Lewis Carroll seems an obvious precursor of James Joyce in the world of elaborate wordplay, and critics have long thought so. Harry Levin suggested in 1941 that Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty was ‘the official guide’ to the vocabulary of Finnegans Wake. Why wouldn’t he be? He was the inventor of the portmanteau word (‘You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word’), an inspired parodist of what Saussure later called the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign (that is, its being grounded in nothing but convention) and extremely proud of his ability to ‘explain all the poems that ever were invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet’.
Joyce, however, said in 1927, some five years into the writing of his last novel, that he hadn’t read Carroll until a friend ‘gave me a book, not Alice, a few weeks ago – though, of course, I heard bits and scraps’. The letter is dated 1627, so there may be a joke here rather than an error. Still, I don’t think we need to see Joyce as being disingenuous – David Greetham wonders about this in an essay in a booklet accompanying the new edition of Finnegans Wake – since we know what he could do with bits and scraps. In his letter he continues: ‘But then I never read Rabelais either though nobody will believe this. I will read them both when I get back.’ James Atherton, from whose admirable work The Books at the Wake I have taken these and other details, thinks the book given to Joyce was Sylvie and Bruno, and adds that Joyce promptly ‘began to study the Alice books and Collingwood’s Life’. Hence the wonderful litter of allusions in Finnegans Wake to Dodgson, Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell in various forms: ‘old Dadgerson’s dodges’, ‘Dodgfather, Dodgson and Coo’, ‘wonderland’s wanderlad’, ‘liddel oud oddity’, ‘loose carollaries’, ‘Lewd’s carol’ and much more, including anagrams and reversed spellings. Here is a more extended reference: ‘Though Wonderlawn’s lost us for ever. Alis, alas, she broke the glass! Liddell looker through the leafery, ours is mistery of pain.’
The new edition, about which more in a moment, has ‘looker through the leafery’ where the old one had ‘lokker through the leafery’. This gets rid of what Roland McHugh glosses as the Dutch for ‘tempter’, but allows us two meanings for ‘looker’. Both versions have the allusion I have just spotted to the song ‘Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life’ by Young and Herbert (from Naughty Marietta). ‘At last I’ve found thee,’ the line continues, picking up the idea of finding pain when paradise is lost, or has lost us. ‘Mistery’ suggests missing mastery as well as what we don’t know.
And there many have paused before that exposure of him by old Tom Quad, a flashback in which he sits sated, gowndabout, in clericalease habit, watching bland Sol slithe dodgsomely into the nethermore, a globule of maugdleness about to corrugitate his mild dewed cheek and the tata of a tiny victorienne, Alys, pressed by his limper looser.
The only change the new edition has here is a capital letter for Sol. ‘Exposure’ has several meanings, and ‘nethermore’ glances, I think, at J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, to give Carroll a little company. Just how maudlin one could be about Magdalen we shall never know.
Always welcoming to new echoes and connections, Joyce turns Carroll into a minor avatar of his dodgy hero, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, a man more sinned against than sinning surely, but also a little closer to sin than he will ever admit. That’s what the fall’s all about, we might say, whether it’s Humpty Dumpty’s (the figure from the nursery rhyme, not the philosopher of Through the Looking-Glass) or Timothy Finnegan’s, the labourer who slipped from a ladder and died; and whether the result is scrambled eggs or resurrection. Finnegan wakes from his death at the sound of the word ‘whisky’, but he is soon put to sleep again. Things can certainly go either way, and allusions to Burke and Hare, the Resurrection Men of Edinburgh’s medical school, both underline and darken the double meaning. They bring the dead back to the world, only to have them chopped up for research. Dickens makes the same joke in A Tale of Two Cities by inserting a body snatcher into the story of a man who is ready to die in the place of another, and who keeps quoting ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’
Joyce alludes to Carroll, then, but already had much of his own method. It’s worth pausing over the similarities and differences between the two writers, because we may understand the difficulty of Joyce’s work better if we do – understand it better, that is, rather than diminish it. Both Carroll and Joyce are interested in puns as forms of criticism of behaviour, even portraits of behaviour’s secret life. When we learn in Alice of a school where the pupils are taught ‘Reeling and Writhing … and then the different branches of Arithmetic – Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision’, we quickly translate the terms back into their ordinary classroom relatives, and then realise we shouldn’t be translating at all: it’s in their immediate, literal forms that an education is being identified. Similarly Joyce’s savage parody in Ulysses of the Apostles’ Creed as it might unofficially sound for the English requires us only to remember the echo of what it’s not:
They believe in rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.
Both writers like portmanteau words, although there is already a difference here, since Humpty Dumpty thinks two meanings are enough for one piece of luggage, and Joyce rarely does. Carroll’s character glosses ‘slithy’, for example, as ‘lithe and slimy’. He does the same for ‘mimsy’: ‘flimsy and miserable’. In the first case, Joyce would want us to hear ‘sly’ and ‘light’ and ‘slightly’ as well – at least – and we have seen him evoke ‘slide’. In the second case, he would no doubt expect us to pick up ‘missy’ and perhaps ‘whimsy’. Stuart Gilbert, making the same comparison with Carroll, writes of ‘foliations’ in Joyce, and of words having ‘ramified’.
But Carroll has a taste for sheer absurdity, the collapse or travesty of plausible meaning, whereas Joyce, as far as I can tell, wants only to multiply meanings, and believes they will never end. We might miss a few, or a lot, and he himself might not always know what they are. But they’ll be there, and some day someone will find them. This is a bewildering assumption but in its way a comforting one, and it doesn’t have the edge of Carroll’s parodies. Of his version of meaning grounded in nature rather than convention, for example: ‘“brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon – the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’ Or of the famous arbitrariness of the sign: ‘a “borogove” is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round – something like a live mop.’ Try working that out from the name. Compared with these astonishing jinks Joyce’s antics can look almost reasonable. In relation to ‘jabberwocky’, say, a ‘jibberweek’ seems quite familiar – we’ve all had one of those. And when Joyce recites the names of days, they too sound like many days we’ve known: ‘moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday’. Sunday is safe for the moment; safe because unmentioned. Sometimes the transpositions are even simpler, like ‘while the sin was shining’, ‘sneeze out a likelihood’, ‘call a spate a spate’, ‘whirled without end’, or ‘the late cemented Mr T.M. Finnegan’.
But reading Finnegans Wake is more than a matter of collecting one’s favourite quotations – even if there is a huge pleasure in that, especially if you admire truly terrible jokes. You have to like the sheer strain that goes into a phrase like ‘a pentschanjeuchy chap’, which comes in the middle of a paragraph mentioning all the early books of the Old Testament (including ‘guenneses’), especially if you don’t really know how to connect Punch and Judy to the Pentateuch. I think of the worst (best) joke in Walter Redfern’s fine book on puns. A person who has been given bits of greenery for her birthday instead of the colourful flowers she was hoping for decides to make the best of things. She says: ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’
Writers on or introducers of Finnegans Wake regularly imagine three sorts of reader or non-reader of the book. Philip Kitcher, in Joyce’s Kaleidoscope, lists ‘those too intimidated to try to read it, those who have tried and failed, and … those who write about it’. Roger Marsh, the producer of Jim Norton’s and Marcella Riordan’s haunting audio version, names ‘new readers’, ‘readers who have never been able to make much headway’ and ‘those who already have some familiarity with the book’. For good measure, there is also Seamus Deane’s group of untimid abstainers for whom the book’s taken-for-granted unreadability becomes ‘the pseudo-suave explanation for never having read it’. Of course these three (or four) groups may represent quite different people, but it is possible (I speak for myself) for one person to belong to all of the first three: to have tried without regarding what one has been doing as a real try; to have failed by dint of not trying hard enough; and to have written about the book anyway, because ‘some familiarity’ is not entirely nothing. I take comfort from the fact that Jacques Derrida manifestly (in ‘Deux mots pour Joyce’) put himself in this category, and for such a reader the scepticism about grand schemes or total understanding that we find in the best recent criticism is very attractive. John Bishop, for example, says ‘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.’ This is a brave claim, but it is true that the book is hard not to enjoy – it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment. Kitcher says he ‘cannot see how to read the Wake as a vast allegory of human history’, and does not believe ‘that Joyce has any great interest in large theories of history or any ambitious theses to defend in this area’. So much for Vico and Jung, and all those epic readings, like that of Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key, and even Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody. Finn Fordham, in Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake, wryly says, ‘It is one of the most enduring universal myths about Finnegans Wake that it is about enduring universal myths,’ and reassuringly remarks that ‘the first impression of a mix of recognisable sense and incomprehensible nonsense will always return, however deeply immersed you get in the book.’
There is an answer to a worry of Derrida’s here, and also to several groups of naysayers who appear like ghostly lawyers in Kitcher’s study, suggesting that Joyce is nothing but an annoying riddler, merely out to baffle his readers terminally. Needless to say, this is not Kitcher’s own view. Derrida reads and admires Joyce but is not sure he likes him, because Joyce writes us into the book we are reading, catches us up into a cultural memory far larger than our own. This is an act of war from the story or land of Babel, Derrida says, an ‘acte de guerre babelien’, and he is not sure we can like this without resentment or jealousy. He goes on to sketch various possibilities of escape from this dominion, but he doesn’t seem to put much faith in them. And yet, at the end of his essay/talk, he provides the answer in a series of brilliant questions. ‘Why does laughter inform the whole experience that relates us to Finnegans Wake … What does this writing teach us about the essence of laughter when it sometimes laughs at the notion of essence, at the limits of the calculable and the incalculable?’ The next sentence includes the phrase that seems to me to put the matter to rest (by refusing all rest, to be sure): ‘a writing of which we can no longer decide whether it is still calculating or not’, where ‘still calculating’, I take it, means still wanting to mean something, or knowing what one means.
Derrida returns to Babel and the war, but surely it’s easy to make peace with a writer who finally lets us (and himself) go in this way, and in their very different terms Kitcher and Fordham offer such a writer to us. ‘Our task,’ Kitcher says, ‘is to find a set of readings … that produce an illuminating pattern on the kaleidoscope – where the reader sets the standard for what counts as illuminating.’ For Fordham, Finnegans Wake is a book that ‘unravels … the universals that it seems to set up … because deviating detail overwhelms those unitary elements that attempt to secure strategies of totalisation’. ‘Deviating detail’ is perfect, and I would want only to linger over the laughter. Why are we laughing, and what can it mean or fail to mean that the book we hold in our hands has a joke in every sentence?
The new text of Finnegans Wake is ‘a fine art limited edition’ designed by Martino Mardersteig, with a Penguin mass market edition to come, we are told, ‘in due course’. Also to become available ‘as soon as feasible’, ‘as soon as circumstances permit’, is a hypertext which will include every variant to be found in manuscripts, notebooks, worksheets, galleys and the first edition. This vast monument, which its creators describe as a ‘landscape’ of editorial work, represents the skilful and thoughtful labour of 30 years, and will put the novel and its whole textual history within reach of anyone with access to a computer.
The book itself presents a ‘fully restored and emended reading text’, and the editors are both proud and modest about their achievement. ‘The new text,’ they say, ‘differs from the old in about 9000 instances.’ Then they say immediately: ‘This sounds grander than it is. Finnegans Wake comprises some 220,000 words, or about six times that number of characters: letters, spaces and punctuation marks.’ The changes they describe, and the ones I could find in a preliminary comparison with the old text, are quite small; but the patience and the care (and the good sense) with which they are arrived at are exemplary, and 9000 instances of anything will make a difference. An ampersand is different from the word ‘and’, it matters how far a line is indented, and ‘commodious’ in the new edition hints less obviously at the Emperor Commodus but leaves all the letters of his name in place. The correction of ‘many manifest errors’ was important, the editors say, but ‘the greater task lay in the restoration through emendation of the syntactical coherence of individual sentences as they underwent periodic amplification under the writer’s revising hand.’ And again: ‘Overwhelmingly, the changes pertain to the syntax (the flow of the words) rather than to the semantics (their individual meanings).’
This is significant because semantics are where most of the wordplay is, and the syntax is what provides (the appearance of) a logical structure. Joyce hints at this situation when he writes of his ‘iridated lingo’ as ‘basically English’, suggesting it’s about as far from Basic English as it could get but still thoroughly English in its basic structure. David Greetham, citing this passage, says this is how Finnegans Wake can ‘fill the reader with ideas without making every idea distinct and separable’. I have no real sense of what it means to say, ‘It’s an allavalonche that blows nopussy food,’ but I can recognise the mockery of a proverb – no, the mockery of the tiresome use of a proverb – when I hear it, and it’s the syntax that allows me to do this. Apart from that we can agree that an avalanche would be a hell of a lunch, and a suitable end to a jibberweek.
We don’t see much of the syntax when we take the favourite quotations approach, but the unchanged English words are often as interesting as the changed ones, or they bear more of the garrulous, obfuscated story; and they often have, grammatically or idiomatically, a voluble career of their own, as if a sentence were itself an overfluent ancient mariner or Irish raconteur. Think of the roles played by the words ‘a’, ‘of’, ‘had’, ‘or’, ‘brewed by’, ‘and’, ‘end to the’, ‘was to be seen’, and ‘on’ in the following sentence, as well by the almost audible ‘not’ and ‘nary’: ‘Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.’ You can hear the mythmaking in the logic alone: ‘Not an x of y had been z’d, nor was any end to the v to be seen.’ We’re already in the (sound zone of) the book of Genesis/Guenneses. Now we can work on the versions of the German words Regenbogen and ringsum (‘rainbow’ and ‘around’) if we like, although there seems to be some sort of royal brow present here too, and a relation between ‘brew’ and ‘brow’, and there’s an egg in the middle of the picture.
Just before the sentence I’ve already quoted with the reference to Tom Quad, we read:
Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude, the evidencegivers by legpoll too untrustworthily irreperible where his adjudgers are seemingly freak threes but his judicandees plainly minus twos. Nevertheless Madam’s Toshowus waxes largely more lifeliked (entrance, one kudos; exits, free) and our notional gullery is now completely complacent, an exegious monument, aerily perennious.
I particularly like the conversion of ‘deed poll’ into ‘leg pull’, and the almost visible plus fours. The new edition corrects ‘semmingly’ into ‘seemingly’, which must be right, although I do miss the hint of lemmings. But again, it’s interesting how much work, or in this case parodied work, the syntax is doing: ‘thus’, ‘did we’, ‘are’, ‘where’, ‘nevertheless’ – a whole argument in absentia.
Stephen Dedalus’s father was a praiser of his own past: Joyce himself was often the orchestrator of his own future. He fed hints about the structure and symbolism of Ulysses to Stuart Gilbert and others, he published pieces of the as yet untitled Finnegans Wake in Eugene Jolas’s magazine transition, he arranged for essays about the book to be published in the same place, and finally, in 1929, oversaw the production of a volume addressed to the ongoing novel. This was Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, mocked in Finnegans Wake itself as a ‘contonuation through regeneration of the urutteration of the word in pregross’, usually billed as by ‘Samuel Beckett and others’, and read now mainly for Beckett’s contribution. The other essays are by Marcel Brion, Frank Budgen, Stuart Gilbert, Eugene Jolas, Victor Llona, Robert McAlmon, Thomas McGreevy, Elliot Paul, John Rodker, Robert Sage and William Carlos Williams, and there are two ‘letters of protest’, the second written in a sort of Finneganese, and long thought to have been the work of Joyce himself, or ‘Germ’s Choice’, as the writer calls him. It turns out that the apparently invented Vladimir Dixon was a person called Vladimir Dixon.
Tim Conley has had the very good idea of reexagmining the exagmination, and of commissioning 14 different scholars to do it. One or two of the essayists are inclined to be patronising about their predecessors (Jolas ‘did not know how right he was’, ‘Williams did not get this point’), but the book as a whole represents a lively encounter with a strange critical moment: a defence of a book none of the defenders had read except in scraps, since it was ten years away from being finished when Our Exagmination was published. Patrick McCarthy crisply says, ‘As an introduction to Finnegans Wake, Our Exagmination has long been superseded by other studies, but as an introduction to “Work in Progress” it is still indispensable.’ Pamela Brown remarks that the often quoted prescription from and about Finnegans Wake – it requires an ‘ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia’ – ‘doesn’t sound like much fun’, and Jean-Michel Rabaté tells us why people have cared so much about Beckett’s essay, in spite of its being ‘apparently youthful, ill-mannered, conceited and immature’ – I’m not quite sure how far ‘apparently’ is supposed to reach into that string. It’s because ‘it contains the first and the best analysis of Vico’s structuring role for Joyce’s “Work in Progress”.’ Vicki Mahaffey, sympathetically reading Robert Sage’s work in Our Exagmination, reminds us how much ‘wonder’ is to be found in Finnegans Wake, if we take up its invitation to an ‘open and active engagement with forgotten or ignored dimensions of an old and richly varied world: dimensions that range from foreign languages to insects, from the geography of tidal rivers to soiled underwear, from nonsense to song’.
Fritz Senn, in his essay on Vladimir Dixon’s joking letter, says quite rightly that the puns come ‘a trifle too easily’, lacking the ‘generally blurred margin’ of Joyce’s words, ‘that aura of something not entirely fathomable’. He also says that passages from Finnegans Wake ‘often leave some semantic debris lying around’. Blur, aura, debris: is there an answer to my question about laughter here? We are not only or always laughing as we attend to Finnegans Wake, but laughter is never far away. The text indulges our taste for renegade readings as well as for literal ones, and the revolt against single sense represented by every pun. But even as we revolt, and congratulate ourselves on our acrobatic associative life, something else inside the laughter, something like laughter at laughter, suggests that we may not like disorder as much as we pretend to, and that there is usually more mess in the offing than we can quite see, especially when, as in Finnegans Wake, it’s all ‘quashed quotatoes’ and ‘messes of mottage’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.