Christopher Robbins, Finnegans Wake - Slightly Foxed Issue 22

Sound Nonsense

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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

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About the contributor

Christopher Robbins’s memoir of the Irish film director Brian Desmond Hurst is The Empress of Ireland.

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