On Finnegans Wake

A couple of weeks ago I gave myself the pointless challenge of reading every book on my eReader before the end of the year. At the time that was 55 books and that number included the unenviable task of finishing the grandpappy of all difficult literature: Finnegans Wake. Seeing as it had taken me a good solid eighteen months to get to about thirty percent of the way through it looked right away as if I was going to fail. So what to do? I had to either give up the challenge or make a good stab at this notoriously unreadable tome. Having already been through thirty percent (which, considering what this book is, is quite an achievement in itself) I was not looking forwards to the latter. And here we are almost two weeks later and somehow, SOMEHOW, I’m nearly through. I’ve jumped through a good fifty five percent of the book and at my present rate I’ll be done by Thursday or Friday. I really don’t know how I have done this but I have.

Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s fourth and final book, is not a novel per se. It is written as a mix of all kinds of different languages, portmanteau words, obscure references and absolute nonsense. Sometimes the sentences are coherent, sometimes they aren’t. Standard grammatical structure is an alien concept as are usual narrative conventions. As to what it is about… People have argued this for years and they’ll go on arguing for many more probably. Supposedly it is about a family called the Earwickers; the father Humphrey (HCE), his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP) and their children, Shem, Shaun and Issy… Some people say it is supposed to represent a dream, others a kind of metaphor for the Adam and Eve story, more still that is all nothing more than absolute nonsense and one huge joke on the part of the author. It could also tie in with the old Irish ballad of Tim Finnegan’s Wake (which would make sense) which is about a man called Tim Finnegan who falls off a ladder and supposedly dies. At his wake somebody throws Whisky over him and he wakes up. Joyce spent seventeen years on this book, going blind, and becoming increasingly frustrated at the negative reception it was receiving.

I honestly could not give you an answer as to what is about. As I’ve been ploughing my way through I’ve had a lot of different thoughts. There is definitely some kind of loose thread in there and bits of it make sense to me but an awful lot more doesn’t. There’s definitely an Earwicker in there and Anna Livia too, as well as Shem, but Issy and Shaun? Maybe I missed them. Falling seems to be a common theme. I’ve picked up on that, and maybe that ties in with the Adam and Eve idea and the ‘fall’ of Tim Finnegan. I’ve also caught a lot about Oliver Cromwell in there. It isn’t complete nonsense by any means, but a lot of it is practically incomprehensible. I’m not exactly an idiot and even I couldn’t understand it so what does that say about it?

There would have been no point in trawling through a book like this if I hadn’t learned anything from it and what I have learned is this- Life is too short to waste any more time than necessary on this. It exists. People can’t agree on what it means, what it is supposed to be about. More importantly, don’t bother trying to understand it because you NEVER will, even if you’re the smartest person there has ever been. If you really must waste time reading it do it for the glory of saying you’ve done it… And then forget about it.


For less forgettable literature, and if you would like to read a piece that is just as good as the one above, may I suggest Graham Greene… Or if Graham Greene isn’t your think then how about Agatha Christie’s Lonely God?

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