Monday, September 23, 2013

Summaries and Guides to Finnegans Wake

At a recent Wake group meeting, a participant inquired about summary guides to the text. In particular, she wondered what books are out there that can help give one a sense of what a page or section is about (if FW can be said to have any real plot, that is). There are a few such guides out there and all are pretty different so I'm going to list the ones I'm aware of. This is not an all-encompassing list of books about Finnegans Wake, but a list of books that attempt to summarize or walk one through the text.

A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake by William York Tindall
This handy guide is perhaps the most compact of any. Tindall summarizes each chapter succinctly and in a very readable, even entertaining style. At the end of his chapter summaries are notes further expanding on particular words, lines, or paragraphs.

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce's Masterwork by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson
Certainly the most well-known guide, it's the first ever attempt to crack the Wake's code, written just 5 years after Joyce's book was originally published for a baffled and disinterested world. This was my first experience of the Wake (I read it during an unemployed summer in 2008). The most valuable thing about this book is (in my opinion) its introductory section which provides some of the best overall descriptions of the book ever written. The remainder of this hefty tome attempts to turn the prose of Finnegans Wake into a much easier-to-comprehend form of English while inserting frequent commentaries to alert the reader as to what is going on at any particular point. I once talked to Joyce scholar Sheldon Brivic about it and he called this the "Disney version of FW"---it's certainly an adequate introduction but tends to leave out so much important material so as not to overwhelm the new reader. It's also frequently criticized for some of its narrow interpretations which have now become outdated. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Wake and it will always be the book that officially started my own Wake obsession.

A Guide through Finnegans Wake by Edmund Epstein
I've found this to be the weirdest Wake guide thus far. Epstein's interpretations tend to stray away from everyone else's, sometimes to the point of absurdity, yet he also occasionally seems to catch things the other books don't. Similar to Tindall's book, he summarizes each chapter in an accessible manner. I wouldn't recommend this one, though, as it will probably only serve to confuse one further unless reading it alongside other summary guides.

Joyce's Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake by Philip Kitcher

One of the newest books on this list, giving one optimism for the future of Wake studies. The author is a philosophy professor at Columbia University and provides a pretty standard, approachable, and (as far as this can possibly apply to a book like the Wake) understandable overall outlook on Joyce's kaleidoscopic masterwork. Interspersing personal reflections and experiences with philosophical and psychological interpretative threads, this provides a solid introduction to the Wake with a chronological summary of each chapter. While I enjoyed this book, I admit that I was hoping for something a bit more shocking and exciting in its originality (because of the great title). Instead, it's a very readable, well-informed and up-to-date summary of Joyce's dense dream book. Certainly serves to entice the new reader to explore things more deeply.

ReJoyce by Anthony Burgess
I wrote a full review of this book a few years back on my other blog. I consider this a very valuable and approachable intro to Joyce and it definitely helped incite my deep interests in the Irish scribe. Burgess (most famous for A Clockwork Orange) lavishes praise on his favorite writer while devoting chapters for each text in the Joycean ouvre including a nice summary of each chapter of Finnegans Wake. Not very thorough at all but certainly worth checking out.

James Joyce A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings
This is a great, daresay essential book for a Joyce student. It covers everything you can possibly be interested in about Joyce, in very good detail. It is essentially a small encyclopedia about Joyce's life and work and included herein are summaries for each chapter of Finnegans Wake as well as more closely detailed discussions of characters and vignettes from the Wake. Great book to thumb through.


Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary by John Gordon
Narrative Design in Finnegans Wake: The Wake Lock Picked by Harry Burrell

I haven't had the chance to read either of these but they certainly sound like they're perfect for a reader looking for a summary guide. The latter book has come up a few times in our recent Wake reading group meetings and sounds particularly intriguing, from Amazon:
Making bold claims for a new literary interpretation, Harry Burrell presents a forceful analytical model for understanding Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He argues that Joyce used the genesis story of Adam and Eve as his underlying narrative and interwove it with themes and images from literature and history, thus rewriting the Bible, abolishing the wicked God of the Old Testament, and replacing Him with a gentle, loving female goddess.
Lastly, one of my favorite books about the Wake is Bernard Benstock's Joyce-Again's Wake. It's not along the same lines as the rest of the books listed here because it's more of a collection of essays discussing the book as a whole and what Joyce's unique art form explores. But I bring it up here because at the front of the book, Benstock attempts to give a short one line description for what happens on every single page of the book, so I've always found it worth looking back to. This book is actually available online for free at this link.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reading a River Passage: ALP on page 153

Nothing enlivens a Finnegans Wake reading group like the appearance of ALP and her playful, flowing river prose. During our most recent meeting, while reading the fable of the Mookse and the Gripes we came upon the beautiful paragraph atop page 153 where the Mookse "came... upon the most unconsciously boggylooking stream he ever locked his eyes with."
This paragraph (and really this entire page) turned out to be extremely rich in references and layers of meaning, moreso than usual. Marinating on the river passage later on when I got home, some fresh interpretations flowed out so I'd like to briefly examine what's at play here.

Here's a look at the passage:
he came (secunding to the one one oneth of the propecies, Amnis Limina Permanent) upon the most unconsciously boggylooking stream he ever locked his eyes with. Out of the colliens it took a rise by daubing itself Ninon. It looked little and it smelt of brown and it thought in narrows and it talked showshallow. And as it rinn it dribbled like any lively purliteasy: My, my, my! Me and me! Little down dream don't I love thee! (pg. 153)
Well, first thing of note is that the initials of ALP (indicating the river mother Anna Livia Plurabelle) appear twice here: "Amnis Limina Permanent" (Latin: "the bounds of the river remain") and "any lively purliteasy."

We also have the number associated with ALP, 111 ("one one oneth") which stands for renewal but also in Chinese characters represents a river (with the middle line as the flowing river with surrounding banks).

I love that phrase "the most unconsciously boggylooking stream"---Ulysses was famous for its stream of consciousness technique but Finnegans Wake represents the everflowing stream of the unconscious, the prose of the book is that river itself (first word of the text being "riverrun"). This river is always flowing under the surface, whether we're awake or asleep. The word "boggy" means watery, soft, wet and actually stems from an Irish-Gaelic word meaning "soft".

"Out of the colliens it took a rise by daubing itself Ninon." Enjoyed this line when we read it as Colleen is my girlfriend's name (Irish word meaning "young girl") but it's also the French colline which means "hill"---the river begins up in the hills where it rains and then flows down. The word "daubing" means to cover a surface but also implies "dubbing" or naming (and surely includes a reference to Dublin too). "Ninon" is a great word---here is condensed a reference to the fascinating historical character Ninon de Lenclos (a French female courtesan and patron of the arts, aunt of Voltaire), while also tying together the Greek words nun ôn ("ever present") and ninnion ("baby, doll"). The ever present, female river essence flows on through history.

"It looked little and it smelt of brown and it thought in narrows and it talked showshallow."
Throughout the Wake, the river is described as being brown and dirty, just like the tea-colored Liffey in Dublin. It's also brown because it carries the dirt and debris of history toward constant renewal. I could also go off on a long riff about Anna Livia Plurabelle's African roots ("a bushman woman, the dearest little moma ever you saw" pg. 207), but that's a post for another time. Anna Livia's hair is also frequently described as being brown or auburn, "she's flirty, with her auburnt streams" (p. 139).

"And as it rinn it dribbled like any lively purliteasy"
As it ran, or flowed (German rinnen = to run, flow) it sang a little song in a purling language. That word "purl" appears a few times in the Wake, a simply beautiful word that refers to the rippling murmur of water.

The song "dribbled" by the river is to the tune of the old folk song "Little Brown Jug":


These lyrics are interesting, though:
"Little down dream don't I love thee!"

The "down dream" is the "brown stream" but I wondered for a while about the word down here. Why "down"? For one thing, rivers flow downward, starting up in the hills and flowing down by gravity. That's what keeps it flowing. It's also the "little down dream" of one sleeping underneath a down blanket or a down pillow. Down is the fine feathers of birds, especially baby birds, that is so soft and cozy that it's used in pillows, blankets, and jackets. This also brings to mind another version of ALP that frequently appears, that of the hen. And of course the egg is a major symbol in the book that recurs often.

Let all that trickle through your mind tonight as you rest and slowly slip into the "unconsciously boggylooking stream" that lies everflowing within us all.