‘Three Score and Ten toptypsical readings’

Charles Peake

  • Annotations to ‘Finnegans Wake’ by Roland McHugh
    Routledge, 628 pp, £17.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0661 6

‘Because it’s there’ may be sufficient motive for the intrepid, but many are disheartened by the laborious hours needed to reach a position even to attempt an assault on Finnegans Wake. For such timid aspirants and for those in the early stages of fascination, Roland McHugh’s book, presenting information gathered by earlier explorers (including himself), will save months of preparatory toil. For those already deeply engaged, the Annotations will clear up some difficulties, point to some missed connections, give reassurance that no known layer of significance or allusion has been overlooked, and draw attention to areas still comparatively blank: ‘Hic sunt lennones!’ As McHugh must have foreseen, these are the readers who will welcome his book with the severest eye, and will send lists of corrections and suggestions for the second and subsequent editions. He has drawn on the work, published and unpublished, of fellow Joyceans, and can now properly count on their continued collaboration, having, as it were, made himself minute-secretary to the Here Comes Everybody society.

His knowledge of Wake scholarship is so thorough that one suspects some unstated reason for the occasional omissions and inconsistencies. Why, for instance, does he explain ‘Twone nathandjoe’ (3:12) by ‘two-one’, ‘Jonathan(Swift)’ and ‘Abraham’s son Nathan in Mosenthal’s Deborah’, yet ignore the much more pointed and relevant reference to the ‘Rebus’, attributed to Vanessa (who is named in the same line), which distinguishes two aspects of Swift’s nature conjoined in his name – Jo(seph) and Nathan? Why, on the next page, does ‘Sanglorians, save! Arms apeal with larms appalling’ (4:7) require ‘Fr. sang’ and ‘Fr. larme’ but not, apparently, ‘Fr. sanglot’? Why, of the allusions, in the first chapter, to the bridges of Paris, originally remarked by J.S. Atherton and repeated in Louis Mink’s Gazetteer, are some noted and some, just as securely present in the text, not? Why does the note on ‘Ap Pukkaru’ (10:17) record the slang ‘pukka: sure, certain’, but disregard ‘pukkaroo’, explained by Partridge in the Dictionary of Historical Slang as the imperative form of the Hindustani verb ‘to seize’? ‘Skud ontorsed’ (10:36) may relate to Danish ‘skud: shot’ and to ‘unhorsed’, but, since the ‘Lumproar’ is lying on his back, some reference to ‘endorsed’ and to the inversion of ‘Dux’ might have been more useful. Perhaps, at times, McHugh’s own familiarity with the text and its commentaries has clouded his judgment of what is ‘far too obvious to gloss’: it may, for instance, be why, in his comment on ‘He is almonthst on the kiep fief’ (15:34-5), he points out that a fief is ‘an estate in land’, but makes no mention of ‘on the quivive’. As he says, ‘it is not always entirely obvious what items are, and what items are not, in need of glossing’: the above examples, all from the first chapter, illustrate the varied difficulty of the decisions he has had to make.

The Annotations does not replace the work of earlier commentators and explicators. McHugh allows only two lines of comment for one of text, and, despite extreme condensation, has little room for amplification or cross-reference, and is often unable to squeeze in adequate comment on the multi-layered text. For instance, in the famous wake-paragraph, for annotation of ‘With a bockalips of finisky fore his feet, And a barrowload of guenesis hoer his head’ (6:26-7) McHugh can refer only to ‘Apocalypse’, ‘It bocca: mouth’, ‘Irish: fionn-uisce: clear water’, to Genesis, and to the song ‘Finnegan’s Wake’:

With a gallon of whisky at his feet,
And a barrel of porter at his head.

The principle of omitting the obvious presumably accounts for the omission of ‘bock’ and ‘guinness’, and perhaps it is as unnecessary to note the opposition of ‘finish’ and ‘genesis’ as to note the opposition of ‘feet’ and ‘head’. But only lack of space can account for the absence of any reference to the Joycean fusion of opposites which makes ‘finisky’ include (via the Irish form from which the name of Phoenix Park derives) the Phoenix, symbol of rebirth, and associates ‘genesis’ with a barrow or burial mound. Such complexities are everywhere and essential in Finnegans Wake, but two lines of comment are often not enough. It is remarkable that McHugh has packed in as much information as he has, but ‘a part so ptee’ cannot always do ‘duty for the holos’. What the Annotations should do is to send the ‘unquiring one’ in search of the fuller commentaries, and no doubt copies will come in time, like the parent volume, to bear as many manuscript additions as printed words.

Despite making Finnegans Wake more accessible than it was, McHugh’s book will revive old misgivings. After such learning and ingenuity as are here displayed, how much remains in darkness! Forty years have failed to produce an account of Joyce’s work adequate to justify the effort of digesting and absorbing its encyclopedic contents: as the song says,

’Twould kill any man twice,
To be eating a slice.

‘Conceptual continuity,’ says McHugh, ‘though hardly disputed by the practised exegete, is beyond the credence of the indignant beginner.’ The exegetes may not doubt the existence of such continuity, but so far they have conspicuously failed to demonstrate its nature. A Conceptual Guide to ‘Finnegans Wake’ (1974), the work of 13 distinguished scholars, offers 13 useful, interesting, tentative, partial, varied and sometimes incompatible approaches, in which the most continuous element is the recurrence of ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’ and other expressions of uncertainty – nothing to still the doubts of an ‘indignant beginner’.

Unrepentant devotees are sustained by a combination of faith and partial revelation: faith that a writer of Joyce’s immense ambition and grasp did not waste 17 years on decorating a folly, and revelations, often extensive, of subtleties and profundities of language and insight. David Jones has spoken for all of us: ‘I think the certitude that every fraction of it, no matter how incredibly involved it may be, has a positive and exacting meaning; that nothing, not a jot or tittle, is “accidental”, is a powerful incentive towards trying again to wrestle with it. When, after long struggle, some bit is illumined for one, it is always hugely rewarding and often superbly funny as well.’

But for all such rewards, the Annotations suggests that the time has come for renewed attempts to present a general prospect, which would enhance the temporary revelations by focusing and relating them, and would do justice to one of the great organising minds of literature. In the past, pretentious generalisations were made about Finnegans Wake, without knowledge of what McHugh calls ‘the genuine factual substrate’: more recently there has been concentration on aspects of structure and articulation: now we need new and improved hypotheses about what Joyce meant by his ‘experiment in interpreting “the dark night of the sour” ’. Vico and Bruno are important in their way, but criticism presents such an accumulation of broken cycles, incomplete cycles, multiple cycles and reversed cycles that the book begins to resemble a bad pile-up at Herne Hill. Joyce was interested in the theories only because ‘they have gradually forced themselves on me through circumstances of my own life.’ The next critical phase will have to concern itself with the book’s bearing on the circumstances of life, with asking what illumination compensates for its obscurities: the importance of the Annotations is that it should both facilitate the task and encourage many more readers to engage in it.