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So thanks for your pre-game thoughts, here at base camp. The game was my idea. I’d been glancing at Finnegans Wake here and there for some time now: a dull metallic grey flash in the corner of my eye, probably as I mosey around the bookshelves toward its companions either side – Isherwood, Kelman, Kennedy. Like a mountain, at a glance, the book is intimating. And some books, like mountains, have reputations that precede them – often simply to do with sheer size. If we do a brief geological survey of books, we can see the notable English summits of Clarissa and Middlemarch (a seemingly rare exception to the predictably male propensity for writing long prick-waving novels) and the imposing imperial heights and panoramas of the Victorian social epic – the sooty slopes and smoggy climes of the Dickensian massif. Over the water, there are the modernist mountains of The Man Without Qualities, In Search of Lost Time and Joseph and His Brothers. Eastwards stands The Brother’s Karamazov and behind that, its sister peak, the vast Russian plateau of War and Peace; westwards the American rockies as thrown up by the postmodern orogeny, the anarchic peaks of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, Underworld and Infinite Jest. Even now, and probably unwisely, seeing as I’ll be starting on the Wake shortly I'm lost in William H. Gass’s sixhundredworder The Tunnel.
Long novels pose their own particular problems: maintaining the momentum for the long haul, the larger amount of storage you need in the brain space for what has come before, you need extra room in your bag when you’re lugging it around.
And the Wake isn’t simply long – the reputation of Finnegans Wake is less the length of the trek and more the nature of the terrain. How the path is unclear or absent. How the maps, more than usual, seem conflicted about the territory or are in themselves incomprehensible. How the path – if there is one – digresses, loops, and follow like a series of tedious arguments at cross-purposes above a glacial outflow. On the route designated The Joyce Trail, it’s at Finnegans Wake where people tend to turn back. They’ve sauntered through Dubliners. They’ve tackled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, they’ve scaled the lofty daytime heights of Ulysses (and even then, that’s a rare reader right there), but no, they’re stopping here. Not only are they stopping here, but what they see before them is a lesser peak. It’s a gully, they say: a sunken formation, a volcano that collapsed under its own weight. It’s imploded to become a kind of inversion – a too many-circled Inferno in which Joyce is our unreasonable Virgil taking us down into his own fundament. Martin Amis called it ‘the ultimately reader-hostile, reader-nuking immolation.’ T. S. Eliot said (my favourite quote thus far on the matter): ‘one book like this is enough.’ Even the book’s own introduction, says that ‘it is, in an important sense, unreadable.’
So feels particularly helpful to have someone else along for the trek – to compare notes, to share observations, to maintain motivation. I’m not sure we’ve quite done this before, reading something simultaneously – or at least not so formally. Like you, I’m not exactly sure to expect. Joyce had an astonishing mind, an adventurer in words, a kind of pirate of literature with his eye-patch who raided the great storehouse of world literature to create his work. I expect puns. I expect boredom. I expect surprise. I expect jealousy. I expect to be impressed and nonplussed. Maybe to be moved? I don’t know.
What kind of book is this? A wake is what happens after a death. A wake is the pattern made by a ship over water. A wake is the opposite to beingasleep.
Yet the night is falling, and is time for the nighttime book. We stand at base camp. The mountain before is nightdark (blackened perhaps by prior immolated readers), and the milky constellations above unfamiliar, or half-familiar (helpful to navigate with or no?). There are the the ivy-snared crenelations of Howth Castle (and Environs). And so we head onwards, or downwards or roundwards – through a commodious vicus of recirculation . . .