How to read Finnegans Wake … in 17 years

It took Joyce 17 years to write the Wake. Liam Heneghan has a foolproof plan to read it just as fast

It won’t, I suppose, have escaped your notice that this past February marked the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s modernist classic Ulysses. By now, you’ll have re-shelved your well-grubbed copy of that novel and, having no doubt fully recovered from the exertions of the most recent Bloomsday, you may be feeling mildly bereft of the company of Joyce’s capacious though querulous mind.

Fortunately, this year marks another significant Joycean anniversary, and this, the other centenary event, presents an opportunity to re-engage with your favourite author, vexing though he may very well be. One hundred years ago, freed from the labours of creating, editing and then guiding Ulysses through its arduous publication process, Joyce turned his thoughts towards the production of Finnegans Wake. The Wake was not published in its entirety until 1939, 17 years later.

With 17 years to go before this epochal event, the goal of having the Wake read before then will hardly seem a pressing one. I understand this sentiment and yet I am encouraging you to start in on this work straightaway, as I don’t believe you have a minute to waste.

Like a topographic map, most works of art perform an act of compression. In Lewis Carroll’s final novel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), a character, Mein Herr, describes the existence of a map drawn on the scale of a mile to the mile. Hardly a practical stratagem since, when unfolded, the map blots out the sun. A map, we are often reminded, is not the territory it maps. The analogy of novel and map is not a perfect one and yet does not each author, like the cartographer, make decisions about scale, about resolution, about when to be punctilious, and when to pass over a landform in silence?


If the author is a type of cartographer and fiction is their map, what, then, are the landscapes corresponding to this novel-as-map? One obvious candidate is the terrain comprised of memories, dreams, and all those tatters and scraps of information from which the novel is assembled. As early as December 1922, Joyce was writing to his aunt in Dublin to help him retrieve details about certain “curious types” that Joyce had known in his childhood - particulars that would make their way into his new novel. He ruminated on the Book of Kells as a suitable model. Relevant anecdotes, historical incidents, biographical recollections, and nuggets from preparatory reading are assembled and, in the case of most novels at least, these are distilled into a synthetic and cogent narrative. Just how cogent is the Wake, of course, has been a matter of sharp debate, for this is a novel that seems to contain the world, albeit in a diffracted form.

When dictating a passage of the Wake to Sam Beckett, Joyce answered a knock on the door by calling out “Come in,” and upon discovering that his amanuensis had recorded this phrase in his notes, Joyce responded, “Let it stand.”

But the physiographic correlate of the novel is surely more than the amassed flotsam of the author’s life. It can also be thought of as corresponding to some unplumbable interior landscape exteriorized by the artist and assembled upon the page. The polyglottal map of the Wake is undoubtedly constituted from all the usual psychological chorography, as well as the erudite morsels, the psychological tics, and the caprices that caught Joyce’s attention. When dictating a passage of the Wake to Sam Beckett, Joyce answered a knock on the door by calling out “Come in,” and upon discovering that his amanuensis had recorded this phrase in his notes, Joyce responded, “Let it stand.”

For all of this, in at least one important sense the map of the Wake is the terrain; Joyce wanted to give us all of Dublin (that is, in Ulysses at least, he seeks “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth, it could be constructed out of my book”). But Joyce also wants to give us everyman in the form of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker - H.C.E., Here Comes Everyone - and his familial entourage. The scale of the Wake, in other words, is a mile to the mile. It might not just have been the professors that Joyce had in mind when he proclaimed that his writing would keep readers “busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”. Every student of the Wake must puzzle over Joyce’s enigmas.

Regardless of the strange topography over which the author has clambered to produce the book, surely, we readers - who, after all, have drudgeries of our own to contend with - can hardly be expected to repeat the writer’s pilgrimage. Yet this is exactly what Joyce seems to demand of us. If he has had run the turbulent gauntlet of the mind - and not just his mind, but the universal mind since the Wake aspires to a universal history - then we apparently must grapple across comparable hachures. In reading the Wake, we toil across a landscape, which, if not exactly identical to Joyce’s, is nonetheless just as arduous; it demands all of our intellectual resources.

All of the forgoing is preparatory to making a distinction between most other novels and the Wake. The act of compression involved in writing means that it is typically the case that a novel years or even decades in the making can be read in the haze of one perfumed summer afternoon, but this is certainly not the case with the Wake. The Wake is not a book to be dispatched in an afternoon, or even in a season. Seventeen years might just be enough.

The copy of Finnegans Wake that I primarily rely upon was a gift for my 27th birthday from my then young bride. A much-loved present to be sure; when the time comes, bury it in the midden alongside my carcass.

The copy of Finnegans Wake that I primarily rely upon was a gift for my 27th birthday from my then young bride. A much-loved present to be sure; when the time comes, bury it in the midden alongside my carcass. Although this gift of the Wake remains a delight (and I’m assuming it wasn’t given ironically), inarguably it has condemned me to mild servitude. My love has watched me grow old grappling with the largesse of this, her most thoughtful present.

And so, here we are 32 years later. I have – let me insist on this point - long been intimately familiar with Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Even Ulysses, a novel as dense as a modern metropolis, is now comfortably lucid to me. Rereading the early work evokes in me a nostalgic quiver for Dublin (one hesitates to make the comparison, but like Joyce, I too am self-exiled from that city), and each re-immersion in Joyce’s fiction yields up new pleasures and meaning: I anticipate my favourite parts.

Can I declare that I have accomplished a comparably penetrating reading of the Wake? Well, no. My eyes have surely visited every page of the Wake and many sections are familiar ground, and yet others, despite glimmers of familiarity, take me somewhat off-guard. It’s as if I’m meeting an old college friend, one with whom in youth I’ve shared long convivial hours and yet we stare at each other before one of us says, “Remind me….?”

In recent years, however, I have been on increasingly more cordial terms with the novel. I’ve exerted myself mightily. I have re-engaged the Wake with the vigour of a man half my age (that is, the age I was when, in fact, I had not exerted myself). It requires great tenacity and the correct technique. I had read somewhere that it’s helpful to bind the pages that lie ahead: this disinclines the reader from leaving a page before at least some of the meat has been extracted. (The source I’d consulted on this point suggested the use of twine; however, my beloved had a nice chartreuse ribbon on hand for the task). Slow, amiable, progress is being made. I am on track to finish this iteration of the reading by Christmastime, 2022. An immediate return to the beginning in 2023 - and there is no book better designed for immediate resumption that the Wake - will surely result in an even swifter passage through the book. By 2024 - that is, 34 years after I started - I will have the knowledge of the Wake equalling that of at least any middling scholar.

If your goal is read the Wake before its centenary - and why should this not be an aspiration - you, however do not have 34 years at your disposal. You have half that. In what follows, I am going to instruct you on how to read the Wake in the 17 years remaining to you. My advice consists, basically, of coaching you on how to accelerate your pace over mine by a factor of two.

In a phase that I call Romancing the Wake, the gift has been received, or you’ve purchased a copy. (I advise against borrowing it from the library, since, if you are employing my system, you will need to renew it an inconvenient 295 times to complete it.) In the romance phase, you will be impressed by the beauty -exotic and of cosmopolitan bearing - of your new companion. You are proud to be seen about town with it; you leave it on partial display - for example, discreetly under a single beer mat - when you’re pinting in the city centre. You’ll rustle through the pages while you down a coffee, en plein air, in Merrion Square. A frisson of joy ascends reliably as your eyes glide over its cryptic pages. And if towards the end of this flirtatious period you begin to hanker for less demanding entertainment, nonetheless, when, in the presence of the Wake, you scroll through your Instagram feed you’ll feel ineffably guilty. This period will last for no more than a year or so.

The Wooing of the Wake - a phase that, once again, endures for a year or two - is exquisitely tender and solicitous. You’ll delve into the delicate interstices of the work: marvel at the how beginning and end flow one into the other; learn to pronounce the first of the 10 thunderwords - it will become your party piece; you’ll attend to your dreams, hunting for parallels; you will revel in the Anna Livia Plurabelle poem (and will have opinions on Joyce’s 1929 recording of it). You will then attempt, unsuccessfully, to memorize parts of the Anna Livia Plurabelle poem. No matter, you will still have the thunderword, or at least the gist of it. Most likely, you’ll glance at the Wikipedia pages of Giambattista Vico and Giordano Bruno. You’ll convince yourself that this has been helpful. When friends proclaim you as “our very own Joycean” - do you detect a hint of concern in their enquiries? (This is scorn you’re detecting not concern… but never mind) - you’ll reply, “I am certainly no expert… but, yes, I do dabble in Finnegans Wake”. This two-year interlude ends with you successfully punching through to the end of chapter one. Riffling through the unread pages, and contemplating the previous, already only fractionally remembered, pages, will give you a pit in the stomach.

The years will pass swiftly now. The Wake - unread for six months, then a year - will seem to peer down at you from its accustomed perch on the bookshelf. And yet you won’t unshelf it. You’ve begun to Fear and Loathe the Wake - the novel arouses an anxiety that you can’t quite put a finger on. You realize that this world is in its essence unknowable; those parts to which we have access are incoherent; the world lacks structure. It’s been five years since you started the Wake. Your beloved will inform you that she doesn’t really know you anymore.

What follows are several years of crisis. During the Wake Crisis you will seek out opinions concerning your estranged literary companion. Since nobody that you know has attempted to engage seriously with the Wake, you will turn to written sources, reading about Joyce, rather than simply reading Joyce. You begin to doubt the assessment of Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer, who presents the author as undoubtedly truculent but largely in a pleasing light. You’ll nod in affirmation on hearing the skepticism of Joyce’s contemporaries about the project: Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s patron was dubious; Ezra Pound, HG Wells, and Wyndham Lewis: all initially hostile to this work; Stanislaus Joyce, his brother, called it “drivelling rigmarole”; Oliver St. John Gogarty, Joyce’s frenemy, proclaimed it “a colossal hoax.”

You cheer on dismissive early critics like Richard Aldington who wrote that he had “no intention of wasting one more minute of precious life over Mr. Joyce’s futile inventions, tedious ingenuities, and verbal freaks.” You’ll then hear whispers about Joyce’s diseases. A Goodreads reviewer (having, no doubt, read Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (2014)) alerts you to Joyce’s “syphilis-ravaged mind” (while awarding two stars to the book: generous under the circumstances).

Yet for all of this, you will note that Joyce, according to many accounts of his life, acted coherently and rationally in the most aspects of his affairs at the time. What form of madness is this that befalls a man only as he myopically hoists the pen? You will forget your copy of the Wake at your mother’s house (she promptly returns it to you); you will leave it on the seat of a taxi (it’ll screech to a halt metres away, and the cabbie, waggling the book out the window, waits as you hoof along the road to retrieve it). Try as you might, you can’t seem to lose the book. You hate this book; you love it.

By year 10 - to the amazement only of those who don’t know you well - you will have resumed your trials. A period of Wake Counseling begins when you stumble upon one of the many scholarly books written about the Wake. Perhaps you’ll alight on Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s hyperbolic yet accessible A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944). Will being told the broad contours of the story, such as it is, feel underhanded? Perhaps, but coaching is never cheating.

You surround yourself with professionals. John Bishop, James Atherton and Adaline Glasheen will be good to have on your team. All the while, incremental progress is being made. The sight of the Wake no longer causes gastritis. Finally, you will acquire a copy of Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake (1980), whose page-by-page elucidations of the text hit like the correct therapeutic interventions at exactly the right time. It feels like the literary equivalent of flying Freud into town to attend to your hysteria.

During these years, you’ll adopt an ever more serious demeanour; your studies will be private ones. It feels like you are rowing at night across the Atlantic in a leaky thimble with the Wake serving as your monstrous nautical chart. Your Friends won’t notice your travails because you are now largely asocial. Your beloved once again finds you attractive.

Years 10 through to the early teens are spent in this therapeutic mode. As your reading of the Wake matures and deepens, the useful seriousness of your recent years is sloughed off. Like many who have fallen into Deep Intimacy with the Wake you’ll laugh, sigh, and scribble a note or two as you engage with each page. You’ll notice intimations of the Wake in all aspects of life. A moral fall is prelude to a restoration; one scandal in the news cycle is every scandal; every conversation is an echo of a previous conversation; your life is every life. It’s no wonder that some of its critics see the Wake as deeply pessimistic, even nihilistic.

Though the abiding sensation of reading the novel may indeed be vertiginous, yet it can be, nonetheless, an elevating one. The Wake elevates not merely by pointing to a densely connected world - everything is connected, those of us who sleep and dream already know this - but reading the Wake helps illuminates the silver traceries that bind certain things to other things. Can we make of our lives, perhaps even a few moments of it, something worthy of a personal myth? Learning to discern beauty requires patience, practice. Just as in youth when perhaps you muttered the angelus at noon, or attended to ablutions sacred or secular, the Wake becomes an installation in the general affairs of your day, and in this way gives these days some shape. The novel is a point of reference, a destination (as well the map to that destination), a steadfast friend, the most amusing of your consorts; it serves in loco parentis, as an inspiration, and as a pillow, albeit a lumpy one, for your harried soul. It’s year 16, you buy twine and bind the unread pages as you begin to stage a definitive reading.

Finally, it’s 2039 - where has the time gone? You decline to deliver a public lecture in the local library on the Wake - you’re a minor celebrity in your home town at least - but you have agreed to be interviewed for a podcast to air on May 4th, the centenary of the Wake’s publication day. You are now old; your copy of the Wake is crumbling. You glance at the last pages…. End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Your rheumy eyes graze upon the lines….A way a lone a last a loved a long the…You look up for a moment… and return to page one.

Liam Heneghan, a professor at DePaul University, Chicago, is an Irish writer living in the US Midwest. His latest book, A Primer on Human Impacts on the Environment: The Conceptual Approach, John Wiley & Sons, will be published in May 2023