A Book Club Took 28 Years to Read ‘Finnegans Wake.’ Now, It’s Starting Over.

By admin Dec7,2023

The first sign that “Finnegans Wake” may be among the most challenging books you have ever encountered is its opening line, which begins midsentence.

The novel by James Joyce ends the same way, without a period. Some scholars say the last line loops back to the beginning, symbolizing the cyclical nature of time.

In California, life is imitating art: A book club that just spent nearly three decades reading the novel is starting it all over again.

“It isn’t finished; it’s an ongoing experience,” said Gerry Fialka, an experimental filmmaker based in Venice, Calif., who started the group in 1995. The book club met once a month to read a page or two, and finally finished in October.

“It’s like a Möbius strip; it’s like the snake eating its tail,” said Mr. Fialka, 70. “All times are happening now.”

The club is among several around the world devoted to collectively untangling the meaning of Joyce’s 1939 novel, which tells many stories simultaneously, and is dense with neologisms and allusions. Critics have considered the work perplexing; a review in The New Yorker suggested it might have been written by a “god, talking in his sleep.” It is not unusual for a club to take several years to read the book once through.

“There’s so many extreme difficulties in the text,” said Samuel Slote, a professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, whose reading group began the book in 2016, and is now less than halfway through.

“He couldn’t have counted on many readers, or any readers, to get it,” Dr. Slote said, noting that this obscurity was precisely what made reading the book communally so appealing. “No one person can really fully master it.”

Among his favorite parts of the book, however, are two short lines on the penultimate page: “First we feel. Then we fall.” The lines are simple and undistorted, Dr. Slote said. “It’s the plot to every human life.”

Credit…Penguin Classics

Other parts, however, are considerably more complex. For example, a sentence on the fourth page reads: “What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy- gods!” Another line: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner- ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!”

Margot Norris, a professor emerita of English at the University of California, Irvine, and a Joyce scholar, described “Finnegans Wake” as “dramatic poetry” that instead of following a typical plot plays with the very nature of language.

“We get words in ‘Finnegans Wake’ that aren’t words,” Dr. Norris said, referring to a passage of seemingly nonsense phrases: “This is Roo-shious balls. This is a ttrinch. This is mistletropes. This is Canon Futter with the popynose.”

The novel, she added, “draws your attention to language, but the language isn’t going to be exactly the language that you know.”

Fritz Senn, the founder and director of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, which runs two weekly reading groups for “Finnegans Wake,” described the communal readings as akin to working slowly through a religious text, often intended to be read over and over.

“You have every right not to understand it,” Dr. Fritz said of Joyce’s novel. “You don’t have to be ashamed.”

Mr. Fialka, who runs the Venice group, said that more than two dozen people between the ages of 12 and 92 had participated over the years, some of whom left for extended periods before returning.

The reading club originally gathered in a seaside branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, but began holding the meetings on Zoom during the pandemic and hasn’t returned to in-person gatherings, in part because it now has participants outside California.

Roy Benjamin, who has been with the club for about two years and is based in New York City, said he joined to gain different perspectives of the novel.

“Joyce is an obsession,” Mr. Benjamin, 70, said. “The more things that you learn, the more it makes sense, and nonsense, to you.”

Peter Quadrino, another member, said that reading Joyce created an urge to discuss his work with others.

“It’s just always opening up, and feeding, and stimulating, the creative part of my brain,” said Mr. Quadrino, 38, who first attended some meetings in 2009 and more recently has participated from Austin, Texas, via the Zoom sessions. He has since started his own group.

In early October, more than a dozen people joined a Zoom meeting to read the final page of the book. Mr. Fialka called on the participants to “take one conscious breath in together” before taking turns to read two lines each.

Then, they returned to the beginning.

During the meeting, one member asked Mr. Fialka if he would “consider changing this format so it doesn’t take another 28 years to get through.”

But according to Mr. Fialka, the point of the club was never to finish the book, but to work together to absorb it.

“People think they’re reading a book, they’re not,” he said. “They’re breathing and living together as human beings in a room; looking at printed matter, and figuring out what printed matter does to us.”

By admin

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