Finnegans Wake is a desert island book. It has to be read aloud, so that's what I'm doing! You can listen and read along using the links below (page numbers and PDFs are from the Faber & Faber edition, 1939, reprinted 1949).
Finnegans Wake is a night-time stream of consciousness; a dream. The main characters are a Dublin publican, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), and his wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP). In the dream, HCE merges with the landscape of Dublin, and ALP merges with the river Liffey, so the love and marriage between them is told and retold through the ages as the river flows through the landscape. There are two sons (Shem and Shaun) and a daughter (Issy).
In my opinion, the best way to read Finnegans Wake is to dip in and out of it (like a river!) and especially, to read it out loud. Even if the 'plot' seems obscure, as a dipping reader you gradually amass sensations and impressions and a dream-like perception of rebirth, recirculation, eternal return, and love. It's full of humour too. Above all, don't feel you have to understand any of it...
Click on the egg-shaped books if you want to read along with each extract, though in a way it's easier to follow without looking at all the oddly-spelled words!
1. To start with, Nuvoletta. It's an elegiac passage set by the banks of the River Liffey on a summer's evening, at twilight. The Mookse and the Gripes have been arguing. Nuvoletta tries to get their attention. The washerwomen come to collect the Mookse and the Gripes, who, it turns out, are pieces of laundry. The evening falls.
2. 'This way to the museyroom' is in a completely different mood - joyful, exuberant, madcap. It's a mixed-up, gobbledegook account of the Battle of Waterloo (and other things) from an enthusiastic museum guide.
3. Two washerwomen gossip about Anna Livia while they scrub their laundry by the banks of the River Liffey. Who was the first who ever touched her?
4. It's bedtime in Chapelizod. The children come in from the streets, do their homework, and go to bed. They're frightened by thunderclaps, but then soothed back to bed and to sleep.
5. Seabirds sing a teasing song to King Mark about how Tristan is going to cuckold him, while the big four master waves of Erin listen in to Tristan kissing Isolde. It reminds them of the good old days when they were doing the kissing...
6. A hen scratching on a heap of compost in the city dump unearths an old, soiled letter. The words are partially obscured by stains and dirt. The hen - Biddy Doran - eyeballs the mysterious piece of literature.
7 a. These three readings together make up the very end of Finnegans Wake. Anna Livia (the River Liffey) muses and reminisces about her life and her love as she makes her final journey towards Dublin Bay. In this first extract she wakes up her husband, helps him get dressed, and invites him to go out for a walk with her.
7 b. Anna Livia reminds her husband of the early days of their courtship and marriage, and how they set up home together. She mentions the letter (see extract 6). She looks around at all the houses and the city that has grown up while she lapped it.
7 c. Anna Livia tells her husband that her successor is coming down in the rain from the sky. Her voice starts to dissolve. She flows into the sea. The book begins again.
8. Dawn comes. The first fingers of sunlight touch Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain, before reaching Dublin, illuminating the central plain and Hill of Allen, and igniting all Ireland's hearths and horizons. There's a lot of Sanskrit and there is talk of cleaning things with Sunlight Soap.
9. An earthy, funny, self-deprecating portrait of the poetic son, Shem the Penman, poring over the text of his own 'usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles' - Joyce himself reading Ulysses. We hear how Shem (James) gets kicked out of the city, how he places an advertisement for a life partner, and how he plagiarises life around him in his art. Posted here in honour of Bloomsday 2020!
10. The washerwomen (see track 3) continue their gossip. One tells the other about one time when Anna Livia went out on an illicit date, lying to her husband that she was going to light a candle in the church. There's a rich description of how she got ready and what she was wearing.