‘Finnegans Wake is a load of bollocks, isn’t it?’
Forgive the vulgar language and crude critical assessment of a book held to be one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, but it was a view I held many years ago, and I was young at the time. It was, however, a genuine question arrived at honestly. The book confounded me. Gobbledegook . Gibberish. Unbridled, incontinent, non-stop, exhausting, professional Irishness – meaningless and impossible.
But God only knows what possessed me, an Englishman, to be so recklessly provocative as to put such a question to the Irish film director Brian Desmond Hurst. More than fifty years my senior and in his eighties at the time, he not only revered James Joyce but had also known him personally in Paris in the 1920s.
Brian did not answer at first. At length, he said, ‘That is your studied opinion, is it? That is your penetrating insight and considered intellectual evaluation of one of the great books to have been produced by one of the greatest literary geniuses ever to have come from a race of great literary geniuses? A load of bollocks?’
In the face of such icy contempt I began to backtrack. ‘Well, it doesn’t make any sense – you can’t read it. It’s a formless loop of puns and wordplay – language without rules, words spewed out without meaning. If all literature was like that nobody would ever read. I mean, okay, Joyce is a great writer – Dubliners, and all that – but don’t you think even Ulysses is overrated? Just a big literary experiment? Again, you can’t really read it for pleasure, you have to struggle through it – fight the damn thing.’
There was another extended silence. ‘It is generous of you to allow that Joyce has stature as a writer,’ Brian said at last. ‘However, we now descend from the brute assessment of Finnegans Wake – a difficult but sublime work – to the philistine dismissal of Ulysses, one of the greatest and most influential novels ever written.’
Like many Irishmen, Brian was quick with a literary quote to back up his position. He put his fingers together and closed his eyes as if in prayer: ‘“The dairywoman crouching by a patient cow at daybreak in the lush field, a witch on her toadstool, her wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs. They lowed about her whom they knew, dewsilky cattle.”’ Brian paused, opened his eyes to see if the words had found their mark, and closed them again: ‘“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”’ He paused once more. ‘As you will no doubt recognize – gems from Ulysses.’
‘Nice,’ I mumbled.
Brian took a deep breath. ‘In answer to your original question – you are wrong. Ignorantly, unimaginatively, enormously, Anglo- Saxonly wrong! Finnegans Wake is music. It is song and laughter. It is enormously witty and madly clever. It is a great Irish writer’s ecstatic expression of joy in the use of language. It is the endless dream of Ireland and all her history. A book for angels.’
The subject was dropped, and I never dared utter heresies about James Joyce again. However, further attempts at reading the book left me as defeated as ever. Must be an Irish thing, some sort of Gaelic code, I thought. My paperback copy of Finnegans Wake was placed back on the shelf where it sat, yellowing and gathering dust over the decades, unattended but patient.
Seventeen years in the writing, Finnegans Wake impoverished Joyce, who lost his eyesight and health during its composition. The book’s eventual publication was met by almost universal bemusement. Even Ezra Pound, one of the earliest believers in Joyce’s genius – and a close friend who had spent three years editing Ulysses – found the book incomprehensible.
‘I make nothing of it whatever,’ he wrote to Joyce, after reading the opening chapters. ‘Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp [sic] can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization . . . Doubtless there are patient souls, who will wade through anything for the sake of the possible joke.’ Pound made it clear he was not one of them.
He was even more dismissive in letters to others, describing the book as ‘backwash’ and ‘a mosaic of nonsense syllabification’. James Joyce drunk, he wrote, ‘was of no more damn interest than anyone else drunk’. Pound never came round, but he made an offhand observation that was unconsciously perceptive. Joyce’s mind had been deprived of sight, he wrote, ‘So sitting in the grove of his thought . . . sound, sound, mumble, murmur.’
Joyce took refuge from the book’s reception in irony: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.’ Sure enough, wave upon wave of scholarly code-breakers have brought their intellects to bear, offering interpretations from every possible perspective in volume after volume, many more forbidding and impenetrable than the masterwork itself.
More than thirty years after my conversation with Brian regarding Finnegans Wake, I wrote a memoir of our friendship. On the point of completing it, I travelled to Ireland on a sentimental mission to take earth from the grave of his brother in Belfast, where Brian’s ashes had been scattered, and mingle them with those of his sister on Howth Head, overlooking the sea just outside Dublin. The evening before setting out for Howth I walked around St Stephen’s Green and dropped into a pub for a drink. As I stood patiently awaiting the delivery of a slow pint of Guinness, a man standing a little way along the bar smiled and caught my eye.
He was a skinny fellow with high rosy cheeks and eyes that danced with mischief and the pleasure of being alive. A cheap, formless suit hung from him and his shirt was a dazzling pattern of tiny blue arrows. The tie was flame red with a knot the size of a fist. He began to speak: ‘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.’
As a man about to drive out to Howth Head in the morning, the coincidence of the words struck me as incantation and omen (Brian had been of a mystical and magical persuasion). ‘I’m off to Howth in the morning.’ I exaggerated a little: ‘To scatter an old friend’s ashes.’
‘When a frond was a friend inneed to carry, as earwigs do their dead,’ the man said, ‘their soil to the earthball where indeeth we shall calm decline, our legacy unknown.’
‘Taken from the sacred text itself,’ the man said happily, ‘and the glory is that this night it did not fall on deaf ears. Did not! ’
I smiled to myself, remembering the clumsy conversation with Brian so many years earlier. ‘Know any more?’
‘Reams of it. Page upon page. Chapter and verse. I drive people bloody mad with the recitation of the bottomless book. I cannot be stopped. I’m a man obsessed with the beauty of the writing and the sound of the words. And the humour and the wit and the endless play. Driven I am, seduced and bewitched. I don’t read the papers. I do not! Neither do I watch the television. You will not find me beside the wireless of an evening listening to the football results. Never! It’s Finnegans Wake that takes up my leisure hours – the reading of it and the reciting of it. I wallow in it. Rejoice in it, I do. Shout it out it in the bath.’
‘He’s not joking,’ another drinker at the bar said. ‘He knows more of that book than the Holy Father in Rome knows of the Bible. And that’s God’s truth!’
Thus prompted, the man found voice: ‘Renove that bible. In spite of all that science could boot or art could eke. Bolt the grinden. Cave and can em. Single wrecks for the weak, double axe for the mail, and quick queck quack for the radiose. You will never have post in your pocket unless you have brasse on your plate. Mind the monks and their Grasps. Scrape your souls. Commit no miracles. Post pine no bills. Practise preaching. Think in your stomach. Import through the nose. Let earwigger’s wivable teach you the dance.’
The words rolled out, natural and clear, and I listened with new ears and understanding. Enlightenment had finally come. Passages spoken aloud in an Irish accent, by someone who loved the prose enough to commit long passages to memory, released the book’s power. Its beauty had been unlocked not by a literary intellectual, but by a half-tight man in a cheap suit standing at the bar of a Dublin pub. Finnegans Wake was revealed as a work of sound rather than sense, a form of high falutin, Gaelic, literary rap. Ireland talking in her sleep. It was as if Brian had taken me by the elbow, and guided me into this particular tavern to receive a final, Celtic benediction.
I explained to the man the revelation that his passionate recitation had brought about, and told of my previous scepticism and bewilderment. He was exhilarated at the news of my conversion, a mood consolidated by the offer of a drink. ‘A pint would keep the whistle whetted,’ he said. ‘We will drink side by side beside the Liffey, and the sloothering slide of her, giddygaddy, grannyma, gossipaceous Annalivia.’
Joyce once said in an interview, albeit with a smile, ‘The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.’ The man in the pub had indeed devoted his life to memorizing great sections of the most difficult of all the author’s books. Since my induction into the mysteries of Finnegans Wake, I take it down from time to time and dip into it with genuine pleasure. Even so, the preferred dosage is a page or two read aloud, or even just a paragraph, but thanks to my improbable tutor I come under the spell of the almost trance-inducing properties of its sound.
It helped, on the evening of my initiation, to be in a pub with a drink in hand. After all, the hero of the book, the sleeping, dreaming, aptly named Mr Porter (aka Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker)
is a publican, landlord of the Bristol, city of my birth. But there is only so much genius a man can absorb over a pint, or even two. Unwilling to hear the whole of Finnegans Wake in a single evening, I made to leave.
‘Seen you off, has he?’ the other drinker said. ‘He never shuts up. It’s the Finnegans Wake morning, noon and bloody night.’
‘I will not shut up! My voice will not be stilled. No, not even by the intermisunderstanding minds of the anticollaborators.’ As I nodded and smiled, and backed away towards the door, the man was off again: ‘Big the dog the dig the bog the bagger the dugger the begadag degabug, this the quemquem that the quum, two hoots or three jeers for the grape, vine and brew.’
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © Christopher Robbins 2009
Illustration © Daniel Macklin 2009