Waiting for the Wake

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Book Review: Restored Finnegans Wake, Penguin Modern Classics, edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon.

Typically Dadaism as a movement extolling anti-art, the irrational and chaotic finds a very narrow berth in Ireland but in its decaffeinated form, as a nod to the absurd side of life and served with more than a smidgen of self-mockery, Dada has a secure place in contemporary Dublin life. How else do you account for the annual Bloomsday festival that celebrates someone who never existed, a fictional character, a celebration that re-enacts his ‘presence’ in the city with scholarly but fun-loving exactitude? And what takes the Dadaist biscuit is that the character is from a book that most people, including those participating in the festival – even if they did start Ulysses – have never finished reading.

Bloomsday is a remarkable festival. There are readings and dramatic renditions of scenes from the book, walking tours following Bloom’s footsteps, television and radio shows, musical events recalling Ulysses‘s countless allusions to songs, plus academic talks and lectures and dressing up in Edwardian clothes — everything you would expect from a city festival – yet there is a glorious lack of privatization about it, a logo-free zone with not a big-name sponsor in sight. This is local in every sense of the word. Another remarkable aspect of Bloomsday is its artistic and social eclecticism: the 5-star Westin holds a Ulysses-inspired afternoon tea, featuring Bloom’s food and drink, with a light-hearted but learned talk by Gerry Dukes;  a free event in St Stephens Green has Peter Sheridan introducing singers, musicians, puppeteers, writers  and readers performing material from Ulysses for three hours; in the house where Joyce set his sublime story ‘The Dead’, Noel O’Grady, a cappella, sings Joyce-related songs in the hushed dining room; the New Theatre hosts a variety of shows, including one with Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher that breathes new life into Edwardian songs like ‘Seaside Girls’, My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl’ and ‘Invisibility’. Without a doubt, Bloomsday has become a showcase for Irish artists who in very different ways find inspiration in Joyce’s novel.

This year, Bloomsday could have been enhanced by the fact that the biennial International James Joyce Symposium was taking place at the same time in Dublin. When this last happened, in 2004, the Symposium managed to make itself part of the grand celebrations for the centenary of Bloom’s day and two years ago, when the Symposium was held in Prague, it operated as an open event in the centre of the city at Charles University. The 2012 Dublin Symposium, by way of contrast, cocooned itself away from public gaze and actively discouraged press attention. The Joyce industry is a serious industry, best reserved for the legions of academics from North American universities who feed off Joyce as an inexhaustible source of material for papers and dissertations.

Perhaps the organizers of the Symposium have become tainted with the paranoia that seemed to characterize the Joyce Estate and its heavy policing of copyright matters relating to the author’s works.  Stephen Joyce, the estate’s vocal trustee and grandson of the author, became infamous for making life difficult for anyone trying to use Joyce’s books. The end of June 2011 was looked forward to as the 70th anniversary of Joyce’s death because it would mean that the copyright regime for the published works would have ended, but the unintended consequence has been fresh controversy over the publication of Joyce material that had not previously been published.  Hence the ongoing dispute between the National Library of Ireland and Joycean scholar Danis Rose over Joyce manuscripts: Rose contends that he first published the material and therefore has copyright rights while the National Library is making the material freely available online and not acknowledging his contribution. The works of James Joyce seem destined for litigation: Joyce’s prolonged troubles getting Dubliners published, the court-ordered pulping of Ulysses, legal threats from the Joyce Estate for the last 20 years and now arguments over manuscripts relating to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Danis Rose is no stranger to controversy. His 1997 ‘Reader’s Edition’ of Ulysses caused great consternation to scholars and the Joyce Estate,  because of its allegedly maverick approach to emendations and alterations, and when his new edition of Finnegans Wake first became available last year (in a highly expensive limited edition, published by Houyhnhnm) some wondered if another controversy was in the making. Would there be more instances of Rose’s idiosyncratic approach to editing that saw him replace the word ‘Sundam’ from a Ulysses chapter on the grounds that Joyce meant to write Sunda, mistakenly thinking this was the deepest part of the Pacific, and it would therefore make more sense to insert ‘Marianne Trench’. The adoption of an authorial role on the part of the editor could, if allowed to dictate alterations to the text of Finnegans Wake, result in alarming and perhaps unwarranted changes. This does not seem to have happened and although brothers Rose and O’Hanlon have made some 9,000 changes to the 1939 text these are unlikely to jump out of the page and dismay, or delight, the reader.  This is not the narcissism of small differences and although explanations for the changes have not yet appeared there will no doubt be a scholarly justification for all the editorial decisions.

The difficulty that comes with reading Finnegans Wake is a consequence of Joyce’s method of composition. He would draft a passage in a notebook, redraft it and make a fair copy that would be used for publication in one of the periodicals that carried excerpts of his Work in Progress in the 1930s- Joyce kept the book’s title a secret – and this would be subject to changes and additions as and when he returned to it, sometimes for publication in another journal. The same process took place when preparing the text for the galleys of the first edition, and the revised text was then further revised before final publication. Joyce often kept a record of how long he spent revising the Anna Livia chapter and calculated that twelve hundred hours had been used embroidering one set of revisions. In this way the text grew and grew, accumulating in size and complexity, leaving behind a litter of notebooks and revisions, drafts, typescripts and galleys. Joyce did not live long enough to properly correct the many errors that crept into the printed text of 1939. The difficulty of establishing a text that is as correct as is humanly possible is one task; the other is knowing how to read a book that has been written in such an agglomerative way. How do you read a passage that over a period of 14 or more years has been so revised and added to by Joyce that the passage we finally read bears little resemblance to its starting point? It is no use going to the kind of reader’s guide or commentary that is so useful and essential when it comes to Ulysses; there is no useful equivalent. Books like A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake by William York Tindall or A Guide Through Finnegans Wake by Edmund Lloyd Epstein make bewildering claims, ornate in detail but far-flung and ridiculously over confident, for understanding what the text is saying. It is not surprising that the best two books for helping read the Wake - Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake by Finn Fordham and How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake by Luca Crispi and Sam Slote – both adopt a genetic approach, stressing the value of seeing how the book emerged in the form it did and forswearing the folly of thinking they can do much more at this stage. A modest summary of the Wake’s structure and ‘themes’, accompanied by a chapter-by-chapter  outline, is to be found in another new edition as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series, edited  by Robert-Jan Henkes, Erik Bindervoet and Finn Fordham.

It seems obvious that the next edition of Finnegans Wake, one that may do more to make the book readable than anything that has gone before,  will be a hypertext one showing exactly how each passage evolved from its original text, relating the additional material to sources that Joyce is known to have used. Such an edition will never be complete, which perfectly befits Finnegans Wake, but with the ongoing wrangles between Rose and the National Library when will such a venture get started?

Sean Sheehan is the author of Joyce’s Ulysses: A Reader’s Guide.

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2 Responses

  1. B Rand

    July 6, 2012 11:32 am

    Do scholars write too much about James Joyce? Has the international academic industry got far, far away from the general reading public? Do too few Irish people read Joyce’s works? Every literate Irish reader should have read his collection of short stories, Dubliners, and his autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    Reading Ulysses presents problems of cognitive skills, psychological sensitivity and classical references. Reading Finnegans Wake presents enormous language skills, what with all the neologisms, puns and endless flowing text that test the span of attention. I confess that I gave up trying to read Wake after wading through only five-and-a-half pages.

    I gather that Wake is an example of ‘meta-fiction’, as is the comical At-Swim-Two-Birds by Myles na gCopalleen. Meaning, I think, that it is ‘about’ nothing real but entirely imaginative. Good aesthetic fun and all that, but not really tackling life’s problems.

    If literary criticism is to have any relevance to life’s problems, then IMHO a site like ILR should seek out reflections on novelists and/or playrights whose works touch on Irish social reality, sometimes dealing with those marginalised by economic forces. I’d be thinking of some novels by Dermot Bolger, possibly Joseph O’Connor, Colm Toibin and John Banville for starters. And deceased novelists like Brian Cleeve (Cry of the Morning and a couple of other works) and internationally acclaimed novelist Brian Moore.

    I don’t intend to have a second shot at reading Finnegans Wake any time soon. I’ll stick to straight novels.