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A Guide through Finnegans Wake (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 44, Numbers 2, Summer 2012
pp. 246-248 | 10.1353/sdn.2012.0006

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With A Guide through Finnegans Wake Edmund Epstein has given us a great handbook to the Wake for the novice and expert alike. The explicit goal of the book is namely "to explicate the Wake for the benefit of readers common and uncommon" (2). This goal is to a large degree achieved—yet not without serious omissions of important aspects of the text (especially the linguistic aspect).

A Guide through Finnegans Wake is the result of Epstein's many decades spent working and living with the Wake; as a consequence, it is impressively knowledgeable and erudite—yes, highly competent, reliable, and concise. Nonetheless, it maintains a light tone that is quite engaging and sympathetic; and even though the style is personal, it is never idiosyncratic or private, but rather hospitable, patient, and modest. The author's clarity and enthusiasm is, indeed, enjoyable and recommendable.

Epstein's point of departure, thematically speaking, is that the book "has a profound human meaning. It is about the centered line of the life of man and woman— the creation of the family and the shift of power when the children grow up" (2). This is not a controversial claim, but highly sympathetic—particularly when Epstein's appreciation of the humour of the book is added to this. Epstein contests that Joyce's magnum opus "is extremely funny...and there is indeed a laugh on every page of the Wake" (1). It is a great quality of Epstein's book that this appreciation of the deeply human—as well as funny—aspects of the Wake dictates his book from cover to cover. This is furthermore, I think, mirrored in Epstein's recognition of the theme of love in the Wake: "A complete act of love takes place in the blank space between the end and the beginning of the Wake...Every day, twice a day, forever, the great act of love, the embrace and withdrawal of Anna Livia and the ocean, acts out an eternal love affair in space and time, in enumeration and narration, the two modes of presentation in Finnegans Wake" (13-14). Epstein's cognizance of this theme is also very much to be prized as is his assertion that the work is not a narcissistic, sterile, and cerebral gesture of an absent author-divinity, but a funny, compassionate, and comic story of the follies, imperfections, and dignity of human beings.

Epstein—the grand old man of Joyce criticism (the first generation of critics working after Joyce's death)—writes in continuation of the 'traditional' book aids to Joyce's "book of the dark" (Finnegans Wake [1975 ed.] 251), such as, for example, Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), William York Tindall's A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake (1959), and John Gordon's Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary (1987). Perhaps, to some degree, with the exception of Tindall's work, these books share the same tendency to mollify the radicality of the text, which they 'domesticate' in order to get a more traditional novel with identifiable plot, characters, and viewpoints that are to be found behind the veil of the obscuring language. Epstein operates with the Wake as being doubled in the sense that there first and foremost is (1) a narrative line (belonging to the realm of the traditional novel), which, however, is clouded by and enveloped in (2) linguistic buffoonery and form-experimentation. What Epstein offers is consequently a distillation of the proper narrative essence of the work that is extracted from the opaque foil of the text. This is clear, for example, from a passage like this: "Despite the Wake's radical experimentation in language and form, it is a giant hymn of praise to the imperfect world of fallen human beings" (3). In other words, in spite of its expression the Wake offers a thematic content to be enjoyed, if the reader—with the help of Epstein—manages to look away from the linguistic blur. However, what Epstein (and the traditional approaches to Finnegans Wake) overlook is that sound sense is always soundsense in this book, meaning that the meaning of the content can never be separated from its...

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