'Endlessly Exciting in its Impenetrability': 1939 James Joyce review

From the archive: On June 3rd, 1939, some poor soul had to review James Joyce's newest novel, Finnegans Wake. On the 75th anniversary of his death, we celebrate his cruel joke on reviewers everywhere

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 render. 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.

Quotation Unavailing


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 becomes 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 acute 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, arid 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 kina 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 envelops the reader who, used to other ways of writing, finds himself resenting this power to bewilder him.

The reader begins to reject constructively the formlessness which is all around him; he tries to find a way out, to relate to some kind of plan of his own, even one of these, embedded pages. There are lingering lovely passages like flickers of gold. By following the small light they give there may be real illumination a little further on. But the light fails, and he is left to wander round and round in the maze.

The Author's Game

The author appears to be doing something which has no relation to the reader of a work of fiction; nothing coherent comes out of all these words; it is a game which only Mr. Joyce can play, for he alone knows the rules, if there are any. He will take a word and twist and turn it, and chase it up and down through every language that he knows—English, French, German, Gaelic, Latin, Greek, Dutch, Sanscrit, Esperanto. The sounds of words in infinite variety fascinate him.

One thinks of an arrangement of sounds, of music, and gropes towards another kind of clue, feeling that an emotional effect may be produced and an appeal to the imagination achieved by reading bits of it aloud to oneself, a method for which the Dublin accent has been recommended. But this second method of approach also has only a momentary success. One has been trying to make meaning with the sounds, but it has died away, for there was no logical sequence in the words which made them. Time and space and identity as we have known them are here no more.

To What Purpose?

Detaching oneself from the book one tries to come to grips with the purpose of Mr. Joyce in writing “Finnegans Wake”, for there must have been some purpose behind all those sixteen years of labour. It can be only one of two things. It can be that he was engaged all that time on the compilation of a new arid wonderful work on English, and that his notion of giving it the semblance of a form which baffles us, permits him to try put the results of his experiments with words without coming too close to the form of a dictionary of outlandish usage. He is learned and subtle in the ways of words, and he may have considered it necessary to do this service for the language, so as to release it from the clogging effects of conventional accumulation and its tyranny over mind in the constriction which it has reached. Or he may have thought of taking up the duty neglected by the academicians of adjusting language generally to the new speeds of earth and air.

Thus, we may be face to face in "Finnegans Wake" with one of the great milestones of literature, and in this book a new language may have been born. If so, it will be necessary to learn it for ourselves without assistance, because to ask Mr. Joyce for a key to it would be to ask him to surrender all claims for "Finnegans Wake", to be considered a work of art. 'As such, this is its chosen expression. We may come to learn the language only by first realising what the book is about. And that is where Mr. Joyce has the advantage over the reader.

The "Gigantic Hoax” Theory

This is one conception of "Finnegans Wake", but there is another which, unfortunately, is perilously on the edge of what already has been suggested as an explanation of the work—that it is simply a gigantic hoax which it has taken sixteen years to perpetrate, and this alternative viewpoint, or suspicion, arises because one finds in the book such an undercurrent of the Dublin material already employed in "Ulysses."

It was in Dublin that Mr. Joyce learned how to let language run away with him in an attempt to set down the only life he has ever come to know. It would seem that every sight and sound and word of Dublin must go on releasing itself as in a river of memory flowing, and that every device of language must be employed to get the immense joke that it is for him out of his consciousness. To name but a few of these we have rhyming slang, analogical formation, onomatopoeia, puns in seven languages, spoonerisms, mergers, echoes and a great deal of pure nonsense; but the essential material of all, no matter what language they may flow into or out of, is Dublin.

A Dublin Flood

The slang and speech of Dublin are everything to him. His obsession could conceivably be made the starting point of an attempt to recover English to livelier expression, but the experiment hero seems to lack the necessary enlargement of a theme. It continually turns back upon itself, suggesting nothing bigger, for all its bulk and torrential flow by times, than the inescapable quality of the Dublin that Mr. Joyce has made for himself. He is as one submerged by his material, and not even "silence, exile and cunning" have given him escape.

In the second view the book would appear to be a mere tortured piece of self-analysis and as something in the nature of a private document, laboriously penned for the author's amusement possibly, but not for the public gaze. It would be better in that case that it should be taken as having no meaning beyond what it may hold for Mr. Joyce himself, and that it should not be regarded as anything so serious as an attempt to destroy the medium of rational expression, since here, to begin with, there was nothing to express, the author having come to complete fatigue in creativeness.

The extent to which "Finnegans Wake” may begin to influence the English language will be the measure of its reality and the only proper test of its importance. The writer may come to it to dig for words amidst the rains of the novel, but the form of "Ulysses" and the content of it which could be imitated are riot here. This book could be imitated only by Mr. Joyce himself. It may appear, therefore, in the ultimate view, that although after "Ulysses" he had no more to say, in ''Finnegans Wake" he went on saying it.