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 |
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.