Joyce essentially invented his own mishmash of languages, making the book notoriously difficult to read, but if you drink several glasses of Irish whiskey, smoke a few bowls and squint a lot the book becomes more readable . . . even funny! You should think of the novel as a great collection of puns.
Here is the first line: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Joyce packs in meaning by using puns and allusions (which are themselves a kind of pun). On a cursory count I find at least fourteen. “Past,” for example, is the preposition as in “the river flows past the church.” It also refers to the past, a central theme of the work. It can also be a homonym for the past tense of the verb “to pass”: passed. A Reader’s Guide to Finnegan’s Wake by William York Tindall explains some of the allusions: ”‘Riverrun,’ the first word is the central word of the book; for Anna Livia’s Liffey, the feminine creative principle, is the river of time and life. The Liffey flows past the church of Adam and Eve (reversed here to imply temptation, fall, and renewal) and into Dublin Bay, where . . . it circulates up to Howth, the northern extremity of the bay. ‘Eve and Adam’s’ unites Dublin with Eden and one time with another” (Tindall 30).
“Vicus” refers to Giambattista Vico, “the philosopher of ‘recirculation,” the main proponent of the idea that history repeats itself. (Hasn’t this all been said before? Do I hear an echo in here?) The first line of the novel is the second half of the last line, which reads, “A way a lone a last a loved a long the”, causing the novel to loop back onto itself, echoing the main idea of the book, which is that all stories repeat themselves. Putting the two halves together, you get, “A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve or shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Now, doesn’t that make much — strike that — a little more sense?
If you know that most of the jokes are sexual, you will have an easier time understanding them. For example, the second line “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica . . . to wielderfight his penisolate war” (Joyce 3). Thinking about amor and penises, we can understand “while they went doublin their mumper all the time,” which at once references Dublin and masturbation (and about twelve other things).
In the middle of the book, we get a chapter with margin notes and footnotes, but these notes are as enigmatic as the text they supposedly explicate, a common convention in metafiction (and maybe the first of its kind). One note says, “Menly about peebles,” which we can understand as “mainly about people, especially men.” Another note is a bar of music with rising and falling notes that echo the theme of rising and falling stories.
I have only read 140 pages out of 628, but I am quite proud of having made it that far. I stopped when I felt I had gotten the joke and the joke, repeated and repeated and repeated, was starting to get old. I decided instead to doublin my mumper. That was a few years ago. I may pick up the novel where I left off and let history repeat itself.
Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.
Tindall, William York. A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969.