Michael Chabon on Finnegans Wake

Last month I found this issue of The New York Review of Books (courtesy of my awesome department chair), featuring an article by hipster wunderkind Michael Chabon about the year he spent reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

While not exactly a gloss, it is a piece where Chabon creates a clever framework for viewing the text.  To wit:

Other than its simple unreadability (indeed its apparent hostility to being read), the principal knock against the Wake—what Seamus Deane in his introduction to the Penguin edition calls “the gravamen of the charge against Joyce”—is that, in Deane’s paraphrase, Joyce “surrendered the ‘ordinary’ world, the world as represented in the great tradition of the realistic novel, for a world of capricious fantasy and inexhaustible word-play.” Eliot, Pound, Stanislaus Joyce, Frank Budgen, and other early champions of Ulysses found disappointment in this apparent surrender, and the truth is that, for all the real, nutritious, and hard-won pleasure that can be wrested from the Wake—as from a bucket of lobsters, by a determined reader with a pick and a cracker—anyone who has first loved or admired Ulysses must, as Joyce himself anticipated, find disappointment in Finnegans Wake.

Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with one of the greatest prose styles in the English language produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of “Norwegian Wood.” But to find disappointment in the Wake’s, and Joyce’s, supposed turn away from approved modernist procedure, derived from Flaubert, which subjects shifting states of consciousness to the same rigorous accounting as the bibelots furnishing a provincial lady’s sitting room, is to miss the point.

I also appreciate that he compares the Wake to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.  I did the same thing in my article on the Wake several years ago.  =)

Quotes, Pics, And Clips III


Earlier this year, I was looking to expand my musical horizons, so I dipped back into a resource that had done me well in the past: Michael Gelb’s How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.  Among nearly endless treasures are Gelb’s lists of essential recordings in various musical styles that best ignite the senses and fire the imagination.  Pay dirt.  Somehow I had never lingered on his recommendation at the bottom of page 118 of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs

I got a performance of these pieces by the elegant Renee Fleming from the library.  Here’s a video of my favorite of the four works, “September,” (though all four are excellent):

The lyrics are a poem by Hermann Hesse; a lilting appreciation of life’s seasonal changes, not with dread or with bombastic seriousness, but with a pure gratitude for the beauty inherent in natural cycles.  In English, the words are:

The garden is in mourning;
the cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
down from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
in his dying dream of a garden.

For a while beside the roses
he remains, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.


“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”         -John Adams

HUMOR:  from the 8/19/97 issue of The Onion:

“Nation’s Educators Alarmed By Poorly Written Teen Suicide Notes”

“WASHINGTON, DC—At the group’s annual convention Sunday, members of the National Education Association called for the formation of a nationwide coalition of parents, teachers and political leaders to address a rapidly growing problem: the alarmingly low quality of teenage suicide notes across the U.S….

“”There seems to be an almost direct link between the rise in suicidal behavior and the decline in students’ overall command of the English language,” said Bangor, ME, junior-high vice-principal Bob Drake. “If this lack of attention paid to developing writing skills continues among teens, we may need to start thinking about revoking their suicide privileges altogether.””


 “How good you are in explosition!  How farflung your fokloire and how velktingeling your volupkabulary!”  -James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 419:11-12


 “It’s not daily increase but daily decrease–hack away the unessentials!”  -Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kun Do

Lee would have gotten along well with Thoreau.



 “War should be avoided, as long as it is possible to preserve a secure and honourable peace; but… peace cannot be honourable or secure, if the sovereign betrays a pusillanimous aversion to war.”  -Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter XXXVRELIGION:  

“My secret is that I need God–that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”  -Douglas Coupland, Life After God

which reminds me:

“For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations…who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.”  -Doctrine and Covenants 123:12



Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinesses: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Jospeh Campbell’s brilliant classic, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (a wonderful tome of literary criticism that glossed Joyce’s Sphinx-like final novel through the lens of mythology) had been out of print and impossible to find for years–until it was resissued two years ago as part of Campbell’s collected works.  Being a fairly active Joyce fan, I asked my local library to order a copy.  Three months later, they emailed to say it was in.  That was yesterday, and I picked it up this morning.


Reading this seminal text reminds me of a silly but useful introduction to the Wake that I wrote a few years ago, and which was published in the Fall 2005 Common Review.  The idea was to structure my favorite trivia about it and advice for enjoying it around a parody of the first verse of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (see the bold headings in the piece below).  To tickle your logophilic fancy, here it is:

Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinnesses

ONE OF THE AMERICAN masters of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, once wrote about a book so alien to our finite minds that reading it for too long would drive you insane. He was referring to the mythical Necronomicon, but the description applies just as well to James Joyce’s 1939 opus, Finnegans Wake.

That weirdness makes Joyce’s last work inordinately unpopular. Finnegans Wake is rarely acknowl­edged, and even then often reluc­tantly, like Grandma’s collection of potato chips that resemble St. Jude. In the Modern Library’s infamous list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, Joyce’s two earlier novels, Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ranked first and third, respectively. However, Finnegans Wake came in at seventy-seven. A companion list created by online vot­ing also included Ulysses and Portrait, but left the Wake off entirely.

What gives? It’s not as if Joyce’s earlier works were easy to read. (Ulysses was only the second Eng­lish work of fiction to use the word honorificabilitudinitatibus—Shake­speare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first). But readers with some small measure of persever­ance could make sense of them. At least both Ulysses and Portrait had some semblance of order, with a plot, settings, and characters…Finnegans Wake has none of these.

Instead, the reader gets more than 600 pages of pure puns, allusions, and whimsi­cal riddles, whose loose association comes in the context of a dream (Joyce called the Wake the “night” companion to Ulysses’s “day”). In this dream, we find human archetypes interacting amid references to ev­ery tidbit of trivia you can imagine, with scraps of dozens of languages thrown into the mix just for fun.

In its most famous feature, Finnegans Wake abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence that continues on the first page, creating a circular story with no true beginning or end. Joyce couldn’t have told us any more clearly to leave our linear expecta­tions at the door.

So perhaps readers don’t like the Wake because they don’t understand it. My advice: give up! Comprehension is a counterproductively quixotic quest, to say the least. That’s because there is not much to understand. It’s best enjoyed simply as a swiftly flowing river of wordplay, and at this level of ecstatically abstract linguistic celebration, Finnegans Wake is the richest work in the English language. You’d be selling yourself short by ignoring it altogether, so here’s some advice for getting something out of it.

Load up on puns. Master word­smith Joyce had the time of his life creating his portmanteau “slanguage,” often sounding more like lyrics from Nirvana or REM than English litera­ture. Some favorite puns: a decidedly negative Yuletide wish (“End a muddy crushmess!”) and a snide insinuation about the morals of a Mormon prophet (“bringem young!”). Truly, Joyce had a well-rounded inventory of words, or a “volupkabulary.” Keep your eyes open for thousands of these.

Bring your friends.Want to one-up Oprah’s bold book club choice of Faulknerian fables? Round up your overeducated cohorts and throw the snarkiest literary discus­sion the world has ever seen. Take turns reading out loud, and brain­storm every interpretation and association you can. Nobody can find all the possible meanings of the text, much less notice its infinite references, on their own.

It’s one to muse. Don’t plan on reading this book cover to cover. That kind of compulsive guilt is sim­ply not worth the cost. You might as well pick a random number between 3 and 628 and start on that page. Don’t plan on going quickly, either. Like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, read­ing too much at once will only burn you out. It might take years before you read it all. You might never read it all. Just pick at it and find things you like, then let them marinate in your mind’s stew for a while. Joyce’s juices are exotic; let them simmer.

And use a pen. Before long, your copy of the Wake should look like some endlessly recycled poetry text in a college bookstore—hopelessly un­derlined, highlighted, dog-eared, sticky-noted, coffee-stained, and an­notated in your own swanky style. It will help your self-esteem to keep track of parts you liked and things you understood. Throw in some doodles and the Wake is yours.

Read far more lore. Each page of the Wake has enough winks at both serious academia and pop culture to make Ken Jennings dizzy. Make a game of it: see how many references to music you can find on 359.31–360.16. Don’t worry that you don’t know as much as he did. Joyce’s notes for the Wake spanned forty-seven note­books, and he spent seventeen years writing it. The most accessible guide to Joyce’s myriad references is Wil­liam York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Get it.

Be self-absorbed. The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “shows us noth­ing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Finnegans Wake does the same. That’s the plus side of a book so dense that it can only be understood as a subjective riddle. Whatever your memories and experiences, you’ll find tons of the Wake directed squarely at you. Say you come across the word “guenneses.” The former Sunday School student’s memories suggest the biblical book of Genesis. The linguistic puz­zler sees geniuses. And the drinker sees Guinness. All three are cor­rect—if only because Joyce was all three of those people.

If you haven’t seen your cup of tea yet, don’t fret; Joyce has something on the menu for you. That’s why the Wake is so long. Because it plumbs the murky depths of the common human soul, Finnegans Wake is every bit as universal as any play by the Bard (or, as Joyce refers to him, “Shapesphere”). As Joyce explicitly puts it in the text, “Here Comes Everybody.” (This is also why there’s no apostrophe in Finnegans–Joyce wanted to emphasize plurality, not personal possession.)

And now you read aloud the words. Joyce’s prose was his best po­etry. Like all good nonsense nursery rhymes, it’s even more fun to hear than to see. (Like warming up before a workout, you might try reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky” before tackling the Wake.) You will be surprised at how well it rolls off your tongue, like Irish honey. Listen to Joyce read some of it himself at http://www.finneganswake.org/joycereading.htm.

One more thing is worth noting to help you enjoy the ride. Joyce sug­gests a sort of setting for all of this monumental literary effort: the “chaosmos.” Get it? Chaos + cosmos = the whole crazy universe. What could be more welcoming? So relax, let go of your rational hang-ups, and get ready for a no-hassles guided tour of humanity’s collective id. Only in the Wake can you dream like this.