No. 1 – Begin the Finnegans Wake 365

mom and pop
My mom and pop making a wake in the 1940s.

07September20 — Today begins a Big Adventure — the Finnegans Wake 365 — a daily pic and post on my reading of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I plan to finish the book in a year’s time.

I chose Labor Day for the pragmatic reason that it was the nearest holiday to my readiness to begin this project, but such a day can also highlight the many years — 1922 to 1939 — that James Joyce worked on this book — which he called the Work in Progress.

Initial impressions — title — Finnegans Wake

  • No apostrophe to indicate possession in Finnegans, making the word more of a collective noun — Finnegans wake — and indicating that no apostrophe = no possession. Is this the loose marking of the poem rather than a typo? Certainly not a typo. What am I as a reader taking away from this lack of a mark that I expect to be there is such a construction.
  • Wake = awake, awakening?
  • Wake = boat wake (like mom and dad in the photo above).
  • Wake = woke?
  • Finnegans Wake as a call to action. As in “Finnegans! Wake up, y’all!

Wake is a process word that refers to a span of time — the actualizing of motion, even after the boat making the wave has moved on out of sight but still present in the mind and the memory, or in a photo, like leaves trembling from a puff of wind. cf Wake of the Flood (laughing waters), Grateful Dead 1973.

Therefore (maybe) Finnegan’s wake is what Finnegan left behind when he left this life for the next one.

Initial impressions — author

  • James Joyce parses into a masculine first name and a feminine last name, making his full name a marriage of contrary but mutually attracting aspects of persons male and female.

And so to begin with the text itself.

The beginning goes like this:

[indent] “river run, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

[Howth Castle q.v.]

It is arresting that Joyce chose this point to interrupt the circle of his story — making this the portal to the rest of his writing about Finnegans wake. The reader goes backward to check the end of the text and quickly realizes that the end elides into the beginning. c.f. the grimoire, which is said to be a magical text that is to be read backward to erase a spell, or the ouroboros, symbol of renewal of snake eating its tail thus forming a circle that can become a noose if the snake is hungry. In Finnegans Wake, the circle is broken to show a portal for the reader, like the established and clearly marked entry to a maze or a labyrinth. This begs the question of whether the circle of the text is an artifact or a path with no end or beginning save the present one created by the author. Does one like Sisyphus go round and round without stopping, ever.

The text is an artifact in the sense that one circuit is a full reading, and the novel is a path in the sense of a well-marked way meant to be taken.

Let’s do a thought experiment of creating an alternative opening to the book:

[indent] “A way a lone a last a loved a long the … river run, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Not an option.

I see three things to consider —

  • “… by a commodious vicus of recirculation …” — This is more than just words at play or letters in search of meaning. It serves as a hint of the way the book can work for the reader, as a recirculation, or going round and round, but for what purpose? Who knows at this point a few words into the text. This phrase also brings up the question of whether we are, as readers, to make a sense of the book for ourselves or to simply surf in the wake of HMS James Joyce. (More on this in a moment.)
  • “… Eve and Adam’s …” — the phrase suggests “Adam and Eve’ but is inverted, and Adam is rather Adam’s. Further, the phrase is not “Eve’s and Adam’s” but something they posses together as in “Eve and Adam’s”. There is also a suggestion that what Eve and Adam’s would be is Eden, and we are going right past it because we are doomed to live east of Eden because of their and our choices.
  • “… Howth Castle and Environs …” — Let us consult Wikipedia:
    “Howth Castle (/ˈhoʊθ/ HOHTH) and estate lie just outside the village of Howth, County Dublin in Ireland, in the administration of Fingal County Council. The castle was the ancestral home of the line of the St Lawrence family (see: Earl of Howth) that had held the area since the Norman Invasion of 1180, and held the title of Lord of Howth until circa 1425, the Baron Howth to 1767, then Earl of Howth until 1909. The castle and estate are held since 1909 by their distaff heirs, the Gaisford-St Lawrence family.
    “The estate includes much of the peninsula of Howth Head, including extensive heathland and much of the famous Howth cliff walks, with views over Dublin Bay, light woodland, and the island of Ireland’s Eye. On the grounds near the castle are golf, pitch and putt and footgolf facilities, a former hotel, formal gardens and a pond, rhododendron walks – and several small streams pass through the estate.
    “Legend: A popular legend about the castle concerns an incident that allegedly occurred in 1576. During a trip from Dublin, the Gaelic chieftain and “pirate queen” Gráinne O’Malley attempted to pay a courtesy visit to the 8th Baron Howth. However, she was informed that the family was at dinner and the castle gates were closed against her. In retaliation, she abducted the grandson and heir, the 10th Baron. He was eventually released when a promise was given to keep the gates open to unexpected visitors, and to set an extra place at every meal. At Howth Castle today, this agreement is still honoured by the descendants of the Baron.
    “Literature: The locale of James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake is “Howth Castle and Environs,” which is taken to mean Dublin, and it begins and ends with a reference to this. The initials HCE appear in many contexts in the novel, not least in the name of its presumed main character, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. There are also more than a dozen references to Howth … and the rhododendron walks near the castle, in Ulysses.”

I own three copies of Ulysses, a hardcover version (c.1971 reprint by The Riverside Press, Whitstable of a first published version by Faber and Faber c. 1939; a large trade paperback with some resale value; and a cheap but effective softcover version by Wordsworth Classics c. 2012. I am using the hardcover for my reading project out of a preference for hardcover over softcover. The Wordsworth Classics issue, however, is excellent in its typeface size and the introduction by Len Platt, based on his book James Joyce: Text and Contexts (Continuum, London, c. 2011). Platt addresses many relevant topics —

  • p. vi — crazy or not crazy — “… it seemed that with this extraordinary production Joyce had finally lost his wits … .”
  • p. vi — naive narrative — “Whether dream, madness or not, the Wake has no discernible singular narrative. It does seem to revolve around dozens of tiny stories repeated over and over. …. it is impossible to recover one reliable narrative framework — although many critics have tried.” [.e.g. Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key to ‘Finnegans Wake’, c. 1947; William York Tindall, A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, c. 1959; Adaline Glasheen, Third Census of Finnegns Wake: An Index of Characters and Their Roles, c. 1977; and Ford Fordham, Lots of Fun at ‘Finegans Wake’; Unraveling Universals, c. 2007.]
  • p. vi — circular path? “The ending famously joins up with the beginning, which implies that it is possible to enter the Wake at any stage with no loss to understanding, or misunderstanding.”
  • p. vi – vii — a window boarded over — “… disconcerting departures from conventions of the novel extend to and are embodied in the language of the Wake. … for most readers it is virtually unreadable, not because it has no meaning but on the contrary, because it allows for such potentiality of meaning — to the extent the some readers have claimed it can mean anything and everything.”
  • p. vii — an articulation of my aim in journaling re: the Wake — “Even more than Ulysses, the book seems to imply, as Joyce well understood, a new kind of devotee, one with endless time at his or her disposal and a willingness not just to read this text but somehow to study and research it for all its seemingly endless possibilities.”

I am reminded of a comment by the novelist Henry James that the reader should do half of the work. This is behind my site subtitle, Writers who come halfway for readers.

Here is a citation of where this idea by James appears:

“In the prefaces (to The Aspern Papers), James often avoids dictating to us how we should interpret his works; he refuses to give us too much guidance on the thematics of his fiction. As James states in an early review of George Eliot’s works: “In every novel the work is divided between the writer and the reader; but the writer makes the reader very much as he makes his characters. When he makes him ill, that is, makes him indifferent, he does no work; the writer does all. When he makes him well, that is, makes him interested, then the reader does quite half the labor.” Because James believed that a reader should do half the work, he probably felt no obligation to explain to us in the prefaces how to interpret his fiction: he had already left his clues in the fiction itself. Certainly James worked very hard on the revisions of The Aspern Papers to make it even more obvious than before that the story is not primarily about the visitable past but about the narrator, his manipulations and morality (or lack thereof), and his loss.”

Citations —
— “The Novels of George Eliot,” in Henry James: Literary Criticism, ed. Leon Edel and Mark Wilson, (New York: Library of America, I984), p. 922.
— from Revising Henry James: Reading the Spaces of The Aspern PapersAuthor(s): Ellen Brown Source: American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Jun., 1991), pp. 263-278 Published by: Duke University Press, as printed at

Continuing quotes from Len Platt:

  • p. vii — a new style/language — “… unlike Ulysses, the Wake is comprised not of many styles but, other, of one extremely dense, tongue-twisting Wake style based on English vocabulary and syntax, but at the same time, self-consciously designed as a ‘machine’ that systematically appears to resist any singularity of meaning.”
  • p. vii — and why is this? — “… not exactly a new language, but a new kind of language, one that works not to stabilize the world but, rather, to unfix it in a wild diversity of possible or potential significance.”
  • p. vii — genetic criticism q.v. — “… genetic criticism — the study of how a text develops — has moved to the forefront (of critical work re: Joyce).”

3 thoughts on “No. 1 – Begin the Finnegans Wake 365”

  1. Pingback: No. 1 – Begin the Finnegans Wake 365 – Jon R-G's Portal

  2. Pingback: My *other blog* is a wild ride - Remainder Marks

  3. Pingback: No. 187 - A paws at halfway +3 (or 4) - Uneasy Reads

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