Saturday, 4 May 2019

Happy 80th Birthday Finnegans Wake!

Finnegans Wake is 80 years-old today!  It was officially published on 4 May 1939, though Joyce had received the first copy from Faber on 30 January, in time for his birthday party on 2 February.  It was simultaneously published in London, by Faber and Faber, and New York, by the Viking Press.   

Publication also meant the revelation of a secret, which Joyce had kept for sixteen years - the title of the book.

This is the Viking Press cover.

Here's Faber and Faber's version. What they share is the reddish brown colour of the River Liffey, which Joyce had previously chosen for the Anna Livia Plurabelle booklet. He told an Italian journalist, 'The river at Dublin passes dye-houses, and so has reddish water.'

Apart from the covers, the texts are the same, and both publishers' names appear on the title page.

For publicity, Joyce agreed to a photo session for Time magazine with Gisèle Freund, in March 1939. This was the only time that Joyce was photographed in colour. 

Joyce also looks reddish brown, just like his book!

You can read Freund's account of the session on my post marking the Wake's 75th birthday. 

Time magazine put Joyce on their cover on 8 May. They have a framed copy on the wall of the Palace bar in Dublin (left)The magazine carried a long article, titled 'Night Thoughts':

'All children are afraid of the night; when they grow up, they are still afraid, but more afraid of admitting it. In this frightening darkness men lie down to sleep and dream. Generations of diviners, black magicians, fortune tellers and poets have made night and dreams their province, interpreting the troubled images that float through men’s sleeping minds as omens of good & evil. Only of late have psychologists asserted that dreams tell nothing about men’s future, much about their hidden or forgotten past. In dreams, this past floats, usually uncensored and distorted, to the surface of their slumbering consciousness. This week, for the first time, a writer had attempted to make articulate this wordless world of sleep. The writer is James Joyce; the book, Finnegans Wake — final title of his long-heralded Work in Progress....

As a gigantic laboratory experiment with language, Finnegans Wake is bound to exert an influence far beyond the circle of its immediate readers. Whether Joyce is eventually convicted of assaulting the King’s English with intent to kill or whether he has really added a cubit to her stature, she will never be quite the same again....

Joyce’s idea in Finnegans Wake is not new. More than a hundred years ago, when Nathaniel Hawthorne was living in Salem, he jotted in his notebook an idea for a story: 'To write a dream which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its strange transformations . . . with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.''

So the Time cover bears the text 'he wrote Hawthorne's dream book'.

The article also reveals that 'At present Joyce is not writing. His wife is trying to get him started on something, because when he is not working he is hard to live with.'

You can read the whole article here. 


'He devoured the reviews of Finnegans Wake, but quickly grew disappointed and even morose. As each one was read he listened intently, then sighed.' 

Richard Ellmann James Joyce, 1982, p.722

The angriest review was from Richard Aldington:

'Common honesty compels this reviewer to state that he is unable to explain either the subject or the meaning (if any) of Mr Joyce's book; and that, having spent several hours a day for more than a fortnight in wretched toil over these 628 pages, he has no intention of wasting one more minute of precious life over Mr Joyce's futile inventions, tedious ingenuities, and verbal freaks....the boredom endured in the penance of reading this book is something one would not inflict on any human being, but far be it from me to discourage any reader who prefers to use a perfectly good five-dollar bill to buy Finnegans Wake rather than to light a cigarette with it. (The latter of course will give more lasting satisfaction.) Translated into native Tasmanian, this book should have a well-deserved sale.'

The Atlantic Monthly June 1939

Malcolm Muggeridge was also baffled:
'Mr. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake faces the reviewer with peculiar difficulties. In the first place he cannot read it, only battle through a page or so at a time without pleasure or profit. This would not, in itself, matter so much; but he does not know what the book is about. The dust jacket, which might be expected to help, says nothing except that Finnegans Wake has taken sixteen years to write, that it has been more talked about and written about during the period of its composition than any previous work of literature, and that it would inevitably 'be the most important event in any season in which it appeared'.... Considered as a book, and considering the object of a book to be by means of written symbols to convey the author's emotions to the reader, Finnegans Wake must be pronounced a complete fiasco. Such a word as 'bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!' is not merely senseless, it is absurd. How many mornings Mr Joyce devoted to coining this particular word, I do not know; perhaps it only took him one morning or just an hour or so; but in any case he was wasting his time as surely as, more surely than, a village idiot trying to catch a sunbeam.'

TIme and Tide, 20 May 1939

The American poet, Louise Bogan looked at Joyce's claim that he was writing about the night and unconscious. She also compared the final published text with earlier versions:

'There is nothing whatever to indicate that Joyce has any real knowledge of the workings of the subconscious, in sleep or otherwise....The later versions of the fragments already published seem to be changed out of sheer perversity: a clause is omitted leaving nothing but a vestigial preposition; a singular noun is shifted to the plural and the meaning is thereby successfully clouded ....The most frightening thing about the book is the feeling, which steadily grows in the reader, that Joyce himself does not know what he is doing....To read the book over a long period of time gives one the impression of watching intemperance become addiction, become debauch....The book's great beauties, its wonderful passages of wit, its variety, its marks of genius and immense learning are undeniable....But whatever it says of man's past it has nothing to do with man's future...and there are better gods than Proteus...'

Nation 6 May 1939 

In New York, Alfred Kazin wondered about the book's status as a dream:

'How, you will ask, can Joyce know a dream? The answer of course is that he can't. In reality Finnegans Wake is a stupendous improvisation, a great pun. Even in sleep one cannot imagine an Irish-Norwegian brewer remembering words in a language he has never read....It is the sleep, not of one man, but of a drowsing humanity. All cultures have a relation to it, all minds, all languages nourish its night speech....As one tortures one's way through Finnegans Wake an impression grows that Joyce has lost his hold on human life....He has created a world of his own, that night world in which all men are masters and all men dupes, and he has lost his way in it.'

New York Herald Tribune, 21 May 1939 

Here's an anonymous reviewer in the Irish Times

'One feels its power, the kind of gleaming genius behind it, but no communication of anything is achieved.... There are moments of beauty, the measured sounds of lyrical prose which beat upon the ear, but which do not come into the understanding, and always an airy gesture beyond the words which make it as if Mr. Joyce had greatly enjoyed doing all this despite the torture of the sixteen years' labour that it took. Yet pleasure never altogether reaches to the reader....The reader begins to reject constructively the formlessness which is all around him; he tries to find a way out, to relate to some kind of plan of his own, even one of these, embedded pages. There are lingering lovely passages like flickers of gold. By following the small light they give there may be real illumination a little further on. But the light fails, and he is left to wander round and round in the maze.... It may appear, therefore, in the ultimate view, that although after Ulysses (Joyce) had no more to say, in Finnegans Wake he went on saying it'
The Irish Times, 3 June 1939
The most perceptive review came from the Scottish poet Edwin Muir:

'The book has the qualities of a flowing stream, sound and rhythm; the rhythm is sometimes beautiful, as can be tested by reading passages aloud....There are parodies of the sagas, skits on almost every style of writing, enormous catalogues in the vein of Rabelais, snippets of folk-lore, echoes of music-hall songs, all slightly dissolved, all tending to flow into each other, and producing a continuous effect of storytelling while continuously avoiding the commission of a story. To dip into this flux for a little is refreshing, but to stay in for long is to be drowned, 'with winkles, whelks and cocklesent jelks', in Mr Joyce's enormous Baroque moat. A reader might well cry 'Lifeboat Alloe, Noeman's Woe, Hircups Emptybolly!'

The Listener, 11 May 1939

The Wake's avoidance of storytelling was also discussed by Harry Levin, in Joyce's favourite review

'As a novelist he is, though not a failure, perhaps a bankrupt. He can no longer narrate; he can only elaborate....he has no story to tell. He merely effects a poignant kind of cross-reference.... Among the acknowledged masters of English – and there can be no further delay in acknowledging that Joyce is among the greatest – there is no one with so much to express and so little to say.... Sooner or later it gives a prejudiced reader the uncanny sensation of trying to carry on a conversation with an omniscient parrot.'

'On First Looking into Finnegans Wake', New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1939   

The Observer had the inspired idea to commission Oliver St John Gogarty - Buck Mulligan himself! - to review Finnegans Wake:

'When I think of the indomitable spirit that plodded on, writing Ulysses in poverty in Trieste, without a hope of ever seeing it published, I am amazed at the magnitude of this work, every word of which in its 628 pages had to be weighed, twisted, and deranged in order to bring up associated ideas in the mind....The immense erudition employed, and the various languages ransacked for pun and word-associations is almost incredible to anyone unaware of the superhuman knowledge the author had when a mere stripling. In some places the reading sounds like the chatter during the lunch interval in a Berlitz school. Every language living and dead in Europe gabbles on and on. But what is the motive force behind this colossal production? Finnegan’s wake [sic] may be the wake, that is the funeral celebration, as well as the panegyric, of civilisation. Resentment against his upbringing, his surroundings, and finally against the system of civilisation throughout Europe, perhaps against Life itself which Finnegan may represent, created this literary Bolshevism which strikes not only at all standards and accepted modes of expression whether of Beauty or Truth but at the very vehicle of rational expression. This arch-mocker in his rage would extract the Logos, the Divine word or Reason from its tabernacle, and turn it muttering and maudlin into the street. It is impossible to read the work as a serial. It may have a coherency and a meaning. What is wrong with the meaning that it cannot be expressed? Ripeness cannot be all in this instance, nor can a myriad-minded man full of infinite suggestion satisfy the reader with suggestions alone. Perhaps it is wrong to look for a meaning where there is every meaning. It may be unmodern to expect sense. Lewis Carroll stopped short brilligly, but this goes on lapsing as everlastingly as Anna Livia. There is nothing new under the sun: it is only exaggerated. This is the most colossal leg-pull in literature since McPherson’s Ossian. Mr. Joyce has had his revenge.’

Joyce liked this review. He told Frank Budgen, 'Gogarty is an athlete, a cyclist and a swimmer. He should know what staying power is.'

Henry W Clune, in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, on 13 May 1939, looked at many reviews. He concluded that the writers 'couldn't quite get at the thing but seemed to think that it must be significant. They felt a brilliant panorama lay before them if only they could get the swaddled eye sheets off their heads and have a long penetrating look....But for the life of me I can't see how anyone who is unable to understand Mr Joyce (and I have read of no who does understand him) should pay $5 for his book.'

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