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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In the Wake of Joyce: Five Questions for the President of the James Joyce Society

Editor Danis Rose's personal copy of Finnegans Wake.

Finnegans Wake is likely James Joyce’s most experimental text, boasting a trippy, dream-like narrative and plenty of idiosyncratic language. According to Joyce scholars, it's also best experienced when read aloud. For her show riverrun, (Sep 17—20) actress Olwen Fouéré obliges, transforming the Wake's final book into into a riveting, “life-changing” (The Telegraph) one-woman performance.

To help make sense of both the book and Fouéré's brilliant adaptation, we asked A. Nicholas Fargnoli, president of the James Joyce Society, to answer a few questions.

Give us Finnegans Wake in a nutshell.

Finnegans Wake is one of the most innovative works in all of literature. Published in 1939, the Wake is a masterpiece that culminates a literary output marked by an extraordinary experimental narrative style and artistic techniques that defy classification. With a language simulating the nocturnal world of dreams, the Wake’s nonlinear universe is unconstrained by spatial and temporal limits. One of the characteristics of Finnegans Wake is the dramatic interplay of voice that freely moves in and out of narrative fluidity and that uniquely lends itself to theatrical performance.      

The actress Olwen Fouéré, who adapted the text for riverrun, describes Finnegans Wake as a “sound dance.” What is it about Joyce and Finnegans Wake in particular that lends itself to being heard and not just read? 

Reading the Wake is as much an auditory experience as it is visual, and the reader/listener must, at the same moment, see and hear the meaning of the text. An example that speaks to this very question is the following passage from Book III.3:
The prouts who will invent a writing there ultimately is the poeta, still more learned, who discovered the raiding there originally. That's the point of eschatology our book of kills reaches for now in soandso many counterpoint words. What can't be coded can be decorded if an ear aye sieze what no eye ere grieved for. (FW 482.31-36)

What is your favorite word, line, or phrase from the text that you’re looking forward to hearing performed?  

To answer this question is virtually impossible for me, though “astroglodynamonologos” (FW 194.16-17) would be among the top ten. As far as a favorite line or phrase—another impossibility—I would certainly include ALP’s monologue at the end of the Wake and the Wake’s last line. The late Joyce scholar Edmund Lloyd Epstein considers the latter—“a way a lone a last a loved a long the”— to be “the most perfect iambic pentameter line ever penned.” His comment is something to think about.

The first line of the text appears unfinished and is said to be a continuation of that last line of the book. Is this a text you jump into at any point or do start at the beginning when you read it? Do you have an alternate recommended starting point for Finnegans Wake?

Strictly speaking, the first line of the Wake isn’t unfinished. It just doesn’t start with a capital letter, and it certainly can be read as a continuation of the last line of the book, showing the unity and circularity of the work. No one can tell another where to start reading a text. Jumping in at any point may work for some but starting at the beginning also has its advantages.

Do you have a favorite interpretation of the text?

Interpretation evolves and changes. The Wake is as much about mythology and language and history and culture and literature, etc. as it is about the Earwicker family.

Joyce’s texts can be intimidating. What would you say to people who might hear the words "Finnegans Wake" and run for cover? 

Good bye. (Joking)

A. Nicholas Fargnoli is the Dean of the  Division of Humanities and a Professor of Theology and English Molloy College. He is also president of the James Joyce Society.  

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