A review of A Word in Your Ear: How & Why to Read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake by Eric Rosenbloom

 This is a stunning performance and of exemplary clarity contrasted to the many books on the Wake that are almost as difficult to read as the Wake itself and much less fun. The generosity of the author in making this book available through its placement on a website is much in keeping with the spirit of the book and its author.
Reviewed by Bob Williams

A Word in Your Ear: How & Why to Read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake
by Eric Rosenbloom, 107 pages
http://www.kirbymountain.com/WordInEar.pdf
Pictures and text copyrighted 2001 and 2002 respectively

This is a genially written no-nonsense book on Finnegans Wake. The author knows and loves the book and has made a careful study of the best way to introduce the beginner. He has determined – and would that there were more writers equally determined to write as easy an introduction as the subject allows.

The first consideration is the language of Finnegans Wake. Rosenbloom puts the case colorfully: “Imagine an absurdly precocious infant in a family whose every member and acquaintance speaks a different language and sings different songs. Joyce’s book is what that child, told to speak English, might say to give form to her Irish soul.”

As is appropriate to a book of this type the examination of Joycean verbal strategies is representative rather than comprehensive. He deals with the multi-layered nature of the language, the use of foreign languages and interprets some of the typical puns in which the book abounds.

Rosenbloom describes the ancillary material that a student of the Wake will find useful. His list is sound but everyone has a favorite list and
none of them are truly practical. He warns against the dangers of highly sophisticated interpretations, the great danger for all readers of the Wake. The only sound interpretation, he rightly insists, must be based on the text and not on extravagant improvisations.

In dealing with the characters he does what is required but the requirements will be a difficulty for the beginner. Rosenbloom uses the
sigla – the symbols that Joyce himself used in his notations for the Wake – and these are grasped, especially their permutations, only by a reader familiar with the book. But there is no way around this problem and Rosenbloom’s consideration of the characters and the sigla is
superlative. His advice, that the reader read the introduction first and later use it as an aid to study, is sound and humane. The characters,
although they provide a sound level of entry into the Wake, are perhaps not so vivid as to make this a useful first choice. And Rosenbloom quickly introduces the subject of the many numerological considerations that Joyce uses as well as the Italian philosophers Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico. Characteristically there is more about Vico than about Bruno. In addition to these philosophers he covers the very important part played by myths and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. He touches on structure with additional numerological considerations but
much of his treatment is descriptive rather than analytical.

The long introduction concludes with considerations of geography, history and a brief life of Joyce from 1903. The geography and history, although considered separately, are much alike with as many references to historical dates in the one as the other. The life of Joyce from 1903, the beginning of his creative career, is appropriate to the limited scope of Rosenbloom’s book and he has already built in a corrective of brevity by a warm recommendation of the invaluable life of Joyce by Richard Ellmann.

The next part considers the experience of reading the Wake. Rosenbloom has selected for special study the earliest parts of the book that Joyce wrote. The approach is an example of analytical soundness and the pattern is Context, Pattern, Bowdler’s Simplified Language Version, Summary and Comments. I have insurmountable reservations about using any text other than Joyce’s but the plan is otherwise good and the results are pleasing. In a special consideration of the two main characters, Earwicker and Anna Livia, he illuminates them through a combination of text and a running commentary.

He expands the value of his book by a rapid look at thirteen representative passages. The choice is excellent and the passages chosen give the beginning reader a reliable grasp of especially significant parts of the Wake.

There are four appendices. Each has a merit of its own. The first is a Shorter Finnegans Wake. Each book is assigned a time of day (Dusk, Evening, Night and Dawn) and each chapter is expressed in a brief sentence. The second appendix is The Mystery of the Narrator and expresses poetically the problem posed by this consideration. The Cycles of Genesis, the third appendix, summarizes the order of composition since Joyce did not write from beginning to end but wrote first one part and then another. It also brings out, apparently under the blanket of Cycles, some of the interesting facts regarding more of the numerological underpinnings of the Wake. The last appendix considers the myth of Brigid with its numerous relations to Irish history and Joyce’s life.

This is a stunning performance and of exemplary clarity contrasted to the many books on the Wake that are almost as difficult to read as the Wake itself and much less fun. The generosity of the author in making this book available through its placement on a website is much in keeping with the spirit of the book and its author.

For more information about Finnegans Wake, visit Finnegans Wake (Penguin…

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://fracman.home.mchsi.com/

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