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ii Reads Finnegans Wake: Anna Livia Plurabelle

June 6, 2021 at 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm EDT

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In this salon, Interintellect Timothy Wilcox hosts a reading of James Joyce’s famously dense and mysterious book Finnegan’s Wake. 

One of the most challenging – and yet, also one of the most alluring – books of all time is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In a defense of the novel (then still Work in Progress), Samuel Beckett wrote, “You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all.”

The book is, in fact, not exactly written in English. There is a constant stream of words which are some level of a portmanteau, blending words from across 60+ different languages to create a dense web of meaning.

It is not just that each word and sentence maps out vast connections across languages, cultures, history, literature, and so on. The sentences do not so easily add up to one simple plot, but to a text which exists on various levels such as narrative, allegorical, psychological, autobiographical, Biblical, symbolic, etc. A basic narrative overview is that Finnegan falls and dies, but rises again, but the mechanisms by which this happens – with, on just one other level, his two sons being a developing form of himself and his daughter being a developing form of his wife, these kids destined to one day replace them in an endless cycle of birth, life, and death – is complicated.

Reading over 600 pages of this (and then having the ending loop back to the beginning) could take you forever (with no exaggeration if you take the novel’s structural conceit seriously enough). As Work in Progress, however, Joyce released smaller bits of the work on their own, which we will take as permission to dive right into the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section, a draft of which was first published in the first issue of Le Navire d’Argent in June 1925, fourteen years before the full text was published as Finnegans Wake in 1939.

The incentive for this particular selection is the approaching of the literary holiday Bloomsday, a celebration of the day on which James Joyce had his first date with eventual wife, Nora Barnacle, a date Joyce immortalized as the setting for Ulysses.

On the autobiographical level, James is Finnegan, most frequently referred to as “HCE,” which at times stands for “Here Comes Everybody” or “H. C. Earwicker.”

“Anna Livia Plurabelle,” captured as well in various other iterations of the pattern “ALP,” is at times representative of Nora. She is important throughout the novel, but we will take her named section – an excellent choice if you only end up reading one chapter – as our entry point into reading.

The Reading:

No prior familiarity or expertise is expected, but you should be prepared (accepting that it will be quite difficult and you will never catch anywhere near everything going on) to read a selection featuring such passages as,

“Onon! Onon! tell me more. Tell me every tiny teign. I want to know every single ingul. Down to what made the potters fly into jagsthole. And why were the vesles vet. That homa fever’s winning me wome.”

You can read the chapter online here, featuring a wide (but incomplete) selection of hyperlinked footnotes. A wider selection of notes is available in Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, and an excellent guide to narrative footing and other key points is William York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. You are only expected to read the chapter, however.

I recommend reading it out loud, or listening to an audio version. Patrick Horgan’s reading has a scratchy background noise throughout, but I found it useful at bringing out much of the language. It starts at 23:12 in this recording and goes to end of this recording.

Together, we will discuss this chapter, the process of reading Finnegans Wake, and Bloomsday. Many wonders (and some incidental bragging rights) are in store.



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June 6, 2021
2:00 pm - 5:00 pm EDT
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Timothy Wilcox
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