James Joyce spent 17 years writing Finnegans Wake and reputedly said he expected people to spend 17 years reading it. I used to think, having read no further than the first page, that life was too short to even try; but this edition by Robbert-Jan Henkes, Erik Bindervoet and Finn Fordham, a model of what scholarly editing should be, made me rethink.
Written in Joyce's invented language, a descendant of English with bits of Latin, French and Irish, packed with neologisms, distortions, phonetic spellings, portmanteau words, page-long sentences, alliteration, onomatopaiea and sheer nonsense, some of it sounds like a too-clever cryptic crossword clue: "White monothoid? Red theatrocrat? And all the pinkprophets cohalething? Very much so!" Catholics are "pathoricks", Christians are "tristians", "ex nihilo" is "ex nickylo" and "be damned to her" is "be dom ter".
The story, or stories, are hard to make out: Finnegan is a builder who seems to be dead, a character called Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is accused of indecency in a public park, his wife writes a letter which may prove his innocence, there's an innkeeper who may be Earwicker or someone called Porter, and there's lots of stuff about rivers and mountains and drinking.
The editors have provided a lucid introduction and a chapter-by-chapter outline which gives one at least a vague hold on what's going on, but it's not overburdened with notes, which frees one to stop worrying and just enjoy the surrealism and exuberance of Joyce's language. It's still not an easy read, but hugely enjoyable in small doses – and after all, what's the hurry?
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