Their new edition of James Joyce’s most difficult work is being launched in Dublin on March 11. It is naturally the literary event of the year in Ireland, where everyone will acclaim Joyce, though few have actually read his works, and certainly not "Finnegans Wake," one of the most obscure masterpieces in the English language.
Since 1980 scholars Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon have pored over 50 or more of Joyce’s notebooks containing the manuscript of "Finnegans Wake" to identify the thousands of errors that crept into the original publication. They have made 9,000 corrections and alterations, changing punctuation marks, fonts, misspellings, misplaced phrases and ruptured syntax. They attribute the mistakes to Joyce’s failing eyesight, which made it difficult for him to identify type-setting errors when reading the proofs before publication in 1939.
As anyone who has glanced through the book will know, it is full of made-up words, obscure references and ungrammatical sentence constructions intended to convey stream of consciousness. The publication of the new edition, the first since the novel was originally published 70 years ago, is a huge event in the disputatious world of Joycean scholarship, where the placing or omission of a comma can start a war of words. The editors claim that their new edition, typographically re-set for the first time in the book’s publishing history, is the form which Joyce intended. Their assertion that the corrections are crucial for a smooth reading should spark debate among the critics.
Here is an example from the book's opening lines, with changes highlighted:
1939 original: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."
2010 revision: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle Environs."
Rose, a prominent Joyce scholar, once got himself into hot water for changes he made in a widely accepted version of "Ulysses," Joyce’s best-loved novel about a day in the life of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom. In his 1997 "Reader’s Edition" of "Ulysses," Rose inserted punctuation into Molly Bloom’s famous closing soliloquy, provoking fury among lovers of the famous comma-free passage that ends, “… and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Most Irish people would claim to have some knowledge of "Ulysses," but will freely admit that "Finnegans Wake" is too difficult for them. The basic story-line is simple enough, however. It is derived from a popular Irish-American ballad about a wake, a party for the dead, held for Timothy Finnegan, who died in a fall from a ladder but was miraculously revived when accidentally splashed with whiskey.
Joycean scholar Senator David Norris expressed delight that the text of "Finnegans Wake" has been corrected, but was unsure that it would make it more accessible.
“The text is so dense,” he told the Irish Times. “It’s written in a dream language which is very far from the ordinary written English except for its syntax.”
Norris has campaigned to popularize the comic work by reading passages on Irish radio, treating the text as if it was meant to be listened to, just like the ballad from which it draws its inspiration. “It’s the kind of thing you have to hear,” he said.
Rose claimed the syntaxical coherence of the book has been fully restored to produce the first definitive edition of Joyce’s final masterpiece.
“I think that after 90 years of learning to read ‘Ulysses’ we can now learn to read ‘Finnegans Wake,'” he said.
The difference between "Finnegans Wake" and "Ulysses" is the difference between night and day, according to the author himself. “The action of ‘Ulysses’ was chiefly during the daytime, and the action of my new work takes place chiefly at night,” Joyce explained once in response to critics. “It’s natural things should not be so clear at night, isn’t it now?”
One thousand copies of the new edition are being published by Houyhnhnm Press, 200 in black calf skin at 900 euros ($1,226) each and the remainder at 300 euros ($409) each. For those readers with less money but more patience and sense, Penguin will bring out a trade edition next year for about 20 euros ($27).