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Authors & Editors & Grandsons & Houyhnhnms

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon  Houyhnhnm, 493 pp, £250.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 9547710 1 0

Reviewed from afar by Philip Harvey in 2010 and never sent for publication. I subsequently bought the Penguin Books hardback of this version when it came out in 2012, but continue to use my 1992 Penguin Books. This review is rescued from oblivion in 2020.

“The most iconic and original text in English literature has found its final expression and embodiment in this beautiful Houyhnhnm Press edition,” it states boldly on the Houyhnhnm website, leaving one to wonder whatever happened to Shakespeare’s First Folio. Four hundred dollars is too much for this reviewer to spend on the new edition (or is that ‘version’?) of Finnegans Wake, so I will write a review based on available information on the Internet. Such is life during the Great Economic Downturn. I could even point out that this is the cheap edition. Houyhnhnm is binding two hundred of these in black calf-skin at a cost of €900 each. This makes Shakespeare & Co.’s promotion of its original 1922 Ulysses look quite down market, modest even. We are promised a Penguin imprint of the book soonish.

Finnegans Wake is something I have read many many times, but never from start to finish, or all of it. Only mad dogs and American academics do that. When I ponder my secret love-hate relationship with this blot on the landscape I find myself asking the awful question that any secret reader of Finnegans Wake asks, probably, how would I know: Are there any Finnegans Wake readers who are not secret? The thrill of the chase after some compound conundrum is always followed by anxieties about whether this was Joyce's intention, have I unlocked the key to all mythologies, or am I just going mad of my own freewill, should I let someone know about the astounding word play I have just spotted, or will they then shun me as a poor lost soul in search of a practical joke, shaking their heads sadly from side to side.

Finnegans Wake is unlike anything else in literature. It is mesmering, enchanting, infuriating, terrifying. The fascination you feel is not far away from the complete disbelief that such a verbal object actually exists. It is undoubtedly in a category of its own. The theme itself only shocks you as well, the Fall. By which I mean, everything is a gigantic mistake only it's not actually and anyway make up your own mind and by
the way this is all there is, only there's more yet. I would hazard to call it a gigantic celtic midrash on the Book of Genesis. Your turn!

Other times, after I’ve left the Object for a year or so, I calmly return to the fray. I may read Finnegans Wake as a short history of Ireland told by a dead man. A dead man who comes back to life when he hears the word Whiskey. I notice how a main obsession is the perpetual invasion of Ireland, something done more subtly in Ulysses, where both the Blooms belong to families that lived outside Ireland. The main character is a Viking when he isn’t a Victorian Statesman or an Egg. He can be Napoleon and Wellington, sometimes at the same time. Why I continue to find this fascinating, not to say hilarious, is something I choose to ignore. I get into contradictions. I ponder the tempting theory that Joyce was not really interested in the cyclic Vico view of history, even though it is unquestionably one of the identifiable bases of the creative performance. Personally, I think Joyce believed in repetition and that everything every time repeats itself in time, and when it does it's different. Did Stephen Dedalus ever wake from the nightmare of history? When I read Finngeans Wake it seems he is still hard at work waking up, all in a state of Tossmania. The more I read Finnegans Wake the more I notice what Joyce describes in a loving way, e.g. the Book of Kells or the Liffey estuary, and it is these passages that guide my sense of his values. I gaze at one of his portmanteaus and the rest of the book disappears.

Great expectations therefore attend the news of a new release of Finnegans Wake, especially if the editors have brought the text closer to something like the full and exact work. Joyceans though are immediately confronted with a big problem here, as one of the editors is Danis Rose. Danis Rose is a contentious figure in Joycean scholarship, he carries a lot of baggage. It is Rose who published what he rather arrogantly called the Reader’s Edition of Ulysses in 1997. To call Rose an editor in the usual literary or publishing sense is misleading. Rose styles himself a textual editor, one who alters the text where he thinks a better or more meaningful or even more up-to-date presentation will assist the reader. He even believes that this is a service to literature and that he knows best the intentions of the author. (I have been reading Finnegans Wake for thirty years and can happily report that I still have little idea of the author’s intentions, other than the obvious one, to amuse.)

Rose’s attitude created some absolute howlers. Molly Bloom’s monologue gets punctuated and upper cases become lower cases then vice versa in some topsy-turvy frolic. Dot dot dot. One of my favourites is where, in the scene where Bloom and Dedalus share information late at night at 7 Eccles Street, this includes talk about the deepest depths of the ocean. Rose very unhelpfully replaces the Joyce’s Trench with the Sunda Trench, with the know-all justification that Joyce didn’t know this when he wrote the book. The point is though, for his characters this is the correct information in 1904, not the Sunda, an imaginative fact seemingly lost on the literalist Danis Rose. It also contradicts his claim that he works with the author’s intentions in mind; in this instance he does nothing of the sort, he pulls things asunder. And it is for this and other reasons that Joyce’s grandson Stephen, another contentious figure in our story, succeeded through the British High Court in having Rose's Ulysses pulped. It is now a collectible.

James Joyce valued the inventiveness of the language artist, which is not something we can say about Danis Rose. Rose's Ulysses is a disgrace and I say that not because I stand by Joyce's grandson. Simply put, Rose proved himself insensitive to the work, he showed no feel for what Joyce is really doing, displaying a literal mindedness about the dictionary meaning of words that Joyce would have found laughably conservative. Especially troubling, now that we have his Finnegans Wake, is the way Danis Rose gives himself permission to change the original text of a book as though he is on a higher, superior wavelength to the rest of us.

So I hesitate. In fact I cannot review this new version or the changes therein, so let’s stop here.

There is another issue for those of us with long memories. The most
original thing in Rose's Ulysses of 1997 is the copyright statement, which effectively claims that the text of his edition belongs to him, Danis Rose, and not Joyce. You can see why the Estate, represented by the grandson, got upset with Rose. Apparently love of money is the root of all evil and Rose no doubt would get the gist of this saying, even if he couldn't turn it into a series of outrageous puns like James Joyce. In fact, it wouldn’t occur to Joyce’s editor to do such a thing, even if he could. This is where we came in. Join the dots.


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