|All right-thinking people hate puns. And our hearts all share the same image of the wretched punster, a characterless character afflicted by a surplus of education which has left him bereft of humour, save for the heaving chortles that belch forth from his unkempt beard as he repeats to some hapless, cornered victim – in the office Christmas party or the line for the post office – his discovery of two different words that happen to sound the same. |
James Joyce was, apparently, exactly this sort of person. According to his biographer, Richard Ellmann, the young Jim not only collected puns, but worse yet, he would reel them off at parties. And so it makes sense that some people might dismiss Finnegans Wake, as Martin Amis did in an article on the novel, as a book written in puns, a “reader-hostile, reader-nuking immolation.”
But regardless of whatever regrettable behaviour might have marred Joyce’s personal life, the wordplay of Finnegans Wake is completely different from that of newspaper headlines and your pedantic uncle. It is a book that you cannot read without reorganising your approach to finding meaning.
|In a normal sentence, ideas are connected in a logical structure to create a more or less coherent message. But in phrases like “the fall of a once wallstrait oldparr,” and “the length of the land lies under liquidation” (an eerily fitting description of Ireland today), the reader is adrift in a sea of ambiguous meanings. The banal abuts the divine, pleas of innocence turn into confessions and sermons into seductions. As communication goes, it’s perhaps a little inefficient. But once you get into it, it has a wonderfully disorienting effect on your brain.|
I could be wrong, of course. Possibly the greatest effect that reading Finnegans Wake has on the brain is that of forcing you to rationalise the time spent reading it...