IN order, no doubt, to minimize the risk of putting the most notoriously unreadable book ever published into a paperback edition, in 1975 Faber and Faber attempted to woo hesitant purchasers of Finnegans Wake with a reassuring statement on the back cover. The statement, by Anthony Burgess, asserts that in this book “the puzzle element is less important than the thrust of the narrative and the shadowy majesty of the characters.” This piece of promoters' wishful thinking exemplifies the immense need felt by readers and publishers of literary texts (especially long ones) for the firm center that narrative and character provide; it is the tip of an iceberg of academic labor that has taken as its goal the production-which it usually sees as the “discovery”-of such a center in Finnegans Wake.
Anthony Burgess has also sought to aid the reading public by producing a Shorter Finnegans Wake, and it is instructive to watch him about his business, filleting out the backbone of the text (to use his own rather surprising metaphor) 1 and serving it up without the flesh. After a ritual protest-“Finnegans Wake is one of the few books of the
1“The backbone of Finnegans Wake is easily filleted out” (SFW, 9). What in fact follows this statement is an account of Vico's historical cycles, whose relationship to the narrative described by Burgess is not immediately clear.