The book club dedicated 28 years to reading Finnegans Wake, and it seems like their journey will never come to an end.
For the past 25 years, Gerry Fialka, a filmmaker from Venice, California, has organized a book club centered around one particular text: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, known as one of the most challenging pieces of literature.
In 1995, a group of 10 to 30 individuals began attending monthly meetings at a nearby library. Initially, they would read two pages each month, but eventually reduced it to only one page per discussion. Now, the group convenes on Zoom and completed the final page in October after 28 years.
That amount of time “could well be a record”, said Sam Slote, a Joyce expert at Trinity College, Dublin, and one of the editors of How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake. His own weekly Wake group in Dublin, which is made up of about a dozen Joyce scholars, is on track to read through the text in a brisk 15 years.
The reading group in California took more time to read Finnegans Wake than it took Joyce to write it. According to Slote, it took the author 17 years to finish the experimental text, which spans 628 pages. This includes a four-year period where Joyce experienced severe writer’s block.
Fialka, who started the group in his early 40s, is now 70. “I don’t want to lie, it wasn’t like I saw God,” Fialka said, of reaching the book’s end. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
Although Joyce’s Ulysses is known for its complexity, Slote claims that Finnegans Wake takes it to a whole new level. There is still ongoing discussion about fundamental aspects of the novel, such as its setting and characters. It is composed of a jumble of made-up words, wordplay, and references to approximately 80 languages.
Bruce Woodside, a 74-year-old retired Disney animator, joined Fialka’s book club in the 1990s where they read the same book every time they met. Despite the book, Finnegans Wake, being 628 pages of what can appear to be typographic errors, Woodside has been reading and re-reading it since his late teens. He believes that there is a visionary aspect to the book, but when people hear about their book club, they often question the choice.
Fialka embraces the imaginative element, characterizing his team as “less of a literary gathering and more of a performance art exhibit”. He also labels it as a “living entity”, a “get-together”, and a “choral group”.
Woodside described the initial atmosphere of the club as “somewhat disorganized”. Most readers’ initial reaction to Finnegans Wake is that it is “nonsensical”, according to Woodside. He also remembers that much of the commentary on the book was similarly nonsensical.
Woodside left Fialka’s group for approximately twenty years, but upon his retirement, he opted to return. He had explored other reading groups, such as one focused on Proust that had shifted to reading Finnegans Wake, but struggled to find individuals who provided substantial and insightful discussions on the book.
Woodside stated that Gerry’s group was very enjoyable. He mentioned that in the 20 years he was absent, the group had progressed from the first chapter to the fifteenth.
Peter Quadrino, aged 38, became a member of Fialka’s group in the years 2008 or 2009. He would make a three-hour journey from San Diego, his place of residence, in order to attend the meetings. “When it comes to Finnegans Wake, it can be challenging to find others who share the same interest and are willing to discuss it with you.”
Joyce dedicated 17 years of his life to writing the book, but unfortunately passed away shortly after its publication. Quadrino expressed that due to this, there was no opportunity for Joyce to provide an explanation for it. It is now left to readers to decipher the meaning behind his devotion to the work.
In 2011, Quadrino relocated to Austin, Texas and was determined to continue reading. He distributed flyers, placed advertisements in the newspaper, and established his own Texas-centric group. After 12 years, the group has made significant progress in reading Finnegans Wake and is expected to finish within the next 12 years.
Joyce would likely be happy to know about these efforts. He once referred to the ideal reader of Finnegans Wake as someone who has “ideal insomnia” and stated, “I expect my readers to dedicate their entire lives to reading my works.”
Fialka mentioned that he had come across a record of at least 52 currently operating Finnegans Wake reading clubs, but Slote, an expert on Joyce, believes there may be even more. The Zurich Wake group, established in 1984, has completed three full readings of the book over the course of almost four decades, and is currently working through its fourth cycle. The initial reading spanned 11 years.
Each group has its unique local personality. According to Quadrino, the New York group tends to be confrontational and often engages in heated arguments, but they are all close friends who have been together for two decades. On the other hand, his Austin group is known for being more amiable and accepting of different ideas.
According to member Sabrina Alonso and host Fritz Senn, the Zurich group is welcoming to both retirees and university students, but can also have elements of competition and disagreement.
One of the most satisfying aspects of my life.
Prior to the pandemic, the Los Angeles group would gather at a library situated near a marina, with boats all around. Winona Phillabaum, the manager of the community library, remembered that the group was known for being “highly intelligent and slightly eccentric.”
I had a phone interview with Fialka, who calls himself an “antiquarian ne’er-do-well”. The interview lasted one hour and eight minutes, and it was unlike any other I have had in my 20 years as a journalist. The conversation was full of unexpected turns and fast-paced, leaving me feeling like I was immersed in Finnegans Wake.
Fialka remarked that listening to them talk can be overwhelming for the senses.
Fialka, a notable figure in the Venice community, has a background working for Frank Zappa and George Carlin. For the past 33 years, he has organized a toy camera film festival. He often mentions famous individuals who have claimed to be influenced by the Wake, including Joseph Campbell, Brie Larson, and Frank Gehry.
Fialka began his October Zoom meeting by asking the 15 participants to take a collective breath in, in support of their reading of the final page. He then had them recite a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who he described as being “a total Wake-ian”. Each member took turns reading two lines of the text at a time.
According to Slote, the challenging nature of Finnegans Wake creates a democratic reading experience. Having expertise in the subject does not guarantee a full understanding of the text. Rather, it is important to recognize that no individual can fully comprehend it, which is where the concept of group reading becomes beneficial. Working together can also aid in deciphering Joyce’s numerous references, which include Irish politics, French literature, popular drinking songs, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
According to Quadrino, who holds a corporate position during the day, his Austin Wake group brings him the most satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
During a meeting, he mentioned having 30 separate tabs open on Wikipedia. He explained that he is constantly discovering new information about historical figures, events, and poets, and it makes him feel as though his mind has been cleansed. It is a refreshing experience.
Fialka clarifies that reports claiming his team has completed the book are incorrect. He explains, “We did not come to an end. The final sentence of the book stops in the middle and resumes at the beginning. It’s a cycle. It never truly concludes.”
In November, they resumed from page three.
“There is no next book,” Fialka told me. “We’re only reading one book. Forever.”