Finnegans Autopsy

I was chatting with Matt over at the Japanese Literature blog “No-Sword,” he commented on a Japanese translation of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” And having had a tipple tonight (as Joyce was wont to do while writing) I was in a loquacious mood and was seized by the urge to write down my favorite Joyce anecdote. Hell, it’s my only Joyce anecdote. I may tell it badly, perhaps inaccurately, even drunkenly, but I guarantee it will be more coherent than “Finnegans Wake.” Well, it’s shorter, if nothing else.

Long ago, I read an article about a scholar at my school doing his PhD in English Literature. At that time, everyone had to write a new thesis on Joyce to be taken seriously in the English Lit field. But there were few remaining new angles on the topic. The scholar had access to the galley proofs of Finnegans Wake, he was analyzing Joyce’s revisions when he noticed something interesting. The proofs all had pinholes at the top, but not all the pages had the same number of pinholes, nor were they in the same spot. In a flash of insight, he realized what they were: the pinholes left by the typesetter when he tacked the stack of pages to his corkboard.

Joyce was notorious for incorporating typesetter’s errors into his text. Sometimes the typesetter made interesting errors while trying to transcribe the incomprehensible text into lead type. Joyce sometimes took the errors and rewrote them, coining new words out of the errors. Many scholars have argued over the etymology of these strange words, even using these same galley proofs as evidence. Multiple (and similar) copies of the same pages existed, but nobody could definitively determine which revisions came first.

But this scholar had a new approach. He measured the position of each pinhole, and determined the proofed pages were aligned in a stack and the pin driven through the stack into the corkboard. The aligned holes represent one state of the proof at one time. As the revisions were made, new pages would be inserted in the stack, and pinned again to the board. Those new pages would have one less pinhole. Through an incredibly complex procedure, he determined the order that new pages were added or removed from the stack. The scholar had finally determined the order in which revisions were made.

His thesis claimed that the final form of the book was the result of a lengthy collaboration between Joyce and the typesetter. Perhaps “collaboration” is too fine a word, “battle” might be more appropriate. Joyce would find an error, rewrite it, and then the typesetter would mangle it again. The galleys would go back and forth between the author and the typesetter, changing every time a new proof was generated. Eventually both Joyce and the typesetter thought no more revisions were necessary and the book was published.

Of course this discovery galvanized the Joyce scholars of the English Literature community. There was hardly anything new that could be said on the subject, whole libraries of books have been written on any subjective point of view propounded by every scholar with an opinion. But this discovery brought scientific rigor to the analysis of an incomprehensible work of literature. Even I was transfixed by this discovery, and I have no interest in Joyce whatsoever. But I learned one thing for sure: it is impossible to translate Joyce’s work into the English Language.

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