MJ Nicholls's Reviews > Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
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's review
Jul 29, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: novels, pogue-mahone, voluminous, penguin-classics, nonreviews
Read in July, 2010

Let me explain the five-star rating. When I was teenager I was ludicrously shy. I was the son and heir of a shyness that was criminally vulgar. My all-conquering shyness kept Morrissey in gold-plated ormolu swans for eight years. Any contact with human beings made me mumble in horror and scuttle off to lurk in dark corners. But I developed this automatic writing technique in school to ease my mounting stress whenever teachers were poaching victims to answer questions, perform presentations or generally humiliate. I would start out composing a piece of surrealist free-association prose, usually violently satirical. As the teachers (or pupils or other humans) closed in around me, my prose would lapse into soothing gibberish. Sometimes I wrote a stream of pretty sounding words (I was a rabid sesquipedalian in my teens)—zeugmatic, antediluvian, milquetoast, mugwump. Luscious lovely words! Sometimes language broke down into neologisms or gibberish—boobleplop, artycary, frumpalerp, etc. Nervy, throbbing syllables. I came to associate collapsed language with an inner space where I went to hide from the imagined humiliations of interacting with others. Once I escaped the imprisonment of my inner conscious (over a four-year period known as The Torture Years), I always used nonsense writing as a means of getting through difficult situations—where others might doodle, for example, I would write Joycean Jabberwocky. Still do, usually on the phone. So this book, to me, is The Little Book of Calm. Except it isn’t little, and it makes people shit themselves. Me? I love this magnificent beast. Unless you suffer from similar deep-seated psychological wounds that threaten to gradually consume your entire adult life, don’t read this.
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02/09/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 69) (69 new)

message 1: by Mariel (new)

Mariel I need to have a kind of system like this. I've always tried rock hiding.

"My all-conquering shyness kept Morrissey in gold-plated ormolu swans for eight years."

Have I told you that you're my favorite reviewer on goodreads?

message 2: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Mariel wrote: "Have I told you that you're my favorite reviewer on goodreads? "

Aww, shucks. It's Moz wot done it.

message 3: by Mariel (new)

Mariel Well, yes.

message 4: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Mariel wrote: "Well, yes."

On that front, I lost my CD copy of Vauxhall & I last week. Blub. :(

message 5: by Mariel (new)

Mariel No wonder you are reaching for the little book of calm!

message 6: by Richard (last edited May 24, 2012 11:54PM) (new) - added it

Richard A merry montage of priceless polysyllabic palaver. It almost makes me want to read Finnegan's Wake--but not quite. You see, I share your afinnity with Joyce, but only to a point. Why? Because when it comes to this author I'm a little more finnicky than you are. Well, I could continue this monologue ad infinnitum, but out of consideration I will finnish it here.

message 7: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Curse that misplaced apostrophe! Finnegans Wake is the only book misspellers spell more correctly than grammar gooks. In that regard it represents a triumph over our constraining language and all its finicky rules.

message 8: by Tuck (new)

Tuck check out chabon's essay on this:

What to Make of Finnegans Wake?
July 12, 2012
Michael Chabon
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Like many admirers of the work of James Joyce, I had imposed strict terms on that admiration, and around the work I had drawn a clear ambit, beyond which I was unprepared to stray. Ulysses and “The Dead”: crucial works, without which life was something seen through a sheet of wax paper, handled with gloves of thick batting, overheard through a drinking glass pressed to a wall. Between them those two works managed to say everything a pitying heart and a pitiless intellect could say about death and sex and love and literature, loss and desire, friendship and animosity, talk and silence, mourning and dread. Then there were “Araby,” “A Little Cloud,” and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” each a masterpiece, endlessly rereadable, from which I had learned so much about short stories and their deceptive power; one can learn a lot from all the stories in Dubliners, even the sketchier ones: about point of view and the construction of scene, about the myth of Charles Parnell and horse racing in Ireland, about the pain of grief and of missed chances.

Gisèle Freund

James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, Paris, 1938

Beyond Dubliners there was the unlovable A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts well, charting bold, clear routes, like “Araby,” through the trackless waters of childhood, then fouls its rotors in a dense kelpy snarl of cathected horniness, late-Victorian aesthetics, and the Jesuitical cleverness that, even in Ulysses, wearies the most true-hearted lover of Joyce. A stamp in the passport, Portrait, a place I must visit without ever feeling it necessary to return, though I might want to wander out now and then to drop in on Joyce’s poetry, roughly contemporary with the first novel, those curious “pomes,” wearing their spats and dandyish nosegays, occasionally taking up a putative lute to croon promises of theoretical love to unconvincing maidens in the windows of canvas-flat donjons.

After that I came up against the safety perimeter, beyond which there lurked, hulking, chimerical, gibbering to itself in an outlandish tongue, a frightening beast out of legend.

I got my first real glimpse of that beast in the Burger Chef restaurant that used to occupy the basement of the Cathedral of Learning, at the University of Pittsburgh, in my senior year, when a classmate in Josephine O’Brien Schaefer’s Ulysses seminar tossed a paperback copy across our table and dared me to open it to any page and make head or tail of what I found there. At that moment I was feeling surprisingly equal to the challenge. Under the captaincy of Professor Schaefer I had sailed undiscouraged between the wandering rocks of Ulysses, clear through the book’s later chapters, in which sense and intention lay in ambush and rained flaming arrows of rhetoric on us as we rowed madly past them. So it was with a traveled optimism that I accepted my friend’s throw-down that morning, opened the book to its first page, and wondered, as readers around the world have done since 1939, at the problem posed by its first sentence, with its beautiful first word. A word unprecedented, enigmatically uncapitalized, with a faintly Tolkienesque echo, to my nerdish ear, of Rivendell and Rohirrim.1 Indented and dangling, mid-page, mid-sentence, a sentence twisting like an inchworm from its filament:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle & Environs.

So: a river, running past Eden or some Eden analogue, swerving and bending as it made its way to Howth Castle and its surroundings, i.e., Dublin on the Liffey, a city whose geography I knew well enough by now to be able to recognize at once the name of Howth, the castle hill on whose slopes Leopold Bloom had proposed to Miss Marion Tweedy. Maybe, I considered—having played Mr. Antrobus, a modern Adam, in my high school’s production of The Skin of Our Teeth—in this book Joyce did for the story of Adam and Eve what Ulysses did for the Odyssey, transposing it to contemporary Dublin to ironize the indignities and intricacies of twentieth-century life and consciousness.

Clear enough—apart from that “commodius vicus of recirculation.” Of those four words I could manage only 50 percent comprehension, and one of my keepers was “of.” Obviously the water in the river was recirculating—history repeating itself?—but when it came to “commodius vicus” (adjective-noun? Latin phrase describing Dublin as a “vicious commode”?), I had nothing. The sentence seemed to have been smeared over at its center with a greasy thumbprint. “A commodius vicus of recirculation” meant nothing to me, and that central nothingness flowed, like Eve and Adam’s running river, across the sentence, obscuring the rest of it, throwing my tentative interpretation, no sooner had I formulated it, into doubt. That nullifying flow next overtopped the levee of the first period, swamping the following sentences, with their “penisolate war” and their doublin mumpers and their “mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick” before pooling, deep and murky, at the start of the third paragraph, where I encountered this:


Here, thanks to Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky, I found myself on moderately dry ground, since I knew, from having accompanied every movement of my bowels during the mid-1970s with selections from their People’s Almanacs and Books of Lists, that this was a contender for the longest word in the English language (but was it English?), and referred to the sound made by God’s thundering at the Fall of Man. My initial theory about “Eve and Adam’s” felt suddenly creditable. I was almost proud of myself, except that I had understood no more than 10 percent, if that, of the prose that preceded the famous thunderclap.

I pressed on a little farther, skipping across that running river on intermittent stepping-stones of sense. Allusions to the story of the Fall, I saw, glinted clear as gold through the turbulent babel of the novel’s first dozen pages. Sure, for the most part, the text looked like the moderately promising output of the proverbial infinite monkeys with infinite time on their hands, but the legend of the book’s impenetrability was obviously a hedge of thorns to snag the unworthy. I could hear the dreaming suspirations of the princess who lay sleeping in its keep.

Now, I know (along with everything else) that I am a know-it-all. I avoid contests of knowledge—word games, Trivial Pursuit, Celebrities—because they bring out an omnisapient swagger in me that I despise. I also try to steer clear of puzzles, because I have a tendency, in the solving of them, to lose perspective. There was a broken combination padlock lying on a coffee table at a party I attended not long ago; though my hosts knew the correct combination, the lock refused to open. At this party—or so I was afterward informed—one might have enjoyed excellent hors d’oeuvres, premium alcoholic beverages, the company of witty and attractive human beings. I spent the whole time wedged into a corner of the couch, fiddling with that lock.2 That morning in the Burger Chef, I could hear the book calling to me, whispering like the sword Stormbringer seducing Elric, promising that if I were to lose myself in it I would become—in the phrase leveled at Joyce by his ever-skeptical brother, Stanislaus—“a super-clever superman.”

I refused the call, and closed the book, choosing not to brandish the paltry granules of sense I had so far managed to pan.

“Crazy,” I said, agreeing with my classmate’s assessment.

“It’s supposed to be this guy who’s dreaming,” he informed me. “The book is one whole night, like Ulysses is one whole day.”

This information sealed the matter. I had already experienced, in those first moments of my encounter with Finnegans Wake, the most reliably dreamlike of its effects: the tantalizing way it both hints at meaning—deep, important meaning—and mocks it. Dreams are the Sea-Monkeys of consciousness; in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust. At the breakfast table in my house, an inflexible law compels all recountings of dreams to be compressed into a sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasing of epic films listed in TV Guide: “Rogue samurai saves peasant village.”

I handed back the book to him. “I hate dreams,” I said.

Twenty-five years passed. At times the book would wash up on the beach of my life and I would hear the bottled voice of its djinn, promising everlasting bliss to puzzle hermits, inexhaustible cred to know-it-alls. I always forebore. In the meantime I fought my way, in some cases more than once, through many other famously daunting tomes—Proust’s, Perec’s, Pynchon’s—and thereby derived release from life’s more intractable padlocks, and a pleasurable, quietly cherished boost to my know-it-all amour propre.

Then, in the spring of 2010, I made my second complete ascent of Ulysses, and came down hopelessly in love. Reading it at twenty, I had identified with Stephen Dedalus, a grave mistake. Stephen Dedalus is a pill. Doubtless I was kind of a pill myself at twenty, but that didn’t make Stephen any more appealing even then. Still, watching Stephen stumble off into the Dublin night at the novel’s end, one imagined him carrying on to fulfill his glorious destiny as the fictional stand-in for James Joyce, Great Writer; and in those days it was easy enough to imagine all kinds of parallel literary destinies for oneself, lying out there beyond the nighttown of Pittsburgh, PA.

Leopold Bloom was only an old dude, to me, that first time through; charming, touching, good-hearted, but old: a failure, a fool, a cuckold, crapping in an outhouse, masturbating into his pants pocket. His uxoriousness was beyond my understanding, as was his apparent willingness to endure humiliation. His lingering sorrow over the death of his infant son meant, I am ashamed to admit, very little to me at all. When I read Ulysses again I was shocked to find that, first, I was now mysteriously a decade older than Leopold Bloom, and second, that the tale of his stings and losses, his regrets and imaginings, was as familiar to me as the sour morning taste of my own mouth. Where a bachelor had seen Bloom’s devotion to Molly as pathetic, a husband saw it as noble and, at the same time, as simply her due. In Bloom’s retention, into middle age, of his child-sharp powers of observation, his fresh eye (and ear, and nose) for nuance and telling detail; in his having managed to sustain his curiosity about the people and the world around him after thirty-eight years of familiarity and routine that ought to have dulled and dampened it; and above all in the abiding capacity for empathy, for moral imagination, that is the fruit of an observant curiosity like Bloom’s, I found, as if codified, a personal definition of heroism.

Ulysses struck me, most of all, as a book of life; every sentence, even those that laid bare the doubt, despair, shame, or vanity of its characters, seemed to have been calibrated to assert, in keeping with the project of the work as a whole, the singularity and worth of even the most humdrum and throwaway of human days. I had just begun it when news came of the death, from cancer, of my best friend’s teenage daughter, and over the week that followed I found myself reaching gratefully into the book’s pages, tucking my cold hands into its pockets for comfort and warmth. It was a lighted house in a dark night.

When I reached the last page I immediately turned to the first to read it all over again, and then I made my way back through the stories, the first novel, th

message 9: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Eeek! Thanks, notgettingenough posted the link in her review.

message 10: by Nathan "N.R." (last edited Sep 26, 2012 08:19PM) (new) - added it

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Here are the Top Eleven Reasons Why MJ Doesn't Understand Finnegans Wake:

[I'm still not convinced that I get the humor of that remark.]

message 11: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Nathan "N.R." wrote: "Here are the Top Twelve Reasons Why MJ Doesn't Understand Finnegans Wake:"

Ohlono! Nathisaman aboft the Goodroads mugittycracksnitch diffmissal froggo!

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis MJ wrote: "Ohlono!"

Me meen you needed dose extra StarryLikes.

message 13: by Stephen M (last edited Sep 26, 2012 12:02AM) (new)

Stephen M This is short but it's beautiful.

Ever thought of joining us with the recording project? You should: http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/2...

Your Infinite Jest review would be great one to record too or whichever review you like the most.

Do it.

message 14: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls ^ Thanks, but I don't like reading my stuff out loud, it always ends up more mangled than how it sounds in my head. Neat idea for a group, though.

message 15: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Ah, too bad. Well we'd all love if you did. But, you know, no worries. (We're all most critical about our own work).

message 16: by Jason (new)

Jason We just want to hear your cool Scottish accent, MJ. Read someone else's review if that's what's holding you back!

message 17: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Yes, I wanna hear that accent too. MJ, you have my permission to read any of my reviews that you like. You can even do sound effects!

message 18: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Read a section of Dostoyevsky!

message 19: by Sketchbook (last edited Sep 26, 2012 07:52PM) (new)

Sketchbook Americans are hung up on "accents" fr UK Isles. Our regionals are hideous. Pull a Garbo. Dunt do it.

message 20: by Richard (last edited Sep 26, 2012 07:58PM) (new) - added it

Richard Sketchbook wrote: "Americans are hung up on "accents" cos our regionals are hideous. Pull a Garbo, MJ. Dunt do it."

Er, Sketchy, hate to be a stick in the mud, but I'm a Canadian. The reason I'm "hung up on accents" is that my background is Dutch, so I grew up in a community of folks with very imitatable accents. My mother is also a great mimic. At 70+ years young, she can still crack me up.

MJ: What I wouldn't give to hear you pronounce the words: "I vant to be allon."

You folks should hear my friend Mark Rice channel Sean Connery, or do an Aussie accent. Pure gallus! (For you non-Celts, read: unadulterated genius.)

message 21: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Face!

message 22: by Sketchbook (last edited Sep 26, 2012 08:05PM) (new)

Sketchbook R, I thought of you as I wrote mine - (I wuz hoping you wouldnt notice!) --

message 23: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Stephen M wrote: "Face!"

Middle-aged curmudgeon here. With apologies for inconvenience, please explain vocab. Tanks, chum.

message 24: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Sketchbook wrote: "R, I thought of you as I wrote mine - (I wuz hoping you wouldnt notice!) --"

S'all right! Fuhgeddaboudit. :)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis MJ wrote: "Thanks, but I don't like reading my stuff out loud,"

With a name like "Gaddis" I've gotta back ya on this one here. Let the Gasses of the world read their own stuff.

message 26: by Richard (last edited Sep 26, 2012 08:24PM) (new) - added it

Richard Nathan "N.R." wrote: "MJ wrote: "Thanks, but I don't like reading my stuff out loud,"

With a name like "Gaddis" I've gotta back ya on this one here. Let the Gasses of the world read their own stuff."

Been meaning to ask: Are you related to William Gaddis?

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Richard wrote: "Been meaning to ask: Are you related to William Gaddis? "

(view spoiler)

message 28: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Well, I've nae microphone access at the moment, so hoald yer Merkin/Canuckian herses.

message 29: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook Mairzey doats.

message 30: by Richard (last edited Sep 27, 2012 11:26AM) (new) - added it

Richard Sketchbook wrote: "Mairzey doats."

And dozey doats.
And little lamzey divey.

message 31: by Sarah (new) - rated it 1 star

Sarah You should really be a writer [if you aren't already]. =)

message 32: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Sarah wrote: "You should really be a writer [if you aren't already]. =)"

Thanks! I have been known to dabble.

message 34: by Jason (new)

Jason I love this guy.

message 35: by Tuck (new)

Tuck MJ wrote: "Sarah wrote: "You should really be a writer [if you aren't already]. =)"

Thanks! I have been known to dabble."

love it sarah! you tell 'em

message 36: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Sarah wrote: "You should really be a writer [if you aren't already]. =)"

Here are the results of his genius: A Postmodern Belch by M.J. Nicholls

message 37: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Good to see my pimps earning their crust. Thanks chaps.

message 38: by Sarah (new) - rated it 1 star

Sarah Tuck wrote: "MJ wrote: "Sarah wrote: "You should really be a writer [if you aren't already]. =)"

Thanks! I have been known to dabble."
love it sarah! you tell 'em"

Wow. I'm either really good or really foolish in my comment. =P And now your book goes on my to-read list!

message 39: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Since you might have been the only one to read it this morning, it was surely made for you. Thanks for the big 100. Rare for me. :)

message 40: by Yolande (new)

Yolande "Any contact with human beings made me mumble in horror and scuttle off to lurk in dark corners" Haha! It's like your describing exactly how I was in high school! Which is why I do have "similar deep-seated psychological wounds that threaten to gradually consume your entire adult life" So that's why I like Joyce! No wonder....

In my opinion MJ is a born writer.

message 41: by Richard (last edited Aug 02, 2013 09:28AM) (new) - added it

Richard Yolande wrote: "In my opinion MJ is a born writer.

His first novel was mind-blowingly weird. I read it, and I haven't been the same since.

message 42: by Tuck (new)

Tuck see here though mj, one can always reach higher. this ripped from headlines today
"James Patterson releases his 115th title next week, Mistress, putting him on track to match last year’s record output od 13 titles "

message 43: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Yolande wrote: "In my opinion MJ is a born writer."

Oh, dahlings! You shouldn't! (More applause, more applause!) I lap it up like catnip.

message 44: by Manny (new) - rated it 1 star

Manny Brilliant as this is, your review of John Cage is even better. Not a wasted word; it is unquestionably the most perfect piece of writing on Goodreads.

message 45: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Manny wrote: "Brilliant as this is, your review of John Cage is even better."

Ssh, keep that one quiet.

message 46: by Megha (new)

Megha MJ wrote: "Manny wrote: "Brilliant as this is, your review of John Cage is even better.""

Speaking of which, I haven't seen any new getting-even reviews in a while. Are you waiting for Mistress to be released?

message 47: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin I have always been too intimidated to try this book, although Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" is one of my favorite books. You are the first person that has ever made me feel like this book is worth it. Thanks!

message 48: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin OH, and Morrissey and the Smiths have been my favorites since my teens! It is nice to see other people know the Mozzer. Seeing him in L.A. in 2004 was a great experience. He was the first singer/writer that I felt got what it was like to be depressed, or to be different than the crowd.

Boris Nice review. while reading I was constantly wondering if you were a pretentious little brat or a genius, which is tye exact same feeling I get when reading Joyce, and you should consider it a compliment.

message 50: by Del (new) - added it

Del Herman Love this review and your personal association with the work. If James were alive, he would look happily upon you. The association of distorted language with the inner workings of the mind would be one he'd certainly enjoy.

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