By James Joyce
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Finnegans Wake by James Joyce ranked # 77 on The Modern Library's Top 100 Novels list as selected by its Board Members.
Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, is James Joyce's final novel. Following the publication of Ulysses in 1922, Joyce began working on the "Wake" and by 1924 installments of what was then known as Work in Progress began to appear. (The final title of the work remained a secret between the writer and his wife, Nora Barnacle.)
The seventeen years spent working on Finnegans Wake were often difficult. He underwent frequent eye surgeries, lost long-time supporters and dealt with personal problems in the lives of his children. These problems and the perennial financial difficulties of the Joyce family are described in Richard Ellmann's biography James Joyce.
The value of Finnegans Wake as a work of literature has been a point of contention since the time of its appearance, in serial form, in literary reviews of the 1920s. Some admirers of Joyce's Ulysses were disappointed that none of its characters reappeared in the new work, and that the author's linguistic experiments were making it increasingly difficult to pick out any continuous thread of a plot. Some literary figures believed the book to be a joke, pulled by Joyce on the literary community. Joyce's brother Stanislaus said that it was either "the work of a psychopath or a huge literary fraud." Literary critic and friend of the author Oliver Gogarty called it "the most colossal leg pull in literature." When Ezra Pound was asked his opinion on the text, he wrote "Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherization."
The language of Finnegans Wake is confounding. The language is like that of a dream, not quite conscious or formed, with layers of possible meaning. Yet this is a return to possibility, shaped by the experiences of the world we have fallen (into sleep) from.
In that sense, the book can be seen to have abandoned many of the conventions of the waking mind to represent the working of the sleeping mind. In dreaming, the images and plots that we perceive are not distinct or discrete - they shift and conglomerate and constantly reform. Joyce captures this protean quality of dreams through complex puns and the layering of (often contradictory) meaning. Though he writes "however basically English" (page 116, line 26), he universalizes the "dream" by incorporating dozens of other languages and argots.
His use of the world's languages is part of Joyce's aim to contain the full knowledge of humanity in Finnegans Wake. The novel is packed with allusions to world myth, history, and the arts. Along with "high" culture, Joyce did not ignore the "low". The Wake (as it is often called) is largely composed of popular jingles, nursery rhymes, and other fragments from popular culture, exemplified, as mentioned above, in the title itself.
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