What Are You Talking About? (Part 1)


It’s been seventy-three years since James Joyce died in a Zurich hospital after a surgery for a perforated ulcer. Therefore, it’s been seventy-three years since the rest of us have been left to fend for ourselves when it comes to deciphering the author’s two greatest works, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Since their publication (1922 and 1939, respectively), most of us know more about these book’s notoriety than their actual plots. Well, guess what? Turns out, since his death, there have been a whole slew of books written by people trying to and then deciding they have, in fact, figured it all out. You've got your reader's guides, your companions, your centennial symposiums, your methods and designs, interpretations, introductions and even unabridged republications of original Shakespeare and Company editions. On and on it goes, everyone seems to have an angle and, apparently, everyone has a goddamn book contract. 


Perhaps the most readable of these is 1965’s Rejoyce by Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. (Also published as: Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction To James Joyce For The Ordinary Reader). The main reason the book’s success as a digestible look at Joyce’s work is due to Burgess’ career as a critic and linguist, both of which are fairly important decoding tools needed for the job. Though how he was able to condense a brilliant and, ultimately challenging writing career into three hundred paperback pages might be worth a book itself, but let’s not let get distracted.


In quick succession, Burgess unravels Joyce’s early work (Dubliners, A Portrait Of The Artist… and Chamber Music) into bite-sized pieces as he takes us into the path of that literary one-two punch of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The early work might seem separate entities, but, as one learns from Rejoyce, each act as a stepladder to the next book. Sure, all that is typical, almost expected in a writer’s creative trajectory, but where Joyce ultimately ended up is far from typical.


So, once arriving at the inception, development and execution of Joyce’s last two books, Burgess strips away the perplexity and underscores certain aspects of the narratives which are often lost in the hub-bub. For Ulysses, Burgess reveals the difference between complex inner dialogues of each character which are written in that now famous/notorious stream-of-conscious style:


The first [artistic problem with using extensive interior monologue is concerned with characterization: how does one make one person's interior monologue sound different from another? Joyce…solves the problem by assigning a characteristic rhythm to the thought-stream of each of his main three characters. Stephen’s is lyrical…Bloom’s is quick, jaunty, jerky…Molly’s are long flowing.”


And then there’s this observation on the underlying thematic possibilities:


“Each episode of Ulysses corresponds to an act of the Odyssey, and the correspondence proliferates in a mass of subtle references. When, for instance, Bloom strolls by Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in glorious summer morning weather, he is re-creating the lotus eating episode of the Odyssey. But the Homeric parallel is only the beginning. Shape and direction are primarily imposed on each chapter by means of an Odyssean reference, but that reference suggests related references, sub-references and those have much to do with not only the direction and subject matter […] but the action itself and even the technique [.]”


Oy vey! Even when stripped to its foundations, Joyce’s writing is a bit…oh how shall we say, congested with meaning. And, as we know now, that wasn’t even his most challenging work.


While Burgess does take on Finnegan’s Wake (“Difficult?”, he asks rhetorically about the book, “Oh yes, difficult. But a certain difficulty is the small price we must pay for excitement, richness [and] originality.”), he actually saves much of his critical/analytical expertise for his second book on this subject ten years later entitled Joysprick: An Introduction To The Language Of James Joyce. Sounds like a lovely beach read, no?


Finnegan’s Wake is so full of mystery and verbal rabbit-holes, it’s a wonder anyone even bothers; but then, what's fun about not bothering? Anyway, in part two, we’ll take a look at the a book which may be our best source to figuring out this master’s greatest, most frustrating work. Until then, I leave you with this: