The Annual
Finnegans Wake Society of New York

Next to a James Joyce cutout,
 David Rose and Jan Hoeper are among those at a 
Finnegans Wake Society meeting in Pelham.

The Finnegans Wake Society of New York lightens up twice a year (not that our meetings are not an uproar). On January 13th, the anniversary of James Joyce's death, we hold -- what else? -- a wake; on an unspecified Sunday each summer, a picnic.

Usually, our picnic is in a community garden in Hell's Kitchen, that once notorious section of Manhattan. This year, a generous member hosted us on his lawn in Pelham. As always, the Wake is with us:  recitation of a few of the Thunder Words guarantees good weather. This year's picnic was also unusual in that the newspaper of record found it a literary event meriting notice: the New York Times sent a reporter as well as a photographer, and the following account appeared on Sunday, July 2nd in the Westchester edition.

At Picnic in Pelham, James Joyce Lovers
 Celebrate a Devilishly Challenging Book

by Robert Worth

 It 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 intense research."
   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 and rebirth.
   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 complexity."
   Mr. Gross, who leads the discussions, is a retired lawyer, not a scholar.  But he has an entire wall of Joyce criticism at home, he said.
   "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
   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 broad smile.


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