Rachel Redford

To appreciate Finnegans Wake you must hear its sounds and rhythms

The astonishing musicality of Joyce’s difficult work is brought out delightfully by Barry McGovern and Marcella Riordan in the first ever unabridged recording

Joyce’s decade-long problems with failing eyesight may lie behind the astonishing musicality of Finnegans Wake [Bridgeman images]

‘How good you are in explosition!’

The first ever unabridged recording of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a monumental achievement by Naxos AudioBooks. Before its publication in 1939, Joyce had spent 17 years on this notoriously impenetrable work. Since then it has sparked dedicated study — and derision. Many serious readers have abandoned attempts to understand it — referred to within the Wake itself as a worthless ‘pinch of scribble’. But here, Barry McGovern, an experienced performer of Joyce, and Marcella Riordan (Molly Bloom in the Naxos recording of Ulysses) are so spectacularly brilliant with the sounds and rhythms of the language that words seemingly incomprehensible on the page magically communicate enough for the listener to enter the whole work.

Words which seem baffling on the page magically communicate enough for the listener to enter the whole work

It was perhaps his decade-long problems with failing eyesight that lie behind the astonishing musicality of Joyce’s writing, which is brought out delightfully by the narrators with their Irish intonation, and is further enhanced by the direction of the composer Roger Marsh, who has chosen musical extracts as nuanced as the text, including one of his own composition.

So what are these 29 hours about? Mr and Mrs Porter live above a pub near Dublin (drinking is in the fabric of the Wake). They have twin boys (various twins will recur) and a daughter, Issy. Asleep in their dream world, the family morphs into various incarnations which spawn and spread: Issy into the Tristan and Isolde legend; Mr Porter into both the hod-carrier Finnegan, who fell to his death when the ‘difflun’s kiddy’ (devil’s child) removed a plank from the scaffolding, and also into Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker; and Mrs Porter into Anna Livia Plurabelle, who finally dissolves into the ‘rivering waters’ of the Liffey.

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