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

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 56, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 431-433 | 10.1353/mfs.0.1690

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For most readers there is not a lot of fun to be had at Finnegans Wake. Even those hardy souls who have overcome the mighty Ulysses often give up on Joyce’s final novel within the first few pages. If the combination of portmanteau words, irregular grammar, and vast allusive breadth is not sufficient to discourage the reader, the knowledge that there are another 625 pages of this stuff lying ahead almost certainly will. To read any, let alone all, of Finnegans Wake is a challenge. Perhaps the one thing more difficult than reading this text is writing about it.

As Finn Fordham demonstrates in the introduction to his excellent Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake: Unravelling Universals, one can identify a number of different approaches to Joyce’s novel within the vast quantity of criticism it has inspired. Choosing which approach to take is not, however, an easy matter. Rigorous structuralist analysis of the text or its composition seems to go against the ethos of this fluid, unstable work. Yet to move too far in the opposite direction risks a descent into critical despair or, worse, inane sub-Joycean wordplay. Fordham’s book is an attempt at a responsible analysis of the Wake. It combines the genetic and the exegetical in order to create a new method of reading: “I take a short, relatively self-contained passage of between half a page to three pages, and trace how it grew from its earliest draft of perhaps just fifteen to twenty words, through the many draft levels, up to the form of its appearance in the final version, the third edition of 1975” (33). By reading the text in this way, Fordham is able to provide a “reconstruction and interpretation of certain historical ‘events’ of the composition process” while also reflecting “the organic form of Joyce’s novel as a whole” (34).

The bulk of this book is made up of highly detailed analyses of the composition of just four small sections of the Wake. Fordham looks at Shaun’s portrait of Shem the Penman, the account of ALP’s youth, the conclusion to Butt and Taff’s story about Buckley and the Russian General, and Yawn’s ventriloquization of the voice of Issy. In total, these sections constitute less than ten pages of Joyce’s novel. Yet, in unpacking Joyce’s dense prose slowly and carefully, Fordham illuminates both this complex novel and its equally complex process of composition. His analysis is minute and methodical, but the narrow focus of his genetic research is always counterbalanced by the breadth of the material to which his exegesis leads him. Fordham locates a huge number of secondary sources and skilfully demonstrates how and why Joyce utilized them. What I particularly like about these readings is their attempt to confront every single addition, no matter how minor or perplexing. Where less confident critics might skip over the details that do not fit into their arguments, Fordham is not afraid to admit that there are words or phrases that he simply cannot explain. After offering numerous potential interpretations of a particularly difficult sentence, he resigns himself to the idea that “the meanings that we try to give the book rarely achieve an autonomous currency, but retreat back from where they came, leaning into their source” (63). In reading the Wake, one frequently encounters such moments of frustration. It is in such moments that one is forced to reflect on one’s own analytical procedures. By discussing his failures as well as his successes, Fordham both accurately reflects the experience of reading this novel and challenges his own approach to it. Consequently, this book is not a dogmatic assertion of the superiority of one particular critical method, but rather an exploration of an attempt at a Wakean mode of criticism.

Lots of Fun will no doubt quickly be devoured by the Joyce community, but I hope that it will also reach a broader audience. This is not simply an exemplary reading of the Wake. It is an exemplary genetic study of a work that both enables and demands such an approach. Fordham points out that the geneticists who work on this novel “have...

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