- Epstein on Finnegans Wake
Edmund Lloyd Epstein. A Guide Through Finnegans Wake. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. xv + 314 pp. $65.00
I am begining this review on 21 March 2010. It is the 225th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach and the 116th birthday of Nora Barnacle Joyce. According to which historian you read, Napoleon’s hundred days, culminating in Waterloo, began either yesterday or today, 195 years ago. It ended with the victory of a man named Wellington. Ninety-two years ago began the Second Battle of the Somme, the go-for-broke German offensive of World War I. It ended with the defeat of a man named Wilhelm.
It is also the vernal equinox. Daylight Savings Time or no Daylight Savings Time, 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. and p.m., the sun is going to set exactly or almost exactly twelve hours after it rose. Spring is here. Evoe! Morris Dancing! Fisher King! Sachseläuten! Frogs!
Frogs: because, here and pretty much everywhere else in the northern hemisphere, this is the high point of their mating, therefore croaking, season. Sachseläuten? That would be the Zurich fertility festival which, before tourism supervened, used to occur every March 21. I do not happen to live particularly near one of either, but the James Joyce who spent five years in Zurich liked to boast of his adopted city that [End Page 131] it had two rivers and a lake. So I’m betting that, when the time rolled around, and the frogs came out in their usual riverine and lacustrine habitats and began croaking on schedule, right around Sachseläuten, he heard them.
So what? So the first of the four books of Finnegans Wake begins at dawn and ends, in its last chapter, at dusk, with one of its two old chattering washerwomen complaining—the aging Nora Barnacle Joyce suffered severely from arthritis—about the pain in her “bach.” She hears the 6:00 p.m. Sachseläuten bells chiming, which suggests, as others before me have pointed out, that the date must be at or near one equinox or other. Being both near-deaf and correspondingly loud, they have trouble distinguishing the “chittering,” “flittering” background “bawk” from their own “talk,” but at least one of them seems to have a frog—“creakorheuman”—roopily at work in her throat.
Be that as it may, the second line of the second page, at the opposite (dawn) end of Book I, begins with considerably less background interference, and this is what we hear: “Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkeck Kóax Kóax Kóax!” The annotations will tell you that this is the frog chorus from Aristophanes’s The Frogs. It is. All I would add is that there is a reason for its occurrence here. I think that reason is that there is some real croaking going on—at dawn, when we would expect it, sometime around mid-March, as heard by a semisomnolent sleeper at an inn on the north bank of a river, the Liffey, in Chapelizod, Ireland, where he is by degrees awakened by those croaks as they are joined by the sounds of morning (inbound rush-hour traffic, bustle, the household getting up) and, being profoundly hung over, tries with limited success to sort things out as to where he is and what has happened.
As an extension of that exercise, there follows an informational turn in a museum commemorating most if not all of the great conflicts of history, especially Waterloo and the Great War; they have in common, for instance, a “living detch,” both a trench warfare ditch and the sunken road which according to Victor Hugo spelled disaster for Napoleon’s cavalry—in which, this time around, the composite “Willingdone” loses. We survey, in a bouleversé sort of way, both the outline of someone sleeping indoors and the environs outside, which, as later confirmed in the book by a “welter focused,” weather forecast and focused account of weather just passed, is March-like—changeable, windy, wet on the ground, fog in process of being burned off by sun. Whoever woke up and took in this...