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…