“Finnegans Wake” breakdown

A team of valiant friends tackles James Joyce's magnum opus, and one winds up in family court because of it.

Topics: Books,

"Finnegans Wake" breakdown

My friend Bill and I have similarly decorated refrigerators. Secured by magnets along with our daughters’ class photos and best school papers are pictures of James Joyce, on postcards or cut from magazines. Our children share the refrigerator shrine with Joyce because both Bill and I are rather proud of having read every one of his published works. Well, that’s with the exception of “Finnegans Wake.” We always figured we would get around to it someday.

Just before St. Patrick’s Day 1999, Bill decided that the time had come. He called together about a dozen Joyce enthusiasts, literary types and well-rounded scholars. We were determined to pool our considerable intellectual resources and, as a committee, actually read the formidable tome.

At that first meeting we began by taking turns reading aloud the first of the 628 pages. Only a few people had brought along copies of the book, but by the next meeting we were better prepared. After struggling through those first seemingly unintelligible pages, we had come to realize that reading “Finnegans Wake” without assistance was akin to crossing the Sahara without a camel. In addition to personal copies of the novel, each of us hauled in a veritable reference library, which we spread before us like winning poker hands.

We all had copies of “A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake,” the classic 1944 study by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, and “A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall. It was fortifying to read in the introduction to Tindall’s 1969 guide that he had based his work on the achievement of his own “Finnegans Wake” reading group of fellow Columbia University graduate students, formed just one year after the book’s 1939 publication. If they could muddle through it, without even the invaluable “Skeleton Key” to help them, then by golly, so could we.

We began with the same resolute spirit displayed by Stephen Dedalus at the end of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” We felt we were doing a noble and brave thing, though we never dared to compare ourselves to the Wake’s first readers. To our mind they were just as courageous as the first people who ever tried eating lobster.

We went round and round about Giambattista Vico and Giordano Bruno, bygone philosophers whose theories served as the framework for the Wake, much as Homer’s “The Odyssey” had for “Ulysses.” We expounded upon the nocturnal, dreamlike nature of “Finnegans Wake,” as opposed to the waking moments of Leopold Bloom et al., described in “Ulysses.” With the help of my handy guide, Roland McHugh’s “Annotations to Finnegans Wake,” which explicates the book almost word by word, we sorted through some of the many layers of meaning woven into the Joycean myth of Everyman/Finnegan.

After we’d been meeting every few weeks for two months, we felt so confident of our growing understanding of Joyce’s magnum opus that we engaged in a rousing game of “Finnegans Wake” charades. We divided into teams and drew from a hat snippets of language from the early chapters. We took turns acting out the expressions while the others guessed. Mine was easy enough: Phoenix Park. I mimicked a bird swooping up from the fireplace. Katy chose to illustrate the phrase “by a commodius vicus of recirculation” by pretending to sit on a toilet.

We solved each puzzle in minutes flat and felt ever so clever. I crowed, “I’ll bet we’re the only people in the world playing ‘Finnegans Wake’ charades right now!” We spent the rest of the evening in smug conversation about facets of “Finnegans Wake” while sipping from bottles of the Irish nectar Guinness stout.

By the next meeting the froth of our enthusiasm had begun to fizzle. Jeff admitted, “I’m thinking about getting rid of the book and just reading the guide.” Chris protested: “But there are passages that seem to be about something!”

Bill made a valiant attempt to rekindle the group’s waning interest. He talked about Joyce’s (almost literally) blind dedication to his masterpiece for all of 17 years. Not even a series of painful and generally useless eye operations could keep him from his work. Bill said that for just one of the chapters in “Finnegans Wake” Joyce had compiled notes that filled a total of 47 notebooks! He said, “Joyce did his notebooks like a squirrel collecting nuts.”

“Nuts is the operative word,” Jeff muttered.

Even Joyce’s own friends doubted the value of his monumental effort. When Ezra Pound commented on the manuscript, “I make nothing of it whatever,” Joyce was so upset he collapsed on his couch in utter desolation. His patroness, Harriet Shaw Weaver, made a temporary invalid out of Joyce by writing, “I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately entangled language system. It seems to me you are wasting your genius.”

If Joyce were still alive, we really would have made him sick. Our band of feckless scholars fabricated mounting excuses for not doing the reading (and for not even showing up for the meetings!). We counted more dropouts each month, and frequently could get only a handful of people to agree on a meeting date.

Meanwhile, our leader was having problems of his own. Bill’s ex-wife, with whom he shared custody of their 4-year-old daughter, learned from the child that each night before going night-night at her daddy’s house, she was being treated to animated readings (complete with Irish accent) from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” Recalling that something Joyce wrote had once been considered obscene, she hauled Bill into court for being an unfit parent. On the witness stand Bill was asked, “Is it true that you read to your daughter from ‘Finnegans Wake’?”

“Yes, that’s true,” he confessed.

The lawyer gave the judge a knowing look. “And what does your daughter think of ‘Finnegans Wake’?”

“She thinks it’s boring.”

The judge laughed. “I don’t blame her,” she said. “I thought it was boring, too!” Case closed.

By the end of January our group seemed to have come back to life, just like Finnegan himself. We were enjoying a spirited discussion of some obscure point when Bill protested, “I think we’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“No, no!” exclaimed Katherine. “There is no wrong tree!”

In that moment, the very essence of “Finnegans Wake” was revealed to us. To celebrate, we agreed to meet the next week at an Irish pub in honor of the brilliant artificer’s birthday. But on Feb. 2, when I showed up at the pub, Elena was sitting alone, staring morosely at the creamy foam on her stout. No one else had bothered to come.

After St. Patrick’s Day, our one-year anniversary, everyone but Bill had dropped out. Not even the fact that we’d managed to pass the book’s halfway mark inspired further effort. I actually welcomed the respite from reading one novel and three or four reference books at one time. The others insisted they had better uses for their time. Bill seemed to be the only one who wasn’t quite ready to give up.

Not long ago I saw his daughter, who is now 6. Remembering that “Finnegans Wake” was once her bedtime reading, I asked what she thought of the book. She rolled her eyes. “It’s the worst story,” she confided. “And the last sentence is the start of the first!”

So, Bill finished “Finnegans Wake” after all. Well, maybe the rest of us will get around to it someday.

Susan G. Hauser is a freelance writer living in Portland, Ore.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>