James Joyce’s 1939 Finnegans Wake notoriously starts out with this linguistic monstrosity thundering the fall of Adam and Eve:
It doesn’t get easier from there. Illustrator John Vernon Lord has valiantly distilled the imagery of the highly experimental literary experience into a gorgeous new edition from the Folio Society.
The publisher regularly works with artists to create beautiful versions of the classics — from Katherine Hardy illustrating William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to Bill Bragg taking on Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis — but it’s fair to say Finnegans Wake is next level. Sure, you may have made it through Joyce’s Ulysses and felt quite proud of your literary prowess, but the effort to comprehend Finnegans Wake might make you feel like you’ve had head trauma.
Lord writes in his introduction:
Sometimes I felt like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, when she first read “Jabberwocky” she commented, “It seems very pretty … but it’s rather hard to understand … somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” Finnegans Wake is a book that has to be experienced rather than fully understood. Joyce’s remarkable book certainly filled my head with ideas, for “no birdy aviar soar any wing to eagle it!”
The notebooks of Lord’s careful deciphering of the Joyce are an art in their own right, and although at first glance you might think he randomly collaged together some pecking hens, trippy rainbows, and poor Finnegan tumbling from the ladder along with Humpty Dumpty and Newton’s apple, everything resonates with the contorting narrative. And there are some brilliant visuals in the book, even caught in the tornado of made up words and no discernible plot:
Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds. Now are all tombed to the mound, isges to isges, erde from erde.
Joyce notoriously spent 17 years on the book; Lord put in 499 hours and 15 minutes illustrating it (the timetables are included in his notebooks). Taking inspiration from medieval altarpiece paintings with their “prendellas” — strips of imagery at the bottom — each illustration has a succession of visuals, with the far right image appearing in the left of the next page until you’re looped back to the beginning again. He notes that “the novel is essentially a dream,” and the Folio cover is a night sky rolling away in the darkness.
John Vernon Lord’s illustrated edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is available from the Folio Society.