Finnegans Wake

by James Joyce [Viking, $5.00]
MR. JAMES JOYCE is an author whose work must be approached with respect. A Portrait of the Artist was a great advance on Dubliners, but all his previous work was eclipsed by Ulysses, one of the most remarkable literary achievements of this century.
Finnegans Wake has been in progress for seventeen years, and at least four excerpts from it have been previously published. Readers have thus had time to make themselves familiar with the peculiar style Mr. Joyce has seen fit to adopt. And if these fragments seemed meaningless, there was at least a hope that the complete work would prove otherwise. 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.
Such a book is either impudent or insolent; impudent, if it is merely an elaborate hoax; insolent, if it is serious and the author really thinks that the world has either time or inclination to master a new system of Jabberwock English merely to read one book.
The problem of what Mr. Joyce has to say in Finnegans Wake may be left to those who have time and energy to waste. The reader who takes up this book for the first time will at once be involved in the problem of how he says it. Mr. Joyce claims that he understands and can explain every syllable of the book. Doubtless, but who cares? Readers are not interested in what the author’s words mean to him, but in what they mean to them. And what Mr. Joyce has written is G28 pages of pedantic nonsense. Prodigious toil and a wonderful mind have been wasted on the production of this book, which is Balzac’s unknown masterpiece in words. It consists of enormous wodges of ‘portmanteau words’— there is one sentence (pages 126-139) over 400 lines long — of Jabberwock words, involving punning plays on proverbs, popular sayings, cliches, nursery rhymes, slang, quotations and allusions, pigeon English, alliterative jingles, slang, foreign languages, and honorificabilitudinitatibus words. This heavy compost is frequently infected with that lecherous suggestiveness of which Mr. Joyce is a master, which was defended in Ulysses as germane to the characters, but which here seems to have no purpose more interesting than the author’s morose delectation.
Finnegan’lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helveticus committed deutefronomy. . . .’ ‘Margin,’ you see, is telescoped with ‘imaginable,’ ‘Leviticus’ with ‘Helvetius,’ and so on. Who cares? Sometimes the puns are agonizing, as Willingdone’s (Wellington’s) ‘pulluponeasyan wartrews’ — i.e., Peloponnesian War trews.
Let it be well understood that these are not awkward bits picked out with mean intent, but that the whole book is written in this — must it be called? — style.
Alice in Wonderland definitions: e.g., ‘brandnewburger,’ page 265. Footnote: ‘A viking vernacular expression still used in the Summerhill district for a jerryhatted man of forty who puts two fingers into his boiling soupplate and licks them in turn to find out if there is enough mushroom catsup in the mutton broth.’ Verb sap.
Alliterative jingles: page 250. ‘Lel lols for libelman libling his lore. Lolo Lolo libērmann you loved to be leaving Libnius. . . So what?
Nursery rhymes: page 511.
Pretty polysyllables: page 1. ‘bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronn tuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohooordenenthurnuk!’ (Accuracy of spelling not guaranteed.)
Such are the main ingredients of this ghastly stodge, repeated over and over again. 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 fivedollar bill to buy Finnegans Wake rather than to light a cigarette with it. (The latter course will give more lasting satisfaction.)
Translated into native Tasmanian, this book should have a well-deserved sale.