Joyce to Giorgio and Helen Joyce, 1 June 1934. Letters III p.306
Following my last post on descriptions of Finnegans Wake, let's look at what Joyce himself had to say about his book. He loved talking about 'Work in Progress', as it was known until publication. The best single source of these conversations is Portraits of the Artist in Exile, edited by Willard Potts, which every Wake lover should seek out.
From that book, here's Ole Vinding, who interviewed Joyce in Copenhagen in 1936:
'I haven't lived a normal life since 1922, when I began 'Work in Progress'. It demands an enormous amount of concentration. I want to describe the night itself. Ulysses is related to this book as day is to night. Otherwise there is no connection between the two books. Ulysses did not require the same amount of concentration. Since 1922 my book has become more real to me than reality, and everything has led to it; all other things have been insurmountable difficulties, even the smallest realities such as, for instance, having to shave in the morning. There are, so to say, no individual people in the book – it is as in a dream, the style gliding and unreal as the way it is in dreams. If one were to speak of a person in the book, it would have to be of an old man, but even his relationship with reality is doubtful.'
Ole Vinding, 'James Joyce in Copenhagen', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 149
The next four quotations come from the Czech artist and writer, Adolf Hoffmeister, who met Joyce in Paris in 1930.
'I am thinking of a beautiful book where each occasion, each situation and each word will choose its own
language. In all the languages of the world there is only one word that exactly designates a given thing....'
'If you write that way few people can read you.'
'What is that to me? In the work I am now writing I use eighteen languages. The English-Parisian of the Americans is a language that no one understands any longer.'
''Work in Progress' gives the first view into the kneading trough of creation. In the beginning was chaos. But chaos is also at the end. The reader participates in the beginning or the end of the world as it occurs. Everyone is anyone and every instant is any instant. The fall of angels is mixed with the Battle of Waterloo, and H.C.E. is more changeable than history can provide names for.'
'I don't think that the difficulties in reading it are so insurmountable. Certainly any intelligent reader can read and understand it, if he returns to the text again and again. He is setting out on an adventure with words. 'Work in Progress' can satisfy more readers than any other book because it gives them the opportunity to use their own ideas in the reading. Some readers will be interested in the exploration of words, the play of technique, the philological experiment in each poetic unit. Each word has the charm of a living thing and each living thing is plastic.'
''Work in Progress' has a significance completely above reality; transcending humans, things, senses, and entering the realm of complete abstraction. Anna and Humphrey are at the same time the city and its founder, the river and the mountain, as well as both sexual organs; there is not even a chronological ordering of the action. It is simultaneous action, represented by the novel's circular construction.... Wherever the book begins it also ends.... '
Adolf Hoffmeister, 'Portrait of Joyce', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 126-32
Granta have published a wonderful extended new translation of the Hoffmeister interview, which you can read here.
My favourite description is this 1937 one from Jan Parandowski, which I've quoted before:
'Work in Progress.'
'Yes, it doesn't have a title yet. The few fragments which I have published have been enough to convince many critics that I have finally lost my mind, which by the way they have been predicting faithfully for many years. And perhaps it is madness to grind up words in order to extract their substance, or to graft them one onto another, to create crossbreeds and unknown variants, to open up unsuspected possibilities for these words, to marry sounds which were not usually joined together before, although they were meant for one another, to allow water to speak like water, birds to chirp in the words of birds, to liberate all sounds of rustling, breaking, arguing, shouting, cracking, whistling, creaking, gurgling - from their servile, contemptible role and to attach them to the feelers of expressions which grope for definitions of the undefined. I took literally Gautier's dictum, 'The inexpressible does not exist.' With this hash of sounds I am building the great myth of everyday life.'
Jan Parandowski, 'Meeting with Joyce', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 160-2
Here's the French Swiss writer, Jacques Mercanton, who got to know Joyce well in the late 1930s:
"Work in Progress'? A nocturnal state, lunar. That is what I wanted to convey: what goes on in a dream, during a dream. Not what is left over afterward, in the memory. Afterward, nothing is left....
I reconstruct the nocturnal life as the Demiurge goes about the business of creation, starting from a mental outline that never varies. The only difference is that I obey laws I have not chosen. While He?...
It is I who could draw up the best indictment against my work. Isn't it arbitrary to pretend to express the nocturnal life by means of conscious work, or through children's games?....Isn't it arbitrary of me to make use, as I do, of forty tongues I don't know in order to express the dream state? Isn't it contradictory of me to make two men speak in Chinese and Japanese in a pub in Phoenix Park, Dublin? Nevertheless, that is a logical and objective method of expressing a deep conflict, an irreducible antagonism.'
....He later explained to me his method of working according to the precise laws of phonetics, the laws that rule over all languages....'The only difference,' he declared, 'is that in my imitation of the dream-state, I effect in a few minutes what it has sometimes taken centuries to bring about....Nevertheless, my whole book is shaky. There is only one thing that keeps it on its feet: the author's obstinacy....This book has to do with the ideal suffering caused by an ideal insomnia. a sentence in the text describes it in those terms. When you say it in advance yourself, you silence the critics.'
Jaques Mercanton, 'The Hours of James Joyce', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Willard Potts), pp 209-221
Joyce also gave Mercanton detailed notes on the Phoenix Park Nocturne episode. He gave another set of notes, on Anna Livia Plurabelle, to C.K.Ogden, which you can read here.
Yet, while explaining references, Joyce also downplayed the importance of reference hunting. He told Professor Heinrich Straumann of Zurich:
'One should not pay any particular attention to the allusions to placenames, historical events, literary happenings and personalities, but let the linguistic phenomenon affect one as such.'
H Straumann, 'Last Meeting with Joyce', A James Joyce Yearbook, ed Maria Jolas, p.114
Apart from Potts' book, there are two other major statements, quoted by Eugene Jolas and Max Eastman. These are harder to track down:
'There really is no coincidence in this book,' he said during one of our walks. 'I might easily have written this story in the traditional manner.... Every novelist knows the recipe....It is not very difficult to follow a simple, chronological scheme which the critics will understand....But I, after all, am trying to tell the story of this Chapelizod family in a new way. Time and the river and the mountain are the real heroes of my book....Yet the elements are exactly what every novelist might use: man and woman, birth, childhood, night, sleep, marriage, prayer, death....There is nothing paradoxical about this....Only I am trying to build many planes of narrative with a single esthetic purpose....Did you ever read Laurence Sterne?'
Eugene Jolas, 'My Friend James Joyce' in Givens (ed), James Joyce:Two Decades of Criticism, 1948, p.11-12. The elision marks are in Jolas's original text.
'In writing of the night', – he told me – 'I really could not, I felt I could not, use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – the conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again. They really needn't worry and scold so much. I'll give them back their English language. I'm not destroying it for good!'
Max Eastman, The Literary Mind, 193, p.101
Ellmann's biography is another major source of Joyce's accounts of the Wake:
'When the sculptor August Suter asked what he was writing, he could answer truthfully, 'It's hard to say.' 'Then what is the title of it?' asked Suter. This time Joyce was less candid: 'I don't know. It's like a mountain that I tunnel into from every direction, but I don't know what I will find.' Actually he did know the title at least, and had told it to Nora in strictest secrecy
....Joyce informed a friend later, he conceived of his book as the dream of old Finn, lying in death beside the River Liffey and watching the history of Ireland and the world – past and future – flow through his mind like flotsam on the river of life....
'Jes suis au bout de l'anglais,' Joyce said to August Suter, and he remarked to another friend, 'I have put the language to sleep.'
....He said to Edmond Jaloux that his novel would be written ‘to suit the esthetic of the dream, when the forms prolong and multiply themselves, when the visions pass from the trivial to the apocalyptic, when the brain uses the roots of vocables to make others from them which will be capable of naming its phantasms, its allegories, its allusions.''
Ellmann, James Joyce, p.543-6.
The Jaloux quotation comes from an article, 'James Joyce' in Le Temps, 30 January 1941. It's a shame Ellmann doesn't give a source for the 'dream of old Finn' idea, which reminds me of Vinding's 'If one were to speak of a person in the book, it would have to be of an old man'.
There are more quotations on p 590 of Ellmann's biography:
'About my new work – do you know, Bird, I confess I can't understand my critics, like Pound and Miss Weaver. They say it's obscure. They compare it of course with Ulysses. But the action of my new work takes place at night. It's natural that things should not be so clear at night, isn't it?'
Joyce to William Bird, recalled in a 1954 letter to Ellmann
'It's all so simple. If anyone doesn't understand a passage, all he need do is read it aloud.'
Joyce to Claude Sykes, recalled in a 1954 interview with Ellmann
'Perhaps it is insanity. One will be able to judge in a century.'
Louis Gillet, Claybook for James Joyce, 59
Joyce's patroness, Harriet Shaw Weaver, is another source of his descriptions of the Wake. She wrote to Professor Joseph Prescott, 'In the summer of 1923 when Mr Joyce was staying with his family in England he told me he wanted to write a book which should be a kind of universal history.' (Joseph Prescott, 'Concerning the Genesis of Finnegans Wake', PMLA, Vol LXIX, No. 5, Dec 1954)
Joyce's letters to Weaver provide several readings of specific passages, such as the opening page, as well as some general descriptions:
'One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutandry grammar and goahead plot.'
To Harriet Shaw Weaver, 24 November 1926, Letters Vol 3, p146 (Selected Letters p.318)
‘I think I have done what I wanted to do. I am glad you like my punctuality as an engine driver. I have taken this up because I am really one of the great engineers, if not the greatest, in the world besides being a musicmaker, philosophist and heaps of other things. All the engines I know are wrong. Simplicity. I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I am driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mouse and the grapes. It’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square.’
To Harriet Shaw Weaver, postcard of 16 April 1927, Letters Vol I, p250.
Joyce's symbol for the title of the book was a square, as he had explained in this letter to Weaver of 24 March 1924.
In his notebooks, Joyce used the square sign to represent the book itself, and other containers, listed by Roland McHugh in The Sigla of Finnegans Wake.
Harriet Shaw Weaver took the intriguing letter of April 1927 as a hint at the secret title, and suggested 'A Wheeling Square'. Joyce replied:
'The title is very simple and as commonplace as can be. It is not Kitty O'Shea as some have suggested, though it is in two words. I want to think over it more as I propose to make some experiments with it also....My remarks about the engine were not meant as a hint at the title. I meant that I wanted to take up several other arts and crafts and teach everybody how to do everything properly, so as to be in the fashion.' Letters Vol I 251.
Those 'experiments' with the title must be to do with leaving out the apostrophe.
Joyce also describes his book in the pages of the Wake itself, most famously on page 120:
'and look at this prepronominal funferal, engraved and retouched and edgewiped and puddenpadded, very like a whale’s egg farced with pemmican, as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia.'