If I ever decide to tackle Joyce’s Wake, Joyce scholar Sebastian Knowles recommends this reading plan. He also suggests reading “the enigmatic text both during the daytime while sober and at night while under the influence of something “to bring the sounds of the text to life.” Though I have a very smart edition of Finnegans Wake I’m not convinced that I shall read it, though the temptation comes and goes.
Nabokov famously wrote in Strong Opinions, “I detest Finnegans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.” Elsewhere he described the work as a “petrified super pun” and a “formless and dull mass.”
In Beckett’s Dante … Bruno … Vico … Joyce he tells readers that if they don’t understand Work in Progress (Wake’s early working title), it is because they are “too decadent to receive it,” or have become too literate and cultivated and that the best way to receive the work is not only to read it, but to look at and listen to it too. Beckett adds that the work is “a quintessential extraction of language and painting and gesture, with all the inevitable clarity of the old in articulation.”
Many Joyce readers consider Finnegans Wake the apex of his work. Other readers views are bound to be closer to Nabokov’s formless mass. Similar debates rage about whether the Wake was the unsurpassable outcome of literary modernism or a dead end.