Inside Story

Neverending story

Gabrielle Carey gives us James Joyce in eighty-four bite-sized pieces

Peter Marks Books 25 October 2023 2108 words

Finding, creating, embellishing, mocking: James Joyce photographed in Zurich by Alex Ehrenzweig c. 1915. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For a select group of people, references to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake bring on a righteous fury. Not because they abhor Joyce’s final work, viewed by its detractors as a kind of monstrous hybrid of the Times cryptic crossword, Wikipedia and Spike Milligan. Far from it. Those who fume on seeing that title do so because they know that the apostrophe SHOULD NOT BE THERE, that whoever is writing about James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake has possibly not looked and certainly not understood the actual title: Finnegans Wake. The apostrophe-less version is correct, even though Joyce’s book overtly references the nineteenth-century Irish ballad “Finnegan’s Wake,” which proudly bears its punctuation scar.

That comic song charts how a whiskey-loving hod carrier, Tim Finnegan, falls to his death while hungover, only to revive miraculously at his own wake when a bucket of whiskey thrown in a fight splashes the liquor on his head. Up Tim rises, berating those around him, crying “t’underin’ Jaysus, do you think I was dead?” Joyce knowingly deploys the song’s title, but by eliminating the apostrophe gives himself freedom to explore questions of life and death, dream and reality, myth, religion, philosophy, history, language and much more beyond the scope of the song.

At the most superficial level, for example, “Finnegan” suggests endings (from the French word fin) and repetition (“egans” hints at “again,” the plural “s” implying more than one “again”) while “Wake” advertises the act of “waking” that each of us repeats endlessly, until we don’t, after which we enter (to quote Raymond Chandler) “The Big Sleep,” which, for atheists at least, is endless. But at least for the Irish, as the song reminds us, a subsequent ceremony or “wake” celebrates the dead person’s life. We must die to deserve a wake, and eventually and inevitably the people who attend the wakes of others become the guests of honour at their own.

This sense of potentially infinite beginnings and endings is built into the first word we read in Finnegans Wake — “riverrun” — which pulses with visual and vocal potency. Joyce’s games are afoot before we know it, though, with the absence of a capital “R” at the beginning of “riverrun” indicating that we are not so much at the start of the novel as already somewhere within its insistent stream.

The reader new to Finnegans Wake (spoiler alert) must wait 628 pages in the Penguin edition to read the beginning of that sentence, which loops back to “riverrun.” In a sense this novel never ends. Many potential readers never get that far. Or, if they know this fun fact about Finnegans Wake, they flip to the end, read the start of that sentence, nod their head in recognition and place the book back on the shelf. In a career teaching literature at university, this reviewer has only ever met three people who have read the book from cover to cover.

Note that I did not say three other people. For while I think that Joyce’s Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses are among the great literary achievements of the twentieth century, I admit to never having finished Finnegans Wake, nor in fact got anywhere close, wandering several times around its foothills before turning back, mystified.

Gabrielle Carey’s slim new book, James Joyce: A Life, is written for me and for people like me, including those who have (as yet) not read a word of Joyce. Indeed, the dust jacket of the book advertises that “If you know nothing about James Joyce but would like to — without the bother of reading him,” or “If you know a little about James Joyce and would like to know more but not too much,” or “If you are a die-hard Joycean who has spent a lifetime puzzling over his work but know nothing about his life,” then “this is the book for you.”

Of the three groups the third is the least likely to have many members, if only because Joyce’s life, and the Dublin he inhabited and left as a young man in order to become a writer, is so intertwined with his own work. It is hard to think that someone might have puzzled over his writing for a lifetime and not know anything about this writer’s life. But the other two groups should have enthusiastic members, and Carey’s posthumously published account (she died earlier this year at the age of sixty-four) is serious enough to encourage new readers by presenting engaging and meaty matter, while being light-hearted enough to entertain.

Carey has read Finnegans Wake, although she was honest enough to admit several years ago that the task took her and her reading group from 2004 to 2021. Her book is a much less time-consuming affair, being written to make converts, not just for Finnegans Wake but for Joyce generally. As she notes in an Apologia: “I offer this incomplete story of the life of James Joyce as a loving in memoriam.”

Joyce, like Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein and other great Modernist figures, is often treated with a numbing or crushing solemnity, as a figure we feel we should like or at least grudgingly admire in order to be, or to feel, sophisticated. Carey does away with this solemnity, her short (130-page) book offering a quirky, always lively take on Joyce’s life threaded with details and anecdotes about his work. For many people a further attraction is that it is not burdened with footnotes and other scholarly apparatus.

Broken into eighty-four bite-sized pieces (with a short Coda to take us beyond Joyce’s own life) Carey’s book is enthusiastic and intelligent, her portrait of the artist rendering Joyce as brilliant and incessantly driven to write, but also as a flawed and exasperating figure, selfish, self-pitying, smutty and fickle. As Carey tells it, he is someone you would find fascinating to meet — perhaps until, like Tim Finnegan, the drink kicked in.

Unlike Finnegans Wake, Carey begins at the beginning: “James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born on 2 February: Candlemas Day.” Given Joyce’s Jesuit schooling, so acutely captured in A Portrait of the Artist, Carey might have focused on the Catholic resonances of his middle names Augustine and Aloysius. Instead, she introduces a traditional English rhyme on Candlemas, and mentions that Candlemas is also Groundhog Day and that Joyce arranged to have Ulysses published on his fortieth birthday.

Her approach throughout foregrounds associations and connections, what she calls “a bower bird approach,” rather than historical sequence. So, section 1 (barely longer than a page) starts with Joyce’s birth and ends with a reference to Finnegans Wake. There are positives and negatives to this tactic, one negative being that (to use another metaphor) the book has at times a slightly scattergun feel, while one positive is that readers are entertained by a life rich in amusing and intriguing associations. Given that its central character himself gloried in finding, creating, embellishing and mocking associations across all aspects of life, this seems entirely appropriate.

An early example helps to explain how this approach works. Joyce suffered from astraphobia, a fear of thunder and lightning. In section 2, Carey connects this biographical detail to meteorology and to language and literature, noting how Finnegans Wake has ten “thunderwords” in it. These, she explains, are “100-letter words, incorporating words from other languages and with multiple meanings,” one of which appears on the first page of Finnegans Wake: “bababadalgharaghtakaminninarronnkonnbronntonnerronn-tuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” Thankfully she adds that “while it looks like nonsense, it is actually made up of the word thunder in various languages” including Hindi and Japanese, and that it embodies a linguistic representation “of one of Joyce’s favourite themes: the thunderous sound of the fall of man.”

It is probably worth mentioning at this stage to “those who know nothing about James Joyce but would like to” that by comparison with Finnegans Wake, his Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist and (the majority of) Ulysses are a doddle. Carey plays the role of the genial and comforting guide throughout; the book benefits immensely.

Which is not to say that it cannot be faulted. At times the “bower bird” approach creates the possibility of confusion, particularly for a section of its potential audience, those new to Joyce. So, when Carey writes that W.B. Yeats never finished Ulysses but was right to think that in that novel what “Joyce was trying to do was replicate the rambling mind. His intention was nothing less than to document the experiential nature of consciousness,” it might be more accurate to say that this is true of sections of Ulysses rather than of the book in its totality.

Someone fresh to Ulysses and expecting to plunge headfirst into the stream of consciousness will be disappointed. That novel is better understood as an “encyclopedia of styles,” Joyce fashioning a new style for every chapter.

Readers from beyond these shores might be nonplussed by the occasional Australian references, as when reviews of Ulysses are quoted from the Brisbane Telegraph, or, as in section 74, when we hear in greater length than the section on Joyce’s birth a tale of an Australian couple who meet Joyce in Paris in 1935. When Joyce suggests that as they had come so far “I couldn’t very well refuse you,” we are told that the couple were embarrassed because they had “been living in London for several years.” It is not quite clear why even Australian readers of the book need to know this.

For the most part, though, Carey sets out valuable information and insights into Joyce’s life and his fiction, explaining for example what a Martello tower is, noting that the one that appears in Ulysses is now the James Joyce Tower and Museum, and adding encouragingly that admission is free. And she tells those new, or relatively new, to Joyce about his fixation not only with the dates on which his works might be published but also with their appearance. So, he insisted that for Ulysses, “the colours of the binding (chosen by me) will be white letters on a blue field — the Greek flag though really of Bavarian origin and imported with the dynasty.” This phrase beautifully captures how Joyce is both arch-aesthete and arch-pedant.

Perhaps appropriately then, the dust jacket of Carey’s book performs a strange disappearing act. On the back are the enticements to the book’s different potential readers mentioned above. Clearly, like all dust jackets, it is meant to persuade readers in a bookshop to buy the book. But the front of the dust jacket configures the book’s title in clumps of three letters with alternating colours for each word, placing Carey’s name beneath, like so:

One perhaps unplanned-for effect of this artful design is that, at least initially, “James Joyce” is less visible than “Gabrielle Carey,” which clearly is not what Carey aims for, nor what the book itself strives to achieve.

The stark truth is that books in some sense “outlive” their authors. This is the case for both fiction and non-fiction, including (as here) a book that is non-fiction both about another person’s fiction and about the life of that person. Both the life and the work allow for continual, sometimes interactive interpretation, posthumously and post-publication.

While literary criticism and biography necessarily trail the work and the life, they can illuminate both for those who come after. Carey necessarily plays the roles of interpreter, instructor and encourager here, but any descent into po-faced scholarship would have sapped this book of its vigour and perhaps of its purpose, undermining her own obvious joy in reading, thinking about and discussing Joyce’s life and his work.

The fact that Carey hosted a reading group on Finnegans Wake for seventeen years underscores the commitment built into A Life, which gives it a very personally engaged quality. This intermingling of biographer and writer is ironic, in that Carey herself came to national fame as a writer through a fictionalised account of her own teenage life, the modern classic Puberty Blues, co-authored with Kathy Lette.

Lette would go on to a highly successful career as a novelist and columnist, whereas Carey concentrated, as the dust jacket of A Life tells us, on “acclaimed books of biography, autobiography and memoir.” Unless there are unpublished works by Carey to appear posthumously, James Joyce: A Life might seem to complete the narrative of her life as a writer. But, as we read her book, that narrative begins again. •

James Joyce: A Life
By Gabrielle Carey | Arden | $39.95 | 140 pages