Finnegans Wake redux

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Cover of The Restored Finnegans Wake, Penguin Classics, 2012

The big literary news item over the past days is that the first run of 8,000 copies of the new Chinese translation of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake sold out in only a few weeks. Coverage of the story in the Western press ran the spectrum from the patronizingly bemused to the frankly derisive. On January 30 the New York Times struck a common tone by asking, “how do you say ‘coffee table trophy’ in Mandarin?” The Daily Beast sniffed at a jejune market grasping at “highbrow imports.” Business Insider pointed to rank “advertising” and was amazed that the book had been promoted by “huge billboards.”

As for the beautiful new Penguin edition of the Restored Finnegans Wake, less than a year on the shelves in the English-speaking world, is there reason to doubt that buyers might be motivated to purchase it for other reasons than actually reading it? Doesn’t the idea of the “most bookish of all books,” to cite Amazon’s ad copy, suggest an object that remains just that: “a physical book” and “artefact” suitable for display?

 Finnegans Wake is the most bookish of all books. John Bishop has described it as ‘the single most intentionally crafted literary artefact that our culture has produced’. In its original format, however, the book has been beset by numerous imperfections occasioned by the confusion of its seventeen-year composition. Only today, by restoring to our view the author’s intentions in a physical book designed, printed and bound to the highest standards of the printers’ art, can the editors reveal in true detail James Joyce’s fourth, and last, masterwork.

And yet the cover of the RFW is quite appealing, a playful mix of Vorticism and 80s-era Qbert. Why can’t the image make it onto “huge billboards” in the English-speaking world?

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