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We’ve done it! We have made it all the way through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a work that is widely labelled an unreadable work of genius. I am woefully under-qualified in the business of declaring genius, but I can certainly say that it isn’t unreadable. I’ve just read it. It is – without doubt – incredibly difficult. It took Joyce seventeen years to write the bloody thing and one would assume that he knew what he was getting at, so for a mere mortal such as myself it was always going to be unlikely that I would gain any probing insights from just one reading. However, there are many elements that are obvious even to the most casual reader.
First off, in order to read Finnegans Wake you need to forget everything you thought you knew about literature. The hardest part of the whole process is abandoning the concepts of narrative, protagonists, plot and structure – Joyce has no truck with such things and trying to hang the text on a reliable framework is folly. This is a soundscape of noise that occasionally adopts a human voice, rather than any kind of prose. Also the notion of character is very fluid – we certainly have a key cast but they appear in many different forms, across varying timelines and displaying different behaviours. In some ways, this unreliability makes them seem more real than characters in a standard novel. So here they are, in all their demented glory:
Harold or Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker / Here Comes Everybody / HCE
Both the hero and the villain of the piece, HCE is certainly one of the most interesting literary characters I have come across. On the face of it, the story of HCE is one broadly of a fall from grace, a man who loses everything through drink and womanising. But then again we are never definitively sure exactly of his trespass, or even if it ever occurred at all. He has connections to the sea – he arrives in the book on a ship and there are several references to battles at sea and exploring. A drinker, gambler and womaniser, he has a dysfunctional relationship with his wife and family. Much is made of his downfall being related to drink and women, in particular his wife ALP. He is also representative of Adam (his downfall being similar in nature) and as an ‘every man’ character. He is both victim and offender, alive and dead, a gentleman and a monster. I suppose he really is sort of ‘everybody’.
Anna Livia Plurabelle / ALP
Like her husband HCE, ALP is an extraordinary character. Seen as both a devoted wife and a shameless harlot, ALP is as much a victim of the events in the park as anyone, if not more so. The rumours of her husband being a rapist damage her reputation and she too becomes a target for the gossiping townsfolk. There are plenty of tales of her infidelities but she is also portrayed at times as a virginal, almost goddess-like character – although she does spend most of her appearances being somewhat hysterical. ALP is often associated with rivers, to the extend that she occasionally is a river. Quite a few people get drowned in rivers, come to think of it. Long-suffering housewife driven to distraction by her drunken husband’s philandering ways, or heartless strumpet who destroyed HCE through her own selfish desires? ALP is the very best and very worst of all women. She and HCE make the perfect couple.
Shem The Penman
Son of HCE and ALP, Shem appears through the book at various stages in his life and in various guises. He is a writer and forger and it is generally thought that he wrote ALP’s famous letter. Shem is a pitiful character and often mocked by his brother Shaun and others. Towards the end of the book there is suggestion that Shem is not in fact the son of HCE and this could be the cause of Shaun’s irritation. I somehow ended up rooting for Shem, even though he appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever.
Shaun The Post
Shem’s brother Shaun is apparently a postman but we only ever hear of him delivering one letter, and even that ended up with Biddy the hen. Shaun also has two sides to his personality. His alter ego Kevin appears to represent a youthful or unsullied version of Shaun, who is otherwise brash, boastful, enormously fat and both revolting and hilarious at the same time. He is vicious to poor Shem but seems to share his father’s love of the ladies. He never gives a straight answer to anything and his rambling responses to even the most innocuous of questions are often very funny. However, like his mother ALP, Shaun also has a pious persona, even going as far as to appear as Saint Kevin in the final Book. He is the most unrepentant of sinners, unable to see his own shortcomings.
Isa / Izzy / Isobel
The younger sister of Shem and Shaun, Isa is probably the most disturbing character in the book. While her brothers appear as both young boys and also grown men, Isa seems permanently stuck in adolescence, although this does not stop her from having some very grown-up monologues. Rather than presenting as a metaphor for lost innocence, Isa comes across as never having possessed innocence in the first place, which is somehow worse. She is not a bad or unpleasant character, far from it. Her appearances are announced by the most dainty, Wonderland-esque prose but the general gist of her intentions is pretty dark. I cannot help wondering if Isa is representative of Joyce’s own daughter Lucia, a lady plagued by mental illness to whom Joyce was inordinately close.
Biddy The Hen
Far and away my favourite character in the book. This humble hen is presented in exalted terms and is held in high regard by the townsfolk. Apart from being the finder of ALP’s letter, Biddy is a symbol for one of the great, over-arching themes of the book – the circle of life. The various tales in the book go round and round, repeated and distorted throughout, with seemingly no beginning or end to any of them and characters are born, deceased and risen again on a fairly regular basis. The theme of ‘chicken and egg’ is prevalent – we are never sure what came first, what was cause and what was effect. But the greater purpose of existence itself is represented here by the mighty Biddy, at least that is my chosen interpretation, if only for the fact that at one point she considers raising a hen army. Now, you don’t get that in many books.
There are various other characters that make several appearances – the gaggle of schoolgirls, Hosty the musician, Kate Strong the barmaid and of course Finnegan himself. There are also the twelve men who are both customers in HCE’s pub and the jury in his court case, and the slightly sinister Four Masters who pop up here and there. I am absolutely convinced that the Duke of Wellington has something to do with it all, but I haven’t been able to work it out. Endless people and places are constantly discussed, and sometimes people are places and sometimes they don’t exist at all. Sometimes trying to work out who people are is simply a waste of time and it’s just better not to know.
As for the storyline, well – there isn’t a storyline. Stream of consciousness is one thing, but this is more of a four dimensional spiral of many stories seen from conflicting perspectives, interwoven with a matrix of random thoughts and ideas. Throughout much of the book there is a sort of ‘background’ commentary of absolutely everything and everything – science, history, religion, nature, politics, social ideology – it is almost as if Joyce just threw in bits of information that interested him at the time. The modern equivalent would be to have multiple browser tabs open and to click between them all, reading random bits of each. At times when people are being discussed, it is like scrolling through a social media newsfeed – unrelated snippets of people’s every day lives, often making little sense to anyone who wasn’t there at the time. Picking through all these many, seemingly random, things could distract one forever – although I dare say there are some fascinating insights behind all of them.
There is no linear narrative and we can never be sure of anything, but I will give you my best attempt at a synopsis:
ALP, a tailor’s daughter, meets HCE upon a ship after his trousers are stolen. They fall in love and get married. After sailing around for a bit, ALP tires of life at sea and demands that HCE retires from adventuring and takes her to live in a pub in Dublin. There they produce three fairly disturbed children and settle down to either marital bliss or abject misery. Eventually, rumours start to emerge about HCE. He is suspected of committing a sexual indiscretion in the the park, although the versions of what actually happened range from the vicious rape of one or more girls, to nothing more than a cruel character assassination. ALP instigates a letter to be sent to everyone in town, either defending or deriding her husband. The letter doesn’t make it to the intended audience, but is presented as evidence when HCE is tried in court. HCE is released from court, presumably being found innocent, but his friends and customers turn against him anyway. HCE then retreats from the world and maybe dies at the end. Meanwhile, everyone else drinks, gossips and fornicates, whilst gossiping about those who fornicate and drink.
Of course, I am barely able to scratch the surface of this magnificent tome. It is simultaneously a combination of all books (so many literary works are referenced I lost count – and probably missed countless more) whilst also being like no other book, ever. Words and language are both recklessly irrelevant and cunningly crafted and we have to look beyond them to appreciate what they actually represent. There are theories about the book being a dream sequence, taking place over the course of one night as a kind of sequel to Ulysses, or of being the work of a diseased mind – something Joyce actively encouraged at the time. It could be a retelling of the fall of man, or an elaborate commentary on infinity – the last line of the book joins up to the first and no conclusions are ever reached. Joyce has certainly achieved the coveted notoriety so desired by any writer, as people are not going to give up on the secrets of Finnegans Wake any time soon.
Personally, I don’t think that this book is written about any one thing. It is more a thing about which other books are written.
Everyone take a nice, deep breath – this is the final chapter! Although if you were hoping for any kind of resolution or explanation, you will be disappointed. In fact, as far as final chapters go, it is a little disappointing all round.
Book 4 (which consists of just one chapter) opens with an unknown narrator calling for dawn to break and the people of the world to awaken. Some sort of deity of the dawn talks nonsense for quite a while, mainly concerning inedible yellow meat, the twenty nine schoolgirls and fish. Someone goes away and then comes back again (possibly Shaun).
Eventually, Here Comes Everybody wakes up and is surprised that he has been dreaming. It has apparently been a long, hard night but now the day is coming and will make everything right again. A conflict or battle between night and day ensues, interspersed with details about the transient nature of rivers and the various regenerations of ALP. There is then some discussion about Shaun:
‘Here’s heering you in a guessmasque, letterman! And such an improofment! As root as the mail and as fat as a fuddle!’
‘…night-shared nakeshift with the alter girl they tuck in for sweepsake.’
Shaun is then asked about the crime in the park and his involvement with ALP’s letter. His vague reply states that anything can happen after night fall and only the deers know the truth for sure. Perhaps if we could find one of these deers that might be helpful. But anyway. There is then a lengthy passage concerning the Kevin character, who seems to be a sanctimonious version of Shaun. Saint Kevin becomes a priest and travels along rivers collecting Gregorian water. As you do.
Finally, day triumphs over night and a couple of jaunty chaps named Muta and Juva pop up and talk vaguely about beetles, a king and the story of HCE and ALP. They close with:
‘Muta: May I borrow that hordwanderbaffle from you, old rubberskin?
Juva: Here it is and I hope it’s your worming pen, Erinmonker! Shoot.’
A king and a tramp die. ALP seems to be trapped in a miasma of fairytales and dreams:
‘That was the prick of the spindle to me that gave me the keys to dreamland.’
She is surrounded by ‘Impossible to remember persons in unprobable to forget position places.’
ALP now gives us her version of events and her thoughts on her letter. The much discussed (but never seen) letter apparently contained proof that HCE could not have committed the crime in the park, as he was canoodling with a lady named Lily under a grand piano at the time. She speaks surprisingly highly of her philandering husband – ‘Meet a great civilian (proud lives to him!) who is gentle as a mushroom…’ Although, considering her own transgressions, an assignation under a piano seems pretty insignificant. We were warned earlier about the dangers of engaging in romantic pursuits with piano-playing lodgers, perhaps HCE should have been paying attention.
The close of this chapter and, indeed, the book is given over to a plaintive monologue by ALP. She is attempting to wake HCE, who might actually be dead by this point. If he has given up the will to live, I can’t say I entirely blame him. She tries to tempt him to awaken with suggestions of going abroad and she implores him to get up and put on his new big green belt. She then rambles on about ‘two old crony aunts’, who are reminiscent of both the gossiping washerwomen (one of whom turned into a tree) and the tale of the Mookse and the Gripes from Book 1.5. ALP is not fond of these two ladies, amusingly named Queer Mrs Quickenough and Odd Mrs Doddpebble. She also appears to randomly invent the world’s favourite search engine:
‘One chap googling the holyboy’s thingabib and this lad wetting his widdle.’
I wouldn’t advise googling this, but if you do, be sure to clear your search history. Anyway. ALP derides the two women and also the Four Masters. She firmly informs the unresponsive HCE that he must buy her a new girdle, before describing how she will distract herself from his failings by imagining him as an innocent young child – ‘The child we all love to place our hope in forever.’ She is of the opinion that all men make mistakes and all people are prone to failure – ‘It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fall.’
As ALP considers dying, she seems to forgive HCE and also herself and calls for a river to carry her home to the sea. The final line appears incomplete, but is in fact the opening fragment of the very first line in 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 commodious virus of recirculation back to Howth Castles and Environs.’
We did it!! Oh, we have done it, dear, sweet reader – we have completed Finnegans Wake! Of course, this is a mere glancing of the intricate and complex text and does not even begin to scratch the surface of this widely-studied work. With a book where almost every sentence is open to interpretation, it is likely impossible to provide a definitive synopsis. However, the impossible has always been a favourite of mine and I shall have a crack at an overview very shortly. In the meantime, I am off to have a lie down in a dark room – hopefully with a large steak and the biggest glass of wine you have ever seen in your life.
‘(for the farmer, his son and their homely codes, known as eggburst, eggblend, eggburial and hatch-as-hatch can)’
The farmer and his son are keen on eggs, I see.
‘He may be humpy, nay, he may be dumpy but there is always something racy about, say, a sailor on a horse.’
I have always thought this myself.
‘Grand old Manbutton, give your bowlers a rest!’
I wonder if this has anything to do with the aforementioned bootybutton?
‘A naked yogpriest, clothed of sundust, his oakey doaked with frondest leoves,’
This summer I shall be mostly wearing sun dust. (Also I wanted the final quote to involve nudity. And a priest.)