Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wake Diary: Unafraid to Sound Like a Lunatic

An egomaniac is coming up against the limits of his own fantastic mind right now. I cannot make any damn sense out of Finnegans Wake, but I won’t give up on this thing. I’m only two chapters in so far, after starting to read it a week ago. I expected this would take a while, and I’m probably moving faster than most people who take a shot at it. Hell, I’m 50 pages in and haven’t thrown it out the window yet.

The inventions of words don’t stand in my way. The stereotype of Finnegans Wake is that every sentence invents so many new words that it’s impossible to understand the semantics of the book. But the book is written as if it really were a bizarre auditory monologue. Words are spelled differently, but mean the same thing, because they’re pronounced the same way. Most of the ordinary neologisms in the book play with the peculiarity of English spelling, seeing how many different ways you can spell a word but pronounce it the same.

Pronounciation is, for me, the most important part of reading this book. Whenever I come up against a particularly difficult passage, I start reading aloud, and return to my silent reading at the end of the paragraph, or whenever my voice gets tired. The only qualification is that I read it in a wretchedly thick Irish accent. And it actually makes more sense. In a way, it fits with the way James Joyce himself may have composed his work in the last twenty years of his life. He was functionally blind, most of his visual field an array of blurred colours. With difficulty composing a text, he would have had to speak out loud most of his drafts as he wrote each sentence. So their composition would have focussed on their vocal cadences and rhythms, musical and melodic qualities rather than ordinary grammar.

Given the context of the book being a kind of dream, this actually is an improvement. Read aloud, the Wake is more of a recording of a series of extended vocal improvisations than it is a novel as we traditionally think of them. Shifts in mood and digressions of content are more important than clearly defined characters and narrative. The closest analogue is like watching a jazz performance fed into a DJ mixing board where pre-recorded music is blended with live instruments, and the jazz players are reacting to their own playing, but also the DJ’s samples and regurgitations of their own music. And this is all done by one blind author. Over 17 years.

This is a tenuous analogy. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was coming up at the limits of my powers of description.

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