27 August 2012

Wake me up

Sorry to sound like the grad student everyone avoids after the seminar, but I recently read Ulysses for the third time, and I have some questions, only not about Ulysses but about its notorious successor, Finnegans Wake. For a very long time (in fact, up until recently, when I re-read . . . well, you know) I had always figured that though Bloom & Co were worth the trouble, life was too short for the roiling and possibly pointless obscurities of the Wake. Now I'm thinking perhaps life is too short not to give it a try, especially since I suspect it's the sort of book that improves with re-reading. I do have kind of a compulsion to finish any book I start, so this is a commitment, though maybe what I really need to do is get over my compulsion to finish all books I start.

So my first question: anyone out there have any advice? The first time I read Ulysses I pretty much read it straight through. The second time I read it in conjunction with Gifford and Seidman's Ulysses Annotated. The third time I read it in the recent Oxford World's Classics edition of the first printing, which was kind of a happy medium between the two, since it contains notes and maps and suchlike but not to the detailed extent of Gifford and Seidman, which is a separate, Ulysses-sized volume just of annotations. (But I have to say if I had looked through a copy of that Oxford edition in a brick-and-mortar store I never would have bought it - the type is really tiny. I waited until I had my new glasses to read it and even then it was a stretch. Also, there were some errors and omissions in that first 1922 edition that are simply repeated, with the correct wording or dropped lines supplied in the notes in the back: but why not just put them back where they belong?)

So, for the Wake: read it straight through? or along with annotations or guides? (I did discover that there is a Finnegans Wiki, which might be useful if I'm reading near a computer.) Is it really hugely helpful if you read it out loud?

Are there any indispensable or at least useful guidebooks? I knew about Joseph Campbell's Skeleton Key, but the more I looked around the more there seemed to be. Anyone have any thoughts on them? I'm particularly curious about John Bishop's Joyce's Book of the Dark, because I was in one of his classes at Berkeley - in fact it might have been during his first year of teaching - only it wasn't a Joyce class (I think I read Dubliners in college, but I didn't read Ulysses until I was out of college) but a course in late nineteenth-century British literature. That was the class in which we were discussing the late Victorian crisis of faith and a very earnest bespectacled grad student (not sure why he was in an undergrad course, but there he was) said, "But does that mean then that there is no God?" And at that very moment, no kidding, one of our California earthquakes struck and the whole building shook. The large glass windows rattled with particular violence. We all laughed, nervously. Anyway I remember reading an interview with John Bishop after his book came out and he described it (the Wake, not his book) as a sort of lusty brawling comic romp, and I thought, But I hate books like that and I went back to The Wings of the Dove or whatever I was reading. But I also used to hate sea stories and now here I am reading Moby Dick for the fourth . . . oh, sorry. I guess I can't help being that guy. . . .

Back to the various guides and keys and analyses: read them before? during? after? not at all?

Also, what about this Restored Finnegans Wake that was recently published by Penguin Classics? I haven't yet seen it listed in the USA (except as a used book) but I saw it on Amazon UK. Some of the comments though make me wonder if this might be a repeat of the controversial Gabler edition of Ulysses. On a more practical level, it sounds as if the pagination differs from the usual editions so it might be difficult to read alongside the guides, at least for a novice. But I do feel that if I'm going to read something it should be as close to what the author hoped for as possible.

Any thoughts, comments, suggestions? I promise not to go around talking about "the first time I read Finnegans Wake" or anything like that.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I've forwarded this to a friend who might have ideas - which I'd be interested in myself!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you! I look forward to hearing any advice. . . .

John Marcher said...

My first time through Ulysses was in John Bishop's class and I would pass on anything he's written regarding Joyce- or any writer for that matter, as I found him to be a bit of an ass. Now if Robert Alder has written something on Wake, I'd say go for it.

But what I really think you should do is skip it, and read The Ambassadors.

John Marcher said...

Sorry, I meant to write Robert Alter!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm curious why you didn't like Bishop. I enjoyed his class.

Did you mean Robert Alter? I have some of his Bible translations.

I should read The Ambassadors, which is a gaping hole in my reading. I feel that after this bit of (unintentional) James-shaming the universe is now back in balance after all my Ulysses mentioning, which is probably seen as Ulysses boasting. We may now all breathe freely once again!

It probably would make sense to read The Ambassadors before starting on Finnegans Wake.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Ah, OK. Robert Alter. You may remember I used one of his psalm translations during my National Poetry Month postings.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That promise at the end? If you can refer to the first time you read Finnegans Wake, you get bragging rights.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks, but as with most of my art-related potential boasting, most people won't have any idea what I'm talking about. Maybe I should try to run a marathon? That's always boast-worthy!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I do realize I sound like a horrible person when I say things like "most people won't have any idea what I'm talking about." It's just an empirical observation. I mean it factually, not judgmentally.

John Marcher said...

I do remember your use of Alter's translation. Bishop included Ulysses in a seminar on experimental narratives (the other books were Gulliver's Travels and Tristam Shandy) and I felt he really didn't have much to say about it that wasn't in the annotated version and other sources. Plus he dismissed my very well-documented thesis that Ulysses is actually written in sonata form- so obviously he's a fool. If you do read Wake, my understanding from things I've read regarding it is that you might approach it musically- and, now that I'm riffing on it, if Ulysses finds Joyce writing a novel in sonata form, perhaps Wake is his attempt at twelve-tone novel composition :) I should probably check my dates before positing such an idea, but I am at "work."

Btw, the second time I read Ulysses (of course I DO have to mention I've read it twice) was during a Modernism class taught by Alter, which was incredibly illuminating, hence my comment.

Btw, I'm now reading Moby Dick as well, but for the first time- and am pleased to be filling a huge gaping hole in my own reading history.

When do we get to talk about War and Peace?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

But Joyce like Shaw is extremely musical, so just based on that I'd say your interesting thesis warrants at least consideration.

The modernism class sounds awesome!

OK, gotta go, perhaps more later. Thanks for your thoughts.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Moby-Dick IS the great American novel. I've read it twice and love it dearly.

Patrick, among your friends you would get bragging rights for finishing Finnegans Wake even once.

Civic Center said...

The only person who has ever piqued my interest in "Finnegan's Wake" is Philip Jose Farmer in his visionary 1960s novella, "Riders of the Purple Wage." It is a perfect piece of writing and futuristic imagination. His positing of 500 TV channels on large screens in everyone's homes and subversive 3D art done with light have even occurred in my lifetime, which makes me Feel Old. The short, dense, but easy novella is such an explicit homage to the pun-filled "Finnegan's Wake" that I felt like I didn't need to bother with the Joyce version. Farmer had given me the essence.

PQ said...

I would certainly recommend reading some books ABOUT Finnegans Wake before jumping into it only because you kind of need to build up a sense of awe and deep wonder about how incredible the book is, otherwise you won't be able to maintain the motivation to go through it.

I've been reading books about the Wake (including the Skeleton Key) for about four years now and a few months ago finally started my first official journey through the book itself. It's unlike anything you'll ever read, Ulysses included. The Wake tends to modify your experience of "reading".

Bishop's book on the Wake is generally considered the best book ever written on the subject. I've been putting off reading it until I finish fully reading the Wake first but I sift through it (Bishop) every now and then. Great book.

As for books on the Wake to rev up interest, there's a nice little book called "Riverrun to Liffey" by Bill Cole Cliett that serves as a great introduction. Bernard Benstock's book "Joyce-Again's Wake" is excellent. I'm currently reading Atherton's "Books at the Wake" and it's shockingly awesome for such a boring title and theme.

"Skeleton Key" was great but it's like reading a simplified version of the Wake---you still haven't actually had the experience of reading the Wake itself after 700 or so pages of reading. Plus some of their interpretations are out-dated (it was, after all, the very first study of FW).

The FW chapters in Anthony Burgess' and Harry Levin's Joyce books are very good places to start as well.

As for reference books, the key one is Roland McHugh's Annotations but I prefer to use a website called FWEET.org (Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury). The search engine takes some getting used to but it contains all of McHugh's notes and more.

Pardon my lengthy response but this is a big interest of mine. Feel free to contact me about it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...


THANK YOU! This is exactly the kind of information I was hoping for. I shall certainly mind my Ps and Qs. This is incredibly helpful. No need to apologize for a lengthy response! Go on as long as you need to in order to say what you need to say, is how I feel about it.

I'm wondering if you saw Michael Chabon's article in a recent New York Review of Books about reading FW? Your remark about FW changing your experience of reading reminded me of it.

PQ said...

Yes, I really enjoyed Chabon's piece.

And you're quite welcome. The Wake has been a deep obsession of mine for a little while now. I came across your blog because from time to time I Google around to see if anyone is discussing it anywhere. Sadly, it's not getting much attention these days.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I've printed out your earlier comment and am starting to compile a list (also an Amazon wishlist). . . I'm hoping to start something with the Wake maybe early next year (I've found myself in the middle of an even larger number of books than usual just now). Also for some reason I feel I should read Ellman's Joyce bio first.

Do you have a blog or something about the Wake? I haven't had a chance to look at your link to see. I'd love to read it if so.

Do you have any thoughts about that "restored" Finnegans Wake?

PQ said...

Reading Ellmann's bio first certainly makes sense. I hoped to do the same but wasn't able to resist the gravitational attraction of the massive black hole that is Finnegans Wake. I've read most of the Ellmann bio, though, and it is great reading. There's a bio on Joyce's wife Nora as well that's generally considered to be up there with the Ellmann book.

I do have a blog where I write on a variety of topics, Joyce included. The address is www.abuildingroam.com

I recently started a Finnegans Wake reading group here in Austin, TX so I'm planning on starting a blog fully devoted to the Wake very soon as well.

As for the "restored" Finnegans Wake, I've heard some complaints about it. Mainly, the guy who restored it is unpopular with the Joyce community because he's kind of a pompous douche who doesn't really contribute much. The "restorations" are mostly very minor (usually involving placing of punctuation if I understand correctly, or changing one word in a sentence) and don't add much of anything to the text.

A "restored" version also effects the pagination of the book which will give you trouble since all of the guidebooks and commentaries use the same edition.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the tip on the Nora bio. I know there's also a recent book on Lucia that I believe has a lot about the Wake in it but it sounded less interesting to me, based on the reviews I saw - have your read it or do you have any thoughts on it?

I also recently bought Exiles and Poems, figuring I might as well read those too. . . .

Thanks for the blog info. I will update my blogroll when I'm at home. (I live in California - work in San Francisco and live in the East Bay.)

OK, interesting thoughts about the Restored FW and it sounds as if I should go with what I have. Very funny about the pompous douche -- the entertaining inner worlds of things!

PQ said...

The Lucia bio does indeed have a lot about the Wake as it apparently argues that she was the muse behind it all. Haven't read it, though it certainly intrigues me. I've read lots of mixed reviews about it, seems the author really embellished the whole thing and put forth her own interpretation of the situation more than the facts. Still very interesting and I hope to read it eventually.

One could definitely have a hell of a fun time just reading nothing but the bios (Ellmann, Nora, Lucia, maybe even the new one of Joyce by Gordon Bowker) if you really enjoy reading that kind of material. Would certainly be much smoother than navigating Joyce's texts themselves.

Nevertheless, there are few things in the world that interest me as much as Finnegans Wake (with Ulysses not far behind) so most of my Joyce reading is devoted to those. I actually haven't read "Exiles" yet and have only thumbed through the poems occasionally.

You live in one of my favorite spots. Actually I've picked up some great Joyce books at the used bookstores in SF before. Also, maybe you know this already, but there are supposed to be some really good FW Reading Groups in that area, Berkeley in particular.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes, my impression of the Lucia book is that the author definitely went in with some preconceived notions and forced things to fit. I'll probably read Ellman and maybe fit in the Nora book as well when I can.

I usually go to Moe's Used Books whenever I'm back in Berkeley and I was definitely planning to check for Joyce books next time I'm there. As for reading groups, I'm kind of avoiding them at least for now because I already have a pretty busy and somewhat irregular schedule and I'm not sure I want to sign up for another big commitment like that - reading on my own I can fit in whenever, but groups have to be regular or they don't really work.

Unknown said...

Here's a transcript from a story I heard on the radio a few years back that kind of charmed me:

PQ said...

Thanks for sharing that, really enjoyed it.

Along the same lines, here is the transcript (and audio) of a Robert Anton Wilson interview all about the Wake: