meanings at once. [Joyce] employs just the same method as Carroll did when he combined “chuckling” and “snorting” into “chortling”, or “babbling” and “gurgling” into “burbling”.