Hear an Excerpt from the Newly-Released, First Unabridged Audiobook of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Need one go so far in dig­ging out stra­ta of mean­ing? Only if one wish­es to; Finnegans Wake is a puz­zle, just as a dream is a puz­zle, but the puz­zle ele­ment is less impor­tant than the thrust of the nar­ra­tive and the shad­owy majesty of the char­ac­ters… and when our eyes grow bewil­dered with strange roots and incred­i­ble com­pounds, why, then we can switch on our ears. It is aston­ish­ing how much of the mean­ing is con­veyed through music: the art of dim-sight­ed Joyce is, like that of Mil­ton, main­ly audi­to­ry. — Antho­ny Burgess

Finnegans Wake is not typ­i­cal­ly one of those books peo­ple pre­tend they have read, and even when they have read James Joyce’s last nov­el, no one’s like­ly to bring it up at din­ner. It seems like mak­ing sense of Joyce’s poly­glot prose — full of pecu­liar coinages and port­man­teaus — takes spe­cial train­ing and the kind of ded­i­ca­tion and nat­ur­al poly­math­ic tal­ents few read­ers pos­sess. Crit­ic, com­pos­er, lin­guist, poet, screen­writer, play­wright, and nov­el­ist Antho­ny Burgess was one such read­er, spend­ing decades study­ing Joyce and pub­lish­ing his first book on the Irish writer, Here Comes Every­body, in 1965.

Burgess pub­lished two more Joyce books, edit­ed a short­er Finnegans Wake with his own crit­i­cal com­men­tary, and released doc­u­men­tary films about the nov­el, a book he made more approach­able with his plain-spo­ken sum­maries. From the start, in the intro­duc­tion to his first Joyce book — and against the evi­dence of most everyone’s expe­ri­ence with Finnegans Wake — Burgess insist­ed read­ing Joyce was not a rar­i­fied pur­suit. “If ever there was a writer for the peo­ple,” Burgess argued, “Joyce was that writer.”

What’s impor­tant to keep in mind, Burgess empha­sizes, even over and above con­sid­er­a­tions of mean­ing, is the music of Joyce’s lan­guage. One might go so far as to say, the book is noth­ing but lan­guage that must be read aloud, and, crit­i­cal­ly, sung. “[Joyce’s] writ­ing is not about some­thing,” wrote Samuel Beck­ett. “It is that some­thing itself… . When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep… When the sense is danc­ing the words dance.”

That quote comes from the lin­er notes of the very first unabridged com­mer­cial audio­book record­ing of Finnegans Wake, read by Irish actor Bar­ry McGov­ern (hand­picked by the Joyce estate), with Mar­cel­la Rior­dan. You can hear an excerpt fur­ther up, the first five para­graphs of the book, open­ing with the famous sen­tence frag­ment, “river­run, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a com­mod­ius vicus of recir­cu­la­tion back to Howth Cas­tle and Envi­rons.” Rolling Stone writes:

As it pro­gress­es, McGov­ern expert­ly nav­i­gates seem­ing­ly unpro­nounce­able words like “bababadal­gharagh­takam­mi­nar­ronnkonnbron­nton­nerronntuon­nthun­ntrovar­rhounawn­skawn­toohooho­or­de­nen­thur­nuk” (which con­tains 100 char­ac­ters) and he enun­ci­ates every con­so­nant in Joyce’s unusu­al word inven­tions like “duskt.”

Yes, in print, it’s daunt­ing stuff, but we should remem­ber that for all Finnegans Wake’s lin­guis­tic com­plex­i­ty, its attempts to cap­ture all of human his­to­ry, its illus­tra­tions of the obscure the­o­ries of Giambat­tista Vico and Gior­dano Bruno and so forth, at its heart, wrote Burgess, is song, which gave the book its title.

“Finnegan’s Wake” is a New York Irish bal­lad which tells of the death of Tim Finnegan, a builder’s labour­er who, fond of the bot­tle, falls drunk from his lad­der… This bal­lad may be tak­en as demot­ic res­ur­rec­tion myth and one can see why, with its core of pro­fun­di­ty wrapped round with the lan­guage of ordi­nary peo­ple, it appealed so much to Joyce. 

Joyce, the singer and lover of song, heard it every­where he went, and it’s in every bewil­der­ing sen­tence and para­graph of Finnegans Wake. Hear the entire book, read unabridged for the first time, in the new record­ing, released on June 16th, Blooms­day, by Nax­os Audio­books. Free alter­na­tive ver­sions can be found below…

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Gets Turned into an Inter­ac­tive Web Film, the Medi­um It Was Des­tined For

Hear a Read­ing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Set to Music: Fea­tures 100+ Musi­cians and Read­ers from Across the World

Hear James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Read Unabridged & Set to Music By 17 Dif­fer­ent Artists

Hear All of Finnegans Wake Read Aloud: A 35 Hour Read­ing

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Shaharee says:

    The hype around Finnegans Wake made my wife pick it up, but after read­ing half a page she almost threw it into the dump­ster fire. So, just for her, I set up a lit­er­ary art exper­i­ment in which I merged the most beau­ti­ful book in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture (the Kelm­scott-Chaucer) with its most enig­mat­ic one (Finnegans Wake). Both books had had issues with their read­abil­i­ty – the Kelm­scott-Chaucer with the used lay­out of the text and Finnegans Wake with Joyce’s sibylline prose. After weed­ing out this defects, this book’s stream-of-con­scious­ness stile still makes it a dif­fi­cult read, but you don’t have to be an accom­plished philol­o­gist any­more to read it (or alter­nate­ly read­ing a ver­sion that con­tains as many foot­notes as actu­al prose). Right now every­one can decide if this book was the biggest lit­er­ary hoax ever or the work of a genius (although, admit­ted­ly, I dumb­ed it down a lit­tle by elim­i­nat­ing the for­eign idio­syn­crasies and stream­lin­ing Joyce’s prose).

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