Finnegans Wake, experimental novel by James Joyce. Extracts of the work appeared as Work in Progress from 1928 to 1937, and it was published in its entirety as Finnegans Wake in 1939.
SUMMARY: The book is, in one sense, the story of a publican in Chapelizod (near Dublin), his wife, and their three children; but Mr. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Mrs. Anna Livia Plurabelle, and Kevin, Jerry, and Isabel also represent every family of humankind. The motive idea of the novel, inspired by the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, is that history is cyclic; to demonstrate this the book begins with the end of a sentence left unfinished on the last page. Languages merge: Anna Livia has "vlossyhair"-w?osy being Polish for "hair"; "a bad of wind" blows-b?d being Persian for "wind." Characters from literature and history appear and merge and disappear. On another level, the protagonists are the city of Dublin and the River Liffey, which stand as representatives of the history of Ireland and, by extension, of all human history.
As he had in his earlier work Ulysses, Joyce drew upon an encyclopaedic range of literary works. His strange polyglot idiom of puns and portmanteau words was intended to convey not only the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious but also the interweaving of Irish language and mythology with the languages and mythologies of many other cultures.
DETAIL: James Joyce’s last book is perhaps the most daunting work of fiction ever written. Yet it is also one of the funniest, bringing pleasure to generations of readers willing to suspend the usual assumptions that govern the novel. Instead of a single plot, Finnegans Wake has a number of kernel stories, some of them occurring in hundreds of versions, from a word or two long to several pages. The most ubiquitous is a story of a fall that turns out not to be entirely negative, including the Fall of Man; an indiscretion in Phoenix Park, Dublin, involving an older man and two girls; and a tumble from a ladder by an Irish builder, Tim Finnegan.
In place of characters, the novel has figures who go by many different names, each figure consisting of a cluster of recognizable features. In place of settings, it merges place names from around the globe. Joyce achieves this condensation through the "portmanteau": the fusing together of two or more words in the same or different languages. Thus "kissmiss" is both the festive season and something that might happen during it, with a suggestion of fatefulness; the Holy Father becomes a "hoary frother"; and an old photo is a "fadograph."
Reading Finnegans Wake—best done aloud and if possible in a group—means allowing these suggestions to resonate, while accepting that many will remain obscure. The work’s seventeen sections have their own styles and subjects, tracing a slow movement through nightfall and dawn to a final unfinished sentence that returns us to the beginning of the book.
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been described as many things, from a masterpiece to unreadable nonsense. But it is also, according to scientists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland, almost indistinguishable in its structure from a purely mathematical multifractal.
The academics put more than 100 works of world literature, by authors from Charles Dickens to Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Mann, Umberto Eco and Samuel Beckett, through a detailed statistical analysis. Looking at sentence lengths and how they varied, they found that in an “overwhelming majority” of the studied texts, the correlations in variations of sentence length were governed by the dynamics of a cascade – meaning that their construction is a fractal: a mathematical object in which each fragment, when expanded, has a structure resembling the whole.
Fractals are used in science to model structures that contain re-occurring patterns, including snowflakes and galaxies.
“All of the examined works showed self-similarity in terms of organisation of the lengths of sentences. Some were more expressive – here The Ambassadors by Henry James stood out – others to far less of an extreme, as in the case of the French 17th-century romance Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus. However, correlations were evident, and therefore these texts were the construction of a fractal,” said Dr Paweł Oświęcimka from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, one of the authors of the new paper Quantifying Origin and Character of Long-range Correlations in Narrative Texts.
Some works, however, were more mathematically complex than others, with stream-of-consciousness narratives the most complex, comparable to multifractals, or fractals of fractals. Finnegans Wake, the scientists found, was the most complex of all.
I am really one of the greatest engineers, if not the greatest, in the worldJames Joyce
“The absolute record in terms of multifractality turned out to be Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. The results of our analysis of this text are virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals,” said Professor Stanisław Drożdż, another author of the paper, which has just been published in the computer science journal Information Sciences.
Joyce himself, reported to have said he wrote Finnegans Wake “to keep the critics busy for 300 years”, might have predicted this. In a letter about the novel, Work in Progess as he then knew it, he told Harriet Weaver: “I am really one of the greatest 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’m 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. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square.”
The academics write in their paper that: “Studying characteristics of the sentence-length variability in a large corpus of world famous literary texts shows that an appealing and aesthetic optimum … involves self-similar, cascade-like alternations of various lengths of sentences.”
“An overwhelming majority of the studied texts simply obey such fractal attributes but especially spectacular in this respect are hypertext-like, ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novels. In addition, they appear to develop structures characteristic of irreducibly interwoven sets of fractals called multifractals.”
The other works most comparable to multifractals, the academics found, were A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, The USA trilogy by John Dos Passos, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and Joyce’s Ulysses. Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu showed “little correlation” to multifractality, however; nor did Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
The academics note that “fractality of a literary text will in practice never be as perfect as in the world of mathematics”, because a mathematical fractal can be magnified to infinite, while the number of sentences in a book are finite.
“It is not entirely clear whether stream-of-consciousness writing actually reveals the deeper qualities of our consciousness, or rather the imagination of the writers. It is hardly surprising that ascribing a work to a particular genre is, for whatever reason, sometimes subjective,” said Drożdż, suggesting that the scientists’ work “may someday help in a more objective assignment of books to one genre or another”.
Drożdż suggested today that the findings could also be used to posit that writers “uncovered fractals and even multifractals in nature long before scientists”. “Evidently, they (like Joyce) had a kind of intuition, as it happens to great artists, that such a narrative mode best reflects ‘how nature works’ and they properly encoded this into their texts,” he said. “Nature evolves through cascades and thus arranges fractally, and imprints of this we find in the sentence-length variability.”
Eimear McBride, whose multiple award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, said she wasn’t taken aback by the results.
“It doesn’t surprise me that works described as “stream of consciousness” appear to be the most fractal. By its nature, such writing is concerned not only with the usual load-bearing aspects of language – content, meaning, aesthetics, etc – but engages with language as the object in itself, using the re-forming of its rules to give the reader a more prismatic understanding of the subject at hand. Given the long-established connection between beauty and symmetry, finding works of literature fractally quantifiable seems perfectly reasonable.”
But she added that she couldn’t “help being somewhat disappointed by the idea that the main upshot of this research may be to make the assigning of genre more straightforward”.
“Surely there are more interesting questions about the how and why of writers’ brains arriving at these complex, but seemingly instinctive, fractals?” she said. “And, given Professor Drożdż’s pretty inarguable contention that it remains unclear whether or not stream-of-consciousness writing does indeed reveal a deeper layer of consciousness, what distance this research may go to explain why some readers believe themselves to be experiencing exactly that while others have the opposite reaction?”