Jorges Luis Borges Reviews Finnegans Wake
Work in Progress has appeared at least, now titled Finnegans Wake, and is, they tell us,the ripened and lucid fruit of sixteen energetic years of literary labor. I have examined it with some bewilderment, have unenthusiastically deciphered nine or ten calembours, and have read the terror-stricken praise […] the trenchant authors of those accolades claim they have discovered the rules of this complex verbal labyrinth, but they abstain from applying or formulating them; nor do they attempt the analysis of a single line or paragraph… I suspect that they share my essential bewilderment and my useless and partial glances at the text. I suspect that they secretly hope (as I publicly do) for an exegetical treatise from Stuart Gilbert, the official interpreter of James Joyce.
It is unquestionable that Joyce is one of the best writers of our time. Verbally, he is perhaps the best. In Ulysses there are sentences, there are paragraphs, that are not inferior to Shakespeare or Sir Thomas Browne. In Finnegans Wake itself there are some memorable phrases. (This one, for example, which I will not attempt to translate: “Beside the rivering waters of, hither and thithering waters of, night.”) In this enormous book, however efficacy is an exception.
Finnegans Wake is a concatenation of puns committed in a dreamlike English that is difficult not to categorize as frustrated and incompetent. I don’t think that I am exaggerating. Ameise, in German, means “ant.” Joyce, in Work in Progress, combines it with the English amazing to coin the adjective ameising, meaning wonder inspired by an ant. Here is another example, perhaps less lugubrious. Joyce fuses the English words banister and star into a single word, banistar, that combines both images.
Jules Laforgue and Lewis Carroll have played this game with better luck.