Padraic Colum, ‘A New Work by James Joyce ...’, review of Finnegans Wake, in New York Times (7 May 1939), “Book Review”, p.1.

Source: New York Times Archive [online]; accessed 23 July 2007.

How, in two thousand words or less, is one to review a book which even a cursory examination shows to be unprecedented, a book of considerable length by a thoughtful and tremendously equipped man who has spent sixteen years writing it? The only thing one can do is to indicate the value of the work and to show a way of approaching it with lessened perplexity. I say lessened perplexity, for a certain perplexity cannot wholly be removed from a reading of it and the present reviewer freely acknowledges that there is much in the book that he is still seeking explanation for.

Language, nothing less than the problem of conveying meaning through words, is the first term we have to discuss in connection with Finnegans Wake. Let us get away from the book for a moment and begin by saying that writing today - I mean what can be described as imaginative writing - is dissociated from the value-making word: that is, it is writing, passing from the brain through the hand to the paper without ever coming out on the lips to be words that a man would say in passion or merriment. I am not speaking now of magazine writing, but of the writing of authors of status - John Galsworthy, for instance. As I write this sentence I see the title of a moving picture before me: it is The Lone Ranger; I think that there is more verbal creation in these words than in chapters of Galsworthy’s. ‘Ranger’ is a real word, holding a sense of distance, suggesting mountains; ‘lone’ beside it makes the distance inner. There are great writers today who do not put us off with destitute words: Yeats’s ‘The dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea’ are value-making words.

The problem of the writer of today is to possess real words, not ectoplasmic words, and to know how to order them. They must move for him like pigeons in flight that make a shadow on the grass, not like corn popping. And so all serious writers of English today look to James Joyce, who has proved himself the most learned, the most subtle, the most thorough-going exponent of the value-making word. From his early days Joyce has exercised his imagination and intellect upon the significance of words, the ordering of words. We have the youth of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meditating upon a sentence he has read:

"...A day of dappled seaborne clouds."
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colors? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the gray-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colors: it was the poise and balance of the period itself.

Joyce approached the problem of the word not only as a writer but as a musician, a linguist, a man trained in scholastic philosophy in which definition and rigorous literalness are insisted on. And this concern with the word has brought him far as a literary technician. All writers are concerned with process, with trying to pass from what can be described to what can be activated. Most of us leave it at the stage of description. ‘He sat there and listened to the music’; ‘Sitting there, he listened to the music.’ So we write, but we know very well that this sort of writing gives us nothing of the process- a man responding to music. Joyce, in his later books anyway, wants to deal only with process. In Portrait of the Artist some one looks at the algebraic signs on a blackboard: he writes of ‘the Morris dance’ of these signs. In that phrase a historical process is presented: we have the activism of algebra, its Saracenic origin, the decline of the civilization it came out of to the point when Europe knew only its remnants as dancer and buffoons.

Accept what looks like Volapuk on the pages, I would say to one who has got Finnegans Wake, and turn to the last section in the first part, the section that begins ‘O tell me all about Anna Livia!’ This section has been published and discussed; readers interested in literary development have an idea of what it is about. The reader who is not looking for usual connotations, for logical structure, can find something delightful here: he can experience the child’s surprise at flowing water and all that goes on beside it:

She sideslipped out by a gap in the Devil’s glen while Sally, her nurse, was sound asleep in the sloot and, feefee fiefie, fell over a spillway before she found her stride and lay and wriggled in all the stagnant black pools of rainy under a fallow coo and she laughed innocfree with her limbs aloft and a whole drove of maiden hawthorns blushing and looking askance upon her.

It is about the Liffey, Dublin’s river, Anna Livia. Anna Livia is also a woman; the women washing clothes on the banks are talking about her as a woman. It may entertain the reader who begins here casually to pick out the names of the world’s rivers that are used in this narrative of Anna’s bedding. ‘O, passmore that and oxus another!’ Her ravisher is the man from overseas, the Viking founder of Dublin. ‘In a gabbard he barqued it, the boat of life, from the harbourless Ivernikan Okean, till he spied the loom of her landfall and loosed two croakers from under the titilt, the gran Phenician rover.’ The croakers are the ravens of Odin; the Phenician suggests the hero Finn (who appears as Finnegan) as well as these first voyagers along the Atlantic, the Phoenicians. The story told in this episode is not local: it is the myth of river-civilizations. As the water flows night descends, death takes the place of life, the gossiping washerwomen are metamorphosed into a stone and a tree. And here we have a passage that has the evocativeness of music:

A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughter-sons. Dark hawks near us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me, elm. Night night. Tehmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

On the tale of Anna Livia, the river-woman, like flotsam and jetsam, are carried the names and deeds of remembered people, and histories and legends. A reading of this episode will give one, I think, a sense of Joyce’s idiom and of the direction of this formidably original book.

The last chapter is about resurrection, the resurrection of the dead. Here let me inform the reader that the general idea of Finnegans Wake is in the philosophy of the seventeenth-century Italian Vico. History, according to Vico, goes from savagery to corruption which is death, and then to a new beginning: its figures are Polyphemus in his cave, Achilles on the battlefield, Caesar with his imperium, Nero playing the lyre and falling under the swords of his guards. Then the rude beginnings of a civilization. This last chapter is the one that I should recommend to the inadequately instructed reader to turn to after the Anna Livia episode.

It begins with a sacred word three times repeated. "Sandyas! Sandyas! Sandyas!" Then, instead of the trumpet, we have the radio call:

Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection. Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxity, O rally! To what likelike thyne of the bird can be. Seek you somany matters. Haze sea sent to Osseania. Here!

‘’Dayne,’ of course, suggests daylight; also the Viking origin of the hero. One of his names is Earwicker, but the name of his country, Eire, is now inserted. ‘Phlenxity’ suggests the phoenix, the bird of resurrection, and the mind is carried back to the fall of Earwicker, that occasion of sin that was in the garden, in the Phoenix Park. The book ends:

My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff. So soft this morning ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair. If I seen him bearing down on me under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly, dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. That’s where. First. We pass through grass behush and bush to. Wish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take bussofthee, mememoree! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a loved a long the.

‘Lff,’ I take it, is Lif out of Eddas who survives Ragnarok and begins again the cycle of history. The keys suggest St. Peter. ‘Me’ and ‘memories’ are contained in the idea of the resurrection of the body. But why, it will be asked, has Joyce to manufacture words of this sort, and who, in the name of Finnegan, are the people in his book?

Perhaps this is the place for me to insert two glosses of my own. Where I grew up in Ireland there were several boys who had uncles whose name was Manus. For many years I had the notion that the name was exclusively avuncular, that it was the property of uncles. Then I learned that the Irish Manus was taken from the Scandinavian Magnus: thereupon a portion of Irish-Scandinavian history became real and present for me. Later I learned that the Scandinavian Magnus was from Carlus Magnus, Charlemagne, and the Carlovingian Empire became dimly seen, heard, felt, personified in some way; something remained of it in villages I knew, and the expression of that something would add to the present content of literature. To express it one would have to use words which, belonging to the present, could at the same time evoke the past.

Again, I got into a train, say, at Buffalo: men, women and children are in the coaches, reading, dozing, looking on the scenes they pass; I do not know where they come from or where they are going to. For a moment they are abstract human beings. One feels them as neither acting nor acted upon. But to evoke this feeling of actlessness one would have to form a language that would be removed from normal language, which is about actions. In a minute, of course, one personalizes them, discovering that this is a salesman and the other is a teacher going to Florida. All the same, each has a life that cannot be expressed in the language of action; all the same, each has a life that has been molded by the mountain and the river, by Polyphemus, Achilles, Caesar and Nero.

Well, cursorily speaking, this is what Finnegans Wake is about. It is history made present through these vastly figures who sum up the race, who are also the mountain and the river of the land. The figures are not representational but are like figures in a tapestry that emerge, merge with each other and with natural objects. One sees Tristan become the Duke of Wellington, or St. Patrick, Anna Livia becomes Swift’s Vanessa. The title of the book is from an Irish-American vaudeville song. It was a song about a hod-carrier who fell off his wall, who was thought to be dead, who was given a wake, and who, at the mention of whisky, resurrected himself. But the name Finnegan is the same as that of the national hero, Finn MacCool. And Finn means ‘the fair-haired’ and so might stand for all Nordic heroes.

He has fallen like Adam and like Humpty-Dumpty; he is accused of a crime that is said to have taken place in a garden, in Phoenix (for the purpose of the charge, Fiendish Park); he justifies himself by telling how he created a civilization for his Anna Livia. He is the boss-man in any situation and so he can be referred to as Adam or the Duke of Wellington or Daniel O’Connell. His woman is the river, but she is also the Little Annie Rooney of the song. And the man is Earwicker, but he is most often written of as H.C.E. or Here Comes Everybody. His sons as Shem the Penman and Jaunty Jaunt they are also Cain and Abel, the angel Michael and Satan.

Having read the Anna Livia episode and the Resurrection episode, the reader knows enough of the idiom and the plan to begin with the first chapter. Even if he does not understand all that is on any one page he will find sentences lovely in their freshness and their beauty and sentences that one can chuckle over for months. We have novels that give us greatly a three dimensional world: here is a narrative that gives a new dimension.

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