This is the first in a series where I attempt to explain James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’…
The book starts in the middle of a sentence, which is the second half of the book’s final sentence. A chap named Sir Tristam appears to have arrived from America and is riding alongside a river to the town. Not sure what town. I get the impression he is fairly heroic but other than that I can’t really gather any more. I’m not one hundred percent sure he is even on a horse, actually.
I soon realise that it is helpful to recite the text aloud, like a child might when learning to read. It doesn’t help me understand it any better but it does give me a sense of rhythm about the thing which changes the experience considerably. It would make an interesting audio book – although there are a lot of words that are unpronounceable and smatterings here and there are written in strange, faux foreign languages. Still – I rather think someone should give it a go.
A fellow falls off a wall and is killed – this must be Finnegan as there then seems to be a crowd of people around his dead body in a pub. Quite clearly the Wake of the title! I feel quite clever that I have understood a bit of it. Although that’s where the comprehension ends, sadly, as what follows seems to be an endless bar crawl interspersed with storytelling and gambling – maybe dancing girls. It is unclear. At this point I have no idea of what’s happening or who anybody is, but I put this down to the genius of the writer, recreating the exact same experience of being on an endless bar crawl.
Suddenly we seem to be in the ‘Museyroom’, which I cleverly deduce to be the museum. Or – maybe – a room in which to muse, which sounds nice. Again, I can’t really be sure but my best guess is that someone – probably a woman – is conducting a tour. Or she might be on her own and talking to herself. There is some suggestion that Sir Tristam is also the Duke of Wellington. The ambiguous tour guide appears to steal something small from the museyroom and make a run for it. Although it is also possible that she stole from a shop. I get the feeling I am on the wrong track completely, but there is something about this passage that seems important. I literally have no idea.
This is without doubt the most bizarre experience I have ever had with a book but it is oddly addictive. I am aware that I am drifting over chunks of it and keep having to go back, or redeploy the reading aloud tactic.
There then follows a whole bunch of randomness that makes no sense to me whatsoever. I can pick out references to various mythologies and maybe creation stories. Probably other works too but I am clearly not well-read enough to really say for sure. Two interesting fellows called Mutt and Jute meet up somewhere and have a chat. They each enquire as to where the other comes from and agree to swap hats before engaging in dialogue, but I have no idea what they are discussing. There is a reference to someone known as the Prankquean, which is a very promising title. Sadly, I cannot tell you if she is as interesting as she sounds. Let’s just assume that she is.
Then we are back in the pub, there is lots of drinking and carousing. Actually it could be a fight. And now I’m not sure if the chap who was dead actually is dead, or if it refers to someone else entirely. Then there is something about a boat.
Well. My immediate thoughts should probably remain unsaid, actually. As you can probably tell, it is incredibly hard to get a sense of quite what is going on. So far, I have no idea which character is which, but even if I did it wouldn’t help much as apart from the dead chap I assume to be Finnegan, I couldn’t even tell you how many characters there are so far. I am not even sure if they are dead or alive. It is frequently unclear where narrative ends and dialogue begins and the only really obvious dialogue – the conversation between Mutt and Jute – is incomprehensible. Here is a snippet:
Mutt: Mukk’s pleasurad.
J: Are you jeff?
J: But you are not jeffmute?
M: Noho. Only an utterer.
J: Whoa? What is the mutter with you?
M: I become a stun a summer.
J: What a hauhauhauhaudibble thing, to be cause! How, Mutt?
M: Aput the buttle, surd.
J: Whose poodle? Wherein?
And so it continues. It gets even stranger, in fact.
Joyce uses repetition frequently and there are certainly references to creation stories and the like – I spotted Romulus and Remus (mythological founders of Rome) among the literary debris, which puts me in the mind that this opening chapter is very much about beginnings or origins of some kind. Which is somewhat ironic, considering that the book itself doesn’t even have a ‘proper’ beginning. My observations are by no means definitive and I cannot even be sure that I have interpreted the text at all correctly. But basically, I don’t really know what else to tell you apart from I have no idea what’s going on. At all.
“You had a gamier cock than Pete, Jake or Martin and your arch goose of geese stubbled for All Angels’ Day”
(I bet Pete, Jake and Martin are quite put out at the suggestion of less-gamey cocks!)