Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Riverrun to Livvy by Bill Cole Cliett

Yes, somebody did write an entire book about the first page of Finnegans Wake.  This should come as no surprise. It's often been said about Joyce's 628-page "nightmaze" that you can pick out any one microcosmic piece and it will contain within it the entirety of the whole structure, very much like a hologram.

The very first page of the Wake (first paragraph even) is extremely dense not only with the weight of multiple meanings/references/allusions contained in each word of text, but in very succintly describing what Finnegans Wake is all about. Consequently, Bill Cole Cliett's excellent book Riverun to Livvy: Lots of Fun Reading the First Page of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake turns out to be a perfect introduction to the phenomenon of the Wake as a whole while also getting deep into studying the minute aspects of one single page. As Cliett writes, "the more I uncovered on the first page the more I understood the entire book, because everything on that page ... relates in one way or another to all the pages that follow."

His book is written very much as a fun, lively, highly readable invitation for the ordinary reader to discover the brilliant (yet largely ignored) masterwork of the 20th century's greatest writer. Assuring us that he's "no scholar, simply a literary layman in love with language and all that words can be made to do," Cliett writes in an approachable manner about an unapproachable book. He's also extremely well-informed. He seems to have read every important study of the Wake published to date and quotes from them often (the bibliography stretches at least 10 pages long) while avoiding footnotes and academic jargon.

Really, the most impressive thing about Cliett's book is the massive amount of information packed into it while maintaining a smooth format. I can't remember the last time I zipped through a book as fast as this one (took about a week to read all 326 pages) and yet he really seems to cover the whole picture of what Finnegans Wake is, how the world views it, and specifically what is on the book's first page.

A nicely organized text that he actually self-published (the date on my copy shows it was printed on May 30, 2012, just a few days before I actually received it), he spends the first five chapters discussing the background of Joyce, the history behind the Wake, how it was initially received, and what it's like to actually read this weird dreambook. The following five chapters (the heart of the book) dive individually into each of the five sentences from the Wake's very first page. A few concluding chapters discuss the text as a whole and how the book is viewed in contemporary culture.

The author's prose is peppered with quotations and references to writers and artists and cultural artifacts the world over, often employing them for a joke or witticism (in its humor and abundance of references, Cliett's book is clearly mimicking the Wake). On page 21, remembering old quiz shows in which contestants had to describe something in 25 words or less, he attempts to sum up Finnegans Wake in that fashion, coming up with this admirable submission:

"Finnegans Wake is a comic, cosmic, multilingual, dream-encased epic of the cyclical fall and resurrection of humanity encompassing everything that was, is, and will be."
Later on towards the end, in challenging readers to try to read some of the Wake, he describes it this way:
"Finnegans Wake is to books as Mount Everest is to mountains. Both are generally appreciated from a distance. But there are a few brave souls who have to tackle one or the other simply because it's there... But never think an exhaustive expedition must be mounted in attempting to scale the summit to gain its grand view. A pleasant ramble in the foothills of Mount Finnegan affords pleasurable punoramas as well."(p. 319)
What most impresses me about Cliett and his book is that he's got all the bases covered. He has clearly absorbed most if not all of the many different perspectives on the Wake, including the ones that intrigue me the most, those being the massive cosmic, unfathomably deep views, and digs up juicy quotes galore (as in this one from Allen B. Ruch: "Finnegans Wake seems uncannily alive, as if it's aware you're reading it."). A whole chapter covers the Wake as a black hole or massive cosmic entity (Joyce once said if the entire universe were destroyed, he hoped you could rebuild from the material in the Wake).

Almost like he's been keeping a scrapbook of Wake references, Cliett points to various novels (Tom Robbins' work is mentioned frequently), magazines, movies, and other pop cultural mediums that mention the Wake at some point or another. He finds a perfect quote about the Wake in the latest book by science writer Jonah Lehrer, for instance: "Nature, however, writes astonishingly complicated prose. If our DNA has a literary equivalent, it's Finnegans Wake."

With a humorous and very personal approach backed by a rich and wide-ranging knowledge on the subject, Cliett is the ideal writer who's written an ideal intro to the Wake. Whether you're a seasoned Wakean or have been eyeing the book from a distance, you will surely find enjoyment in Riverrun to Livvy. The elementary schoolteacher/self-published author Cliett is a boon not only to those interested in Joyce, but to literature in general. We need more people like him; those who aim to explain the wondrous depths of the great artist James Joyce without resorting to alienating academic speak.

(I'm glad to see that Cliett has also written a few other books on the Wake, including a collection of some of its best vocab words entitled A Finnegans Wake Lextionary.)


  1. I'd never heard of this guy, then I read further and found this book is not even a toddler yet. Great review! You really made me want to read it.

    In Roland McHugh's very short book on the Wake he uses a couple of passages and analyzes them fairly in-depth as a way of showing the reader one way to approach the book. It seems like Cliett does something similar, but more in-depth, and he SEEMS funnier than McHugh?

  2. The thing about McHugh's book (The Finnegans Wake Experience, which I'll put up a review for at some point) that I'm not so crazy about is that he's so strict about what can be extracted from a word or passage. He kind of derides the personal, subjective interpretation of the book which is an important part of the wonder of the whole thing.

    Umberto Eco wrote of FW: "Joyce prepared a machinery of suggestion which, like any complex machine, is capable of operating beyond the original intentions of its builder."

    In McHugh's favor, he is the main guy responsible for notating most of the allusions/references/translations we do currently have for the Wake so his goals certainly favor that "objective" approach.

    I wasn't enamored with his short book, though. The funny parts stemmed (I thought) from the perfect self-righteous nerd image McHugh paints of himself, going to Joyce conferences and dismissing all the scholars as wrong, or taking part in reading groups that thoroughly comb the words of FW searching for all the meanings Joyce intended, dismissing any he didn't.

  3. I am about three guarters of the way through Riverrun to Livvy and it is thoroughly enjoyable reading. Having read the Wake through twice, I also own and have read a couple dozen books on the Wake and found Cliett's book to be the most enjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised to find a well-written book published by CreateSpace, not known for high-quality productions. It's certainly a terrific introduction to the page 1 and would be excellent for a newcomer to the Wake. I was extremely fortunate in college to take a semester on the Wake with the superb Dr. Michael Sexson who opened the door to an obsession with FW. I was tickled to find Cliett mentioning the importance of the hen who found the letter in the litter because my final paper for the class centered on her. I also have Cliett's Wake lexicon and find it very useful. I heartily recommend both books to anyone intrigued by the Wake. Another yungnfreudened fan.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Woodland Spirits. Bill Cliett is indeed a great ambassador for Joyce's "nightmaze." His Wake lexicon book is excellent, I've thought about posting a word from it once a week.