Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s final novel, is a notoriously challenging read. In the late Eighties, New Yorkers would organize “marathon group reads” of the book that would start at noon on New Year’s Eve and let the words flow until the evening of New Year’s Day. It took a Chinese translator eight years to get through the first third of the tome, since nearly every word required a footnote since most are neologisms or portmanteaus. But largely, the novel, first published in 1939, is best known for how little read it actually is.
Now a new recorded production of Finnegans Wake, read by Barry McGovern with Marcella Riordan, will present the entire, unexpurgated novel — a feat that spans some 24 hours of audio — as a commercial audiobook for the first time ever. The release, by publisher Naxos AudioBooks, is the first commercially available unabridged recording. It will be available on June 16th, also known as “Bloomsday” to fans of Joyce’s Ulysses. The Joyce estate, which was involved in the production, handpicked McGovern, an Irish actor who appeared in Braveheart and Game of Thrones, for the reading.
In this exclusive excerpt of the audiobook, you can hear the book’s first five paragraphs, beginning with its famous opening sentence fragment: “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.” As it progresses, McGovern expertly navigates seemingly unpronounceable words like “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk” (which contains 100 characters) and he enunciates every consonant in Joyce’s unusual word inventions like “duskt.” (Incidentally, one of the words Joyce invented for Finnegans Wake, “quork,” is now used in particle physics.)
Whether reading along with McGovern or simply submitting to the flow of words (Marilyn Monroe would famously read Ulysses out loud to make better sense of it), the recording will make for a unique way of understanding the novel, which has an oblique plot with acronyms and initials crisscrossing as identifiers for the characters. Samuel Beckett, as quoted in the new release’s liner notes, captured the spirit of the book by saying, “[Joyce’s] writing is not about something; it is that something itself… When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep… When the sense is dancing, the words dance.” Now it will be somewhat easier to be swept away.