Essays - Spring 2008

A Slow Devouring

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Banter, beer, and bar food smooth a disciplined but difficult passage through Finnegans Wake

By Steve Macone


In Somerville, Massachusetts, an unabridged, unapologetic dictionary lies on a pub table surrounded by lagers, pints of Guinness, burgers, chicken Caesar wraps, and Corona-bottles-turned-salt-and-pepper-shakers. It’s a Tuesday night, and the dictionary has been pulled off the shelf near the bar to help certain patrons decode what many consider to be the most dense, difficult piece of literature ever written. Right now, eight members of the Finnegans Wake reading group are, for the most part, chewing. Soon they will read aloud a page or two of the Wake, as they do every week, and discuss the passage for about an hour. Some have been doing this since 1997. They are not yet halfway through the book.

While many literary scholars have only a cursory understanding of Finnegans Wake, this group of Web designers, data analysts, and aerobics teachers has jerry-rigged an impressive understanding of it while meeting at a bar, their pace somewhere between struggling and savoring. The Wake, James Joyce’s final work, was published in 1939. Most of the reading public didn’t exactly take to his 628 pages of complex allusions, portmanteaus, and nearly incomprehensible plot lines. Joyce’s patroness, Harriet Shaw Weaver, wrote, “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.” But Joyce insisted until his death two years after its publication that the text, which he spent 17 years writing, was still one of his works “that people should spend a lifetime figuring out.”

The first line is, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” In an uncommon way, the Wake reconciles exaggeration and description. Hyperbole becomes not only valid but necessary for describing the experience of reading it. Short of calling the book nonsense, you cannot dismiss it as easy, no matter how much expertise you have or how familiar you are with the classics or with, say, the street ballads of Dublin. Its complexity prevents any attempt at a gritty rolling-up-your-sleeves-and-just-getting-it-done tactic; its style protects it from revealing itself through the profligate attentions of the college student during an all-nighter, an impenetrability that precludes the CliffsNotes approach. Like some old Mafioso, the Wake has been cloistered away partly just by its reputation. It yields nuggets of information to which, among a group of know-it-alls, no one can believably respond, “I knew that.” It has a difficulty that is objective, a prissy intellectualism rendered macho by extremity. It’s a bit of an introvert’s Everest.

By the autumn night of this session a year ago, only two of the original four members remain, but the Somerville group has grown to nine and has met here for three years in the snug—a partially enclosed booth—at the Thirsty Scholar Pub. They first came together in another, now-closed bar in Cambridge near Porter Square that was actually called Finnegans Wake. Then they bounced around, trying to find a spot with the right feel. In the last few years, they’ve gotten better about meeting every week, and so the members’ bookmarks are moving quicker. In 2002, new members led to the group starting over at page one. At the current average rate of a page or two a week, they could be done as soon as 2012. (But Todd Sjoblom, a programmer at Mathworks who studied science at MIT—as well as Greek, Russian, Chinese, German, French, Japanese, and a little bit of Old English—said he hasn’t sat down and done the math.) Other groups are also reading the Wake. Most meet monthly (a Belgium group meets “fortnightly”) or are tied to a university. “I think it’s incredible,” says Murray Gross, the president of a New York City Wake group, when told of the schedule in Somerville. “Once a month is enough for us.” It might seem to many, then, that the Somerville group’s members are wasting their genius.

Inman Square straddles Cambridge, Boston’s encephalized offshoot, and Somerville, a working-class city. In the same strip of buildings as the Thirsty Scholar is Fi-Dough, a gourmet dog food store with a statue of a dog in a chef’s outfit out front, holding a tray in his paws. A young couple passes. “Ham jerky? Is it for dogs?” It is for dogs, but they both try it. “It’s a bit soft,” the man says in a British accent as they keep walking. The Thirsty Scholar’s façade, black with gold trim, has a studied authenticity, a pub-from-a-kit look, though the inside is known as a genuinely friendly place. The snug where the group meets is high, the boards inside wide and shellacked red; 10 feet up, model ships rest on the beams that separate the group from the rest of the pub. There never seems to be any extra space, whether the number present for a meeting is six or nine. Two stools, when occupied, seal off the group at the opening like a child pulling the last bits of covers over his head. It’s a conspicuous isolation that captures the group’s style—communal, yet set apart.

Rich Cosma, a biotech engineer from Framingham and one of the group’s four originals, is among the earliest to arrive. The first pages of his copy are yellow and rheumatic; he has written “3-9-97” on the title page. The first half of the two-hour sessions is for eating, drinking, and catching up on everyone’s weekend, though the conversation often turns to Joyce. Rich jokes with Todd about the dangers of the Fung Wah bus to New York and asserts, with a laugh, that he’d heard that the creature from John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark was merely a basking shark. Joel Reisman arrives. A soft-spoken data analyst who favors button-down flannel shirts, Joel joined the group the preceding December after he’d met Rich at a lecture on the Wake his wife had talked him into attending. Joel asks someone to pass the “red, equilateral triangle” bottle for his French fries. The mock-intellectual request propels the mood to another energy level. It’s time to start.

This week the group is on page 293. “We’ve got a mistake tonight,” says Brian Jewett, the member with the broadest shoulders and possibly the thickest Boston accent. Brian reads from his book of annotations so those with older editions know that there should be a parenthesis before the “with” in the sentence “Viues Von DVbLin, ’twas one of dozedreams a darkies ding in dewood) the Turnpike under the Great Ulm (with Mearingstone in Fore ground).” Good thing he caught that. Could have been confusing. The footnote, for clarification, reads: “Draumcondra’s Dreamcountry where the betterlies blow.” They take turns reading. No one drinks. Some smile, like they’re hearing a song they know. Some look concerned. Joel engages the text with a magnifying glass. “Wonderful Tonight” plays in the bar.

“But, thunder and turf, it’s not alover yet! One recalls Byzantium.” Tonight’s reading concludes, and discussion begins. Someone points out that if you add up the Roman numerals Joyce used to spell Dublin, you get 566, which is half of 1,132 (by “dublin” 566 you get 1132, an important year in Irish history and a number that keeps recurring in the text). “And, heaving all jawbreakical expressions out of old Sare Isaac’s universal of specious aristmystic unsaid. . . .” The Sare Isaac pun everyone gets pretty easily: Sir Isaac Newton and Sarah and Isaac. It’s supported by Joyce’s note in the margin that says “Uteralterance or the Interplay of Bones in the Womb,” referring to Jacob and Esau struggling in Rebekah’s womb. “Newton’s name for algebra was ‘Universal arithmetic,’” someone adds.

The spelling of aristmystic returns the group to William Butler Yeats’s mystical work A Vision, which group member Earle Lane, a retired businessman who worked in manufacturing, has become familiar with lately. Earle wonders aloud if Joyce used the same automatic, free-association writing techniques that Yeats did. Lily Delaney, who once owned a Celtic store in Harvard Square and now works as a financial adviser, supports the idea with a story about Joyce dictating a part of the Wake to Samuel Beckett when there was a knock at the door. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down, thinking it was part of the book. Joyce, pleased with the mistake, left it in. “Counter to this view,” Joel writes a few days later in his meticulous e-mail summary of the week’s discussion, “several people felt Joyce wouldn’t have relied on automatic writing alone, since he was extremely deliberate and attentive in polishing his work.”

Some members have read Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake or Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake, two of the authoritative Wake interpretations. Others go at it cold. Collectively, they tease out an understanding from a combination of the two approaches, trusting in the wisdom that the group average comes closest to guessing the correct number of jelly beans in the jar, here applied to decoding German and Arabic; they don’t open that big English dictionary very much. Someone usually knows the word.

A quarter of page 293 is taken up by a diagram.

This, they decide, can signify half-a-dozen things, including a female pubic triangle with the letters ALP for Anna Livia Plurabelle, the major female character in the book. Lois Leav, at 70 the group’s senior member, draws upon her career in ortho-optics to interpret the diagram as a reference to how Joyce saw the world at the end of his life. His double vision led him to wear an eye patch when reading. The two intersecting spheres, she says, represent the brain bringing two images together. By reading the Wake like this, the group pools the knowledge of nine people who have led interesting but very different lives. The book seems always to support a connection with at least one aspect of each person’s life or area of familiarity, so occasionally it becomes a Rorschach test, a medium so ambiguous that the members project onto it. For the most part, though, they show an impressive discipline in sticking to the text.

The first chapter of Finnegans Wake introduces the central character, a hod carrier named Finnegan who falls to his death from a scaffold. At his wake, a fight breaks out, whiskey splashes on his corpse, and he rises from the dead. But a summary of this sort is a little like saying the Bible is about a really powerful guy. For starters, the title is at least a quadruple pun: Finnegan’s wake, the service for him; his wake, the effects he leaves behind him; Finnegan’s awake, as he comes back to life; fin egan (the French “end” with “again”) meaning to “end again”—the book is cyclical, its last passage stops midsentence and we realize that the first words of the book pick up there.

Many great works of literature have made it to the list of Oprah’s Book Club—Anna Karenina, East of Eden—but it’s safe to say Finnegans Wake never will. Almost 70 years after its publication, fate has relegated the Wake to the efforts of determined academics and eccentric souls, something many know about, even talk about, but few have experienced, like running with the bulls. But it might be presumptuous to assume a book is written to be read alone. And the Somerville group—as many groups have, though perhaps not to such an extreme extent—has realized that the Wake, while definitely not a beach read, might be a pub read.

“It is not written for the individual, but for people working together to construct ‘meaning’ across national, linguistic and historical boundaries. And in that sense [the work] anticipates in extremely challenging ways the phenomenon of globalization,” Vicki Mahaffey, a professor of English, wrote in the description of a course she taught at the University of Pennsylvania. She warned that the Wake, the “most atypical, experimental book,” is not often considered intelligible in the usual sense of the word. “It has been defended, though, as the verbal equivalent to the achievement of splitting the atom; by splitting the word, Joyce aims to unleash previously untapped creative and interpretive energy.” In an e-mail to me from her new post at the University of York in Heslington, England, she wrote, “I think the communal aspect of reading the Wake is real: what I usually say is that it is the first book written to be read collaboratively (rather than individually or competitively).” At one point, when the Somerville group had dwindled to two, Erik Jespersen, its longhaired leader, canceled some readings because, he said, without other people “there was nothing to learn.”

Mahaffey’s class at Penn also read Aesop, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Ibsen’s Master Builder, and The New Science by the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. Her students studied, as well, the lives of Napoleon, Buddha, Mohammed, St. Patrick, St. Kevin, and Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century Irish pirate. More than just requiring context, the Wake demands context—and almost seems to generate it. Lois says her husband asked her why she was reading the Talmud. “I said, ‘I got to know what’s in it ’cause Joyce keeps referencing it.’ I said, ‘My God, I’m a Jew and I don’t know this stuff. I’m reading this book because an Irish Catholic said it was worth reading.’”

The Internet has made reading Joyce easier. The group first formed after Erik posted an announcement online. Joel uses the Web to find the primary texts that Joyce cites. “Sometimes I feel, when I look up a certain word, that I’m looking at the same source document that Joyce was looking at,” he says. A phrase on page 296—“And let you go, Airmienious, and mick your modest mock Pie out of humbles up your end”—led Joel to Google, where he discovered that the word Airmienious ties together the page’s multiple references to Armenia and the Germanic general Arminius who defeated three Roman legions in 9 A.D. The Wake, in this sense, captured the dizzying amplitude of the Internet before it existed. Like the Web, the book is an incredibly vast, far-reaching, piecemeal collection that is brilliant and unifying when taken in context, but gibberish when not. (Also, a portion of each has been dedicated to naked women.) Almost every phrase in the book is a sort of hyperlink to a half-dozen other sources or ideas, and, in fact, a Wiki-Wake is in the works. Click on a word on page three and you’ll get a link to a half-dozen notes that people have posted explaining its significance. Click on something on page 555 and you’re still on your own. The Internet has not yet caught up with the Wake.

At the Thirsty Scholar, reasons for joining the group vary: bestsellers waste time, or a course in high school or college left a favorable impression of Joyce, or the Wake was the next step after Ulysses. Joel had tried to tackle the book on his own and felt that it was “a dead end, more trouble than it’s worth.” If his decision to read the Wake were strictly about the book’s being on a pedestal, he would resent it by now, he says. “I’ve never shied away from something difficult. I had felt that if the only way to tackle it was through criticism, then I didn’t want to do it.” He does admit to occasional Wake-induced exasperation, and the weekly gatherings occasionally resemble an AA meeting—people working together to get through something tough. Erik claims there is nothing particularly strange or quixotic about the undertaking: “I did Ulysses on my own, but when I got to Finnegans Wake it was clear from the beginning that this was something I was not going to be able to do alone. It’s knowing how to admit that, how to ask for help, and that it’s not a failing of yourself.” Joel likens the group to amateur scientists in the 1800s, when amateurs were making real discoveries. “I don’t see us finding anything that we can communicate to the community,” he says, “but we are engaged in something that is important to the community.”

The group has a good time. They often act playfully ashamed, or unaware, of how funny they are. Teased about his water consumption, Todd boasts, “I put the sewer back in connoisseur.” Rich quotes: “Ah, the triumph of hope over experience,” and Brian asks, “Samuel Johnson?” “Naw, it was a friend who said it to me.” Their explanations are never condescending. These are quirky intellectuals, even by Cambridge standards, but they are all humbled by one another’s knowledge, each assuming he or she ranks somewhere at the bottom of the group in terms of proficiency with the book. They are humble in the way kids from tough neighborhoods are sometimes less cocky in the lead-up to a street fight because they’ve realized there’s always someone tougher.

Several say that reading as little as one page of the book on Tuesday nights has affected the way their minds work. Lois teaches aerobic dance classes to seniors and has to memorize and execute intricate stepping patterns. “People tell me ‘Gee, you can think better on Wednesday; what are you doing?’ It’s not a coincidence. My thinking is clearer.” Joel has coined the term “Vicoinsidence,” referring to Wake-related coincidences inspired by Giambattista Vico, a major presence in the Wake. Mimi Breed, a psychiatric nurse who writes poetry for her own amusement, says she now plays with words and spellings in e-mails (and has learned to love Guinness). Without acknowledging her pun, she says that relearning to play with the language has been “joyous.”

The dominant impression is that this is a book the group wants to read, that the effort is an indulgence, like the burgers and fries and beer they order and like the yellow Porsche Earle drives to the meetings. “Whereas other people were tapping their subconscious and Freud was mapping it, Finnegans Wake tickled the subconscious,” Joel says. “If that thought is true, doing it with other people might be almost sexual.” He likes having a task to accomplish each week and “the feeling that one is creating afresh.” Plus, he says, “Alcohol helps.” Mimi is not alone in thinking of the project as a Sudoku that just happens to have as its subject the collective knowledge of mankind. Joel says, “I’ve been on record as saying that chess is not an intellectual game. There’s something about Finnegans Wake that is not intellectual. It’s not snooty. Some people say it sounds good when read to babies. I’m not sure about that, that it’s a magical thing. It is a document that gives people the opportunity to decode it.”

And so the group collectively chips away at the text, tinkers with it, rendering it accessible with joking and beer. They perform an odd alchemy, making something so often dulled by its own density shine, transcending the limitations of a work that transcends the concept of knowledge to begin with. For decades, communal Wake readings have been facilitated by a fortunate circumstance: the book’s pagination, with few exceptions, has never changed. That is because, says Michael Seidel, a Wake scholar at Columbia, the potential for error in resetting is great, given the strangeness of almost every word, and it’s easiest to make new plates from photocopies of pages. Some Somerville group members believe—or rather feel—that consistent pagination is something Joyce probably would have preferred. They think that, because of all the ambiguity surrounding the text, Joyce wanted everyone on the same page.

After the discussion one week, Mimi places a carrot cake, which she’s baked, on the dictionary. She has decided to celebrate her 65th birthday with the group—and she wants 65 candles. “This is good,” says Lily, “because Joyce’s birthday was very important to him.” With only half the candles lit, the snug heats up. Lois asks Violeta, the Lithuanian waitress, to turn on the AC. Todd jabs a fork into a candle and uses his new torch to light other candles. The room takes on a glow. The AC creates a breeze, making the candles harder to light. By the time Todd and Brian and Mimi light the 65th candle, the first ones have burned down to the cake. Its off-white frosting is itself frosted with beads of wax. The table and dictionary are spotted. Though flames are confined to the cake, a large percentage of the room is, when you think about it, actually on fire. The group sings. Then, careful to protect the sacred texts while eating, the members sit smiling, chewing carrot cake and bits of wax in the momentary silence. Violeta brings the check, wallets open, and the air cools in the snug. Back to the real world.

Finnegans Wake, in the words of Vicki Mahaffey, is “a strange, festive celebration of our own individual ignorance, which instead of being shaming fosters a fresh appreciation of how many pieces of human knowledge and culture remain unconnected, unassimilated.” One night, as several group members begin to pack up, Todd wonders about Mexico. There was one word that night that sounded like a volcano in Mexico. “But Mexico is suspiciously lacking from the text,” he says. Meanwhile, Lois, who tends to linger on passages while others move on, reads out loud, “We’re only all telescopes!” and says to no one in particular: “Isn’t that a wonderful line? ‘We’re all telescopes.’”

Steve Macone lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. His essay "A Slow Devouring" appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the Scholar.


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