Following the rather grim close of Book 2, we find Book 3 in a much jollier mood. The upbeat narrator of this first chapter is a donkey owned by the Four Masters. We open with the donkey falling asleep at midnight as a church bell sounds. The donkey dreams that he sees Shaun, dressed like an earl and looking fabulous. He is a fan of Shaun and extols his skills as a great postman. Shaun then embarks on an epic eating spree, starting with a breakfast that includes a steak stolen from a black bat. There follows dinners of many courses and every kind of victual you can’t imagine. Shaun gets bigger and bigger and is very pleased about the fact.
The donkey then hears Shaun speak – he appears to be addressing a crowd and waving an axe. Shaun brushes his teeth before talking at length about how great he is and how he alone was entrusted to deliver ALP’s letter. He is then questioned by an unspecified amount of anonymous sycophants, who are as obscure in their inquiries as you would expect. They begin by asking who gave him the letter to deliver, to which he offers a prompt denial of ever being anywhere near the letter, actually he isn’t a postman and in fact he works in a factory. The simpering inquisitors are unconvinced and politely call him a liar, forcing him to eventually admit to delivering the letter. When they press him further about the contents of the letter, Shaun distracts them by complaining about bad pastry before launching into a series of brilliantly random excuses as to why he does not know details of the letter.
Shaun creates a distraction by berating his brother Shem, who is now confirmed as the author of ALP’s letter. He claims Shem forced ALP into saying awful things about her husband HCE in order to discredit him. Shaun declares the letter to be all lies, and poorly written lies, at that. This is just one of many insults thrown at poor Shem, which are frequently very funny. A couple of my favourites:
‘You know he’s peculiar, that eggschicker, with the smell of old woman off him, to suck nothing of his switchdupes.’
‘He’s weird, I tell you, and middayevil down to his vegetable soul.’
‘Then he was pusched out of Thingamuddy’s school by Miss Garterd, for itching.’
Interestingly, Shaun also claims that Shem has been forbidden from mating by HCE.
At some point, Shaun appears to find himself in a barrel floating in a river. Not sure quite how or when this becomes a thing, but it’s quite important nonetheless.
A further distraction is a very elaborate saucy tale involving a grasshopper, which quickly becomes a weird kind of insect erotica, and is absolutely one of the most bizarre things I have ever read. Shaun also sings a song about the grasshopper, whilst stuffing his face with more unlikely-sounding food.
The questioners praise his story telling skills, before asking him again about the letter. Shaun responds by speaking highly of his own writing and comparing himself to Oscar Wilde. Eventually, Shaun tells us when the letter was written:
‘When she slipped under her couchman. And when he made a cat with a peep.’
And also this:
‘Letter, carried of Shaun, son of Hek, written of Shem, brother of Shaun, uttered for Alp, mother of Shem, for Hek, father of Shaun.’
Looks like the brothers share a mother but HCE is the father of Shaun only. Perhaps this explains the animosity between them.
Unrelenting in their quest for the truth about the letter, the questioners press for more details, to which Shaun responds with delightful ramblings and manages to avoid giving any answers at all. He then falls out of the barrel and into the river, being swept away to either his death or Biddy’s house, possibly both:
‘Wisha, becoming back to us way home in Biddyhouse on way or either anywhere we miss your smile.’
Shaun then simultaneously dies and leaves the donkey’s dream.
This is a great chapter! It is a jaunty merry-go-round of the beautifully put questions, fabulous rambling excuses and tall tales involving a myriad of eclectic characters and long-awaited information relating to HCE and family and also ALP’s letter. We wander quite firmly into Monty Python territory here, with great pieces of witty absurdity and surreal humour. I have noted far more ‘favourite lines’ than is reasonable to list here. If you only attempt one part of Finnegans Wake, I heartily suggest having a crack at this chapter. There is the usual mush of the undecipherable but there are also plenty of bits that are highly enjoyable with only a little bit of wrestling.
Although I suspect Shaun is an unreliable narrator, he does confirm some aspects relating to the letter and the family and also reveals a lot about his own boastful and decadent character. We are again presented with the themes of dreams, rivers and the legendary Biddy – symbol of the circle of life. Cheerful stuff all round.
‘I’ve no room for that fellow on my fagroaster, I just can’t.’
Always a disaster when there’s no room on the fagroaster.
‘We shall not come to party at that lopps, he decided possibly, for he is not on our social list.’
Shaun is selective about where he parties.
‘To The Very Honourable The Memory of Disgrace, the Most Noble, Sometime Sweepyard at the Service of the Writer.’
There is just something very majestic about this, somehow.
(On a completely different note – a lovely chap has painted a picture of me, look!)