A flawed 'Finnegans' wake-up call


JOYCE STUDIES: TERENCE KILLEENreviews Finnegans Wakeby James Joyce Edited by Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, Houyhnhnm, Vol 1, 38pp, Vol 2, 493pp. €300

JAMES JOYCE’S last work, Finnegans Wake, is certainly the most ambitious literary effort that the 20th century produced. An attempt to tell a comic universal history in a largely private language, it requires of its readers an unprecedented openness to an experience of vertiginous, heady, multi-linguistic word play, without the usual resources of linguistic familiarity, let alone such normal props as plot, character and narrative, to sustain them. Everyone who confronts Finnegans Wakeknows literally what it means to have reading difficulties, understands the challenge and can experience the triumphs when comprehension begins to glimmer. In that sense, at least, the work is highly democratic: we are all equally at sea when first confronted with it. Whether we want to rise to that challenge is another matter: those who do so can, as their reward, eventually experience something prodigiously funny, rich and strange, and endlessly fascinating.

Progress to reaching this putative nirvana is not helped, however, by the state of the current text, which is badly in need of repair. Since the 1964 Faber “third edition”, which finally incorporated all of Joyce’s list of corrections (a list that was partial and incomplete), no further changes have been made to this text. In fact, not only has there been stasis, there has been regress: a farcical situation arose when Penguin Books, in 1992, and in a subsequent reissue, produced a worse text than the current Faber version.

So the first thing to be said about the new Rose and O’Hanlon Wakeis that it responds to a real, pressing need. Those who jib at it might reflect on the fact that the last major work of a major author has been allowed to lie in textual slumber deep for almost 50 years. It is hardly surprising that someone would come along eventually and deliver a loud wake-up call.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to extend the warm welcome to this volume – intended eventually to provide the basis for a new Penguin text of the book – which, in view of the foregoing situation, one would be inclined to offer. This is not because of disagreements over individual textual choices, even major ones: such things can always be debated, and do not necessarily invalidate an edition. It is because of the complete absence of any rationale or basis for the choices made.

It takes some coolness to produce fairly substantial alterations in a work like Finnegans Wakewithout offering a shred of evidence or justification; but coolness is not something these editors – Danis Rose, an independent Dublin-based scholar, and John O’Hanlon, whose main expertise is in IT systems – have ever lacked. In the prefatory booklet that accompanies this volume – and here one must acknowledge what a beautifully produced artefact this book is – the editors state that “the full analysis [of Wake'stextual situation] will be made available to scholars and to the interested public in the form of an electronic hypertext as soon as circumstances permit”.

This is as much as we get by way of an explanation for the 9,000 textual changes made in this book. One turns with hope to the other pieces in the prefatory booklet, by Seamus Deane and textual scholars Hans Walter Gabler and David Greetham, for further enlightenment, but it soon emerges that none of these worthies has seen the databank either, so we are left no wiser.

Ironically, more information is available for free – on the internet – about the edition’s principles and procedures than is offered to those who choose to pay at least €300 for the privilege of possessing this volume.

If one cares to glance at houyhnhnmpress.com/finnegans-wake-prospectus, one will find a couple of sample pages of the electronic hypertext which we are promised. These are sufficiently cabbalistic, certainly, for any purpose, and are testimony to the editors’ diligence and devotion (not that I ever doubted either), but in the absence of an explanation for the hermetic codes employed one is not greatly enlightened.

To evaluate the work’s innovations, therefore, one has to perform the critical equivalent of flying blind, or making bricks without straw: trying to infer Rose’s motives for the changes made from the textual evidence itself. This is a case of going in quest of Rose, as if the quest for Joyce were not hard enough.

To take then the changes that have been most widely publicised, those in the first paragraph, where “Howth Castle and Environs” becomes “Howth Castle Environs”, and where “commodius” becomes “commodious”: one can say of the first that Joyce did indeed write “” many times and in many drafts, right up to the transitionproofs, and of the second that when Joyce introduced this word into the first paragraph, at a very late stage, he did indeed very clearly write “commodious”. So an arguable case can be made for their adoption.

Some, at least, of the alterations are non-contentious, or would be, if they were presented in a half-reasonable way. The straightening out of punctuation, the sorting out of the frequent confusion occasioned by misreading of Joyce’s “u” as an “n”, and vice-versa, are clear examples of the textual work that Finnegans Wakeindeed requires.

Many of Rose’s and OHanlon’s other changes will certainly be disturbing to those who are “used” to a certain Finnegans Wake(the pagination has remained unchanged since 1939 until now): the splitting up of the last part into four separate sections; the printing of some (though not all) of the song-based material in verse form; the use of different fonts for Shaun’s two fables, to name but a few. Though they may be disturbing, it does not follow that they are wrong, but once again, they need to be justified, as does everything else.

More generally, it seems to me that Rose has here continued two of his main procedures in his so-called “Reader’s Edition” of Ulysses: a preference for Joyce’s first thoughts over his later, tending towards a more simplified text, and a strong syntactical bias: where a sentence does not “run” properly, where, for instance, it seems to lack a main verb, Rose is inclined to step in and remedy what he sees as the deficiency. In fact, surprising as it may seem, the vast, vast majority of sentences in Finnegans Wakethat are not just exclamations do have a subject and a main verb; however, it is still a risky procedure to assume that where such is lacking something is wrong and an editor must intervene.

Taking all in all, I do not feel we are in for a “Scandal of Finnegans Wake” to match the “Scandal of Ulysses” caused by Rose’s 1997 “Readers Edition” of that work. For one thing, as I mentioned at the start, this project, markedly unlike the other, does respond to a genuine need. There isn’t the same suggestion here that this is Finnegans Wakemade aisy (a claim that would be hard to sustain, without dismembering the text completely), and at first glance, the approach here is less cavalier than in 1997. It is a pity that Rose has thrown around the word “definitive” recently: it does not occur in the actual prefatory material, where in fact the editors, with uncharacteristic modesty, accept that “perfection is unattainable”. One feels safe in venturing that this Finnegans Wakewill not prove “definitive”, even after the publication of the data lying behind it “as soon as circumstances permit”.

Terence Killeen is a director of the James Joyce Centre, Dublin. He is the author of Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to Ulysses