Massive "Finnegans Wake" Project Elucidating Notoriously Difficult Text

A first in literary scholarship; involves major Joyce scholars worldwide

Release Date: June 13, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The goal of the massive international project being coordinated at the University at Buffalo is no less than to produce a critical investigation of a major author's creative processes unparalleled in the history of literary scholarship.

The source materials for this exploration are 60 handwritten notebooks -- part of the UB Libraries' Poetry/Rare Books Collection -- assembled by James Joyce and scores of assistants during the 16 years it took the author to write his masterwork, "Finnegans Wake."

Robert J. Bertholf, curator of the UB collection, calls the effort, "a massive international collaborative undertaking that will have incomparable results."

The textual diaries furnish a detailed map of Joyce's creative engagement during the period. Their content, to be annotated, cross-referenced and ultimately published in print and on DVD, holds the promise of new possibilities for biographical, literary and textual criticism of the novel.

The project, "The Finnegans Wake Notebooks at Buffalo," will be published as a series of 55 fascicles or divisions; serial publication makes individual notebooks available to scholars as each is completed and allows for critical feedback.

The first three of the fascicles were published in November by Brepols Publisher N.V. (Turnhout, Belgium), in cooperation with the UB Poetry/Rare Books Collection, Stephen James Joyce and the Estate of James Joyce. Three more will be published in the fall, and the remainder over the next several years.

The series' editors are Professor Daniel Ferrer, l'Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes/CNRS, Paris; Professor Geert Lernout, the Joyce Centre at the University of Antwerp, and Vincent Deane, an independent scholar in Dublin who has gathered a massive amount of information about Joyce's work on his tour de force.

Members of the editorial committee at Buffalo are Bertholf and Luca Crispi and Sam Slote, the collection's Joyce scholars-in-residence.

The notebooks are a sequence of indices containing little original to Joyce. They do, however, cite an encyclopedic body of material collected by him from other sources between 1923-39 and incorporated into "Finnegans Wake."

The editors say they furnish a detailed map of Joyce's creative engagement and will create new possibilities for biographical, literary and textual criticism of the notoriously complex novel, which was long reputed to represent the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a writer who had gone mad or at the very least was talking only to himself.

Joyce scholars thought otherwise, however, and this project, the culmination of more than 40 years of study and analysis by international specialists, proves just how right they were.

The notebooks offer definitive evidence that "from swerve of shore to bend of bay," Joyce captained the production of a complex, carefully planned composition that toys with words, ideas and readers' minds in a manner far more deliberate than had been thought previously.

Project editors say Joyce did not have a master plan for "Finnegans Wake," but gradually evolved his text out of an extraordinarily diverse corpus of materials collected in the notebooks.

The notebooks is written in Joyce's hand and that of some of the secretaries, friends and acquaintances who assisted him by reading aloud and taking his notes, as he was rendered intermittently blind by chronic iritis.

The subjects covered in his sources include atomic physics, botany, cooking, entomology, etymology, exotic languages including Afar and Checheno-Lesghien, fashion, slang, Confucianism, music, Dublin, use and misuse of language, Mormonism, magic, psychoanalysis, Mark Twain, television, cricket, geometry, Hemingway, horse racing -- the list goes on and on.

Crispi, a Joyce scholar working in the UB Poetry/Rare Books Collection, notes that one of the reasons it has been so difficult to reference material in "Finnegans Wake" is that Joyce dramatically changed most of the material he cribbed.

"He slyly manipulated the material he'd lifted," says Crispi, "twisted words, convoluted meanings and used other inventive methods to link ideas and themes, intrigue his readers and hoist his enemies on their own petards."

In fact, in Joyce's hands the source material was transformed into a stupefying compilation of glosses and word games, linguistic manipulations, geographic puzzles, sly references to his critics, musical compositions, lyrics, jokes, geographic and philosophical puzzles, scientific, literary and scientific observations.

The result of Joyce's complex strategies, says Crispi, is a difficult text that nevertheless hooks readers of widely different backgrounds fascinated by the author's obscure references, which, because of their individual life journeys, they recognize and understand.

Once engaged, he says, the reader enters a brilliant, but perplexing wonderland of language, sound and dizzying implication that speaks to everyone in a different way, depending on what they know, what they've seen, where they've been and who they are.

Crispi says the notebook publication project centers around the UB collection because of the depth and breadth of its Joyce holdings.

"In Buffalo we have almost all the notebooks used by Joyce in 'Finnegans Wake,'" he says, "and literally all the secondary sources published since 1950.

"In fact, as far as we know, there is no comparable record of the creative processes of an artist of this magnitude anywhere in the world," he adds.

The editorial team has written that its aim "is to bring together all of the information relevant to each note in as concise and simple a way as possible."

In each edition a color facsimile of each of the original handwritten pages accompanies the editors' lexical analysis of that page.

The editing and research are overseen by an editorial board of distinguished Joyce scholars: Jacques Aubert, Université de Lyon II; Michael Groden, University of Western Ontario; Clive Hart, University of Essex; David Hayman, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Claude Jacquet, Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle; Roland McHugh, Dublin, and Seán Sweeney, trustee of the estate of James Joyce. Thomas Headrick, special counsel to the president of the University at Buffalo, is also a member of the editorial board.

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