Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Review: Literary Fiction: The Restored Finnegans Wake James Joyce – Edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon

Finnegans Wake begins in mid-sentence. We are reading the second half of a wonderfully obscure, but beautiful, piece of phrasing beginning a description of the Liffey and the sea and of Dublin Bay.

All are parts of the story, embracing James Joyce's elusive but vast epic vision of the world that brings to an end the writing triumph of his life's work as an artist.

The first half of the sentence is at the end of the book. And like a broken link in a chain, forged again in the white heat of the writer's mind, the great loop of the book imposes a perfect circularity and self-reflexive intra-textuality on the enclosed events.

Such words are emblems of the bafflement that has dogged the history of Finnegans Wake. For 70 years the rich mastery of words has been constantly upset by the confusion of corrupt texts, printing and editing errors compounded by mindless enthusiasms and guess work. We should have read it differently.

A new key to the text was required. Now, after more than 30 years of scholarship, Danis Rose and John O'Hanlon, in a new critical edition of Finnegans Wake, have brought us Joyce's masterpiece in a clarified, perfect text within the grasp of every serious reader. The book is at last readable, eminently so. And though Joyce and bafflement are indistinguishable partners in its creation, so that we often remain at a loss to understand, we at least now know that it isn't because of some unascertainable typo!

The trick is: don't stop over a stumble, pick yourself up and hurry on: there are oodles of amusing lyrical passages to savour. Finnegans Wake is a book to dip into, endlessly, to slake one's intellectual thirst. Huckleberry Finn it isn't.

Now is the time to buy and tackle a wonderful, teasing, challenging, elliptical and enraging broth of a book.

At every level we see, now for the first time, the master's touch. It is there in the magisterial introduction of episode openings and closings in Book IV, in the abolition of the hideous run-on text of all other existing versions, down through the other levels of the writing, with poetry properly printed as poetry for the first time, questions as questions, inserts as inserts and dialogue as dialogue.

This creative exactitude exists down to the tiniest minutiae: the correction, say, of 'assiegates' to 'assiegales' (and it's storms that we're talking of), with thousands of other equally nuanced fragments of a pervasive magic.

The edition brings Joyce's masterpiece back, in clarified form and within the reach and grasp of every serious reader. It is, at last, readable. We may often remain at a loss to understand -- we do it with all great books -- but at least now know it is intended as a periodic exercise by the author of his authority.

The first edition of this new, effulgent version of the work, designed by Martino Mardersteig, master book-maker of Verona, and brought out in 2010 by that Trojan horse, Houyhnhnm Press, is an artefact of immense beauty.

At its London launch a librarian at the British Library spoke of it as one of the physically finest modern books she had ever handled.It had, she said, "heft" (weight, lift, pull).

That edition was severely limited and expensive, justifiably so, and out of reach of most of us. Now Penguin have produced the gold standard version of this crucially important text.

The book is an elegant contraction of the larger format Houyhnhnm edition achieved with grace and no loss of readability. The cover (by Eoin Ryan) is both striking and bold. It has a three-dimensional impact, a 'whirlwind' of ice-blocks with their left-right Shem -- Shaun polarity and Issy-like double rainbow effects.

The muted tones of the cover are also strangely appropriate and modern. Indeed, the whole thing is thoroughly modern. It looks, feels and reads modern.

Included are the texts of two essays by the editors (a short introduction and a longer essay on the hypertext), Seamus Deane's generous and welcoming preface, Hans Walter Gabler's considered, somewhat Teutonic account of multiple valid versions of texts, and David Greetham's thoroughly enjoyable romp of a piece, dripping erudition.

I find no fault with this splendid edition. And I advise: simply fork out for it and read this great work by Joyce. It's worth every penny.

It is true that it would be of great help to scholars if we could now at last have alongside this clear-reading text Rose's much desiderated hypertext, with its multidimensional prospect of Joyce's novel, so that we could see as much "as the hen saw". I am informed that this will be made available as soon as the complex copyright situation surrounding it is resolved.

There are still strongholds to be torn apart. Unfortunately, a great deal of Joyce material still cannot be made available to the general public because of small-minded copyright arguments.

Hopefully, this lamentable situation will rapidly ease and we can look forward to a complete disclosure, as is only right. Good lord, the man has been dead for 70 years now!

Harvest time is coming, and the harvest will be a bumper one at that.