Finnegans Wake: A Short Guide to Readable Books about James Joyce’s Unreadable Book

A certain article which I won’t mention reminded me that I should update my reader’s guide to reader’s guides to Finnegans Wake, since there are a lot of people out there who’d like to read the thing but don’t have the opportunity to take a class in it and don’t know quite where to begin. So I am updating my list of guides to the Wake and sorting it into a few categories.

Most of these books, especially those in the first two sections, are extremely approachable and written in friendly, affable language, certainly moreso than the average monograph. Since Finnegans Wake doesn’t exactly pull in huge amounts of fans, there’s not much exclusionary rhetoric to keep out dilettantes.


Getting Familiar (Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy)

The Books at the Wake, James S. Atherton.

Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start, and Atherton’s excellent book was recently reissued in reasonably inexpensive paperback. Finnegans Wake is about the history of the world and the history of every bit of writing in it, and those two things are made to be one. But the Wake does favor certain writers by referencing them very frequently: not just Vico, who provided the historical structure that supposedly partly guides the book’s organization, but Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. These give very key pointers to some of the things Joyce is driving at. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

Joyce-again’s Wake, Bernard Benstock.

A more thorough and comprehensive overview than Atherton, but also more partial. It is invaluable for the structural outline Benstock gives, which is useful in carving up the monolithic chapters of the Wake into more manageable chunks. It also contains a fantastic analysis of the very important but elusive Prankquean fable located on pages 21-23 of the Wake. The rest of the book both summarizes previous scholarship and elaborates on it in a rather freewheeling fashion. There’s plenty of good stuff, but Benstock sometimes is too exclusive about his readings, and I read them with more salt than I did Hart or Atherton. On Issy, the topic I researched, I disagree with him. A very good introduction, but also one that requires more skepticism.

The Art of James Joyce, A. Walton Litz.

An excellent and short (100 pages) book on Joyce’s working methods on Ulysses and the Wake and how they could possibly feed into the structure and meaning of the works themselves. Litz is admirably humble and cautious about drawing any conclusions, but the emphasis on the construction work makes the whole book seem more approachable and at least begins to give some explanation as to why the Wake is written the way that it is. As Litz says, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the work itself, but one path into the book is through the process of construction, and at least as Litz presents it, it’s a very engaging one.


Further Immersion

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh.

McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart.

As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character archetypes or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions. This quality, however, makes the book more daunting to a newcomer, who will have less context for the majestic castles in the air that Hart depicts.

A Guide Through Finnegans Wake, Edmund Epstein.

Epstein was my teacher and guide through the Wake, so I am biased. Epstein provides a very structured and very detailed walk through the Wake page through page. He takes an different approach to the book from McHugh and Hart, preferring to focus on the fundamentally human drama at the heart of it, and so he ignores the sigla and treats the man-woman dyad HCE and ALP and their brethren as corporeal, albeit manifold, human beings. In this he is closer to Joseph Campbell (yes, that one) and Henry Morton Robinson, who wrote possibly the first book-length treatment of the Wake with A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake in the 1940s, but Epstein has the benefit of 60 years more research and perspective, and so Campbell and Robinson’s many mistaken guesses are not a problem here. Epstein points out tons of obscure allusions as well, and he is especially good on music and some of the pure wordplay. (I believe he conducted Gilbert and Sullivan at one point or other.) The book is contentious: Epstein has a very definite view of the book’s layout and mechanism, and I believe there is far more ambiguity in it than he does. Grain of salt, etc.

A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, William York Tindall.

Tindall was an extremely bright and knowledgeable Wake scholar, but I have to rate this as one of the weaker guides. Like Blamires’ Bloomsday Book, it explicates the Wake page by page. Unfortunately, what’s left out is far greater than what remains, and Tindall often makes controversial interpretations without appearing to do so. It’s less of a problem in Blamires because the narrative of Ulysses is reasonably uncontroversial, but since narrative in Finnegans Wake emerges from linguistic confusion and contradiction, Tindall’s approach makes the Wake appear smaller than it is. Provocative and worthwhile, but also worth avoiding until you know enough to spot some of his assumptions.


Specialization and Esoterica (Difficult Difficult Lemon Difficult)

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh.

Absolutely indispensible for serious reading, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with extremely concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes impressive how they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.) You will want this after having a  working grasp of the general shape of the book, but before that it will merely cause nightmares.

Third Census of Finnegans Wake, Adaline Glasheen.

Glasheen started reading the Wake while tending to a newborn and needing something to occupy moments during and in between feedings. Evidently possessed of awesome powers of concentration, she also seems to have inexhaustible enthusiasm. Her book is nothing more and nothing less than a catalogue of all the proper names in the Wake that Glasheen could identify. (It also includes another structural summary with, as is to be expected, some contentious interpretations. I give the edge to Benstock’s summary, though both are very useful.) Glasheen’s list of references is exhausting, if not exhaustive, and effectively serves as an alternate organizational tool for digesting the Wake. It poses thousands of questions along the lines of, “Why did Joyce connect person X with person Y?” Glasheen is also completely unaffected, as indicated by entries like “I don’t know who this is.”

Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop.

An extremely daunting book. While schooled in the above traditions of Wake scholarship, Bishop goes in another direction entirely, focusing on Joyce’s linguistic methods as theme, particularly as they relate to sleep, the body, and the five senses. Bishop is fond of making extremely short citations and combining them from all over the Wake in close succession, which emphasizes Joyce’s sea of language while downplaying any potential linear continuity. Bishop also analyzes two key mythologies that influenced the Wake, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Vico’s New Science, but his interpretations are highly heterodox. Consequently, Bishop has the effect of making Finnegans Wake seem even weirder than the other books make it out to be. The book is one of the most learned studies around and takes the Wake in unique interpretive directions, but it may leave you, as it implies, in the dark.

Finding a Replacement for the Soul, Brett Bourbon.

While this book is not exclusively concerned with the Wake, it invokes Finnegans Wake as a central example for Bourbon’s non-propositional view of fiction. Bourbon, I believe, was a student of Bishop and locates Bishop’s nighttime uncertainty in the processes of language itself, taking Bishop’s argument even farther. Not an exegesis of Finnegans Wake, but a reflection on what the Wake says (or shows) about readers and reading.


7 thoughts on “Finnegans Wake: A Short Guide to Readable Books about James Joyce’s Unreadable Book

  1. Great list, but where’s Margot Norris? Her “Decentered Universe of FW” is one of my favorites. I also love “Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction” by John Paul Riquelme, which is about the whole oeuvre but is really great on the Wake. And I like to recommend Burgess’ books on Joyce for beginners. The intro to Campbell and Robinson is a good general introduction too, but I can see why you would leave them off.

    I guess there are an awful lot of books out there, though: this list could go on and on. I definitely agree that McHugh’s “Sigla” and Bishop’s” Book of the Dark” are incredible (and daunting). I hadn’t heard of Bourbon: I’ll have to check him out.

  2. Great list! I am a novice with the Wake (4 months and 115 pages read…), and it seems I’ve gone bass-ackwards in my reading, having bought McHugh’s “Annotations”, Bishop’s “Book of the Dark”, the original “Our Exagmination…”, and Campbell/Robinson’s “Skeleton Key” to read. I am leaving Bishop’s book to the end, because it’s interpretation seems so particular. I must say, the Annotations have been remarkably helpful, so long as you don’t feel the need to check it for every word. Additionally, the Skeleton Key has also been very helpful, but for 2 reasons: 1) it is helpful because of it’s extensive “cliff notes”-esque outline, but also 2) because it gives me, as a reader, something to disagree with, which further informs and influences my own views during my reading of the Wake. I will, however, be ordering some of the books on this list, which I’m excited about.

    Finally, I want to mention another book that I discovered in my public library, and just bought a (very expensive) version of tonight, as it is a pain in the ass to find: Critical Essays on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, part of the Critical Essays on British Literature series by MacMillan Publishing from 1992. There is an essay in this volume on experiencing the Wake as a “natural phenomenon”, which deeply informed my reading of the Wake (I’m a scientist, so it appealed to me).

  3. David: Not sure how you feel about genetic criticism, but “How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake”, a collection of essays edited by Sam Slote and Luca Crispi, is the best thing I’ve read on the book in a long time. I’m starting to come around to the idea that if we want to know how it WORKS, we need to see how it was BUILT. (This is an idea I’ve been resisting for a long time, but hell, if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, etc.)

    • I like all types of criticism! As long as they’re done well. I’ve seen this book but don’t know much about the contents yet. My question to you: how does it differ in approach from the genetic criticism practiced by David Hayman and McHugh? I see that Hayman is a contributor, so perhaps it grows out of the approach he’s expertly practiced for the last 50 years (!). If so, that’s an excellent thing. I didn’t include his work above because it’s a bit technical and specialized, but following your lead, Hayman’s The Wake In Transit easily merits a place on this list.

      Hayman is also the curator of the online James Joyce criticism collection I link to many times above, so blessed be he for his many good works!

      • Returning to this post a year later: yes, Hayman contributes How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake — there are actually essays by 15 different genetic scholars, so it really encompasses a very wide range of approaches. The introduction is invaluable for understanding the manuscript history and the field of Joycean genetic criticism, generally.

        Hayman is one of my favorites. I’d say The Wake in Transit has done as much to help me understand the structure of the thing as any other book. (Also on that list: McHugh’s Sigla and Hart’s Structure and Motif.)

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