You Win Again Finn Again

by Thomas O’Dwyer

It seemed like a good idea. What better time than a pandemic lockdown to tackle again a feat that no human has so far accomplished and yet which seems to require nothing more than a comfortable chair, fingers that can turn pages, and a slice of uninterrupted time. It was another perfect opportunity to try just once more to read Finnegans Wake. It’s a book. How hard can it be? There are no spoilers here; it’s hard, and I failed and will most likely never try again.

Finnegan's Fall, from an illustrated edition of Finnegans Wake, by John Vernon Lord for the Folio Society.
Finnegan’s Fall, from an illustrated edition of Finnegans Wake, by John Vernon Lord for the Folio Society.

When he published Finnegans Wake in May 1939 after 17 years writing it, Joyce said that he wrote the book “to keep the critics busy for 300 years” and “the only demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” So far, so good – they’re still going strong, critics and masochistic readers, 81 years later. But most unusually, the critics began trying to decipher the Wake before it was even written. In 1929 Joyce’s friend Samuel Beckett and a group of writers produced a symposium on what Joyce then called Work in Progress. This was ten years before the final Wake emerged. They published their erudite musings in a booklet ominously titled Our Exagmination Round His Factification Of Work In Progress. We readers can’t say we weren’t warned.

Jerry Seinfeld is unlikely to pose the question, but here it is: “What’s the deal with Finnegans Wake?” First, what is it? The Wake built on Joyce’s already formidable reputation for reconstructing the English language – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, and the astonishing saga of one insignificant man’s ordinary day in Dublin, Ulysses. Finnegans Wake was something else – so dense, incomprehensible and apparently pointless that even today it is perfectly respectable to argue that it was a giant hoax which Joyce produced for his own amusement and to confound his critics. Read more »