Michael Wood on Finnegan’s Wake

In the London Review of Books, here. He offers, along with some other good insights, a general taxonomy of different readers of Finnegan’s Wake (those who don’t try, those who try and fail, those who don’t try and fail and say that’s the reason they gave up, etc..):

But reading Finnegans Wake is more than a matter of collecting one’s favourite quotations – even if there is a huge pleasure in that, especially if you admire truly terrible jokes. You have to like the sheer strain that goes into a phrase like ‘a pentschanjeuchy chap’, which comes in the middle of a paragraph mentioning all the early books of the Old Testament (including ‘guenneses’), especially if you don’t really know how to connect Punch and Judy to the Pentateuch. I think of the worst (best) joke in Walter Redfern’s fine book on puns. A person who has been given bits of greenery for her birthday instead of the colourful flowers she was hoping for decides to make the best of things. She says: ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’

Writers on or introducers of Finnegans Wake regularly imagine three sorts of reader or non-reader of the book. Philip Kitcher, in Joyce’s Kaleidoscope, lists ‘those too intimidated to try to read it, those who have tried and failed, and … those who write about it’. Roger Marsh, the producer of Jim Norton’s and Marcella Riordan’s haunting audio version, names ‘new readers’, ‘readers who have never been able to make much headway’ and ‘those who already have some familiarity with the book’. For good measure, there is also Seamus Deane’s group of untimid abstainers for whom the book’s taken-for-granted unreadability becomes ‘the pseudo-suave explanation for never having read it’. Of course these three (or four) groups may represent quite different people, but it is possible (I speak for myself) for one person to belong to all of the first three: to have tried without regarding what one has been doing as a real try; to have failed by dint of not trying hard enough; and to have written about the book anyway, because ‘some familiarity’ is not entirely nothing. I take comfort from the fact that Jacques Derrida manifestly (in ‘Deux mots pour Joyce’) put himself in this category, and for such a reader the scepticism about grand schemes or total understanding that we find in the best recent criticism is very attractive. John Bishop, for example, says ‘the only way not to enjoy Finnegans Wakeis to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order.’ This is a brave claim, but it is true that the book is hard not to enjoy – it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment.