Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bill Cole Cliett's "Riverrun to Livy: Lots of Fun Reading Finnegans Wake": Book Review

From a layman's, not a scholar's perspective, this lively explication of the first page of the Wake will entice many into delving deeper. As Bill Cole Cliett tells us, it may become your favorite book, with no other able to match its evocation of the dream-language and the illogical, circular, and echoing structures which comprise its famously daunting contents. He offers a friendly way into the labyrinth.

As Gordon Bowker notes in James Joyce: A New Biography (see my review), Joyce spent a third of his life on this endeavor. Part of what made him so obsessed filters down to the community of those equally maddened and enchanted by the project. As one who found "Ulysses" above any other fiction in terms of the competition, and which after I first read it at twenty-one seemed to ruin all other novels, Cliett's appeal that the Wake represents another, even more astonishing, accomplishment that reverses Bloom's day into HCE and ALP's nighttime carnival, with its reference to both license and limit, celebration and condemnation, may entice new readers. After Bowker, I picked up a reference Cliett naturally cites often (he does from many scholars, skillfully yet casually, not to impress but to explain or elucidate), James Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's pioneering A Skeleton Key to FW (see my review). Even finishing that just before finding Cliett's guide did not convince me.

I've tried, as an admirer of Joyce, but I've found the Wake too tedious. So, how does Cliett try to convince a reader like me otherwise? Chapters One and Two begin with an overview of the intentions of Joyce, the reactions by critics, and the sounds that matter as much as the words. The oral nature key to appreciating Joyce, especially in tricky and allusive passages, emerges. Cliett deftly sums up the previous works and the life of Joyce in chapter three, although I think his passing reference to Nora's free hand with Joyce on the day of their date enshrined as Bloomsday does not need to be so coy, given the evidence from Joyce's letters to her.

Chapter Four takes on the title and the song that inspired it; the fifth looks at "the"--it's that level of depth. Part Two allots a chapter to each sentence of the first page of the Wake. The long thunderword is dissected, we learn about Parnell and Kitty, the use of stuttering, tea, whiskey, and the Liffey among hundreds more observations. He lists at the end many academic studies, and as with words or phrases interspersed from the Wake itself within every page, he integrates his research impressively.

Part Three proved the most rewarding. After a chapter summing up the "rust" of the story deftly, a great one followed on the Wake as a "Hole." That is, as a black hole involving the quantum physics that emerged during the long decades of the composition of what appears perhaps to beam in as if a ten-dimensional, or at least five-dimensional communication into our post-Bang world limited to three and four-dimensions. Cliett sums up a lot of science again in everyday terms with aplomb, and as I read this immediately after Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" (see my review), I admit I learned that conjectural factoid about the five- or ten-d universe before our own origins from Cliett, no small achievement.

It closes with a "ricorso" referring to subsequently published minor works of Joyce; I felt as if Cliett did not want his study to end, and this indeed can accompany a life spent with Joyce. I found this direct, conversational, and accessible guidebook more engaging than much of Campbell and Robinson's handbook, and throughout, references as varied as to Eminem, "The Beverly Hillbillies," a porn star's name, and teaching middle school show how Cliett connects Joyce's revelations to our own pop culture realm and our own daily duties. Cliett writes with enthusiasm and lots of puns, as his subject did, and while a few typos and what seems to me as a student of Irish a few misspelled source words--unless he draws on dialects or earlier spellings from his references--must be acknowledged, all in all, this is an impressively vibrant and enthusiastic account. I recommend it to you. (Kindle review to Amazon US 7/7/12)

No comments: