Melbourne’s Finnegans Wake Reading Group

News from the Finnegans Wake Reading Group

At the end of 2017 Bloomsday in Melbourne launched The Melbourne Finnegans Wake Reading Group, which has been meeting monthly. Since Coronavirus, the group has been meeting via Zoom, enabling readers from Sydney and Adelaide to join us.

In that time, the group has made its way slowly through the first 80 pages of the supposedly ‘unreadable’ novel at the rate of about 1.5-3 pages per month. It has slowly and independently developed its own methodology, and slowed the pace considerably, to great effect.

The person who invests most in preparation and unofficial leader is John Hughes, and he works on a plain ‘translation’ and sets of notes that build semantic coherence within and between paragraphs and   tests the relevance of bits to the whole. It’s increasingly a process that has welded on readers, some initially sceptical but willing to suspend judgment and keep their minds open. The collective cultural capital of the group that meets monthly is impressive: expertise in different languages and cultures and histories, which enlarges understanding.

In September, Raphael Slepon, the compiler of the world’s most useful tool for reading Finnegans Wake, spoke to the group by Zoom from the east coast of the US. We were keen to understand how he’d come to take on so daunting and herculean a project, about his methodology and what plans he had for Home Fweet Home. It is an inspiring story of a young, precocious reader (born 1966) who tackled Ulysses (without tools) at the end of school, and though understanding only 10%, lured by the language and complexity, persevered. He was not a literature student but a medical student, and worked in medical research (infectious diseases and vaccines). By 1997 he had become a computer software engineer (and novelist), and when it came time to pick up Finnegans Wake in the 1980s, he realised a searchable set of annotations would be useful, and transformed Roland McHugh’s print-published annotations into a giant database, with McHugh’s permission before going online. This was greatly augmented by Raphael and latterly by many other contributors, and it made its way into an expanded electronic database which was published online as FWEET in 2005. The Wake seems built for the digital age.

FWEET is an extraordinary resource, using source materials existing in libraries spread around the world, drawing on scholarship in rigorous ways, and always with an eye to opening up readings, but also to constraining them by paying attention to how Joyce constructed meaning. It’s a wonderful tool for registering the changes in different versions of the text and rendering the multivalency of its wordplay and punsmanship, and pointing to arcane literary and historical sources. It has recently been opened up to crowd-fundraising, and Bloomsday in Melbourne has supported it and encourages others to do so.

If you’d like to join the Finnegans Wake Reading group, register on the Wake Reading Group tag on the Bloomsday in Melbourne site. While we continue to Zoom, participants from everywhere are welcome, and we don’t require any prior knowledge of Finnegans Wake or of Joyce.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is Artistic Director of the James Joyce festival, Bloomsday in Melbourne, and a member of the Tinteán collective.