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Lots of Fun at "Finnegans Wake": Unravelling Universals (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 135-138 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0112

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Reviewed by
Lots of Fun at "Finnegans Wake": Unravelling Universals, by Finn Fordham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 288 pp. $85.00.

"Fun" is a word seldom encountered in the titles of scholarly publishing. Is that because "fun" is thought not to be a selling point? Or is it because the subjects of monographs are decidedly in no way "fun" (yet how diverting it is to conjure up imaginary titles like Fun with the Marquis de Sade and The Soapy Fun of Elizabethan Sanitation)? Or perhaps because the style, manner, and aims of scholarship are themselves so often conceived to be the antithesis of "fun"? Yet the etymology cuts to the quick: the word suggests a "trick, hoax, practical joke," probably from the Middle English verb fon, "to make a fool of."1 Finnegans Wake is, in precisely these subversive and vexing terms, lots of fun, and Finn Fordham's book is a fine example of a reader enjoying it.

The book is something of a re-introduction to the Wake (critical caution and the text's own twists and turns make us seem doomed to be always introduced to it) and to Wake studies, too. Fordham begins by outlining what he sees as the seven approaches to the text: structural, narrational, theoretical, inspirational, philological, genetic, and exegetical. And, like Snow White's seven diminutive chaperones, their nominal features are their fortunes. Whether these approaches are entirely distinguishable from one another in practice might be questionable, but Fordham's surveying of the field is both knowledgeable and a valuable way of explaining his own approach. Indeed, approach (or method) is really at the heart of this study. Fordham prefers and performs a blend of the last two approaches: "not what, but how" (6) is precisely his focus.

Just as Hans Walter Gabler predicated his editing practice upon the recognition of a "continuous" copy-text,2 so Fordham's reading of Finnegans Wake is not of a single, published, self-contained text but of an evolutionary process marked by notebook entries, drafts, and typescripts. Lots of Fun examines how a few passages from different parts of the Wake (FW 185.27-186.10, 203.17-204.05, 351.36-355.09, 526.20-528.24) came to be as they are, a smart strategy that manages to give the study both breadth and depth, to impart or at least suggest the lay of the land, and to do some rigorous on-site digging. The book's attention to each stage of revision is unique, and the infectious pleasure it takes in Joyce's "transaccidentated" (FW 186.03-04) modus operandi can produce luminescent observations, such as this one on how the inexorable tumbles unto the inevitable: "He had developed [End Page 135] a language that was now controlling itself, and was in the situation of the sorcerer's apprentice, the caretaker of automata that have developed lives of their own" (91). And the sorcerer's apprentice is doing anything but paring his fingernails. Or this: the Wake is "a 'dividual chaos' meaning a chaos that is separable or divisible, capable therefore of rearrangement, reordering into a new form" (47, FW 186.04-05).

The weaknesses of exegesis are almost painfully obvious to anyone with any experience with the Wake (the question "might this be…?" can always be met with "it might"), though it could be said that these are also delights, of a kind. Less familiar are the potential problems of genetic readings. Fordham refers to Jean-Michel Rabaté's caution against the "genetic fallacy"3 and adroitly explains that "the notebooks cannot tell you much about the methods of applying the materials within them" (28). Fordham emphasizes revisions and shows in his case studies (if they may so be called, for they are more substantial and more substantially treated than "examples") how fluid intention and form are within such a protracted gestation period. To spin the metaphor another way, there is no single moment of conception for the Wake. Danis Rose's claims that Joyce neglected to integrate certain earlier writings ("he no longer liked them or, perhaps, he had forgotten to bring all the manuscript with...