On this day in 1923, James Joyce wrote to his patron, Harriet Weaver, that he had just begun “Work in Progress,” the book which would become Finnegans Wake sixteen years later. “Yesterday I wrote two pages,” Joyce reports, “the first I have written since the final ‘Yes’ of Ulysses. Having found a pen, with some difficulty I copied them out in a large handwriting on a double sheet of foolscap so that I could read them….” Though increasingly plagued by eye problems — ten operations and counting — Joyce’s lifestyle had improved from the Ulysses years, thanks to Weaver’s continued support and money given by Sylvia Beach against future royalties. He and his wife, Nora, were able to get new clothes, a new flat, even new teeth: “The dentist is to make me a new set for nothing,” wrote Joyce to Miss Weaver, “as with this one I can neither sing, laugh, shave nor (what is more important to my style of writing) yawn.”
Nora was not fond of her husband’s style of writing, and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was “on another book again,” just a year after the misery of Ulysses, she asked her husband if, instead of “that chop suey you’re writing,” he might not try “sensible books that people can understand.” Although she did not tighten her purse, Weaver was also unimpressed by those sections of “Work in Progress” which Joyce sent her: “I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately-entangled language systems. It seems to me you are wasting your genius.” Ezra Pound agreed with her — “nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization” — but Samuel Beckett did not:
You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read…. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.
Many commentators agree with Beckett’s view that Finnegans Wake is best as a listening experience; click here to hear Joyce read part of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of the book.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.