ARTS / Outside Edge: Dominic Cavendish spends an evening at Finnegan's Wake

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The Independent Culture
Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you're going to be Mister Finnagain]' You would certainly have had your fill of puns after two hours in the country's only Finnegan's Wake reading group, While London Sleeps. Much of its third meeting was spent on 20 lines of page two of the 626-page Penguin Joyce. After getting through a whole page on its inauguration night, the group decided to slow things down and 20-odd lines was considered 'pretty good going'.

Things would perhaps have gone faster had it not been for a man with a neatly trimmed beard who kept pouring whisky into his glass and scorn on the contributions of others. The plush public house interior of what is, incredibly, a staff common room in the University of London's Senate House, seems to have to inspired a curious hybrid of bar- room banter and teacher-pupil power-play.

'Oh come on, you chaps with your clever references,' he sneered as Finn Fordham, the group's 26- year-old founder, pointed out the pun in 'until he seesaw by neatlight of the liquor' - 'neat whisky'. Eyes fastened on the sentence, the rest of the gathering (students, city workers and academics) ignored the interruption. 'Of course, it could also be a pun on neat's-foot oil, which is used to make candles,' chimed in someone else. 'Mmmm,' enthused Fordham, 'and isn't it also the vision that the liquor gives you, which is also the vision of the novel because it is written as though in a state of intoxication?'

Using Jameson's whisky and Guinness, the group boldly hopes to re-create the scene of Finnegan's Wake, the wake of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Fordham announced the first meeting in the London Review of Books and got a crowd of 60, although many chose not to reappear. 'Some obviously had a fixed notion of Finnegan's Wake as a noisy, whisky-swilling Irish brawl, and it is that,' explains Fordham, 'but not only that.'

The book, he says, is 'crying out' to be read aloud. He has the enthusiasm of book dealer David Wilson, who spent four months copying the Wake on to computer disc. 'The fact that it can be read on many different levels makes it ideal for performance - you could have 10 or 12 voices reading all at once.'

At this meeting there was one dominant voice, that of the man with the beard. Poo-poohing suggested references to Dublin Freemasons, he snapped: 'Come on, let's face it, Joyce is eminently unfriendly to the reader. It's crap as a novel. You'll never finish it.' Irrelevant, according to Fordham, who compares the reading of Finnegan's Wake to a child trying to make sense of the world. 'It's not the distance you cover, its how you spend the time that counts.' Joyce, who described the book as a 'funferal . . . sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia,' would be going . . . Hohohoho.

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