First, don’t be afraid of the big bad Wake.  Reading it is an
adventure, not a punishment. Consider it a rite of passage,
or as the literary equivalent of one of those extreme sports
they put on ESPN2 after midnight.  It isn't supposed to be easy,
but with the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyed.  Even if you
fail to complete the course, you can walk away proud and with
something to show from the experience—if only a Joycean
evocation of a thunderclap (see below).  


Did I say it wouldn't be easy?

My favorite
Finnegans Wake anecdote:  On Good Friday in
the year 1938, the writer Jacques Mercanton paid a call on
his friend James Joyce.  He found the author deep in
conference with lit scholar Stuart Gilbert—Joyce was
distrubed that a passage in
Finnegans Wake was "still not
obscure enough." The solution:  Joyce decided to add
some words from the language of the Samoyedic peoples
of Siberia.

Gilbert concurred, but noted it was a "dog of a tongue"—
a punning reference to the Samoyed breed of canine.
Joyce, never to be outdone with a pun, agreed that the
language was indeed a "bitch."


The good news is that there are still a few thousand native
speakers of Samoyed in the world.  Perhaps you will be
sitting next to one when you get to that part of the book.  


Okay, it won’t be easy.  But a smart explorer always comes
with a toolkit.  Look in the sidebar (or click
here) to find out
how I equipped myself for my exploration of
Finnegans Wake.
Every adventurer needs to decide how much baggage to
bring along.  If you want to travel light, I would simply pack
a copy of
William York Tindall's guide to Finnegans Wake.  
It will fit in a pocket and won't slow you down.  I needed
more tools, and so came with a lot more equipment.  
How adventurous are you?  How much support do you need?
Only you can decide.


The single best piece of advice for reading Finnegans Wake:
read it aloud.   A friend gave me this tip before I started, and I
stuck with it for the entire course of the book.  I don't usually
read prose aloud, and there's only one other long book that I've
read aloud from front to back (with the exception of those
Potter and Narnia books I read to my children when they were
growing up), namely the King James version of the
Finnegans Wake aloud not only brings out the
visceral flow of the work, but it also unlocks many hidden
meanings.  Joyce often disguises his puns and allusions
with peculiar spellings and verbal distortions.  Sometimes
these are hidden on the printed page, but are made obvious
when spoken.


Definitely listen to Joyce reading a section from Finnegans
.  You can find it on YouTube (here's the link).


Also consider going for group therapy.  No, not that kind of
group therapy, but to one of the many
Wake cohorts where
you can  join other adventurers in reading and discussing
the book.  
Here’s a link to the online directory of Finnegans
reading groups    As you can see, you will find daring
literary explorers everywhere from Adelaide (Australia) to
Zurich (Switzerland).


There are two ways of approaching this book.  You can
take an analytical approach, and focus your energy on
unlocking the many hidden meanings. Or you can view
Finnegans Wake as a kind of music, and get carried
away on the flow of the words.  As you can hear in
Joyce's recorded reading, he emphasizes the music,
delivering the text in a sing-song chant.

Both of these approaches can be pushed too far.  If you
get obsessed with unlocking the meaning of the text, you
will never finish the book, because even the most
determined Joyceans haven’t come close to exhausting
the layers of hidden signification in this book.  On the
other hand, if you just treat
Finnegans Wake as a melody
or chant, you will miss the ingenuity and intelligence that
Joyce packed into his prose.  

"There are no nonsense syllables in Joyce!" Joseph
Campbell assures us.  I'm not sure I would go quite so far.
James Joyce would have been the last author to dismiss
nonsense.  Even Campbell, although he made his best effort
with his book
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake to discern
Joyce's intentions, frequently must have despaired over
the many opaque passages.  But after 75 years of textual
scrutiny, we can confidently assert that Joyce inserted levels
of signification in this book that no one was likely to
comprehend in his own lifetime.  And we can safely disregard
the verdict of Joyce's friend-and-adversary Oliver Gogarty,
who declared that his former roommate had perpetrated "a
gigantic hoax...one of the most enormous leg-pulls in history."
Joyce labored over this text for seventeen years, and he
put far more into
Finnegans Wake than anyone has yet
extracted from it.   He had confidence that  this novel would
be studied by later scholars, and deliberately put in
ingredients that would challenge and delight them.


James Joyce admitted as much.  He claimed that his book
would "keep the critics busy for three hundred years."  Okay,
we've been at it for 75 years—so we are 25% of the way
through the project.  

Unfortunately our progress is slowing down.  And I suspect
that Joyce put a few mysteries in the book that no one will
ever notice, let alone solve, even with infinite time and
Google's best search algorithms.


My advice is to take a balanced approach.  Do some
research before tackling each chapter in
Finnegans Wake.  
And then try to make the actual reading of the chapter into a
kind of musical performance.  


Also beware of searching too hard for hidden meanings in
this text.  Some people will tell you that Joyce anticipated
everything from television to atomic power in this novel.  
If you scrutinize it too much, you will be convinced that
Joyce predicted Twitter (see page 9, line 16 of
), as well as Google (page 620, line 22), email (page
575, line 16) and  friends with benefits (page  360, line 16).  
Although, in the latter instance, be aware that Joyce has
trouble distinguishing between secret hookups and the
Egyptian deity Sekhet Hetep.  


What happens when people scrutinize this text too closely?  
Check out this collection of possible symbols and allusions
in the first sentence of the novel.  As you will see, scholars
have seized on dozens of "clues" in this sentence.  Clearly
Joyce intended many, perhaps most of these, but you will
also get a sense of how you can overreach in finding patterns
and meanings.

EXHIBIT A    (click to enlarge)


And here’s the Joycean thunderclap I promised above.  There
are ten of these thunderings in
Finnegans Wake, but this is the
salacious one, suitable for entertaining bohemian and louche
party guests:



Fortunately Joyce built various ‘failsafe’ mechanisms into
his text.  So if you miss something the first time around, you
will get another chance to grapple with it later.   

For example, if you don't understand the symbolism of
Wellington and his monument in chapter one, you will get  
another chance at the end of the book—and along the way,
you will find references to Wellinghof, Wellingthund,
Wellingtonia, wellingtonorseher, Wei-Ling-Taou,
wheywingingly, Whiddington, etc. etc.  Sooner or later,
you will figure it out.  If you didn't grok the story of Buckley
and the Russian general at its first telling, you might latch
on to it the second, third, fourth or fifth time it enters the text.  
If you struggle with the conversation between Mutt and Jute
in chapter one, it will get re-echoed in later dialogues
between Butt and Taff and Muta and Juva.  And even if
you still don’t comprehend their conversation at that point,
you can take some comfort in knowing that they didn't either
—see, among other things, Joyce is playing on the idea of
a dialogue between the deaf and the mute.  If you can’t figure
out the details of the hero's scandalous indiscretion in a
public park the first time around, it will get told and retold
many times in the pages ahead.  If you miss a pun, there
are still thousands more waiting for you before
comes to an end.  

In fact, the book doesn't come to an end.  It just connects
back to the beginning.  So the truest statement once can
make about this novel is:  Whether you understand it or not,
it will come back again.  To some extent, that’s the 'meaning'
of the book.  


Joyce's zeal for repetition and variation provide the key to
unlocking the more difficult passages in
Finnegans Wake.  
When lost in one of these apparently impenetrable sections
of the novel, look for the recurring signposts.  When Joyce
wants to call your attention to something, he doesn't just
mention it once, but will usually insert several telltale words,
puns or phrases. These will usually be clustered together in
close proximity, and juxtaposed with other recurring symbols.  
With each repetition in the book, these markers take on
deeper meaning and new associations.  Once you under-
stand their bearing on the passage in question, you will notice
other resonances that you missed at first.  Puns and wordplay
will become obvious.  The meaning of previously obscure
phrases will become clear.  


When all else fails, try reading the word backwards.  

Doog kcul!


John Bishop, one of the more skilled explorers in the
deeper caverns of
Finnegans Wake, offers similar advice.  
Don’t read this novel "linearly and literally," he suggests.  
Instead, "we interpret it as we might interpret a dream, by
eliciting from the absurd murk a network of overlapping
and associatively interpenetrating structures."

Joseph Campbell breaks down this process into three
parts: "(1) discovering the key word or words, (2) defining
one or more of them, so that the drift of Joyce's thought
becomes evident, (3) brooding awhile over a paragraph,
to let the associations running out from the key centers
gradually animate the rest of the passage."

Brooding is the most important part....


Yet, even when you have finished your adventure, there will
still be terrain left unexplored.  There is always a deeper
cavern still hidden in darkness. If you can decipher the
easier passages, you can go for harder ones.  And if you
master those, you will find still more formidable passages
awaiting your interpretation.  Eventually you might even be
able to answer Joyce's question when he asks:

"Evilling chimbes is smutsick rivulverblott but thee hard
casted thereass pigstenes upann Congan's shootsmen
in Schot- tenhof, ekeascent?"  
(Finnegans Wake, page 538).

Then again, when it comes to Finnegans Wake, many
questions are best left unanswered.  Some, in fact, are
a real bitch.

Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent
book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

Published: June 5, 2013
Thornton Wilder:  
By the Skin of Our Teeth

This last recommendation is the least essential,
but for the sheer fun of it, you ought to read
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942
The Skin of our Teeth.  Joseph Campbell
accused Wilder of stealing his story from
Finnegans Wake—perhaps an unfair accusation
(and especially puzzling coming from Campbell,
who made a significant borrowing from Joyce for
his own bestselling
The Hero with a Thousand
Faces).  I consider this play more a hidden tribute
and reimagining of Joyce’s book.  And I can't
imagine any serious reader of
Finnegans Wake
who doesn’t take some delight in seeing how Wilder
can capture the essence of this difficult novel and
turn it into a fast-paced and funny stage comedy.   
fractious fiction
The Adventurer's Guide
to Finnegans Wake

by Ted Gioia
Here are your survival tools for
Finnegans Wake.  For your
benefit, I’ve prioritized these,
with the essential items at the
top, and the optional items lower
down on the list. Students of this work
also need to know about several
invaluable website
s—I’d call particular
attention to the
Wake Extensible Elucidation
Treasury and the FinnegansWiki.
William York Tindall:
A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake

This is still the best short guide to Finnegans
.  Tindall taught at Columbia University for
40 years, and he began lecturing on Joyce back
in the 1920s when
Ulysses was still banned in the
United States.  For many years he taught a seminar
course on Finnegans Wake at Columbia, and, as
this guide makes clear, he both instructed and
learned from his students.  This book, one of
Tindall’s last publications, draws on the fruits of
this lifetime of engagement with Joyce’s work.
Like Campbell, Tindall will walk you chapter-by
chapter through the book—and do so with a clarity,
honesty and good humor that other scholars might
do well to emulate.  He will make clear the distinction
between what he knows about the book, and what he
merely suspects.   If he encounters a passage that
mystifies him, he will admit it.   He praises Joyce when
praise is warranted, and isn’t afraid to criticize the
author when he Joyce falls short of Tindall’s standards.
His accounts of each chapter are not synopses, such
as Campbell offers, but are astute commentaries,
filled with facts, hints, ideas and conjectures. Of all
the Joyceans, he is the one who comes closest to
matching Joyce pun for pun, joke for joke, and in a
field that is littered with dense, foreboding academic
jargon, Tindall achieved the almost impossible: writing
a sprightly, readable guide to the most difficult work
in the English language.
John Bishop:
Joyce’s Book of the Dark

When I was at Stanford, I heard about a
graduate student who allegedly knew Joyce’s
work better than any of the professors.  I never
met him or went to the classes where he
demonstrated his arcane knowledge of
Finnegans Wake, but word-of-mouth accounts
of his expertise spread through campus
intellectual circles, and caught the
attention of people who cared about such
matters. When I picked up this book years
later and saw all the names of Stanford
professors in the acknowledgements, the
lightbulb went on.  This must have been
that dude.  And, truly, John Bishop has probed
into the inner workings of
Finnegans Wake as
deeply as anyone not named James Joyce.
His study,
Joyce's Book of the Dark, will not
take you gently through each chapter of
Finnegans Wake, as do Campbell and Tindall,
but it is unsurpassed at grasping the larger
themes and significations of the text. I do
have my reservations about this book—it is filled
with some of the most cumbersome sentences
I've ever read (in true Joycean fashion), and
the repetitions sometimes seem like padding.
It is too partisan, both in its advocacy of
Bishop's agenda and its unwillingness to
admit any criticisms of Joyce's work  But
the astuteness of the author and the brilliance
of his synthesis make this an essential book
for those grappling with
Finnegans Wake.
Richard Ellmann:
James Joyce

Reading a writer's biography is typically an
optional exercise for the casual student.  But
Joyce put so much of his own life into his novels
—and in ways that are so puzzling to outsiders
who don't know the real-life details behind the
fiction—that readers of his work really should
consult a first-rate biography. Fortunately for us,
Richard Ellmann has written one of the best
literary biographies of modern times, and his
900-page work
James Joyce (first published in
1959 and revised in 1982) remains unsurpassed
more than a half-century after its initial release.
(For those who want to know why I prefer
Ellmann's book to more recent Joyce
biographies, including Gordon Bowker's 2012
volume, check out my essay
"The Many Lives
of James Joyce.")   You will understand many
aspects of
Finnegans Wake far better if you first
make your acquaintance with Joyce via Ellmann's
in-depth study. Joyce's complex relationships
with his father, mother, wife, daughter, and
brother Stanislaus undergird the family dynamics
Finnegans Wake. These and many of the
recurring plot fragments of the novel (such
as the encounter of Buckley and the Russian
general or Joyce’s many literary—and other—
rivalries) are addressed superbly in Ellmann’s
Joseph Campbell:
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake

Published just five years after Joyce released
Finnegans Wake to a befuddled public, Joseph
Cambpell's 'skeleton key' served as the entry point
that allowed the first generation of readers to come
to grips with this daunting novel. True, Campbell's
interpretation has been superseded by later
scholars, who differ with some of his views, and
have supplemented others.  Yet this remains a
useful guide to Joyce’s book, especially as it still is
one of the few places to go to get a page-by-
page synopsis that will guide you through the
entirety of
Finnegans Wake.  I found some insights
in Campbell’s exegesis that were missing in later
commentaries, and even some of his "outdated"
interpretations are thought-provoking and will spur
you to consider different aspects of Joyce’s novel.
Also, the last chapter in Campbell’s book is one of
the best brief assessments of
Finnegans Wake
you might even want (in true Joycean fashion, if
you will allow me repeat myself) to start with that
chapter before turning to the start of the book.
Giambattista Vico:
The New Science

Joyce often told people that, if they wanted to
Finnegans Wake, they should read
The New Science.  I second that
suggestion, and you will find a familiarity with
Vico will be especially helpful if you also read
The New Science in conjunction with the section
on Vico in John Bishop's
Joyce’s Book of the
Dark (see above).  But I would also recommend
The New Science simply for the joy of reading one
of the most visionary works of sociology /
anthropology / philosophy every published.  I
only wish someone would come up,with a fully
annotated version of
The New Science, akin
to the annotated guides to Joyce.  In a pinch,
you can consult
Isaiah Berlin’s writings on Vico,
but at that point you will have moved beyond
Joycean studies and into the fascinating world of
Viconian studies.
Roland McHugh:
Annotations to Finnegans Wake

I thought I would use this book more than I
actually did.  When I read
Ulysses, I benefitted
enormously from
Don Gifford and Robert Seidman's
700 pages of annotations, and wanted something
comparable for
Finnegans Wake.  But McHugh’s
tiny font reference is more compressed and far
less user- friendly as the
fweet.org website.
That latter resource—also known as the
Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury
(FWEET)—is now the starting point for close analysis
of puzzling passages in Joyce’s novel.  Also
check out the
Finnegans Wake wiki on the web.
(You can find other relevant web links at the
James Joyce in Cyberspace website.}
The Egyptian Book of the Dead:
(The Paypyrus of Ani)

I recommend this book (papyrus?) with some
trepidation.  Any list of the most boring books
I have read in my lifetime will find
The Egyptian
Book of the Dead somewhere in the top five.
But the plot of this apparently plotless ancient
book is—as Joyce himself understood and planned
—the blueprint for the plot of the apparently
plotless novel
Finnegans Wake.  Once again,
consult Bishop’s excellent treatment of
Egyptian Book of the Dead in Joyce’s Book
of the Dark (see above) for insights into the
connections between the two works.  And may
you come forth by day with your wrappings still
in good working order.
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