BEIJING (AP) — The Chinese version is no easier to read than the original, the loyal-minded translator assures, but James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” has still sold out its initial run in China — with the help of some big urban billboards.
Wang Weisong, chief editor of the Shanghai company that published the first Chinese translation of the Joyce classic, coyly said at a recent forum in Shanghai that he wasn’t expecting any success for the book, but that the modest initial run of 8,000 copies has sold out since it went on sale Dec. 25. He said more copies are being printed to meet demand.
Dai Congrong, who spent eight years translating it, told the same forum that she didn’t fully grasp the novel but that it was supposed to be difficult, and that she kept the Chinese version that way.
“I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend,” Dai said, according to a transcript the Shanghai People’s Publishing House posted online.
Quotable novels are all alike; every unquotable novel is unquotable in its own way.
I imagine other than first lines, most novels are fundamentally unquotable from memory. This isn’t Fahrenheit 451 where we all get to memorize a great novel for posterity. I have spent forty or fifty years underlining important or moving passages in novels and later quoting them in theme papers and essays, but I’ll be damned if I actually memorized them. If I had to choose, though, I would say I can recite Finnegans Wake more than any other novel, and that includes Ulysses, Anna Karenina, and Catch-22. However, The Maltese Falcon is actually the book I can recite the most but I don’t feel it’s fair to use it since I probably memorized most of the lines from the film (the book and the film are almost identical).
The real problem with this question is that vague word “book” which I have interpreted as “novel.” Here we should allow it to refer to plays and poems.
In Graduate School I did an intensive study on Macbeth. It wasn’t long before I realized I could recite the entire play, almost without error. I remember going to parties and after the dog finished doing tricks, I would dramatize Macbeth playing all the parts (I was an especially good three weird sisters) just as long as the beers kept coming. Smaller parts from other Shakespeare plays were also commonly embedded in my memory (loved Richard III) as were several other playwrights. Since my concentration in Grad School was William Wycherley, I could recite a pretty good Gentleman Dancing Master. But the real field for memorization and recitation was poetry and I had plenty of poetry from Chaucer to Roethke. I did my senior project as an undergraduate on Ted Roethke and you don’t have to read and study a poem too long before it curls up in your memory. I found this technique of literally memorizing the poems invaluable when studying a poet and especially when taking one of the few examinations they forced on us (we mostly wrote papers).
From High School and most of the way through College and Grad School, I was unabashedly under the spell of John Keats. Whether through study or just repetition I could recite many poems by Keats and could even stumble through some of the longer works. Even today when I pull down a volume of Keats’ poetry I am blown away by the poems: rhymes are easy and evocative, poems are lush and memorable. It isn’t clear to me why I dropped a focus on the Romantic poets but one suggestion by my advisor might have had something to do with it. He asked me one question and suggested it for the thesis of my advanced degree: Why is it that the Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Blake—could not write a decent play? I might have thought about this one and realized I would have to read and study some really awful plays and soon after change my concentration to Restoration Drama.
Next month the Experimental Fiction group at Yahoo (XFX) is dedicating the time to reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I read FW a few years back and although I chuckled a bit, I was generally lost in the vision that the author presents. I usually suggest to other readers that they just plunge into Joyce and leave all those secondary books of annotations and analysis for the third or fourth reading.
My first experience with FW was as an undergraduate. One of the more feisty professors I had had done major research on the novel when he was at Penn and he reiterated the advice he received at that time: Read lots of comic books. Well, in today’s world comic books are collected for their investment value, far different from my experience in the fifties when comic books would make the rounds and end up disintegrating in the back of our closets when we grew up and went away to college. So I’m not sure what is the best way to prepare for FW any more: DVDs of The Benny Hill Show? Old Warner Brothers cartoons? The GOP debates?
Over the years I have collected several copies of FW and spent many an evening flipping through the book and reading a little here and a little there, but it wasn’t until about 2005 that I read the book from cover to backside. So I will consider this reading in December my second and hope that there are others reading along even if they don’t have too much to say. Perhaps for this work we should be looking less for erudite analysis and more for questions and guidance … Finnegans Wake is a challenge.
Note also that the title is Finnegans Wake; use of the possessive, as in Finnegan’s Wake, refers to the ballad by that name and not to Joyce’s novel.