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In 1929 Robert McAlmon, speaking of Joyce's "Work in Progress," could say, naïvely: "The question 'but what does it all mean' need not be asked," but thirty-five years later Richard Kain still held that Finnegans Wake was "easier to discuss than to read." Terms and tools may have changed, but our concern with what it is all about remains. "Tell me more" is the cri de coeur wrung not only from Martha Clifford and the washerwoman at the ford but also from the plain reader, damned by Eugene Jolas in 1929. The Wake's Progress has attracted a rapidly expanding in-crowd, and critics keep plying their narranatomical lancets to dissect the text, searching for supporting structures or patterns—a wild-goose chase?
In his new book, Dreamscheme, Begnal takes up the challenge by championing the discredited notion of plot. He admits that the crux of the Wake is explication, but he assures readers that "by concentrating closely upon the structure and the language of the novel," they will be granted a view of Joyce's "grand design." Begnal intends "to locate and describe aspects of narrative technique and threads of narrative itself," looking for "some sort of plot" by "examining specific passages in detail." Do we detect traces of a circular argument here? Are some notions (novel, structure) too much taken for granted? It all depends on what you expect from a book like this. Could you study its one hundred-odd pages and start reading FW with some confidence, or should you try to work through FW first and only then take up Dreamscheme as a summary meant to put everything into the right perspective? [End Page 328]
You would have to do some homework anyway, for in FW, Begnal points out, "the reader must decide what is a pun and what is not, what is a valid allusion in a given passage and what is not." This neatly sums up the annotator's dilemma. Roland McHugh decides, for example, that a reader who has advanced as far as FW 10.35 is still unable to identify "Lumproar" as Napoleon, L'empereur. But what are the Rothschilds ("wrothschields") doing here? The Annotations format does not allow for lengthy explications, so we miss the story alluded to, presumably, in the next line ("Our pigeons pair are flewn for northcliffs"), Rothschild's agent in Belgium (as it is called now) using carrier-pigeons to inform the firm in England (land of cliffs) of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo before the news would spread, enabling them to buy British bonds (low-priced at the time) on a large scale, foreseeing that they would soar in a day or two. Another instance: glossing "greekenhearted yude," McHugh only gives a surface reading ('chickenhearted'), neglecting overtones (Greek/Jew, "Jewgreek is greekjew" U 15.2097).
Stressing the role of novelistic concepts—narrative voice, plot (a family saga), and character—Begnal encourages readers to abandon McHugh-type annotations and to look, instead, through and behind the Wake's overgrowth for what he calls the narrative trail. His book may appeal to seasoned Wake readers and mere beginners equally; basically, it is a revised, condensed, intelligent Skeleton Key.
In Sandulescu's book, The Language of the Devil, the first three parts deal mainly with linguistic theories, Part Three in particular with the author's system of axioms, principles, maxims, and rules on which he bases his "interlinear process of analysis," a sample of which is Part Four, the concluding chapter, which discusses structure and texture of FW IV. In addition, the final section presents a set of propositions "grouped under three major headings (constructs, strategies, integration). In their turn, the axioms, principles, maxims, and rules are very closely related to these propositions, and should...