UNSW wakes Finn again
- Posted: 10th June 2011
Seumas Phelan writes about the book that launched a thousand and more PhDs.
There are some people who believe James Joyce’s masterpiece Finnegans Wake is the greatest literary work of the modern age. There are some who say it’s a revolutionary achievement that helped to transform the global consciousness. And there are some who scoff that it’s a gigantic intellectual fraud and almost impossible to understand.
All these claims are arguable, but there is one academic fact about the iconic Irish writer’s magnum opus that is indisputable – along with Joyce’s Ulysses, it has spawned more PhDs and doctoral theses than any other book before or since.
This flood of doctorates became so notorious that another great Irish author, Flann O’Brien, once called for the Dublin government to pass a law banning anyone anywhere in the world from doing a degree on Joyce’s work in general, and Finnegans Wake in particular. And he was only half-joking.
Astoundingly, the final and definitive edition of the great work has just been published, nearly 80 years after Joyce began writing it, and now reflecting all of his extraordinary amendments, corrections, updatings and rewritings.
The publication is being launched around the world, including in Sydney last week, when some of Australia’s leading literary and academic figures turned out to celebrate.
“This isn’t just a great book, it’s a great artwork,” said Caitriona Ingoldsby, Ireland’s new consul-general, who helped to organise the event. “The importance of our literary achievements, old and new, are crucial at the current time. Over the past year, the news many of you will have heard about Ireland has been negative, focusing on building busts and banking bailouts.
“While the government and people of Ireland are facing economic challenges head-on, it is vital we remind ourselves and those abroad that Ireland has always been, and will always be, about more than an economy. We have an abundance of riches in culture and imagination. And Irish culture and Irish literature are important because they remind us of who we are and what we can be. The new edition of Finnegans Wake is somewhat similar – taking the brilliance of Joyce as it was, and bringing it to everything that it could be.”
This de-luxe edition of Finnegans Wake is an outstanding feat of publishing (“It would want to be at 1200 yankee dollars a copy,” said one wag). Even the 504-page standard version costs $US410, and both are limited editions, with only 200 copies of the special edition printed and 800 of the standard.
The book is updated with literally thousands of Joyce’s corrections and emendations – a mountain of work to which the editors, Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon, have given 30 years of their lives. Rose spoke with passion of the task, saying not a word or a syllable is wasted, and that Joyce, while particular in time and place, is universal in human imagination and understanding.
The driving force behind the book launch in Sydney was the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies at UNSW. Its director, Professor Ronan McDonald, paid particular tribute to the work of Rose and O’Hanlon.
“Cleaning up Joyce’s contaminated masterpiece was a monumental task, the work of 30 years scrupulous editorial scholarship,” he said. “With 9000 small but crucial changes to the originally published edition, this work of loving erudition, incarnated in a beautiful new volume published by Houyhnmhnm Press, allows Joyce’s original intention to shine with immaculate brilliance.”
Leading Australian writer Gail Jones, professor of literature at the University of Western Sydney and prize-winning author of the luminous Five Bells, gave the keynote address honouring Joyce and Finnegans Wake, saying they had strongly influenced her and her work.
She spoke of the many Australian references in the Wake, suggesting they were usually a trope of exile. “As well as figuring what the English do to their criminal classes, Joyce is imagining a kind of radical otherness – as far-fetched, antipodean and exemplary of a certain absurdist destiny.”
The launch was held at the enchanting Hordern House in Potts Point, which contains a treasure trove of fine books and period literature. The walls are covered with drawings and artworks, with one 19th-century cartoon of an English shipping company office showing what the Poms thought of Australia at the time: “Would you like to go to Botany Bay or hell?” asks the ticket clerk.
Noted literary critic and academic Don Anderson of Sydney University, who taught some of those at the event, celebrated Joyce’s life and work. Professor Anderson admitted he hadn’t read all of Finnegans Wake, “although I often lecture on it,” he said cheerfully.
The great work’s title is taken from a Dublin street ballad of the same name from the 1850s, which features a bricklayer called Tim Finnegan with a weakness for the tipple. Unfortunately this leads him to tumble from his ladder, causing his demise. There’s a brawl at his wake, some whiskey spills into the coffin – and up springs the dead man, revived and calling for more. The rest, as they say, is history – or at least a literary masterpiece.
Joyce may have been a genius, but he drove his printers and publishers mad with corrections and rewriting of key passages (“Mr Joyce is an awful man for the changes,” a long-suffering printer is reported to have said). And Joyce complained bitterly that the first version of the book, published in 1939, contained many errors of fact and meaning, so his spirit will surely rest more easily now that finally, 70 years after his death in 1941, the great work has at last appeared in the form he wanted.
The atmosphere at the Sydney launch was not hushed and solemn, as you might expect for a major literary and academic event, but friendly and irreverent – great craic, as the Irish say. During one speech, there was the sound of a ringing phone, and a voice from the audience said: “That’ll be James Joyce.” “Yes,” said another, “and he’ll be calling in with one last correction.”
Joyce would have loved it.
Seumas Phelan is a senior sub-editor with The Australian newspaper, and has won two Walkley awards. This article was originally published in the Campus Review.