Wednesday, March 7, 2012

485. Finnegans Wake – James Joyce

History:  Finnegans Wake is a work of comic fiction by Irish author James Joyce, significant for its experimental style and resulting reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years, and published in 1939, two years before the author's death, Finnegans Wake was Joyce's final work.
Plot:   The entire work is cyclical in nature: the last sentence—a fragment—recirculates to the beginning sentence: "a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." Joyce himself revealed that the book "ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence." The introductory chapter (I.1) establishes the book's setting as "Howth Castle and Environs", and introduces Dublin hod carrier "Finnegan", who falls to his death from a ladder while constructing a wall. Finnegan's wife Annie puts out his corpse as a meal spread for the mourners at his wake, but he vanishes before they can eat him. A series of episodic vignettes follows, loosely related to the dead Finnegan, most commonly referred to as "The Willingdone Museyroom", "Mutt and Jute", and "The Prankquean". At the chapter's close a fight breaks out, whiskey splashes on Finnegan's corpse, and “the dead Finnegan rises from his coffin bawling for whiskey and his mourners put him back to rest”, persuading him that he is better off where he is. The chapter ends with the image of the HCE character sailing into Dublin Bay to take a central role in the story.
I.2 opens with an account of "Harold or Humphrey" Chimpden receiving the nickname "Earwicker" from the Sailor King, who encounters him attempting to catch earwigs with an inverted flowerpot on a stick while manning a tollgate through which the King is passing. This name helps Chimpden, now known by his initials HCE, to rise to prominence in Dublin society as "Here Comes Everybody". He is then brought low by a rumor that begins to spread across Dublin, apparently concerning a sexual trespass involving two girls in the Phoenix Park, although details of HCE's transgression change with each retelling of events.
Chapters I.2 through I.4 follow the progress of this rumor, starting with HCE's encounter with "a cad with a pipe" in Phoenix Park. The cad greets HCE in Gaelic and asks the time, but HCE misunderstands the question as an accusation, and incriminates himself by denying rumours the cad has not yet heard. These rumours quickly spread across Dublin, gathering momentum until they are turned into a song penned by the character Hosty called "The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly". As a result, HCE goes into hiding, where he is besieged at the closed gate of his pub by a visiting American looking for drink after hours. However HCE remains silent – not responding to the accusations or verbal abuse – dreams, is buried in a coffin at the bottom of Lough Neagh, and is finally brought to trial, under the name Festy King. He is eventually freed, and goes once more into hiding. An important piece of evidence during the trial – a letter about HCE written by his wife ALP – is called for so that it can be examined in closer detail.
ALP's Letter becomes the focal point as it is analysed in detail in I.5. This letter was dictated by ALP to her son Shem, a writer, and entrusted to her other son Shaun, a postman, for delivery. The letter never reaches its intended destination, ending up in a midden heap where it is unearthed by a hen named Biddy. Chapter I.6 digresses from the narrative in order to present the main and minor characters in more detail, in the form of twelve riddles and answers.
In the final two chapters of Book I we learn more about the letter's writer Shem the Penman (I.7) and its original author, his mother ALP (I.8). The Shem chapter consists of "Shaun's character assassination of his brother Shem", describing the hermetic artist as a forger and a "sham", before "Shem is protected by his mother [ALP], who appears at the end to come and defend her son." The following chapter concerning Shem's mother, known as "Anna Livia Plurabelle", is interwoven with thousands of river names from all over the globe, and is widely considered the book's most celebrated passage. The chapter was described by Joyce in 1924 as "a chattering dialogue across the river by two washerwomen who as night falls become a tree and a stone." These two washerwomen gossip about ALP's response to the allegations laid against her husband HCE, as they wash clothes in the Liffey. ALP is said to have written a letter declaring herself tired of her mate. Their gossip then digresses to her youthful affairs and sexual encounters, before returning to the publication of HCE's guilt in the morning newspaper, and his wife's revenge on his enemies: borrowing a "mailsack" from her son Shaun the Post, she delivers presents to her 111 children. At the chapter's close the washerwomen try to pick up the thread of the story, but their conversation is increasingly difficult as they are on opposite sides of the widening Liffey, and it is getting dark. Finally, as they turn into a tree and a stone, they ask to be told a Tale of Shem or Shaun.
While Book I of Finnegans Wake deals mostly with the parents HCE and ALP, Book II shifts that focus onto their children, Shem, Shaun and Issy.
II.1 opens with a pantomime programme, which outlines, in relatively clear language, the identities and attributes of the book's main characters. The chapter then concerns a guessing game among the children, in which Shem is challenged three times to guess by "gazework" the colour which the girls have chosen. Unable to answer due to his poor eyesight, Shem goes into exile in disgrace, and Shaun wins the affection of the girls. Finally HCE emerges from the pub and in a thunder-like voice calls the children inside.
Chapter II.2 follows Shem, Shaun and Issy studying upstairs in the pub, after having been called inside in the previous chapter. The chapter depicts "[Shem] coaching [Shaun] how to do Euclid Bk I, 1", structured as "a reproduction of a schoolboys' (and schoolgirls') old classbook complete with marginalia by the twins, who change sides at half time, and footnotes by the girl (who doesn't)". Once Shem (here called Dolph) has helped Shaun (here called Kev) to draw the Euclid diagram, the latter realises that he has drawn a diagram of ALP's genitalia, and "Kev finally realises the significance of the triangles [..and..] strikes Dolph." After this "Dolph forgives Kev" and the children are given "[e]ssay assignments on 52 famous men." The chapter ends with the children's "nightletter" to HCE and ALP, in which they are "apparently united in a desire to overcome their parents."
II.3 moves to HCE working in the pub below the studying children. As HCE serves his customers, two narratives are broadcast via the bar's radio and television sets, namely "The Norwegian Captain and the Tailor's Daughter", and "How Buckley Shot the Russian General". The first portrays HCE as a Norwegian Captain succumbing to domestication through his marriage to the Tailor's Daughter. The latter, told by Shem and Shaun ciphers Butt and Taff, casts HCE as a Russian General who is shot by the soldier Buckley. Earwicker has been absent throughout the latter tale, having been summoned upstairs by ALP. He returns and is reviled by his customers, who see Buckley's shooting of the General as symbolic of Shem and Shaun's supplanting their father. This condemnation of his character forces HCE to deliver a general confession of his crimes, including an incestuous desire for young girls. Finally a policeman arrives to send the drunken customers home, the pub is closed up, and the customers disappear singing into the night as a drunken HCE, clearing up the bar and swallowing the dregs of the glasses left behind, morphs into ancient Irish high king Rory O'Connor, and passes out.
II.4, ostensibly portraying the drunken and sleeping Earwicker's dream, chronicles the spying of four old men (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) on Tristan and Iseult's journey. The short chapter portrays "an old man like King Mark being rejected and abandoned by young lovers who sail off into a future without him", while the four old men observe Tristan and Isolde, and offer four intertwining commentaries on the lovers and themselves which are "always repeating themselves".
Book III concerns itself almost exclusively with Shaun, in his role as postman, having to deliver ALP's letter, which was referred to in Book 1, but never seen.
III.1 opens with the Four Masters' ass narrating how he thought, as he was "dropping asleep", he had heard and seen an apparition of Shaun the Post. As a result Shaun re-awakens, and, floating down the Liffey in a barrel, is posed 14 questions concerning the significance and content of the letter he is carrying. However, Shaun, "apprehensive about being slighted, is on his guard, and the placating narrators never get a straight answer out of him." Shaun's answers focus on his own boastful personality and his admonishment of the letter's author – his artist brother Shem. After the inquisition Shaun loses his balance and the barrel in which he has been floating careens over and he rolls backwards out of the narrator's earshot, before disappearing completely from view.
In III.2 Shaun re-appears as "Jaunty Jaun" and delivers a lengthy sermon to his sister Issy, and her 28 schoolmates from St. Brigid's School. Throughout this book Shaun is continually regressing, changing from an old man to an overgrown baby lying on his back, and eventually, in III.3, into a vessel through which the voice of HCE speaks again by means of a spiritual medium. This leads to HCE's defence of his life in the passage "Haveth Childers Everywhere". Book III ends in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Porter as they attempt to copulate while their children, Jerry, Kevin and Isobel Porter, are sleeping down the hall and the dawn is rising outside (III.4). Jerry awakes from a nightmare of a scary father figure, and Mrs. Porter interrupts the coitus to go comfort him with the words "You were dreamend, dear. The pawdrag? The fawthrig? Shoe! Hear are no phanthares in the room at all, avikkeen. No bad bold faathern, dear one." She returns to bed, and the rooster crows at the conclusion of their coitus at the Book's culmination.
Book IV consists of only one chapter, which, like the book's opening chapter, is mostly composed of a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes. After an opening call for dawn to break, the remainder of the chapter consists of the vignettes "Saint Kevin", "Berkely and Patrick" and "The Revered Letter". ALP is given the final word, as the book closes on a version of her Letter and her final long monologue, in which she tries to wake her sleeping husband, declaring "Rise up, man of the hooths, you have slept so long!", and remembers a walk they once took, and hopes for its re-occurrence. At the close of her monologue, ALP – as the river Liffey – disappears at dawn into the ocean. The book's last words are a fragment, but they can be turned into a complete sentence by attaching them to the words that start the book:
A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Review: Mr Joyce's Finnegans Wake, parts of which have been published as "Work in Progress", does not admit of review. In 20 years' time, with sufficient study and with the aid of the commentary that will doubtless arise, one might be ready for an attempt to appraise it.
The work is not written in English, or in any other language, as language is commonly known. I can detect words made up out of some eight or nine languages, but this must be only a part of the equipment employed. This polyglot element is only a minor difficulty, for Mr Joyce is using language in a new way.
A random example will illustrate: "Margaritomancy! Hyacinthous pervinciveness! Flowers. A cloud. But Bruto and Cassio are ware only of trifid tongues the whispered wilfulness ('tis demonal!) and shadows shadows multiplicating (il folsoletto nel falsoletto col fazzolotto dal fuzzolezzo), totients quotients, they tackle their quarrel."
The easiest way to deal with the book would be to become "clever" and satirical or to write off Mr Joyce's latest volume as the work of a charlatan. But the author is obviously not a charlatan, but an artist of very considerable proportions. I prefer to suspend judgment. If I had had to review Blake's Prophetic Books when they first appeared I would have been forced to a similar decision.
What Mr Joyce is attempting, I imagine, is to employ language as a new medium, breaking down all grammatical usages, all time space values, all ordinary conceptions of context. Compared with this, Ulysses is a first-form primer. In this volume the theme is the language and the language the theme, and a language where every association of sound and free association is exploited. In one of the more lucid passages Mr Joyce appears to be discussing language: "has any usual sort of ornery josser, flat-chested, fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to ratiocination... ever looked sufficiently longly at a quite everyday looking stamped addressed envelope?"
What, it may be asked, is the book about? That, I imagine, is a question which Mr Joyce would not admit. This book is nothing apart from its form, and one might as easily describe in words the theme of a Beethoven symphony.
The clearest object in time in the book is the Liffey, Anna Livia, Dublin's legendary stream, and the most continuous character is HC Earwicker, "Here Comes Everybody": the Liffey as the moment in time and space, and everything, everybody, all time as the terms of reference, back to Adam or Humpty Dumpty, but never away from Dublin.
This seems the suggestion of the musical half-sentence with which the work begins: "River run, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."
Who, it may be asked, was Finnegan? Again, I should have been unable to tell, unaided, from Mr Joyce's book. But I gather that there is an Irish story of a contractor who fell and was stretched out for dead. When his friends toasted him he rose at the word "whiskey" and drank with them. In a book where all is considered, this legend, too, has its relevance.
One concluding note. Mr Joyce in a parody of Jung and Freud ("Tung-Toyd") mentioned "Schizo-phrenia". One might imagine that Mr Joyce had used his great powers deliberately to show the language of a schizophrenic mind. He alone could explain his book and, I suppose, he alone review it.
Opening Line: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castel and Environs.”
Closing Line: “A way a lone a lost a loved a long the”
Quotes: “I am a worker, a tombstone mason, anxious to pleace averyburies and jully glad when Christmas comes his once ayear.”
“In the name of the former and of the latter and of their holocaust. Allmen.”
Rating: Did not read

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