- "Uptenable from the Orther": New Editions of Finnegans Wake
Things have come to a strange pass when a book reviewer finds himself looking from one new edition of Finnegans Wake to another, produced independently of one another and, no less unlikely, brought into print by major publishers: Penguin and Oxford (and for the sake of convenience, the two editions shall be shorthanded here by their respective publishers). Which is the "definitive" text? However confounding this situation might seem, it cannot be too often or too emphatically recalled that for students of Joyce, a plurality of editions is an asset, not an obstacle. Given the complexity of the Wake and its textual history, it is valuable to have comparisons. Even as minor differences may be noticed between different printings of the book available today, the need for a more substantial basis for such comparisons has become gradually more apparent.
"Books are for reading; editions are for use": this according to Hans Walter Gabler, speaking at the 2012 Dublin symposium. This pat-sounding distinction produces more questions than it answers. Used for what? Used by whom? Are "reading" and "use" antonyms? (What about written instructions such as "how to operate this fire extinguisher" and the like?) Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon agree that there is a distinction, though their terms and tone are different from Gabler's—even if they are no less puzzling: "The ultimate function of a book, however, is to be read, not to be looked or picked at" (522). How does one read a book without looking at it? What does it mean, to "pick at" a book? And exactly what is meant by "ultimate" here?
The Penguin Wake has a little history to it worth recounting. In 2010, the Houyhnhnm Press appeared with a limited edition Finnegans Wake—or, more accurately, two variations of a limited edition. [End Page 417] The first, called the "standard," is a hardcover book of 493 pages (in effect, 135 pages shorter than the 628 pages of previous editions), enclosed in a cardboard slipcase and accompanied by a paper-cover booklet containing a note by Seamus Deane, a brief preface by the editors, a foreword by Gabler, an introduction by David Greetham, an afterword by the editor, and a list of acknowledgments. Only 800 copies of this book were printed and priced at 300 euros. The second version is "the special version," bound in black calfskin, with a hard-bound booklet and a full cloth slipcase. And that is not all—these 150 books are signed (not exactly by the author) and numbered, all for just 900 euros.1
In response to the publication of the Houyhnhnm Wake, I wrote: "If we want a new Finnegans Wake, it would be best if we knew what we wanted it for."2 This remains the starting problem, the conceptual context for any edition and its assessment. Although Deane (in what amounts to an extended blurb) heralds it as "a critical edition," Rose and O'Hanlon do not seem to intend their edition for scholarly purposes as such, but rather like Rose's ill-fated "reader's edition" of Ulysses, for a readership that the book has not heretofore attracted.3 Obviously this strategy seems at odds with the production and price tag. Just as it has been useful for scholars to study the original list of subscribers for the 1922 Ulysses (the marketing of which appears to be reflected—though perhaps with some magnification—in the scheme used by Houyhnhnm Press, with its round figure of 1,000 copies), it would be interesting to know who bought the Houyhnhnm Wake, what percentage of buyers were scholars and university libraries, and how that figure corresponds with the editors' conception of their readership.
The new Penguin Wake is called The Restored "Finnegans Wake," so as not to cause catalog confusion with the other edition that Penguin fortunately intends...