Lewis Carroll seems an obvious precursor of James Joyce in the world of elaborate wordplay, and critics have long thought so. Harry Levin suggested in 1941 that Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty was ‘the official guide’ to the vocabulary of Finnegans Wake. Why wouldn’t he be? He was the inventor of the portmanteau word (‘You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word’), an inspired parodist of what Saussure later called the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign (that is, its being grounded in nothing but convention) and extremely proud of his ability to ‘explain all the poems that ever were invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet’. Joyce, however, said in 1927, some five years into the writing of his last novel, that he hadn’t read Carroll until a friend ‘gave me a book, not Alice, a few weeks ago – though, of course, I heard bits and scraps’. The letter is dated 1627, so there may be a joke here rather than an error. Still, I don’t think we need to see Joyce as being disingenuous – David Greetham wonders about this in an essay in a booklet accompanying the new edition of Finnegans Wake – since we know what he could do with bits and scraps. In his letter he continues: ‘But then I never read Rabelais either though nobody will believe this. I will read them both when I get back.’ James Atherton, from whose admirable work The Books at the Wake I have taken these and other details, thinks the book given to Joyce was Sylvie and Bruno, and adds that Joyce promptly ‘began to study the Alice books and Collingwood’s Life’.
more from Michael Wood at the LRB here.