Missing the hint of lemmings


From London Review of Books:

The new text of Finnegans Wake is ‘a fine art limited edition’ designed by Martino Mardersteig, with a Penguin mass market edition to come, we are told, ‘in due course’. Also to become available ‘as soon as feasible’, ‘as soon as circumstances permit’, is a hypertext which will include every variant to be found in manuscripts, notebooks, worksheets, galleys and the first edition. This vast monument, which its creators describe as a ‘landscape’ of editorial work, represents the skilful and thoughtful labour of 30 years, and will put the novel and its whole textual history within reach of anyone with access to a computer.

The book itself presents a ‘fully restored and emended reading text’, and the editors are both proud and modest about their achievement. ‘The new text,’ they say, ‘differs from the old in about 9000 instances.’ Then they say immediately: ‘This sounds grander than it is. Finnegans Wake comprises some 220,000 words, or about six times that number of characters: letters, spaces and punctuation marks.’ The changes they describe, and the ones I could find in a preliminary comparison with the old text, are quite small; but the patience and the care (and the good sense) with which they are arrived at are exemplary, and 9000 instances of anything will make a difference. An ampersand is different from the word ‘and’, it matters how far a line is indented, and ‘commodious’ in the new edition hints less obviously at the Emperor Commodus but leaves all the letters of his name in place. The correction of ‘many manifest errors’ was important, the editors say, but ‘the greater task lay in the restoration through emendation of the syntactical coherence of individual sentences as they underwent periodic amplification under the writer’s revising hand.’ And again: ‘Overwhelmingly, the changes pertain to the syntax (the flow of the words) rather than to the semantics (their individual meanings).’

This is significant because semantics are where most of the wordplay is, and the syntax is what provides (the appearance of) a logical structure. Joyce hints at this situation when he writes of his ‘iridated lingo’ as ‘basically English’, suggesting it’s about as far from Basic English as it could get but still thoroughly English in its basic structure. David Greetham, citing this passage, says this is how Finnegans Wake can ‘fill the reader with ideas without making every idea distinct and separable’. I have no real sense of what it means to say, ‘It’s an allavalonche that blows nopussy food,’ but I can recognise the mockery of a proverb – no, the mockery of the tiresome use of a proverb – when I hear it, and it’s the syntax that allows me to do this. Apart from that we can agree that an avalanche would be a hell of a lunch, and a suitable end to a jibberweek.

“Quashed Quotatoes”, Michael Wood, London Review of Books