From the perspective of the modern reader, Finnegans Wake is the kind of book that could only happen after an intense century or so of philological activity, so let’s recap briefly what philology is about. In its broadest sense, it concerns itself with the study of languages and cultures. It is a mother-lode discipline from which borrow, more or less knowingly, today’s humanistic disciplines (classics, literary studies, linguistics, cultural studies, history, some branches of anthropology, etc).
But in its narrower, more common sense, it’s the dusty discipline of Tolkien and Bédier, the dreadful drudgery of collating, comparing, emending, and editing lost archetypes out of incoherent manuscript traditions. In other words, it’s the discipline (textual criticism) that tried to harmonize differences between extant sources to fuse them into a unified, reconstituted coherent whole. This kind of knitting is behind the apparent uniformity of our great classics like the Iliad and the Odyssey. It has been with us at least since there were libraries, but in the nineteenth century it progressed in leaps and bounds, and these more recent developments are responsible for our understanding of languages as families, of myths as equivalents between cultures (see the Roman-Greek-Sanskrit-Norse parallel pantheons), and the source of our endless debate about the correct versions of fairy tales.
So what is Joyce making of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries craze to put together critical editions of Tristan and ponder more or less cautiously on the Indo-European heritage? He writes his own version of it: he fuses together languages, stories, and traditions in an idiom that allows him to tell all of this simultaneously, without having to wait for a Jacob Grimm to discover equivalence tables between the sounds of Irish, German, and Sanskrit. What’s more, he does so by mixing the old with the new, the high and low, the trivial with the trivium, the current with the eternal.
Granted, the kind of Modernist mastodon that is the Wake bears as direct a relationship to the medieval canon than Ulysses does to the epic tradition. It’s a premise, a scaffold, but not a mold. Nevertheless—and not just because of the recurring Tristan und Isolde motifs—the Wake has something I dare call medieval about it.
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First, the dream-vision. Whether it’s the Commedia, Piers Plowman, or the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the medieval and early modern audiences made good use of sleep as the setting for fiction. The Wake then stays in this tradition by being a book that dreams itself. Unlike your typical dream-vision, there is no external framing story, no pilgrim falling asleep. When you begin the Wake, because of the circular structure, you’re already after the end of it. The man-character HCE has fallen asleep in the last third of the book, so there can’t be any escape by waking up from his dream since you both are already in it and will fall into it. Or, if you will, the book on which the Wake is based (a common trope of medieval writers claiming to translate from a lost latin source) is Finnegans Wake itself.
Second, the exhaustiveness. I’ve covered that before: medieval writers tried to give comprehensive accounts of their characters, sometimes day by day and hour by hour. If Lancelot is going on a quest, it appears possible to map exactly where he is and who he meets. If you were to really sit down and do the maths you might find a fair amount of inconsistencies, but the point is not to shy away from precision. Joyce tends to be both exhaustive and digressive. The sheer amount of detail of an aside has the heft of Lancelot’s day from prime to lunch time, or the cosmic totality of Aquinas’s Summa.
Third, the linguistic refinement. If you’re familiar with Alain de Lille’s De planctu naturae or the Ysengrimus, you’re aware that the plainness of speech of medieval romance was not universal, and that there were radically sophisticated wordsmiths among medieval authors. James J. Sheridan, de Lille’s English translator admits that some of the Planctu puns are as hard to translate as Joyce incessant portemanteauing.
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Lastly, it has what I would call the “continuability.” The Wake is a book that entices you to stay inside of it and perpetuate it by writing. It’s a difficult cathedral to enter, but then you feel compelled to remain inside as long as possible.
It can be out of pride—you open the Wake like you intend to climb the Everest: out of sheer hubris and blind determination, which is not something easily let go of.
It can be out of enchantment: once you have managed a working competence in Joyce’s night-language, you fear the cold snap of dull reality, and find excuses not to let the book down. Either way, the best ways to stay in are by writing about the Wake; by writing from within the Wake—like Anthony Burgess did with his Clockwork Orange; or by adapting the Wake to your own artistic medium of choice.
For a book so unreadable, the Wake has a surprising number of afterlives in music, painting, drawing, collage, artist’s book, film, or multimedia.
I haven’t spotted yet true continuations of the Wake, in the manner of the Perceval ones, but the impulse to adapt the Wake is the same impulse to rewrite the Grail story, to write Star Wars novels, to write poems in Tolkien’s Quenya or Sindarin: to never let the day break and have to get on the bus for work.
James Joyce. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber and Faber, 1939 . ISBN 9780571217359