James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Is One of the Strangest Books of All Time

James Joyce is hardly a low-profile figure in literary circles.

His first two books, “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” are mainstays of English syllabi. And “Ulysses” — which many consider his best work — has been endlessly dissected since its 1922 publication.

Casual readers, however, may not realize (or may not acknowledge) that Joyce churned out one last book: Finnegans Wake. Published in 1939, it’s a doozy, and it tells several overlapping and intersecting stories — mythical and mundane — mostly set in Dublin.

Joyce wrote the book from English, but not strictly in English. His use of portmanteaus, multilingual puns, historical and self-referential allusions, and onomatopoeia can be overwhelming, but it can also be really funny and quite beautiful.

The book’s first word — “riverrun” to describe Dublin’s River Liffey — suggests “riverain” (English and French for “pertaining to a river”), “rive” (“to tear apart”), and “river” (French for “to fasten”). What’s more, the book’s first sentence is a continuation of its last one — making the narrative an endless loop.

Here’s a passage about night falling at Dublin Zoo as the tide comes in:

It darkles, (tinct, tint) all this our funnaminal world. Yon marshpond by ruodmark verge is visited by the tide. Alvemmarea! We are circumveiloped by obscuritads.

Notice the way that “darkles” — an actual word, by the way, meaning “to become cloudy” — suggests the sparkling darkness that accompanies twilight. And “circumveiloped” combines “enveloped,” “circumvent,” and “veil” to give the reader a sense of being wrapped up by the night.

Joyce self-reflexively called it his “book of Doublends Jined.” This conveys not only “double ends joined,” but also “Dublin’s giant” (— it even suggests the supernatural “jinn” of Arabian mythology and the Japanese word for person, “jin”).

While some may argue that the text doesn’t quite hang together as a coherent piece of fiction, its richness, complexity, whimsy, and inventiveness are staggering.

Want to hear the author reading a few pages from the “Wake”? You’re in luck.

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