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.