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Annotations to "Finnegans Wake" (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 363-366 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0027

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Some books are born annotated, some achieve annotation, and some have annotation thrust upon 'em. Ever the exception for itself making no exceptions, Finnegans Wake falls into each of these categories. For his part, Roland McHugh recommends "mentally superimposing" his annotations when reading the Wake (xii), though my optometrist might not approve of that. Actually, McHugh says that this is what the reader "must now do" (xiii). By contrast, in the previous edition, McHugh merely suggests "allowing the eyes to slip momentarily across" to his book from Joyce's. The annotations, in short, are on the march.

McHugh opens his first edition with the declaration: "In Finnegans Wake the novice always misses the point." Which novice? The syntax here may suggest that "the novice" is a character in the book, and if the religious connotations of the word do not ring more than one church bell, the others come pealing after: "Provided the reader can repudiate his early assumptions, the Wake's subtle unifiers ought eventually to be discerned. Unfortunately, the early assumptions, often the result of a misplaced faith in some pretentious guidebook, can be very tenacious" (Annotations 1 v). The "point" that the novice misses, then, is a unity, a true faith.

No such admonishment survives in the second edition–one imagines an affable editor or friend making a gentle suggestion over tea–but this newest edition returns to those evangelical roots. "If the history of Finnegans Wake (FW) exegesis be viewed in coarse grain," writes McHugh in his preface, "one perceives an upsurge in quality during the penultimate fifth of the twentieth century" (vii). That altogether ponderous way of putting things is but prologue to renewed sectarian rumblings: "After the publication of Annotations in 1980, FW studies appeared split into two tiers. A rather vapid school having affiliations with fashionable political and philosophical theories contrasted with an approach seeking to explain FW material by identifying Joyce's sources" (vii). Here McHugh poses as Martin Luther looking back on the Reformation, scowling at the unorthodox, who have swerved from the true faith that his work revealed and made manifest (note that it is the publication of his own Annotations that serves as revolutionary marker and historical monument).

Perhaps discretion forbids McHugh from identifying which "theories" or "school" (notice that whereas the wrong-headed form a school, the right-minded have an approach) evidently pain him, but study of his listed sources finds telling absences. He lists forty-three books and a number of articles from A "Wake" Newslitter (1962-1984). Of the books, thirteen were published between the first and third edition of the Annotations, and only five were published between the second and third. The reported "upsurge of quality" in Wake scholarship can only be said to be very selectively represented here, and the speciousness of the school/approach division should be obvious to anyone who has carefully observed said upsurge. Consider Jennifer Bloomer's engrossing book Architecture and the Text: The (S)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi, which is not among McHugh's sources and which one suspects he would label as a work of the "vapid school." Besides its rich array of theoretical engagements, Bloomer's book provides powerful suggestions concerning the Wake's architectural design, among them the possibility that the blueprints to "the hoax that joke bilked" (FW 511.34) may be found in the house of Sir John Sloane (135-46). I find no mention of Sloane in the new Annotations–too politically fashionable, no doubt.

The format of the annotations has not changed, and McHugh acknowledges its limitations as "a formal constraint of magnitude: Annotations provides one page for every page of FW and within that page two lines of print correspond to every FW line" (xiii). Those who enjoy this familiar method will presumably be happy, but I cannot think they are many. The justification for this "formal constraint" is hard to fathom, and McHugh does not explain it apart from admitting that his book "does not aspire to completeness" (xiii). Fair enough, but why not arrange the notes synoptically, in the reasonable manner in which Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman annotate Ulysses? Given the "upsurge in quality" in...

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