For many, Finnegans Wake, is a supreme act of literary pretension. An indulgence of a man who lived too much in his own head, and not enough for his family. A riddle with no solution, a puzzle that is unconquerable and the greatest literary jape of the twentieth century. They may be right. However, there are many more – and this number is slowly growing now Joyce’s opus is out of copyright – that disagree. There are many that look beyond the difficulty and challenge to embrace the new language Joyce often promised for himself – a language to help him escape the restrictions of nation, politics and religion. A language brimming with unsurpassed poetry and instinctive insight unparalleled in any of his own and contemporaries work.
My own journey to the Wake is necessarily circuitous. Like climbers scaling Everest quite often you need to ascend, then descend, then ascend again to acclimatise yourself to the heights, to the de-oxygenated forms of plot, character and narrative. I knew it was out there when I first read Ulysses, another peak to be surmounted at some unknown future date. I dabbled when my father presented me with my first copy one Christmas. But I knew I wasn’t ready then for its unique and potent wonder. So I read on, knowing that one day I would return to its barking prose, its quacking dialects and its unremitting originality.
I read the Ellmann biography. I read Ulysses again. I read A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. I read Ulysses and Portrait again. I read Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, knowing the great author was deeply inspired by Joyce’s innovations with language for his own famed book. I absorbed Adam Harvey’s wonderful video explanations over on JoyceGeek. I read Ulysses again. I established a Joycean book group. Finally, when there could be no more procrastination, and when I came upon a sublime visual-art project that uses part of the Wake, the moment of inspiration landed again, this time without a willingness to accept refusal or denial. It was time.
Aided by a brilliant audio recording I listened and read, recited and devoured the sumptuous meandering river of language again and again and again. It is a book for which I believe it is perfectly acceptable to read non-linearly. Read the ending first – it’s the best bit and will keep you inspired while you read the rest (and don’t worry it won’t spoil an understanding of the plot). Read the glorious lilting description of Anna Livia Plurabelle by the two washer-women, who metamorphose into trees, as does their language. Read it all, in its multi-faceted technicolour pyrotechnic glory. Read it without trying to understand it. Read it and let the words wash over you like wine. Read it to absorb the pungently incisive puns littered about the page like glitter, like an early beta of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’. Joyce’s wit was second-to-none. In this great comic novel the jokes and allusions come thicker and faster than a Frankie Boyle monologue.
For that is where we should situate this book – not as a remnant of a literary experiment gone wrong. Not as a faded, misguided attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of intellectual readers. But as a fulsome part of our own culture, as much as it is a reaction to it. An intrinsic part of our culture, of any culture, of any world, for at its heart is a subtle and moving exploration of human nature and family and love and guilt and loss and the bonds that bind us to each other, just as language is bound to culture.
Bono of U2 once said that what U2 try to accomplish with both words and music, Joyce manages to achieve with just words. So rejoice in the melodies Joyce gave us, in the harmonies of human gossip, the tunefulness of his soul and a thousand other human souls echoing through the pages. Each innovated word is testament to the infinite power of language, and literature, to renew and restore, what was once faded, into dazzling, shimmering light.