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Hearing and Seeing James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Anew

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay,” begins James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, opening a torrent of words that has drowned many readers in confusion over Joyce’s modernist approach. A fresh new edition of Joyce’s 1939 novel edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon and illustrated by John Vernon Lord throws a life preserver to readers by offering a more readable, more musical text accompanied by illustrations that capture the playful, multilayered, flowing spirit of the story. For anyone who has tried and failed to finish Finnegans Wake or for anyone too intimated to try, this new edition will have you hearing and seeing Joyce’s language more clearly than ever before.

After publishing Ulysses in 1922, Joyce labored for 17 years on Finnegans Wake, which was known simply as Work in Progress for much of that time. Rose and O’Hanlon toiled for more than 30 years over the original text untwisting the tangled syntax and sorting out errors introduced by typesetting or missed by Joyce’s tragically poor eyesight during proofreading from those “intentional errors” intended by Joyce in his tale of “Errorland” (i.e., Ireland). Nine thousand changes later, Rose and O’Hanlon feel they have arrived at “a reading text,… a realization of the work as a work of literary art for the general public rather than as a comprehensive analysis of the evidence suitable for scholars” (and, by implication, scholars only). (Scholars and other interested parties, however, can read more about Rose and O’Hanlon’s editorial procedures here.) Irish poet Seamus Deane praises this new version, “created against incredible odds,” for giving modern readers “an opportunity… to break out of our critical slumber and see this masterpiece as it should be seen, clean and radiant again.” Finnegans Wake, the sleeping giant of Irish epics, thus awakens again.

Rose and O’Hanlon’s text for Houyhnhnm Press has been available since 2010. What makes this new edition from The Folio Society in London truly special are images by John Vernon Lord, an illustrator for more than 50 years and teacher of illustration for more than 40. Born in 1939 (the year of Finnegans Wake’s publication), Lord’s “illustrated many books on the subjects of fables, myths, legends, sagas, epics and nonsense,” according to his biography. Finnegans Wake easily fits all of those categories. Having illustrated the work of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll in the past, as well as children’s books such as The Giant Jam Sandwich (still in print after three decades), Lord’s eminently qualified to “riverrun” with Joyce’s playful, yet difficult masterpiece.

Why would a non-Joyce scholar illustrate Finnegans Wake?, Lord asks in his fascinating and extremely enlightening introduction to the illustrations. “”[S]o that I could get to a closer understanding of it,” Lord answers. “With Finnegans Wake I have avoided being too specific,” Lord explains, out of fear of “introduce[ing] a banality to the text, or even strangl[ing] it.” Instead, Lord “tried to be evocative of how [he] see[s] the text as a whole.” Just as Joyce himself wrote “to fill the reader with ideas without necessarily making every idea distinct and separable,” as David Greetham puts it in his critical introduction to the text, Lord looks to create images that suggest without dictating and that invite the imagination rather than showcase any single interpretation. It’s a recipe for the very interactive experience Joyce envisioned originally.

Lord titles the first of the eleven images “The Fall” (shown above, left). Cutting diagonally across the large, upper image is the ladder from which Tim Finnegan of the book’s title and the old Irish ditty fell to his alleged death. Tumbling beside poor Tim are the tools of his trade, the whiskey bottle from which a splash revived him mid-wake, and Humpty Dumpty of nursery rhyme fame and Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, who also frequents Finnegans Wake as a fellow famous faller and confounding linguist. In the left-hand corner lies the Howth Castle of mentioned in the novel’s opening, while in the right-hand corner rests a map of Dublin and its bay showing the river Liffey flowing into Dublin Bay—a symbol of the ever-flowing, ever-changing, eve-connected nature of Joyce’s “riverrun” language.

In Lord’s last image accompanying the text (shown above, right), we meet “Anna Livia Plurabelle,” the heroine of Finnegans Wake whose monologue fills the final chapter. Lord took Anna’s quote that “I feel I could near to faint away. Into the deeps,” and turned it into a merging of her face (based on a photo of Joyce’s wife, Nora, a real-life model for Anna) and the sea. Lord uses the word “merge,” but he could just as easily have used “embedded,” for the face and the sea are inseparably one, just as Joyce’s story and his method of telling it are inseparably one. The bottom strip of images flows from left to right first with a family portrait of Anna and the rest of the Earwicker family, another map of Dublin Bay, and a final image of Howth Castle, thus flowing back to the first castle picture in “The Fall” and mimicking the circular nature of Finnegans Wake, which both begins and ends midsentence. In fact, Lord links each of the images in this way throughout as way of providing not just visual landmarks along your journey through the book, but also a continual reminder of the interconnectedness of the whole work. The combination of Lord’s images and his explanations (which all but Joyce scholars would require to get all the nuances) serves as a visual aid to anyone wanting to dive into Joyce’s work.

The heavenly host of modernism—Joyce, Samuel Beckett (whose first published work defended Joyce), John Cage (who set parts of Finnegans Wake to music in his Roaratorio), and Marcel Duchamp (who may have served as a model for a character in Finnegans Wake)—remain devilishly difficult for the general public decades after hitting the scene, with their works condemned as places only specialists fear to tread. If only people could recognize the sense of play and love of games behind such modernism, they’d find it easier to play along. The Folio Society’s edition of Finnegans Wake, edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon and illustrated by John Vernon Lord, takes Joyce’s work from the Ivory Tower and puts it in your home. A beautifully constructed book with illustrated slipcase, this Finnegans Wake not only belongs in the home, but in a place of pride, close at hand for one to take down and dip into from time to time to fire the imagination and fill the soul. As an Irishman and a scholar myself, I’ve long enjoyed Finnegans Wake for the magical mystery it is, but also as a mystery each person owes to him or herself to solve. This new illustration edition of Finnegans Wake finally allows every person the chance to solve the puzzle and enjoy the river ride.

[Image:John Vernon Lord. (Left) The Fall and (Right) Anna Livia Plurabelle from the illustrated edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon and published by The Folio Society.]

[Many thanks to The Folio Society and John Vernon Lord for providing me with the images above and a review copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon.]


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