‘How good you are in explosition!’

The first ever unabridged recording of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a monumental achievement by Naxos AudioBooks. Before its publication in 1939, Joyce had spent 17 years on this notoriously impenetrable work. Since then it has sparked dedicated study — and derision. Many serious readers have abandoned attempts to understand it — referred to within the Wake itself as a worthless ‘pinch of scribble’. But here, Barry McGovern, an experienced performer of Joyce, and Marcella Riordan (Molly Bloom in the Naxos recording of Ulysses) are so spectacularly brilliant with the sounds and rhythms of the language that words seemingly incomprehensible on the page magically communicate enough for the listener to enter the whole work.

It was perhaps his decade-long problems with failing eyesight that lie behind the astonishing musicality of Joyce’s writing, which is brought out delightfully by the narrators with their Irish intonation, and is further enhanced by the direction of the composer Roger Marsh, who has chosen musical extracts as nuanced as the text, including one of his own composition.

So what are these 29 hours about? Mr and Mrs Porter live above a pub near Dublin (drinking is in the fabric of the Wake). They have twin boys (various twins will recur) and a daughter, Issy. Asleep in their dream world, the family morphs into various incarnations which spawn and spread: Issy into the Tristan and Isolde legend; Mr Porter into both the hod-carrier Finnegan, who fell to his death when the ‘difflun’s kiddy’ (devil’s child) removed a plank from the scaffolding, and also into Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker; and Mrs Porter into Anna Livia Plurabelle, who finally dissolves into the ‘rivering waters’ of the Liffey.

The digressive whole has a structure following the 18th-century philosophy of Giambattista Vico, who saw history as cyclical, with each cycle ending in a thunderclap before beginning anew. Thus the final unfinished sentence of the Wake: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the’ is the beginning of the first unbegun opening sentence: ‘river-run, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’. Joyce marks the cycles with 100-letter ‘thunderclap’ words such as Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphalnabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk — which McGovern reads seamlessly.

What Joyce calls this ‘commodious vicus of recirculation’ ties in with other themes, including Fall and Resurrection in all their forms in myth and history. So, for example, Finnegan rises from his wake, crying: ‘Did ye drink me doornail?’ (‘did you think me dead as a doornail?’) while Earwicker’s fall from grace for the unresolved indiscretion he committed in Phoenix Park runs throughout, entwined with myriad puns on Humpty Dumpty, Lewis Carroll being Joyce’s soulmate.

Even if many of the themes are elusive on first listening, the language explodes. Joyce’s wry humor beams out from portmanteau words — what sexual shenanigans are in ‘grandgoosegreasing’? He revels in rhyming, chiming, alliterating, kenning and coining, as in his ‘gossipaceous’ washerwomen, or ‘reekierags or sundy-choses’ (everyday or Sunday clothes). Complex multilayered puns proliferate throughout, as in ‘The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly’, which, remembering the French for earwig is perce-oreille, tells the tale of Earwicker. Words are freighted with a rich hinterland of associations, rhythm and internal rhymes: what sounds and imagery there are in the gulls ‘overhoved, shrillgleescreaming’, witnessing Tristan and Isolde at sea. ‘All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold when they smacked the big kuss of Tristan and Usolde’.

Anna Plurabelle’s epilogue could have been addressed to Joyce himself: ‘Every letter is hard but yours sure is the hardest crux ever.’ This recording makes it worth the struggle.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2021 World edition.