If you want a guide through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake—the modernist author’s “wordiest aria,” writes Kirkus Reviews, “and surely the strangest ever sung in any language”—you’d be hard pressed find a better one than novelist Anthony Burgess. Not only did Burgess turn his study of Joyce to very good account in creating his own polyglot language in A Clockwork Orange, but he has “tastefully selected the more readable portions” of Joyce’s final novel in an abridged version, A Shorter Finnegans Wake. No doubt “pedants will object,” writes Kirkus, but if anyone can edit Joyce, it’s Burgess, who has written a thorough introduction to Joyce’s language, a guide to Joyce “for the Ordinary Reader,” and the most comprehensive summary of Joyce’s last novel that I’ve ever encountered—proving that it can be done. Finnegans Wake makes sense!… sort of…
But not, however, as any straightforward story; after all, writes Burgess, “What Joyce is doing… is to make his hero re-live the whole of history in a night’s sleep.” And what Burgess does is show us the complex scaffolding and symbolism of that dream. What he does not do is explain away the music of Joyce’s novel—for it is, after all, not only one long dream, but one long song, the “strangest ever sung.” We can hear Joyce himself sing from the novel’s Anna Livia Plurabelle section in the video at the top (accompanied by subtitles and a very cool animation, I must say). His lilting tenor enthralls, but his is not the only way to sing Finnegans Wake. Indeed, the novel, though very odd and very difficult, is Joyce’s invitation to the world.
And the world has responded (“Here Comes Everybody!”). Last year, Waywords and Meansigns, a Joyce project co-founded by Derek Pyle, brought together artists and musicians from around the globe to sing, read, and set to music the words of Finnegans Wake. Open Culture’s Ted Mills wrote a post describing the “staggering 30+ hours” of Joyce interpretation, and concluded, “Those who read this and feel they’ve missed out on the creativity of tackling Finnegans Wake, don’t worry.” The project was then soliciting contributors for a forthcoming second edition, and now it has arrived. You can hear it in full above, an answer to the question “How many ways are there to read James Joyce’s great and bizarre novel?”
Seventeen different musicians from all around the world, each assigned to render a chapter aurally. The only requirements: the chapter’s words must be audible, unabridged, and more or less in their original order.
We begin with pages 3–29, “The Fall,” read in a rapid deadpan over avant-garde free jazz by Mr. Smolin & Double Naught Spy Car. Next, we have “The Humphriad I: His Agnomen and Reputation,” read by producer David Kahne against a backdrop of minimalist synths, tinkling keyboards, and waves of burbling electronic noise. Perhaps one of my favorite musicians—whose songwriting has always struck me as particularly Joycean—Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE promises to deliver his musical contribution for “Shem the Penman” very soon. In its place is a message from Pyle, who urges you to sign up for the Waywords and Meansigns mailing list for updates. After his message is a brief excerpt from conversation he had with Watt on the bass player’s podcast.
Finnegans Wake, says Watt, “shares with Ulysses the idea of wanting to try and talk about everything.” Joyce, Watt goes on, wanted to “transcend” in his writing the circumstances of his troubled family life, failing eyesight, and financial difficulties; and he was also just “having some fun.” That’s also a good description of the various renderings of Joyce represented in this compilation as these artists try to transcend ordinary ways of reading great literature, and clearly have lots fun in the doing. See the Waywords and Meansigns website for production credits and a complete tracklisting indicating the specific pages, chapters, and sections of each reading.