Friday, September 7, 2012

Joseph Campbell + Henry Morton Robinson's "A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake": Book Review

There's spirited and vitriolic debate from previous reviewers (see the comments) about the intentions of Joyce and how much Campbell and Robinson either misinterpret FW to fit what became later known as JC's monomyth or don't know anymore than JJ what he spent 600 pp. and a third of his life laboring to give birth to. This fracas is necessary and long-standing. How much JC and HMR can be credited or blamed for their diligent rephrasing and possible oversight of a mindbogglingly challenging work remains open. I do note how the authors at certain stages confess to their own bewilderment, tellingly. I doubt if any sane reader could or should find such admissions any less than forgivable, faced as we all are with the Wake.

I have reviewed June 2012 on Amazon US Gordon Bowker's "James Joyce: A New Biography," and while that encouraging study does not intend to analyze beyond summations the work(s), Bowker uncovers more than Richard Ellmann the inner life of its creator as it dims. The later half was dark often, in pain and guilt, and undercurrents swirl into FW. Perhaps more than these two scholars knew as they wrote this vademecum? Bowker tells of how JJ worked a day on two sentences as he struggled to get the right words in the proper order, and such obsessiveness marks those who come to FW as well as those who comment upon it, I think.

What Edmund L. Epstein adds in the New World Library ed. of JC's collected works are basically a few parenthetical corrections and occasional asides from subsequent scholarship. He incorporates small updates from more recent findings, but not nearly as much as I'd anticipated, given sixty years of later research. He lets JC and HMR have their own abundant say, and he does not interfere with or challenge the substance hardly at all of their attempt at explication and elaboration.

He provides a welcome index, but spot-checking reveals it's incomplete, perhaps inevitably, but still disappointingly. His own addition to the two prefaces (original 1944 ed. and Compass ed. 1961) is slight, although he shares the fascination naturally which attracted him to first hear about the Wake as a young child. All in all, given what I've noted, it's a handsome edition, and as an affordable hardcover it will endure longer than my old Penguin paperback of the Skeleton Key.

While I still contend with my own difficulty with figuring out (despite a life's love of JJ's earlier fiction) the "point" of FW, this new edition provides a helpful reference able to be read on its own as a counterpart or prefatory guide to FW. Roland McHugh's annotations in turn build on Joyceans such as John Gordon and Adaline Glasheen, and those I suppose on this pioneering study. Such an "gigantic progeny" must also be checked, but this first guide remains a handy and sturdily bound accompaniment. I suspect far more of its findings have been superseded or corrected than Epstein lets on, but as his editorial and corrective role is minor, letting Campbell (and Robinson!) take center stage. Epstein stays on the side, just as in turn JC and HRM become prompters for the stars of the show, JJ as MC for ALP and HCE and...? (Amazon US 6-18-12)

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