was a typical Sunday picnic in a backyard here. Except that most of
the 25 or so guests were wearing identical black T-shirts with nonsense
words printed on them. And leaning against a tree beside the picnic
tables was a cardboard cutout of James Joyce.
The Finnegans Wake Society of New York had come to
Westchester for its annual meeting."
"It's definitely an unusual group because you can count
the number of people who have read 'Finnegans Wake' on both hands and
feet," said Murray Gross, the society's leader, who was sprawled on a
lawn chair, dressed in dark glasses, black pants, a black T-shirt and
sneakers. "You can't read more than three pages unless you do
The society was formed nine years ago to study Joyce's
notoriously difficult last book, which took 17 years to write and was
completed in 1939.
The group meets once a month in a room above the Gotham Book
Mart in Manhattan. So far, they have finished the text once and read
up to page 190 again. (The book's ending runs back to its beginning,
so reading it is an endless cycle.) A smaller, more scholarly
subgroup formed seven years ago has covered 55 pages.
"I once calculated how old I would be when I finished
reading it," said Jan Hoeper, who at 23 is the group's youngest
member. "Somewhere in my 50's."
Even after the research, many of the society members gathered
in Pelham happily admitted that the book made little sense to them.
"I kept waiting for the fog to lift," Stanley
Applebaum, one of the group's regular members, said of his first reading
of the 623-page book. "It never lifted."
In fact, no
one can say quite what "Finnegans Wake" is about. To most
readers, the book is virtually indecipherable, an obscure stew of creative
neologisms and puns that frequently draw on other languages.
But that does not seem to bother any of the people who
gathered here to eat barbequed chicken, drink wine and trade Joyce
anecdotes. They all agreed that the beauty of the book's language,
and its humor, more than made up for its obscurity.
This much is certain: the book is named for an old Irish song
about a man who wakes up when whiskey is splashed on him during his
funeral. It involves a Dublin innkeeper and his wife. And it
describes a cyclical view of history, with themes of rise and fall, death
Beyond that, all is speculation -- or rather, all depends on
who you are.
Robert Boyle, a white-haired author and fly-fisherman from
Phillipstown who is not a member but attended the Pelham gathering, sees
"Finnegans Wake" as a book about fishing and rivers. The
book's first word, he observed, is "riverrun," and the ending
circles back to the beginning.
"It completes the hydrologic cycle, and the verbal
cycle," said Mr. Boyle, who has written an essay to prove his point.
Larry Loeb, a psychiatrist from Scarsdale who wore a T-shirt with a
picture of Joyce on it, said he became interested in the book because it
was described to him as a meditation on dreams and the unconscious.
David Rose, an archivist at the New York Botanical Society and the
host of the event, sees plant references throughout the book. He is
working on a catalog of nonflowering plants in the novel. He has
also been working for three years on a broader study of references to
fungi in Western literature.
Some say it is a vision of schizophrenia, since Joyce's
daughter was a schizophrenic.
"There is only one thing you can be sure of with the
'Wake,'" Mr. Gross said. "If you think it's about
something, you're wrong.
"Joyce has attained such a degree of complexity," he added,
"that you can focus in on any subject and find it in that
Mr. Gross, who leads the discussions, is a retired lawyer,
not a scholar. But he has an entire wall of Joyce criticism at home,
"We've got a chauffeur, somebody that pushes trucks on
34th Street, a couple of academics, a lawyer, a couple of doctors,"
Mr. Gross said. "The essence of the group is that they don't
have anything in common."
The group maintains a web site at http://www.finneganswake.org.
Most of the group's roughly 20 regular attendees found out
about it through advertisements at the Gotham Book mart. Some
discovered it through the annual reading of "Finnegans Wake" at
the Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan on New Year's Eve.
"I joined on Page 247," Mr. Rose said.
"I'm not sure what year it was." The pages never vary in
different editions of "Finnegans Wake," because Joyce wrote it
like a vast poem, with each line and page ending specified.
One thing all the group's members agree on is that
"Finnegans Wake" is meant to be read out loud. "Joyce
was a singer," Mr. Applebaum said. "He's written a book
that is as much music as it is words."
At one point Joel Greenberg, a bearish medical researcher
with thinning gray hair that falls to his shoulders, stood up to recite
from memory one of the 100-letter nonsense words that recur several times
in the text. The members nodded, impressed.
"The way Joyce conceived it, it should sound like a roll
of thunder," Mr. Gross said.
Mr. Greenberg stood up again and boomed the meaningless
syllables out over the lawn, his face red with effort. His audience
burst into applause.
"Absolutely outstanding," Mr. Gross said, with a