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Finishing a Book Without Title: The Final Years of “Work in Progress”

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 3-32

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After a long and complex gestation, Ulysses was published in February 1922. Then in the fall, after a period of rest, James Joyce continued his long-standing practice of taking notes in what we now know as “Buffalo Notebook VI.B.10.” It is a stenographer’s notepad that opens with a few misprints that Joyce wanted corrected for the second printing of Ulysses. As Daniel Ferrer, Vincent Deane, and I have demonstrated in our edition of the notebook, at the beginning of his new adventure, Joyce was only exploring new ideas and there is no evidence that he had any idea in which direction he was heading.1 He certainly could not foresee how long the writing of the new book would take him: twice as long as Ulysses.

In the end, Finnegans Wake was published in May 1939, and the book thus remained “in progress” for nearly seventeen years. Decades of textual scholarship have shown that the growth of Joyce’s final book was extremely difficult.2 Health problems, family trouble, publication issues, negative critical and personal reactions, all these factors made Joyce’s work on the book slow, at times even impossible. The last half of the seventeen-year period was especially complicated, as many other textual critics have demonstrated, but I will concentrate here on the final years of the book’s genesis, from the mid-thirties onwards, a period that has been less documented.

In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann describes the last year before the publication of Finnegans Wake in some detail. He shows his biographer’s skill in keeping to a roughly chronological order of the tale but at the same time telling all the juicy little stories about Joyce trying to finish his “Work in Progress.” Ellmann declares the work to be over on New Year’s Day 1939, “except for a few last-minute telegrams” (JJ 727). Ellmann bases this statement on an optimistic letter by Joyce to Livia Schmitz in which he announced the book’s imminent publication, or at least the end of the writer’s attempts at finishing his book: “Final-mente ho finito di finire il mio libro” (SL 349). We know that a single copy of the book did arrive in Paris on 30 January 1939, in time for Joyce’s birthday, but announcements of the end of the “Work in Progress” had come earlier than the New Year. On 4 September 1938, Joyce had written to Paul Ruggiero that he had finished his “long book” (LI 400), but two months later, on 18 November 1938, Joyce again triumphantly wrote to Ruggiero: “Ora, un’altra cosa. Ho terminato il mio libro!!!” (LI 402). Four days earlier, Joyce had sent a telegram to Harriet Weaver with the same news. Finnegans Wake seems to have been a book with many endings; finishing it had been a full-time occupation for years. On 9 December Joyce complained to Ruggiero that the book still was not finished (LIII 435). We will see that all these reports of the death of “Work in Progress” and the birth of Finnegans Wake had been quite premature. For James Joyce, there seem to have been a great many ways of finishing this book.

On the basis of a study of the mostly unpublished correspondence at the National Library of Ireland between Paul Léon and the two publishers of Finnegans Wake, Faber & Faber and Viking, it is possible to reconstruct a much more detailed view of the final phase of the gestation of a work that had started seventeen years earlier and that would, to some extent, continue to be unfinished. This is a continuing story, if ever there was one, but one that offers us a better view of the final phase of Joyce’s writing career and of the abundant patience and forbearance that was needed for all who worked with him during the prolonged process of finishing his final book.

Ellmann’s biography and three volumes of published correspondence give some sense of the difficulties involved in this process, but the expurgated and unpublished bits of Joyce’s correspondence provide a more comprehensive, and occasionally less flattering, image of the...

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