Saturday, May 14, 2011

Why Finnegans Wake is better than Ulysses

In a nod to the uniquely challenging nature of the book that I’m sacrificing my youth to, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some reasons to bother with it. And so I present the purposely divisive first in a series:

Why Read Finnegans Wake?
Part One: Because it’s better than Ulysses

Among the sort of people who care to form opinions about this sort of thing, it seems quite fashionable to call Ulysses the pinnacle of James Joyce’s achievement, and Finnegans Wake merely the unreadable folly on which he squandered the last 12 17 years of his productive life. This opinion was most convincingly voiced by Vladimir Nabokov, who (in this interview) named Ulysses the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but compared the Wake to “a persistent snore in the next room.”

But let’s get this straight: Ulysses is a remarkable book, but one with a serious structural imbalance. It’s telling that Nabokov’s own lecture notes on Ulysses recommend skipping huge chunks of it that he simply didn’t like. As the book trundles along for the first eight chapters or so, the logic behind it seems pretty clear: to recount a single day in the lives of two people in obsessively detailed realism, following the train of their thoughts through stream-of-consciousness style. Round about chapter nine, however, the style seems to break off like a mad horse, leaving the characters in the dust. Thus we get episodes like chapter 11 (“Sirens”) in which grammar is replaced with a pseudo-musical system of motifs (I can’t wait to see how they deal with that on Ulysses “Seen”), or the following chapter (“Cyclops”), in which an anecdote by a pub landlord is unaccountably intercut with increasingly hyperbolic interruptions in a variety of incongruous styles.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s not the same book. In my opinion, Joyce simply grew tired of his original idea. Although it seems crazy now, he’d spent much of his life obsessed with Henrik Ibsen (anyone who’s read Exiles will, I hope, agree what a mistake that was), and I think he conceived Ulysses as an Ibsenian novel, in which the greatest extreme of realism is combined with an
equally obsessive system of semi-mystical symbolism. But eventually he simply outgrew Ibsen, and began to fully develop the style that he’s now best remembered for: that in which style itself takes centre-stage, so that, for example, a chapter about birth might start in Chaucerian English and develop through to present day slang, or one about miscommunication be written entirely in clichés.

In Finnegans Wake, style oustrips not just the characters and the setting, but even the language itself. Style becomes fluid in a way that you will not experience in any other book, shifting from the complex syntax of classical history through fairy tales, to the pedantic diction of a science lecture, all of it suffused with poetry and irony in equal measure. More than that, it has the structural integrity that Ulysses lacks, a precise system of repetition and cyclical development that carries it from beginning to end. Far from being a self-indulgent imitation, Finnegans Wake feels in a lot of ways like the perfection of an idea for which Ulysses was merely the trial run. (Which is not to say that it isn’t self-indulgent.)

So perhaps Finnegans Wake isn’t “better” than Ulysses. I suppose it really depends what you mean by “better”. It may not be the perfect book; it isn’t even my favourite book; but it is the most perfectly Joycean book, the pinnacle of his style, his vision and his temperament, and no one can claim to love Joyce without at least respecting it. No matter what Vladimir Nabokov might tell you.

10 comments:

Sarang said...

I agree with the thing about Ibsen. I think one see some of the later chapters in Ulysses as a sort of casting-about in the wilderness before he found a style that was both self-referential enough and musical enough: some of them, like Nausicaa, are forbiddingly tedious.

Stephen Crowe said...

I agree with you, but I don't want to imply that Ulysses is a piece of crap or anything. After all, Finnegans Wake can certainly be tedious. I just want to challenge the idea that (a) Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written, but (b) Finnegans Wake is not worth the effort. People who hold this view, like Nabokov, aren't really reading the Ulysses that Joyce wrote, in my view.

Because Ulysses is so diverse, most readers are able to reconstruct the book to suit themselves, ignoring the parts that don't interest them. Which is great. There's nothing more useless than a book you can't enjoy. The problem comes when they mistake their Ulysses for the Ulysses, and then compare Finnegans Wake with that. If you think, like Nabokov, that Ulysses is about creating a detailed reality, or if you think that it's basically a kind of soap opera, like many readers, then it's understandable that you'd write off Finnegans Wake an an aberration. But if you confront Ulysses on its own terms, then the Wake really seems like an inevitable progression.

James said...

Don't forget: Sinbad the salor,Jinbad the Jailer... and on and on and on... many spectulate that this last Bloom chapter starts Finnegans Wake...

Stephen Crowe said...

Yes, I can't believe he blew the opportunity to market Finnegans Wake as a sequel. I would have called it "Ulysses II: the Baffling".

PQ said...

Very, very interesting post. I really love this blog, it's great to have brand new Joyce material (especially Wake material) appearing consistently in the blogosphere.

As for the topic at hand, I would simply point out what Joyce always used to: Ulysses is a book of the Day, Finnegans Wake a book of the Night.

It is our waking consciousness, with its boring details, facts, unconscious injections, recognized or unrecognized synchronicities, etc that makes Ulysses what it is. Even though it's a 700+ page book with enyclopedias worth of material, Joyce was (compared to the Wake) LIMITED just as our everyday consciousness is limited.

But snoozing off and entering the infinite depths of the dreaming mind, the collective unconscious, that's what makes the Wake so much more special.

I adore both books but, to be completely honest, I've been fighting to push the Wake off my radar lately so I can finish a full and thorough explication of Ulysses before inevitably giving up everything to plumb the Wake's unfathomable treasure chest.


(And, really, is there any feat more incredible than writing those two enormous, epic masterpieces one after the other?)

Stephen Crowe said...

I'm glad you're enjoying it, PQ! It's great to see a discussion forming around here. I agree with you that the style of Finnegans Wake matches its content perfectly, but I don't think the same can be said of Ulysses. If a "book of the day" was Joyce's intention, then if anything, he didn't limit himself enough. The stream-of-consciousness chapters certainly read like episodes in a "book of the day", but the more experimental ones seem like just that: experiments. Which doesn't make it a bad book, but it feels like you're watching Joyce develop his style, rather than experiencing a consistent whole.

Sam said...

Happy Bloomsday. Wish I was in Paris to see your show.

A few quick notes. 1) Joyce spent 17 years of his life writing FW, not 12. I count from immediately after the publication of Ulysses and first started writing Tristan and Isolde (which became part of page 1), I believe in 1923.
2) Yes, Nabokov criticized the book, but he ended the quote you link to with "I know I am going to be excommunicated for this."
In my opinion, most of Joyce's contemporaries were too old and set in their ways to comprehend or attempt to comprehend FW.

Joyce said he spent 20,000 hours writing Ulysses; twice over one of Malcolm Gladwell's "geniuses." To me, it is indisputable that FW is the finished work beside which Ulysses seems a blueprint. You point out the seeds of FW scattered throughout Ulysses; why not Molly's soliloquy? Or Nighttown? These FW-tinted scenes, esp. Oxen in the Sun, were my favorite scenes in U.

FW is what I had hoped Ulysses would be -- infinitely re-readable and lovable, worth pondering over and over, a subject of never-ending study and fun. I guess that's what makes us Wakeans. It's a bit difficult to celebrate Bloomsday or Joyce without shouting about the Wake all night long instead.

Cheers,
S

Stephen Crowe said...

Thanks, Sam! Yes, clearly you're completely right about the time FW took. I don't know where I got 12 from. Either I mistyped or I can't count. (My money's on the latter.) To be fair to Joyce's contemporaries, if Finnegans Wake came out tomorrow, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with it either.

Jay Miller said...

There's some good love going on here what with the modern folk enjoying classic experimentalism, the development of post-modernism, etc.

To Sam: although you are in disbelief that a book of the day is an apt term for Ulysses, hallucination is a part of the day (day in this context meaning not asleep) as much as falling asleep is (per Molly's exodus soliloquy).

I am forming a theory, after reading select pages of Wake, that the Joycean world comes full circle; Bloom, as we know from studying Joyce's letters, was Joyce's projection of himself whence he wrote the man into his fiction as a hero. Joyce's treatment of his alter-ego Dedalus was unique in the distasteful, over-critical voice used to describe the character, although there are moments of empathy in Portrait and in Ulysses for the bugger: Usurper. Bloom, however, was a break from Dedalus, which allowed Joyce to channel his self-criticism into the latter, and his projections of how to be a man into the former. As Ulysses ascends into the consciousness of night-time thought, the book's lovely heroes fade from consciousness as the that of the language resurges. Bloom has been epitomized by this point and it's why we can forget about him at that point. But the schema for Ulysses leaves a gap in its comprehensiveness of the human psyche, and that is, the dream state. In attempt to complete a 24-hour portrait of the psyche of man, the night world of Bloom must be equally pursued. Joyce was explicitly conscious of his previous works, and it ties them together. I venture as far as to say he established the literary device of self-allusion, which occurs in Ulysses and Wake, and I'm sure others, too. It seems fitting to me that we hear the intimate eventide mind of the projection of the author's personification of humanity when the author wittingly composed a work that would be disdained by most. Had he written it about the artist, Dedalus, instead of fellow man, Bloom, then he would have backpedalled. Portrait was beautifully composed, but not as relatable as Ulysses to the human audience. So, to forward the logic behind the success of Ulysses as compared to Portrait, Dedalus was uncasted and Bloom promoted. That is, if, success was even considered: it must have been, because any little ounce of success for Wake is worth a lot more than the excessive success of, say, the Twilight series. What I mean there is that if one author praises Wake then it sobers up the Joycean. If a hundred writers praise Twilight then we still discredit the novel to our interest for not being literary fiction, the praise being virtually sans value.

I think I may prepare a more comprehensive article for the website I write at. I'd like to close with the thought that it's a good thing Joyce decided to literarily map the human psyche before technology came in to steal the attention span of Western generations to come. Instead of attending conferences, I comment on blogs about Joyce and publish original articles. I'm like the author of this blog post insofar as I like to humble my being a Joycean, although I have to say Wake is my favourite book, I take my lesson from Bolaño's 2666 that doting upon one artist is a waste of the human psyche. Even Joyce had to dilute his Ibsenisms, as we have agreed upon here.

REEKFEEL said...

hello, i've just finished 'rewriting' FW - making it readable to everyone, explaining 'everthing' yet keeping closely to the text - unlike skeleton key etc.

still looking for an agent and trying to figure out how to e-book it (can you read in landscape on the ipad?)

check my link to see an example of it ...