Literary Notes: Pure blarney in `Finnegans Wake'

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THERE ARE few novels in world literature more unapproachable than James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

Even Ulysses, recently voted the most important novel of the 20th century in a New York poll, tends to lose many of its readers before the end of the third chapter (sadly, since after that it gets much easier). Finnegans Wake, it is safe to say, adorns most bookshelves with hardly a dozen of its pages thumbstained. Despite this fact, the book managed to achieve 11th place in the same New York poll. (One wonders whether this would have been the case if voters had been asked to answer correctly a few simple questions about the plot.)

Clearly the book's greatness is widely understood, even if the book itself is not. This may be due in part to the enormous and continuing efforts of the many thousands of Joyce scholars who turn the wheels of the international Joyce industry, a large part of which is devoted to the elucidation of the author's last great testament.

The philosophical, psychological and theological threads which run through this literary labyrinth are minutely catalogued. Similarly, the historical, political, musical and literary background. This all confirms that, in part at least, the subject of the novel is (once again) Joyce himself, or at least Dublin as Joyce knew it.

With all this assistance from such a dedicated support group, it may seem odd that the book remains so mysterious and unread. The trick is to hear it as well as read it for what is confusing on the page is simple for the ear - and sometimes vice versa. When you read it out loud, it often makes sense.

It is daunting to know that Sanskrit, Dutch, Norwegian and Urdu are there as well as the more common European languages - but the ear can reveal the sentence's primary meaning. The poetry and the fun of Finnegans Wake may be in the multilingual puns, but at the core is a major theme. According to Richard Ellman, Joyce once informed a friend: "He conceived of his book as the dream of old Finn, lying in death beside the River Liffey and watching the history of Ireland and the world - past and future - flow through his mind like flotsam on the river of life."

If the predominant language is English, the predominant accent is certainly Irish, and understanding this is often a large part of the solution to the problem of reading the Wake. Try it with this sentence - the words of an elderly female museum guide ("Willingdone" is the Duke of Wellington, and "Lipoleum" is Napoleon):

This is the wixy old Willingdone picket up the half of the threefoiled hat of lipoleums from oud of the bluddle filth.

It is when one understands the Irish tone of the words, and the character of the person speaking that the book comes truly to life.

In Joyce, of course (as we know from Ulysses), this can change frequently and without warning, but once the appropriate voice is discovered, difficulties fall away quickly, often revealing broad humour and tender poetry. Sometimes the tone is Biblical, sometimes journalistic, and often it is that of everyday blarney:

Arrah, sure, we all love little Anny Ruiny, or, we mean to say, lovelittle Anna Rayiny, when unda her brella, mid piddle med puddle, she ninnygoes nannygoes nancing by.

If the words are heard in the correct tone and with the correct rhythm, the details may not matter. The main tale concerns the fall and resurrection of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, a publican, who may have been involved in some sexual impropriety in Phoenix Park; and of his long-suffering wife Anna Livia Plurabella, and their two sons, Shem and Shaun. It all emerges as part of a flotsam and jetsam dream - as extraordinary a tale as any story- teller has ever told since Homer.

Roger Marsh has abridged and produced a recording of `Finnegans Wake' for Naxos Audiobooks (CD pounds 19.99, tape pounds 15.99)