The Challenge of Finnegan
by Dominic Blackwell
Finnegans Wake has labelled ‘unreadable’. But it’s not. How do I know? Because I read it. And when I say I read it, I mean, I read it from end to end, as the voice in my head spoke the text at normal speed. This way of reading is a way in which you can get pleasure from any piece of literature worth the name. (Of course you could speak it out loud, too.)
So why ‘unreadable’? Well, often when it comes to ‘hard’ books, readers feel they can’t just read it and guess they must read a commentary by someone else which will tell them what the text means. Finnegans Wake has dense allusions which invite critics to write pages and pages on what might be meant by very small chunks of the text. And try and cross-reference each piece of text with a book of more than 600 pages and you’ll go very slow and you’ll get bored and you’ll get fed up and you’ll give up and then you’ll tell others that the book is ‘unreadable’.
But exegesis is not normal reading. And, books about other books are just the opinions of other human readers. Yes, these readers may have spent much time in study. Yes, they may have good things which they can say about the text, and its relation to history, to biography, to its cultural context. But those critics are just human readers. They don’t have a magical gift to know ‘the’ meaning of the text any more than you do. All they is read the text with their personality, their knowledge and their imagination just the same as anyone else can. So the best first move is this : read for yourself what the text says. Then, only then, and only if you want, read what other people think the text means.
While Finnegans Wake may join its end to its start, and while some may claim it grabs all history and all stories ever written within it, it still comes from the shop as a book with a start and an end. Thus you can still buy it, skip the introduction for now (written by someone else), and read it from end to end. It is in English despite what some people say, and as for the puns and the references, every reader will get their own set based on what they’ve read and what they know and what they hear when they hear the sound of the text in their head. For me, this has felt like great fun if weird and strange and disconcerting. It has the effect on my mind, which gymnastics has on the body, that is, it makes it stronger and yet more flexible. I feel that’s a good thing.
So, don’t be scared by ‘difficult’ books. At the end of the day, they’re just books and we read books because they grow our experience of human life beyond that which we could ever live in person. And if a book you’ve heard of sounds good, read it!