Monday, July 9, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Finnegans Wake, Page 45 [47]

The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly

(w/ unintentional change of key)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Finnegans Wake, Page 25 [27]

Aphorgasm #5

Roberto Bolano was right. The most important characteristics of intelligence are curiosity and humor. I would say the third most important is perseverance through boredom. Because more often than we would like, knowledge and inspiration can only be found beneath thick layers of tedium and dullness. In the same way that, more often than we would like, wisdom can only be found beneath a large pile of shitty experiences.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Lots of Fun with Finnegans Wake

Before I go much further reading FW, I should probably give a short primer on the book. Again, I’m trying not to read about the book this time through, so I’m going by memory of the hearsay I’ve picked up over the years. Which means I may be wrong, so please feel free to correct. Although the thing about FW is, even if you’re wrong, you might be right.

OK, first the title. It's a reference to an Irish song. Here's a video with lyrics [I fixed the link--it's a video now]. Tim Finnegan, who is known to enjoy a drink now and then, falls off a ladder and cracks his head. He's presumed dead, laid out on a bead, and is given a wake.When things get rowdy, Tim is revived with a splash of whiskey. [My wife pointed out that I had spelled ladder in this paragraph as latter (in the original version of this post), which I tried to justify by saying that it's the Irish pronunciation. She didn't buy it.]

The second thing to keep in mind is that this is a dream. It’s Joyce’s book of the night. Ulysses is known as Joyce’s book of the day because it all takes place in one day (June 16, 1904). It covers around 24 hours, so a lot of it actually takes place at night, but the characters are awake (though sometimes they are, let's say, delirious). For much of it, Joyce uses the famous “stream of consciousness” technique, which is a worn out phrase but extremely useful when talking about Ulysses and FW. The conscious thoughts of the characters in Ulysses are very stream like. They flow from one thought to another, and not always in an obvious, easily understandable way. In other words, the prose flows the way our thoughts actually do flow--by association. Which works sometimes under the light of consciousness and sometimes in the darkness of the subconscious.

I know this is all very abstract, but I’m going somewhere. If the conscious brain is (let’s say for the sake of argument) best represented in narrative form by a flow of obvious and not so obvious associative connections in the mind, how would one go about representing the mind when sleeping? This is the question Joyce posed himself when writing a dream book. His answer was to throw out the obvious, easily understandable associations we would recognize in a coherent mind that's awake, and leave the rest. I.e., the flow of associative connections that the conscious mind isn't even aware of. The subconscious. 

Dreams are weird. We are all familiar with the weirdness. FW is just a man dreaming. That’s why it's weird and you can‘t understand anything. There’s no story. No plot. Give up trying to find one. At least that’s my suggestion.

But once you get over the plotless and (seemingly) chaotic nature of the book, it may be possible to get something out of FW. That’s my hope anyway.

For example, in the first page, appropriately enough, there are references to the beginning (Adam and Eve, recirculation) and references to the fall (literally, twice, “the fall”). Also, river is in the first word, and the man whose dream we are reading shows up here and throughout the book whenever we see the initials HCE (Howth Castle and Environs).

We are reading HCE’s dream, listening to the murmuring river of his subconscious, and for some reason he’s got Adam and Eve and the fall on his brain.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Beginning and the End

Along with Finnegans Wake, I also just started reading Don Quixote. This is my third attempt, and it's probably not that great of an idea to read two classic novels that are so lengthy. DQ is 940 pages long. My wife thinks I have a disease psychological condition that gives me an insane inordinate predilection for reading multiple large books at the same time. Right now I'm reading 4 books > 500 pages long. It's a problem.

But I realized that this is actually an interesting pair of books to read together. DQ is often referred to as the first modern novel. It's hard to say precisely what this is supposed to mean. I suppose it could roughly be explained by saying that just about every novel we would read today (written in the past 400 years or so) was influenced in some way by what Cervantes wrote circa 1600. Technically, stylistically, philosophically, novels today are descendants of DQ. This is the sort of claim that probably doesn't hold up well if you take it too far, so we won't get carried away. But it seems legitimate to say that, if you want to trace the history of the modern novel back as far as it can go, you won't find a better candidate for a big bang event than Cervantes.

And then there's Finnegans Wake. This may sound weird, but some people think that FW is the end of the modern novel. Its death and funeral. Which seems to make no sense, because obviously quite a few novels have been written since 1939. All this FW=end-of-the-novel-talk is referring to is the historical trajectory of European/American literature in the 20th century. Joyce seemed to hit some kind of limit, in terms of what can be done with the novel structurally and stylistically. Here is a graphical representation of what I'm trying to say.
My sense is that Cervantes comes out of nowhere with DQ and the novel immediately bottoms out in the 17th and 18th centuries. I can't think of a good novel, a novel that I can read today and enjoy, that was written in the 17th century, after DQ. Same goes for most of the 18th century. I'd say the incline begins with Jane Austin ~1800, the 19th century gives us all kinds of complexity and nuance, and the top of the curve bumps against the total chaos line with FW. Since then, novelists have had to step away from the edge and come to terms with the diminishing returns. Is it worth experimenting with fiction to the point where no one can even read your stuff? [This is partly what Jonathan Franzen is getting at when he writes about the difference between Status and Contract novelists.]

So that's the idea. I'm reading the beginning and the end of the novel. Sort of. So to speak. We'll see how it goes. If I don't finish them this time I don't think it's ever going to happen.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Finnegans Wake, Page 1 [3]

I've tried to read Finnegans Wake probably half a dozen times. I'm a fan of James Joyce. I've read his other major works many times (Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses), but his last novel is basically impossible to read with anything close to comprehension. At least the first or second or third time through. Alas, it's something I have to do, and since I really need motivation to post more regularly, I figured I would read FW one page at a time on this blog.

Like this:

So that's page one, which is actually page 3 of the Penguin Books edition I'm reading from, if you want to follow along. In fact it's kind of necessary to look at the text in order to pick up on all of the puns and portmanteaus (you should be able to see the first page here). If you're not familiar with FW, and you thought I was just saying gibberish, that's because FW is written in gibberish. An incredibly well crafted and clever multilingual gibberish. Probably the most meaningful gibberish anyone's ever written. And did I mention this book is 625 pages long? It's going to take me a long time to do this.

I was also tempted to look up commentary on every page and add annotations as I go along. But I think that would be a mistake, because one of my issues with this book has been the sense of being overwhelmed with secondary material. So I'm going to resist that temptation and just read the thing on its own terms. No commentary except my own observations.

But that doesn't mean I wouldn't welcome commentary from readers of my blog. If anyone wants to add annotations in the comments, based on their own reading or secondary sources or Wikipedia or whatever, that would be great.

The only thing I'll say about page one is that it's hard to read the 100 letter word near the beginning of the third paragraph. From what I remember (I did do a fair bit of research during the first few attempted readings) there are several of these long words in the novel, and they're supposed to represent a thunderbolt or something.

Also, I'm not sure what voice I'm going for. When I read Dr Seuss to my daughter I usually end up slipping into an Anthony Hopkins impression, unless it's The Cat in the Hat. Then I do Martin Short. For this first page I can hear a bit of Hopkins with maybe a week Irish accent here and there. I'm sure it will change along the way.