How to read Finnegans Wake
As a book that defies categorisation (it is part novel, part verse, part myth and part riddle) Finnegans Wake can be read in many ways: as a puzzle; as a stream-of-consciousness carrying an expansive flow of ideas; as a poem full of linguistic acrobatics and sounds to be savoured. On one level, it is an imitation of the subconscious activity that occupies our sleep, when the patterns that govern our waking thoughts are suspended. To this end, Joyce created a kind of dreamspeak. Filled with neologisms, portmanteaus and polyglot puns, it is an extraordinary attempt to inhabit a commonplace but elusive realm of human experience. So unprecedented was his endeavour that some doubted his sanity on reading the first published passages. But the book itself rebuffed them: ‘it is not a miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops and wriggles … it only looks as like it as damn it’.
'A great comic vision, one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh aloud on nearly every page'
Intricately constructed, the language of Finnegans Wake is supple and intuitive – in many ways closer to poetry than prose: ‘with her greengageflavoured candywhistle duetted to the crazyquilt, Isobel, she is so pretty’. Its playful humour is instantly apparent, even to the novice reader. Conflated words and spoonerisms reveal witty or bawdy meanings, or poke fun at various establishments. Self-referential jokes wink at the book’s complexity: it is ‘an allblind alley leading to an Irish plot’. Often described as musical, the language depends much on sound for its meaning: ‘Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft’. Words are melded and stretched; syntax is elastic. In this way Joyce conjures the unpredictable, boundless nature of dreams – their slippery meanings, their vivid and oblique imagery, their wayward chronology. But this world of sleep also encompasses many languages and mythologies, numerous figures from history and legions of literary works. On another level, the leading characters are fused with geographical protagonists: the city of Dublin and the River Liffey. Overarching all of this, the book’s circular structure embodies the theories of the philosopher Giambattista Vico, who viewed history as cyclical.
'If our society should go to smash tomorrow (which, as Joyce implies, it may) one could find all the pieces, together with the forces that broke them, in Finnegans Wake'
There is no set way to read Finnegans Wake, for its multiplicity – in each word and in its recursive, self-enfolding whole – is inherent and intended. As Joyce scholar John Bishop observed, ‘the only way not to enjoy Finnegans Wake is to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order’. Or, as Joyce wrote: ‘So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined.’
This edition has been set from the definitive Houyhnhnm Press text edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon. Their original preface is included, alongside Seamus Deane’s note on the new edition and David Greetham’s introduction. It has been many years since the last illustrated edition of Finnegans Wake. John Vernon Lord has illustrated numerous books, including The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, whose comedic nonsense words are often seen as a source for Joyce. Here Lord has created 12 intriguing collages. He has also written an insightful introduction in which he outlines the thought process behind each image.