A California-based book club has recently finished its first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, a notoriously difficult book that it started reading 28 years ago.
James Joyce once said that the demand he makes of his reader is that he “should devote his entire life to reading my works,” and some people actually took those words to heart. For example, the members of a California book club have spent the last 28 years of their lives decyphering Finnegan’s Wake page by page, in an attempt to figure out its many mysteries. This is a book so difficult to read that no one person can truly say they ‘get it’, which makes it perfect for community reading. It’s apparently written in a convoluted mix of reinvented words, puns, and allusions, referencing about 80 languages, and people can’t even agree on where the book is set or who the characters are.
Gerry Fialka, an experimental filmmaker from Venice, California, has hosted a book club dedicated exclusively to Finnegan’s Wake since 1995. Between 10 and 30 people would show up to monthly meetings at a local library to read two pages of the book and discuss their opinions. Eventually, they slowed the pace down to just one page per meeting, to give themselves more debating time, so they spent the next 28 years going through the book just one time. Although some members left and others joined the group over the years, Fialka and some of the original group still meet up every month, only now they do it through Zoom.
Interestingly, Fialka’s book group took more to finish Finnegan’s Wake than James Joyce took to write the thing, 17 years, including a four-year stretch of near-complete writer’s block. Sadly, the author died shortly after publishing it, so he never had time to explain his writings, or at least give some clues, so it’s up to the readers to decipher this literary puzzle.
“In the course of a meeting, I have 30 different Wikipedia tabs open,” 38-year-old Peter Quadrino, a member of Gerry Fialka’s reading group, said. “You’re always learning about some new historical figure, or event, or some poet. It really just feels like my brain just took a shower. It’s so refreshing.”
Gerry Fialka’s reading group read the last page of Joyce’s 628-page book in October, but that only marked the end of their first read-through, not the end of the book club. And they don’t plan on moving on to another book either. This is a Finnegan’s Wake book club and its members plan to keep it that way.
“We didn’t end. The last sentence of the book ends midsentence and then it picks up at the front of the book. It’s cyclical. It never ends,” Fialka told The Guardian. “There is no next book, we’re only reading one book. Forever.”
This California book club isn’t the only one dedicated to Finnegan’s Wake. Fialka said he knows about at least 52 active ones, including one in Zurich, Switzerland, that has been reading Joyce’s notoriously difficult book for about 40 years. Only it is currently in its fourth read-through of the book, with the first one having taken them “just” 11 years.