Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 21, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce (with help from Tindall and Campbell) #1 Getting started

I am listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 130 as I type this because David Greetham in my beautiful Folio Edition of this (in)famous work reminds us that this composition confounded critics and audience alike, and that the smartest ones said at the time that they needed to listen to this ‘monster of a work’ more than once to make sense of it:

‘… we do not want to judge too hastily: perhaps the time will come when what appeared to us at first to be obscure and confused will be recognised as being clear and well constructed.'(the music critic (un-named) for the Leipzig Allgemaine Musikalische, 10 May 1826).

Finnegans Wake is not a book for the faint-hearted, but it has been beckoning me ever since my fourth reading of Ulysses, and – inspired by Tony at Messenger’s Booker and his painstaking reading of Bottom’s Dream, and further prompted by Irish Reading Month at 746 Books – I have made a start…

I have come to the book prepared.  I have listened to a lovely abridged Naxos audio book edition read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, which gave me a sense of the musicality of the work, and I have acquired two useful guides:

  • A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and
  • A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

So far, I have read

  • the Introductions in the Folio edition, comprising:
    • a note on the New Edition by Seamus Deane
    • the Preface by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon
    • the Introduction by David Greetham, and
    • (surprisingly useful) the Introduction to the Illustrations by John Vernon Lord;
  • the Introduction to Tindall’s Reader’s Guide; and
  • the Introductions in Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key, comprising
    • A Foreword and Editorial Note to the Collected Works Edition
    • the Foreword by Campbell and Robinson
    • the Preface to the Compass Edition 1961
    • the Introduction to a Strange Subject, and
    • the Synopsis and Demonstration.

Campbell tells me that some allusions can be deduced from a detailed map of Dublin, so I went hunting at Google and found

And I’ve read page one!

PS Another find! Waywords and Meansigns: an unabridged Finnegans Wake, read to music.  I couldn’t stand Edition 1, but I like the second edition!  There’s no doubt that hearing words aloud helps to make sense of them…


  1. You are much braver than I am.😸

  2. Omg, Lisa, you certainly are prepared. I read FW years ago in my own way – no real prep. kept it the book in the bathroom and I just read a few paragraphs or pages every time I visited. I would be able to follow for a little bit and then I would get lost and put it down. I would pick it back up the next time and read for a paragraph or two and be lost for awhile and put it back down until the next time. It turned into a kind of meditation.

    Much of it really didn’t make sense but then sometimes it would. I didn’t use any guides or helps because I really wasn’t trying too hard to make sense of it. It was nice when it did but that wasn’t necessary. It was like reading a dream.

    It took me about 9 months which was broken by a trip to North Dakota for several months.

    The idea of listening is interesting. I don’t know though. I feel like I did it and it was good and I’m done. I don’t want to study it – but I suppose I could change my mind.

    • Bit by bit, I think that’s the way to go. I’ve got mine set up in the library, I’ve got a table in there now, in the middle of the room, and I’ve got it all spread out with my reading journal and space for cups of tea and a slice of homemade Sephardic orange cake for sustenance with Tindall and Campbell there at the ready. I think I might add The Oxford Concise Dictionary too in case of need…
      The Folio book itself is big and heavy, it’s not a book to hold in your hand, and like all Folio books the paper is lovely so it’s a sensual pleasure to read it. It creates a sense of occasion!
      Interesting what you say about it being like a dream: that’s what Joyce said. (One of the cribs references his letters about it). Paraphrasing, he said that writing a dream gives an author the freedom to depart from having to make sense, and to follow the rules of grammar!

  3. One page is enough Lisa! He he. I read part of FW a couple of years ago. I just read a page or two when I felt like it but even then it became such a chore that I decided ‘enuffsenuff’ and ditched it. Personally I couldn’t be bothered trying to decipher it. Good luck anyway!

    • That’s a not uncommon response, I know! In fact, I hesitated to put this up because I thought, what if I give up, I will look such a goose for announcing this grand plan!

      • Doesn’t matter if you don’t finish it, you’re attempting it which is admirable in itself

      • I don’t know Lisa, I like reading reviews of books that people failed/gave up on/paused etc. Let’s face it with FW there’s a pretty high probability that you won’t finish it :-) But I’ll be interested to see what you make of it regardless.

        Even though I think it’s tosh, I do think everyone should read a bit of FW, just for the experience.

        • Yes, I like reading those sort of reviews too, as long as they’re reasoned, not just slagging off at the author.
          I do hope I like it. I’m an unabashed fan of Joyce, Ulysses is my desert island book, and I wouldn’t like it at all if I ended up loathing FW.

  4. i am so impressed that you’re tackling this! I look forward to reading about your progress :-)

    • LOL It will be slow!

  5. Good luck, Lisa! I still listen to that abridged audio version you gave me a while back from time to time. What I wasn’t expecting was how funny it is in places. And it’s so musical. You can see where someone like Eiemar McBride gets inspiration for her prose style. Looking fwd to hearing about your progress. John

    • Well, you have nailed the reason why I want to have a go. That audio book version is an enticing lure, I just love listening to it whether I understand it or not!

  6. Brilliant, my copy (unfortunately not a Folio edition) awaits – one for retirement. I’ll be following your journey with interest.

  7. *chuckle* I can just imagine the scene at the retirement party:
    ‘So, Tony, how are you going to spend your retirement, a bit of golf, more mountain-climbing?’
    ‘I’m going to read Finnegans Wake.’
    ‘Huh? You’re going to read a book??’
    ‘Well, it’s not an ordinary book….’

  8. I think I will do FW vicariously through your reading. If anyone can do it you can!

  9. Sounds like you’re preparing to climb Mt Everest (and you’ve made it up to the base camp). Never heard an argument in favour of abridging before, but I guess it worked for FW

    • Good point! Remember all those abridged Readers’ Digest editions at the doctor’s waiting rooms? What an abomination they were!

  10. Kol HaKavod! – which roughly equates with ‘Good onyer!’ and is pretty much the extent of my Hebrew vocabulary. As always Lisa you amaze me with the way you approach literature – with energy, a sense of adventure and courage. No one else in this conversation seems to have picked up on your Beethoven reference but as I’m unlikely to tackle FW I thought the least I could do was to dust off the CDs and listen to Op. 130.

    • Hi Ros:)
      It’s interesting, that Op 130… I can’t see what the fuss was about, back in 1826. but I guess that’s the point.
      Actually, I think I might work my way through my Borodin Quartet boxed set of the B’hoven string quartets, while I’m reading:)

  11. Well no-one can say you haven’t prepared yourself thoroughly for this. I can imagine you now sitting there with the book in front of you, steam coming from the ears as you persevere. By coincidence I was listening to a podcast earlier this week and they mentioned FW and played a snipped of Joyce reading from it – I certainly understood the musicality of what I was hearing even if I understood only about one word in three.

    • Well, I’m only up to page 15, but *chuckle* the only steam is coming from my herbal tea.
      It’s a bit like trying to follow a conversation in a language you’re learning. It reminds me of being on a train to from Avignon to Milan and eavesdropping on the conversation of three Italians in the same carriage. I could understand parts of what they said, and I could guess some of it from context, and parts of it just went over my head. (It was good fun when the conductor arrived at Genoa and I had a little conversation with him in my tourist Italian. All of the men looked a bit abashed because they had picked us as tourists, and had been slagging off about American tourists, confident we wouldn’t know what they were saying. Ha! I could have announced that we were Australian, but I get a bit tired of Europeans complaining about the American tourism that keeps their economies afloat so I left them to their embarrassment and they kept quiet all the way to Turin).
      Anyway, I had my first laugh-out-loud moment in FW when I came to the bit when they are in a museyroom i.e. a museum (who? why? I have no idea). They look at the triplewon hat of lipoleum, and they see an exhibit of Willingdone on his same white harse. It dawned on me that this is an exhibition about Napoleon and Wellington and I checked in Tindall, and yes, this is Napoleon “distorted by female lip and flooring …to be walked on by Wellington boots”. (This museyroom is a fictional combo of The Wellington Monument (which I’ve seen) and the magazine in Phoenix Park).
      I think that this is the way to read it. Bit-by-bit, checking in Tindall or Campbell if something lures me to them, and being relaxed about whether it makes sense or not. It’s going to be like Ulysses, it’s not a book that reveals its treasures in just one reading.

      • Absolutely I think that’s the way to read it. Because I understand it’s like a dream where not everything makes sense. I think it’s been called “stream of subconscious” writing.

        I would read along and sometimes it made sense and sometimes it didn’t but the point for me was more the meditative experience than the literal “what did Joyce mean by that specific sentence” or something.

        I have very good memories of Finnegans Wake. Enjoy.

        • Thanks for the encouragement, it means a lot!

      • now I know how to shut up a crowd of Italians! I love the language but when a group of them come together the decibel level is way more than I can handle….

  12. […] Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce (with help from Tindall and Campbell) #1 Getting&nbsp… […]

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