Two months ago, I fell in behind the frothy monthly readings of Finnegans Wake by the Boaters and Sifters of Montréal. Now, I am an ancient fellow and will surely not survive to see this flow return to its …riverrun. I’ve read The Wake twice before. I like to think I understood fifteen percent of Joyce’s Night Book, but I might be inflating that estimate. I tread water like a channel swimmer– alone and half the time in inky darkness.
The first time I dipped a toe in FW was in 1990. I used Campbell and Robinson’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake to keep afloat. It’s a narrative overview that halves the page count but also truncates the fun. It couldn’t be helped; even dipping a toe, I was beyond my depth. If you know other works by Joseph Campbell, you may appreciate that he does something with mythology not found anywhere among Joyceana. I’d call him an anthropological mythologist who ferments and foments magical liquors. If you read Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces or Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, you might agree that Campbell connected ancient myths to modern ones better than anyone. The Skeleton Key was an excellent way to enter the stream.
Sometime about 2006, I returned to the book. This time I dove a little deeper using Glosses of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. This online format sometimes offers several options for breaking apart the possible interpretations of the many puns and portmanteaus. Occasionally, finwake.com transposes cryptic text into plain English summaries. Often, it offers translations of the sixty languages of The Wake or the decomposition of invented words and portmanteaus. After finishing this second lap, I was given a copy of William York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Tindall offers a bit of both summary and “translation.” His insights are most revealing, but neither his summary nor his unpacking is comprehensive. I am left with a superficial appreciation of the text, enough ken to know what I am missing.
When I decided to draft in the “Wake” of BloomsdayMontreal’s Boaters and Sifters, the group had navigated to page 74 (the last page of Book I, Chapter 3) by reading together once monthly. I thought that would be a place to join since I believed anywhere I’d begin reading would be in the middle of the tale. I am superannuated, so I began with the understanding that I would run out of breath before Boaters and Sifters turned all the pages. I’ve enjoyed about two and a half pages of improved understanding in two months. That’s delightful enough, for in ten years, with luck, I’ll be ten years older whether or not I have enjoyed another 150 pages of the book. Meanwhile, this is truly fun. Reading among a group has given me access to native speakers’ understanding of languages and to perspectives that would have escaped me. Not understanding German or Dutch in context, I now have expert help. Another reader was working hard to understand the reference of pronouns within the text and punctuation. This also became most useful in my reading.
I’ll give examples of the information I’ll be providing in these monthly reports. Today, I’ll draw samples from Campbell and Robinson and Tindall. In August, I again began using finwake.com (The Glosses). Later this month, I’ll write about our reading of page 75. I’ll add The Glosses to that report. In September, I’ll add Roland MacHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake using the copy delivered a few days ago. This is provided for those who might be considering reading alone (alas) or “along the riverrun.”
When I write about the group discussions, I’ll respect the anonymity of participants except my own and MasterBuilder Kevin Wright’s whose fame is honored on the Festival Bloomsday Montréal website and deservedly so. For now, here’s my first mouthful of river bilge.
Campbell and Robinson’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake
Page 74 is not specifically mentioned, but the following is a sampling of the narrative analysis:
“It must now be noted that the officer of the peace, John Lally Tompkins (63, 67) has a good deal of HCE about him, and that the unsolicited American (70–73) is simply not distinguished from HCE throughout the last parrot three paragraphs of the chapter. The continental reporter too (69–70) is but a chip from the old tree. In short, the antagonists are the two sides of a one-same power of nature. And we soon shall see, they are ‘polarized for reunion by the symphysis of their antipathies” (92). [This is quoted from Campbell and Robinson, page 80.]
Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake:
From the summary, “A meditation on rocks, clouds, children, and history leads to a hopeful conclusion: We will wake after sleep; the heroes will return; there will be an Easter rising, “some Finn, some Finn avant! Did you think me dead? Dramatic changes of rhythm, sound, and tone on the last page (74) lead to a suitable diminuendo” [Tindall 79].
Notes 74.7-8 “‘Add some’ or adsum, here I am, is what Abraham said to God, Genesis, 22: 1. ‘Mene credisti mortuum?’ is Finnegan’s question at his wake, ‘Did you think me dead?’ CF 24.15, ‘Did you drink me doornail?'” [Tindall 82].