Reading Finnegans Wake on the best of days and in the easiest sections can challenge the most erudite of readers. The eight or so members of the James Joyce group certainly fall into that category. But this past weekend, meeting in a room at Sylva’s library, they found themselves flagging in a particularly dense thicket of Joysean obscurities.
“This one was good at manual arithmetic, for he knew from his cradle why his fingers were given him,” Barbara Bates Smith, a Haywood County resident, recited aloud. “He had names for this 10 fingers: first there came book, then wigworms, then tittlies, then cheekadeekchimple, then pickpocket, with pickpocketpumb, pickpocketpoint, pickpocketprod, pickpocketpromise, and upwithem. And he had names for his four love-tried cardinals: (1) his element curdinal numen, (2) his enement curdinal marrying, (3) his epulent curdinal weisswach, and (4) his eminent curdinal Kay O’Kay.”
When she finished, everyone sat silent for a moment, bemused or stunned or both. Michael Lodico said, breaking the silence, “I think it’s all so obvious.” Everyone laughed and got down to business.
And that business is understanding and discussing Joyce, one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Joyce challenges, provokes and mystifies. The Irish poet and writer requires an endless amount of both reader patience and reader work to untangle the literary concoction (some might say mishmash) of stream of consciousness techniques, literary allusions and free-dream associations. Not to overlook, either, the profusion of puns this native Dubliner loved to weave into his tapestry of words.
A frustrated reader and critic once described Finnegans Wake as “a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital.”
Seven years on Ulysses
The James Joyce group meets for a couple hours at a time once each month, sometimes in Haywood and sometimes in Jackson counties. Members are from each of those communities. To describe the people involved as meticulous, well read and intelligent somehow falls short. They have spent about four years reading Finnegans Wake together. Saturday’s meeting began on page 282 of this more than 600-page book. The group labored happily for two hours, progressing through the middle of page 287.
Joyce, you see, isn’t a writer you rush: in his case, ripeness truly is all.
The group started reading Ulysses. That required a seven-year commitment. Ulysses is Joyce’s most important work, and stands as one of the most, if not the most, important modern novels of our time.
Jean Ellen Forrister, a retired English teacher from Jackson County, started with the group about when they began reading and studying Finnegans Wake.
She said she loves the complexities of Joyce’s work, “the weirdness,” and finds untangling his writing akin to solving a complicated crossword puzzle.
“You get it to fit all together, and there’s that sort of ah-ha moment,” Forrister said, adding that reading and studying Joyce keeps a person learning and living.
In one section of Finnegans Wake irrational numbers played a role. Forrister soon found herself researching irrational numbers — which is a real number that cannot be written as a simple fraction — and entering into discussions about them with a friend who is a math teacher.
Reading Joyce can take a person down unlikely avenues indeed.
You don’t want to walk unprepared into a James Joyce group meeting, though member Karl Nicholas, who retired from the English department at Western Carolina University, apologized for doing just that. He had just returned to Sylva from attending an event honoring the poet Robert Burns, and had been sidetracked the previous evening buying tickets for an upcoming trip overseas.
Members of the group usually prepare for meetings by reading the text, and they cross-study using A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by mythologist Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, and Annotations to Finnegans Wake by Roland McHugh.
They also rely on knowledge and skills that members individually bring into the group. Nicholas attended Catholic school, so he helps with the Catholic references, Forrister said. Nicholas and Lodico both can aid others when there are Latin difficulties. Nan Watkins can untangle knotty musical references, and so on and so on. Talk to them individually and each demurs from special knowledge or contributions, of course: “The others are scholars; my contributions are ones of support and enthusiasm. I get by,” Bates Smith said modestly.
After Bates Smith’s rendering of the “he had names for this 10 fingers,” Forrister said,
“Here’s my question. OK, in this counting system that he has, is this something unique to the kids, some little weird thing a kid made up, or is this a tradition?”
An involved discussion about counting commenced. Counting in other lands, hand symbols for numbers used in the streets of other lands, cultural mistakes that can occur when people ill advisedly use their land’s hand signals in other people’s lands.
“The French of course include the toes when they are counting,” Sandy McKinney said, offering the fact as something well known by most people.
“We’re getting the trees, but what is the forest?” Dr. Steve Wall, a pediatrician, said finally as the conversation on counting wended onward. “What is this book about? We know naught.”
The next meeting of the James Joyce group takes place at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, March 24, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.