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Making Multiple: James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

James Joyce started writing Finnegans Wake in 1922, a few months after Ulysses was published. The first passage he wrote was a short comic piece about the last of the Irish kings, Roderick O’Conor, who is described drinking leftovers and falling over. He then appears to turn into a brewery barge which sails away down the Liffey and out to sea. The idea of a fall would become central to Finnegans Wake as would the principle of metempsychosis, whereby characters merge into things, or one another, or parts of the landscape. The book is ambitious in its remit: it is about night and dream, but also about the evolution of human society through cycles of generation, about change and consistency over time. Ultimately, the simple comedy and the large-scale ideas emerge from the Wake’s greatest innovation: the rich density of its words, resonant with the challenge and exuberance of multiplicity.

Initially called Work in Progress, the new text was composed by Joyce in episodic fashion: he wrote up his ideas in notebooks which became sketches that were drafted and re-drafted until the book took shape. The eventual title, based on the ballad, ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, became the more plural and potentially imperative, Finnegans Wake, without an apostrophe, when it was revealed by the author just prior to publication in 1939. Joyce’s dedication to the book is evident in the seventeen years it took him to complete its 628 pages. It had a lukewarm reception on publication, which was then compounded by the outbreak of war followed by Joyce’s death in 1941.

In more recent years Finnegans Wake has benefited from the burgeoning of academic and popular interest in Joyce around the globe, yet it still remains a coterie interest. It is notorious for its difficulty but is not as inaccessible as it first seems. The punning deviations from the English language that Joyce invented for the book require the reader to be active in their decoding but the rewards are many for those who take on this ‘crossmess parzel’ (FW 619), a phrase which is typically ingenious in combining ‘Christmas parcel’ with ‘crossword puzzle’.

Finnegans Wake can be read individually or in groups; in addition, it can often benefit from being read aloud or performed or interpreted musically. T.S. Eliot was of the opinion that Joyce’s recording of a passage from the Wake ‘revealed at once a beauty which is disclosed only gradually by the printed page’. That verdict is something you can test for yourself at the Bluecoat on Sunday afternoon at 2 pm when a range of academics and performers will be responding to Joyce’s ‘dreambookpage’ (FW 428).

These will include Dr. Frank Shovlin, Stephanie Greer, Paul O’Hanrahan, Steve Boyland and Nathan Jones. Since the Wake is a book which is as much about the sound of words as their sense, so this event, Lispn!, is designed to chime with the ‘Listening’ exhibition, the Hayward touring show curated by Sam Bellinfante, which opened in the gallery last Friday. Novelist James Stephens said of Joyce’s book that it was ‘written in speech’: this event allows us to tune in to its multiple voices, its many beauties, its ambitious spirit of innovation. It is also a celebration, taking place as it does on 1 February, the eve of Joyce’s birthday.


Lispn! James Joyce: Finnegans Wake               

Sunday 1 February, 2 pm. Book here. 


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About the Bluecoat

Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. As the most ...

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