Can there be a “first” line in a book which is a circle?
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s notoriously perplexing final work, takes beginning in medias res to a whole new level. Its first line dumps the reader into the middle of Dublin’s murky River Liffey, starting the story literally mid-stream:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
A reader unfamiliar with the Wake might wonder if I’ve misquoted here, omitting the first word or neglecting to capitalize the already-puzzling compound “riverrun.” I have not: Finnegans Wake opens lowercase, mid-sentence, mid-thought. If one makes it all the way through Joyce’s abstruse text, they’ll see why. The closing sentence of the Wake’s final chapter reads—
A way a lone a lost a last a loved along the
—to which one might think to add, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…”, making the whole book a circle. You could begin reading from the start of any chapter, in the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a line, and still end up in the same place.
Start Anywhere You Want To
Because the Wake doesn’t have a plot or characters in the strictest sense, it doesn’t have to be read from start to finish, and the story can be picked up from just about anywhere. In fact, many readers do not start with the first page at all! This is especially helpful when one is considering joining a Finnegans Wake Reading Group, such as our very own here at Modernist Studies Ireland.
Instead of telling a linear narrative, the Wake universalizes the story of an Irish family—a father, mother, daughter and twin sons—through the ages, repeating and restarting and remembering and refashioning the basic facts over and over until they encompass, somehow, the history of the world itself. Let us, for a moment, consider a few of “the charictures in the drame” (302.32) you might see in this book, and the forms you might encounter them in:
The Father, HCE: Keep your eye out for words that spell out HCE, or HEC; in the first line quoted above, this is “Howth Castle and Environs” (3.3), but throughout the book these letters appear to signal the presence of our patriarch, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. He is sometimes known as “Here Comes Everybody” (the universal man) or “Haveth Childers Everywhere” (the prototypical father). He is our Finnegan, forever falling, whether off a ladder (as in the song “Finnegans Wake”) or from social graces. HCE has been accused of a terrible crime—a sexual impropriety in Phoenix Park involving two girls, possibly witnessed or interrupted by three soldiers—and his reputation is at risk, but his wife, ALP, has written a letter in his defense.
The Mother, ALP: HCE’s wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is a manifestation of all women and mothers (All Ladies Present). Where her husband, the giant Finn MaCool, is a mountain or land, she is the world’s rivers, and Dublin’s Liffey in particular. She is the perfect balance to HCE: “If Dann’s dane, ann’s dirty, if he’s plane she’s purty, if he’s fane, she’s flirty” (139.22-3). She has dictated a letter to her son Shem, a writer, and entrusted it to her other son, Shaun, the postman, in defence of her husband, HCE. The exact contents of this letter, Anna’s “untitled mamafesta” (104.4), are constantly in question, as is the precise nature of the crime HCE is accused of.
The Twins, Shem and Shaun: Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post are opposites. They are opposing brothers Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Brutus and Cassius; they also sometimes represent concepts such as light and dark, tree and stone, eye and ear, angel and devil. Shem is sometimes figured as Joyce’s alter-ego, an experimental writer who delights in his work pushing boundaries, whereas Shaun, unhappy as a deliverer of others’ messages, would rather be a priest than a postman, but is stuck conforming to societal expectation. Constantly at war between themselves, they fight over their sister, Issy, in a pseudo-incestuous romance.
The Daughter, Issy: Like her mother the river, Issy is water: a little cloud, who, with every tear, threatens to disappear into thin air. She is torn between the affections of her brothers, and between aspects of herself. Issy’s personality is fractured, and her mental illness (multiple personalities) manifests in her being represented as the colours in the rainbow (seven girls) or days of February (twenty-nine ‘Leap Year Girls’). She is Isolde of the Tristan and Isolde love story (Tristan, born of sadness, is both twins—tree and stone, Shem and Shaun).
The Others: Other characters you might encounter are four old men (sometimes called MaMaLuJo, or Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, the gospels), who gossip at the bar and are outside observers or narrators; Kate and Sackerson, the family’s servants; the two girls who are part of HCE’s crime, and the three soldiers that witness it; and the customers (twelve members of a jury, twelve apostles, the months of the year) who appear as customers in a pub owned by HCE and ALP.
Wherever you start the story, you will find versions of this family hanging about, though they frequently change names, occupations, and personalities. Versions of HCE’s fall from grace, interpretations of ALP’s letter, and scenes of the twins chasing Issy are told in different words, in different times, in different languages. The story comes together through these vignettes, and the order in which you read them does not matter.
Reading as a group
The repetition of the same stories makes the book intensely readable, despite most critics’ views to the contrary. Critics who didn’t ‘get it’ and readers who gave up on the Wake likely tried to tackle this incredible book alone—which does not make for the best experience. Unlike most books—which are solitary exercises—Finnegans Wake is best read aloud and in a group.
Why? Finnegans Wake is extremely intertextual. It is made up of references to other texts, stories, songs, languages, poems, jokes, faerie tales. Because it tries to be this ‘universal’ text, no single person’s worldly experience is enough to decode it. As a group, we stand a better chance.
Let’s start with the first line on page 3 as an example of ‘how’ to read Finnegans Wake:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
What does this line tell us about the mysterious and wonderful book that is to come?
We start off with this lowercase “riverrun”, already on the move. An experienced reader of the Wake will bring up that it follows from the end of the last line on page 628: “A way a lone a lost a last a loved along the”. Riverrun is a perfectly good word in English, though not typically used this way; it means the course of the river. The movement of the water is the first sensation of the text: the running water, the current of the Liffey. Next, we are given a landmark: “past Eve and Adam’s.” Where are we? Well, Dublin, as is usually the case with Joyce’s work. There is both a church known as Adam and Eve’s – a Roman Catholic church located on Merchants Quay, Dublin – and a pub of the same name. Here Joyce combines two of the most common stereotypes about the Irish—drinking and religion—but also, as anyone with knowledge of the Bible will know, an association with original sin. Eve and Adam (traditionally in the reverse order) cause the Fall of Man, the first of many “falls” taken by our Everyman, HCE.
In this first line, Joyce takes his reader on a sort of tour of Dublin’s coastline, “from swerve of shore to bend of bay”. Swerving already feels erratic, as though we are being pulled into this crazy book’s current, but if that isn’t enough, once we get to Dublin Bay we are caught in a “commodius vicus of recirculation”! And what, you might ask, is that? Recirculation is apparent enough, perhaps. We go around again. But commodious? Vicus? The Latinate word “commodious” means “roomy” or “spacious”; but what is it doing here? For me, it evokes the commode: the toilet, through which water swirls circularly and, at one point or another, ends up in the Liffey. Another interpretation might be of a vicious cycle, or a situation in which a cause produces a result that itself produces the original cause (a loop, not unlike the Wake itself). “Vicus” is a Latinate word for a small settlement, typically Roman. However, it also recalls Giambattista Vico, an Italian thinker from the 1660s who speculated on the origins and evolution of human language. Vico will come up many times throughout the Wake. Flushed out of the river’s mouth, we are brought unceremoniously “back to Howth Castle and Environs”, the isthmus which juts into Dublin Bay. This land mass is also HCE, our protagonist—if, indeed, a book like Finnegans Wake can be said to have one.
So much contained in so short a line!
Every reader brings something new to the often-obscure text. In the example of the first line presented above, a different reader might supply each of the glosses: one brings up toilets, another vicious cycles, another Vico. Each of us has something unique to contribute, a speculation here or an observation there. Whether it’s knowing another language, remembering a snippet of a folk song, or decoding an obscure clue, every member of a group encounters the text differently and brings something unique to the table.
Where to from here?
I am always excited to introduce Finnegans Wake to new readers, because those least familiar with the book’s overall themes and motifs often come up with the most creative and innovative interpretations. A new perspective is always welcome in a Wake reading group for just that reason: the way your mind works is different than mine, and you will see things that I don’t.
As “difficult” as this text is purported to be, reading Finnegans Wake is also deliciously rewarding. Joyce manages to pack every line of Finnegans Wake with overlapping associations and references of all kinds, all of which awaits the reader tempted to pick up their copy. The Wake is part poetry, part history, part family epic, part song. It defies all categories as a matter of course. I enthusiastically recommend diving right into the “riverrun” if you’re up for a challenge! Join us every other Tuesday from 4-6pm Dublin time as we drift together through this puzzling, ambitious, daring, stimulating, category-defying text.
In 1921, Joyce reportedly said of his ambitious novel, Ulysses,
I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
In the 100 years since the publication of Ulysses, this much has at least been proven true: Joyce has kept us busy. In the 1950s, what we now call “the Joyce industry” was born–an absolute deluge of critical interpretations of Joyce’s work emanating, at that time, mostly from the United States. Michael Patrick Gillespie argued in 2009 that the industry has grown exponentially since that time, making it nearly impossible to “keep track of” let alone “read, assimilate, and then critique” the sheer volume of work on Joyce. Nevertheless, we continue to try. A bibliography of work on Joyce has been published in the James Joyce Quarterly as part of an ongoing project to keep a “Current JJ Checklist” for decades. This checklist has been maintained by the sustained work of William S. Brockman.
Despite the steady thud of trendy academics jumping on board, the Joycean bandwagon shows no immediate sign of subsiding under their weight.
Over the past seventy years of Joyce studies, our lives–and our work–have been changed by the Internet, globalisation, open access, easier travel, and geopolitical and social changes. Our world is not one that Joyce would recognize, but somehow readers of Joyce’s texts are still able to see ourselves in them. We have yet to work out every puzzle Joyce left in Ulysses (leaving aside the complex enigma that is Finnegans Wake for a moment) and the ways that we approach Joyce’s texts have been in continuous flux over the decades.
Now, with an increase in digital media studies, and with the impetus of the COVID-19 pandemic, many resources and events have become entirely virtual exercises. From digital annotation with hyperlinks to definitions, music, and video resources, to virtual reading groups (including MSI’s very own Finnegans Wake reading group, Tuesdays 4-6pm), Joyce Studies is alive and well in a virtual world.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s Ulysses, and Joyce’s 140th birthday, I’ve put together this list of new and emerging projects on Joyce. Though our world and our views have changed, “the Joyce industry” chugs along, with scholars and laymen alike producing books, edited collections, articles, new editions of Joyce’s works, art exhibitions, podcasts, blogs and so much more!
The list was created using recommendations from Joyce scholars on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions for inclusion.
While by no means exhaustive, this taste of recent and upcoming work in Joyce studies is representative of the vibrant scholarly and public engagement with Joyce’s work, even 100 years since the publication of his iconic novel. Today, we celebrate that anniversary, and Joyce’s birthday. So, let’s all raise a glass tonight for the author that brought us all together:
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941)
Illustrating Ulysses: A mixed-media project by Tasha Lewis. A visual interpretation of the text created during a residency at the Tides Museum in Eastport, Maine. Lewis’s project incorporates unconventional art styles and diverse mediums, including collage. 2016. http://www.illustratingulysses.com/
Love, says Bloom, a temporary exhibition at MoLI curated by Nuala O’Connor. The exhibit complements the museum’s existing display of NLI treasures with an audiovisual exploration of Joyce’s intensely loving family unit through film, images, narrative and contemporary song. Runs 2 February – 3 July 2022, Museum of Irish Literature (Dublin, Ireland). https://ulysses100.ie/posts/love-says-bloom
Odysseys, curated by Flicka Small and Michael Waldron, is an exhibition celebrating the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses and his overlooked connections to Cork at Crawford Art Gallery (Cork, Ireland). Runs from 22 January until 3 April, 2022. https://crawfordartgallery.ie/odysseys/
One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in collaboration with the author Colm Tóibín. The exhibition showcases Joycean manuscripts and notebooks made possible through generous loans from American institutions, with major contributions from the James Joyce Collection in Buffalo. Runs 3 June through 2 October, 2022 (New York City, USA). https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/ulysses
The “riverrun” exhibition. [concluded] An exhibition of Carol Wade’s Finnegans Wake paintings took place Monday 1-7 April 2019 at Waterways Visitor Centre (Grand Canal Dock, Dublin, Ireland) as part of the Five Lamps Arts Festival. Digital tour available: https://artofthewake.com/riverrun-exhibition
The Medieval Studies Research Blog is a multi-author blog site hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. Joycean blogger John Conlan is involved in a project where he examines questions of ethno-nationalism arising from Joyce’s engagement with 20th century Scandinavian historiography. This project is in collaboration with Dr. Richard Fahey and will conclude with an experimental sound-piece adapting the text from the Mutt and Jute section of the Wake, coming soon. https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2020/09/18/how-james-joyce-used-the-middle-ages-to-have-a-good-laugh-at-history/
Pint of Ulysses, artist Robert Berry’s work in teaching and adapting Ulysses, new work from his ongoing Ulysses “seen” project (graphic novel adaptation), links to classrooms and podcasts as well as daily notes on Joyce. Available through Patreon (post are free to read, Patreon used for “tipping the host”): https://www.patreon.com/pintofulysses
Joyce County: Galway and James Joyce by Ray Burke with a foreword by Michael D. Higgins. New edition by Artisan House Editions, 2022. https://artisanhouse.ie/
Joyce Writing Disability edited by Jeremy Colangelo with contributions from Casey Lawrence, Boriana Alexandrova, Kathleen Morrissey, Rafael Hernandez, Marion Quirici, John Morey, Giovanna Vincenti, and Jennifer Marchisotto, with a foreword by Maren Linett. Forthcoming from University Press of Florida, 2022, as part of the Florida James Joyce Series, edited by Sebastian D. G. Knowles. Available for preorder: https://upf.com/book.asp?id=9780813069135
Rewriting Joyce’s Europe: The Politics of Language and Visual Design by Tekla Mecsnóber. University Press of Florida, 2021. Florida James Joyce Series, edited by Sebastian D. G. Knowles. https://upf.com/book.asp?id=9780813066981
“Caliban’s Mirror”: the 2022 Wilde and Joyce Symposium. May 5-7, 2022, Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub. Registration opens February 2022. #WildeJoyce2022. Organized by Casey Lawrence and Graham Price, with Sam Slote. https://wildejoyce2022.wordpress.com/
James Joyce: Ulysses 1922–2022. The XXVIII International James Joyce Symposium. 12-18 June, 2022, Trinity College Dublin & University College Dublin. Registration is now open. #Ulysses100. Organized by Sam Slote, Tom Walker, Luca Crispi, and Anne Fogarty, with Valérie Bénéjam and Tim Conley. https://www.tcd.ie/English/ulysses-100/
The Folio Society’s Limited Edition leather-bound Ulysses, illustrated by John Vernon Lord and edited by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon. Limited to 500 hand-numbered copies, all signed by John Vernon Lord. Includes introductory essays by Danis Rose, John O’Hanlon, and Stacey Herbert and an exclusive John Vernon Lord print. Priced at £495.00, this is an extravagant collector’s edition! https://www.foliosociety.com/ulysses-limited-edition.html
I Said Yes: A Celebration of Bloomsday at The Rosenbach. Rosenbach Museum, 2021, with commentators Paul Saint-Amour, Robert Berry, Vicki Mahaffey, Darina Gallagher, and Elizabeth E. Fuller. Readers courtesy of the Lantern Theater and Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du6OCZDBp9E
Nora: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce by Nuala O’Connor. Irish writer Nuala O’Connor’s fifth novel, published January 2021 by Harper Collins in the USA & April 2021 in Ireland by New Island. https://nualaoconnor.com/home/novels/nora/
Journal Articles (nonexhaustive):
“‘Beard and Bicycle’: The Human, Nonhuman, and Posthuman Bicyclist in Ulysses” by James Alexander Fraser. James Joyce Quarterly 58(1-2), 2021, pp. 131-155.
“The Facts of Resonance: Sonic Warfare, Haptic Literature and the Vibrant Body in FW II.3” by John Conlan. Forthcoming in an upcoming issue of The Dublin James Joyce Journal.
“An Incident in Hyde Park: Basil Thomson, Roger Casement, and Wakean Coincidence,” by Mark David Kaufman. James Joyce Quarterly 57(3-4), 2020, pp. 245-262.
“Their natural selections: Anthropogenesis and the Curious Lifeworld of Finnegans Wake,” by John Conlan. Forthcoming in Costellazioni, 2022.
“‘The Sassenach wants his morning rashers’: The Colonial Market and the Commodified Animal in Telemachus’” by Robert Brazeau. James Joyce Quarterly 58(1-2), 2021, pp. 19-35.
“Starting Mid-Stream: riverrunning through the first line of Finnegans Wake,” by Casey Lawrence. The First Line Literary Journal 23(1), Spring 2021, pp. 83-5.
“James Joyce and the Modern Scots,” by Eleni Loukopoulou. The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 12(1), 2021, pp. 87-124.
“Zooming Bloomsday 2020,” by Richard J. Gerber. James Joyce Quarterly 57(3-4), 2020, pp. 240-244.
Doodles Family Business, a UK-based online store created by Joycean scholar Dr. Cleo Hanaway-Oakley and her husband, Phil. The store sells Joyce-themed t-shirts and tote bags featuring Joyce quotes, doodles, and Joycean holidays such as Bloomsday and 2/2/22. https://doodles-family-business.teemill.com/
“Ulysses 100” commemorative stamps from An Post. A national stamp, international stamp, commemorative envelope and special cancellation mark designed by Amsterdam-based Irish designers, The Stone Twins, for the 100th anniversary of Ulysses. https://www.anpost.com/Shop/Special-issue-stamps/Ulysses-100
“The World of James Joyce and Other Irish Writers: A 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle,” a 27 x 19 in puzzle to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ulysses; the completed puzzle is a detailed illustration of Joyce’s Dublin is packed with real people and fictional characters to seek and find. Commissioned by Philip Contos with art by Michael Kirkham and an accompanying pull-out poster with guide by Joyce scholar Professor Joseph Brooker. https://www.laurenceking.com/product/the-world-of-james-joyce/ (use discount code JamesJoyce25 at checkout for 25% off)
“Elpenor in the Cities – Bloomsday 2021.” A non-linear experimental film by Vouvoula Skoura, based on the “Hades” episode of Ulysses. The narratives map a rhizome of the marks left by the people as they travel following routes of their memory / traveling to Mediterranean cities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0XEo1ms6yY
Finwake. An online gloss of Finnegans Wake. Free annotations current until 2010; a premium paid subscription is needed to access updates from 2011-2022. Desktop and Apple/Android compatible versions available. https://finwake.com/index.htm
James Joyce’s Correspondence. Antwerp: University of Antwerp, 2021. https://jamesjoycecorrespondence.org. Digitization of previously unpublished letters, postcards, telegrams, and notes written by Joyce or by others at his dictation or direction. Editorial team: Dirk Van Hulle, Robert Spoo, Michael Groden, Kevin Dettmar, Ronan Crowley, William S. Brockman, Josip Batinić, Sabrina Alonso.
James Joyce’s Dublin, A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Ian Gunn and Clive Hart with Harald Beck. The revised and expanded edition of this incredible resource is available to download as a free eBook at http://www.riverrun.org.uk/JJD2.html.
JoyceImages, curated by Aida Yared. An attempt to fully illustrate Ulysses using postcards, photos, and other documents contemporary with the events of the novel. https://joyceimages.com/
Joyce Tools. Resources made available in honour of Clive Hart, one of the pioneers of the empirical study of James Joyce’s work. A collection of maps, public domain works, publications (including the entire run of the now-defunct Finnegans Wake Circular), and much more. http://www.riverrun.org.uk/joycetools.html
Ulysses Ephemera by Sabrina Alonso and Tim O’Neil. A collection of images relating to Ulysses, used to create a guide of visual annotations. Contributions welcome. https://ulysses-ephemera.blogspot.com/
“#MeToo is Nothing New: Even James Joyce’s Ulysses depicts workplace sexual harassment,” an article by Casey Lawrence originally published in Issue 109 (March 2019) of the Dublin Review of Books. Republished on her Medium blog with corrections: https://clawrenc.medium.com/metoo-is-nothing-new-d429b2c1784c
Et Voilá!, the Franco-Irish podcast by the French embassy in Ireland’s cultural section, has two episodes about Joyce’s last year in France, presented by the French honorary consul for Connacht and Donegal Catherine Gagneux, with readings by actors Olwen Fouéré and Páraic Breathnach and contributions from Marion Byrne, Darina Gallagher, and our own Adrian Paterson (soundcloud.com/catherine-gagneux)
Blooms and Barnacles Podcast, a non-academic take on Joyce’s Ulysses from Kelly Bryan,featuring original art by Dermot O’Connor. 2018-present. https://www.bloomsandbarnacles.com/
“Modernist Studies Ireland Finnegans Wake Reading Group.” Founded by Tiana Fischer (NUIG) and Casey Lawrence (TCD). Weekly virtual reading group established in July 2020, which presently runs 4-6pm every Tuesday. Email Casey to get on the mailing list and join us via Zoom: firstname.lastname@example.org
“New York Ulysses Book Club.” Weekly virtual book club organized by the James Joyce Society, reading one chapter per week, starting February 8 and ending June 7, right in time for Bloomsday festivities. Register for $25USD: https://www.joycesociety.com/ulyssesbookclub
Sweny’s Pharmacy has a full programme of in-person and online reading groups for Finnegans Wake, Portrait, Ulysses (in various languages), and more. Check out their website for dates & times: https://www.sweny.ie/reading-groups
El monalogo de Molly, traduzione in triestino. Trieste Italian translation of “Penelope” by Fulvio Rogantin with a preface by Edoardo Camurri. Trieste: Libreria Ubik: Libreria antiquaria Drogheria 28: Libreria Minerva, 2020.
Estela de Finnegan una lectura anotada del primer capitulo de Finnegans Wake de James Joyce. Annotated Spanish translation of Finnegans Wake by Juan Diaz Victoria in Peru.
Odisio, a lipogramatic translation of Ulysses. Without using the letter A, Marcelo Zabaloy translates Ulysses into Spanish.
Samra Mahfoud is currently working on translating Joyce’s work into arabic. She has just finished a book of Joyce’s poetry and is currently working on a translation of ALP.
Yulisῑs (Ulῑs). Persian translation of Ulysses by Akram Pedramnia. London: Nogaam. Vol. 1, 2019; Vol. 2, 2020.
 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York, Revised Edition, 1982, p. 521.
 Marvin Magalanger and Richard Kain. Joyce:The Man, the Work, the Reputation. New York University Press, 1956, p. 206.
 Michael Patrick Gillespie, “Past its Sell-by Date: When to Stop Reading Joyce Criticism.” Bloomsday 100: Essays on Ulysses. Ed. Morris Beja and Anne Fogarty. University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 215.
 David Norris, “Foreword.” Conversations with James Joyce by Arthur Power. Lilliput Press, 1999, p. 5-6.