When, in 1929, Shakespeare and Company published Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress by Samuel Beckett et al., the slim volume with the long title failed to make much of an impression. It was a strange project to begin with, one that perhaps only Joyce himself could have come up with. In order to create interest in his new work, and to counter the first negative criticisms, Joyce had asked a number of his friends to write about "Work in Progress" for Eugene Jolas's modernist magazine transition, where installments of the as yet unnamed Finnegans Wake had begun to appear. In 1929, these essays were collected in a slim volume and Joyce invited/coerced some more people into contributing—among them Beckett, whose offering must have impressed very much because it became the first essay in the collection—with its justly famous opening statement ("The danger is in the neatness of identifications"). This happens to be the first sentence the young Irishman ever published. The works of the twelve apostles were completed with two extra pieces of criticism, a negative review in the name of the common reader by a clearly pseudonymous G. V. L. Slingsby and a short parody in a mild form of Wakean language by the only seemingly pseudonymous Vladimir Dixon.
Most Wake critics today agree that as pieces of literary criticism the twelve contributions were of limited value: the critics may have had the advantage of working under the author's instructions (Beckett reading Vico and Bruno for the first time), but Beckett and most of his colleagues had read only about a fifth of the final book. The essays in Our Exagmination cannot even be used to generalize about the state of literary criticism at the time, since the twelve had been selected specifically as friends of the author and of his work rather than representatives of the field.
Unlike the much more expensive Ulysses, this new book by Shakespeare and Company did not sell well and it was only in the early sixties, when Joyce's reputation was established and Samuel Beckett was beginning to make a name for himself, that a new edition was needed. Nearly fifty years later, Tim Conley has assembled a new team to "exagmine" the original booklet.
The present twelve plus two authors face the same problem as the original contributors: in most cases they have very little to work on. In some cases it shows: due to the lack of relevant material, some of them concentrate instead on other topics that interest them; in that sense the re-exagmination may teach us something about the future of Finnegans Wake criticism (most of the contributors are quite young). Although there is some overlap, two schools can be clearly distinguished: those with genetic interests and those who are "theoretical" in the old-fashioned sense of the word. A few of the contributors belong to the first of these schools, but the majority of these critics show their allegiance to the second. Their affiliation affects the way they read the essay they have been assigned: the former concentrating on the original context, the latter more concerned with the theoretical implications of the Wake and its interpretation.
Of the more senior scholars, Jean-Michel Rabaté opens his contribution on Beckett with that essay's opening sentence and his playful close reading of the text ranges widely without losing sight of the historical context in which Our Exagmination was written. As a genetic scholar, Dirk Van Hulle reads Frank Budgen's essay on two different levels; he is interested both in its contribution to Joyce criticism and in the manner in which Budgen's essay was written—in what this second issue can tell us about Budgen's (and his Zürich friend's) work after Ulysses. The best contributions here seem to start from this contextual and historical awareness.
In a similar vein Patrick McCarthy looks at Stuart Gilbert's contribution, clearly making...