I think the jury is still out as to whether or not James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is readable at all, but Roland McHugh tackled it head-on, devoting years of his life to studying it with zealous devotion. The entomologist turned Wake expert admits, “My technique was slightly fanatical. I was so anxious to capture the undistorted experience than on reading page 29, where the first chapter ends, I tied a thread round all the remaining pages to prevent my accidentally looking ahead.” To anyone who has skimmed a page or two of Finnegans Wake
, it’s hard to imagine that looking ahead could create any real spoiler problems, but McHugh was a purist.
And that was just the first reading. McHugh went on to read, dissect, and scrutinize Finnegans Wake
with complete thoroughness, telling us, “I began to annotate my copy of FW. I transferred information to it in very small writing, using a mapping pen. I could actually get two lines of writing between every two FW lines, and I used twelve different colours of ink to specify different languages.”
Soon Joyce’s inscrutable novel began to influence McHugh’s non-literary profession, when McHugh, “having left Imperial College far too obsessed with FW to think seriously about a career,” takes a job studying grasshopper acoustics in Paris, thinking that improving his French will help him with his Wake studies. He later tells us, “I was becoming increasingly convinced that to achieve a really total appreciation of the FW text I needed to move permanently to Ireland.” He did indeed make that move. I’m not sure whether or not he gave up bugs altogether, but he did eventually become a noted Joyce scholar.
As literary criticism goes, The Finnegans Wake Experience
is quite entertaining, though it does raise concerns for the author’s sanity. That’s probably appropriate, though, considering that Finnegans Wake
called into question Joyce’s mental health as well. From the standpoint of encouraging slightly less, shall we say, enthusiastic
Joyce fans to tackle the Wake, however, The Finnegans Wake Experience
is a bit demoralizing.