A Book Club Began ‘Finnegans Wake’ in 1995. After 28 Years, It Finally Reached the End

The group meets once a month to talk about one or two pages of the bewildering James Joyce novel

Reading group around a table
Fialka's reading group in Venice, California, in 2008 Alfred Benjamin

Known as one of literature’s most difficult works, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is best approached as a long-term commitment. Outside of classroom settings, readers often take on its 600-plus pages in groups, working together over many sessions.

Experimental filmmaker Gerry Fialka started one such group in Venice, California, in 1995, when he was in his early 40s. Readers met monthly to discuss a page or two, continuing at this pace for years, then decades. As history churned on—through the invasion of Iraq, the dawn of the iPhone and seven presidential elections—they chipped away at the book. They read the final page in early October, 28 years after their first meeting.

“I don’t want to lie. It wasn’t like I saw God,” Fialka, now 70, tells the Observer’s Lois Beckett. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake over the course of 17 years. The text, which blurs the boundaries between reality and dreams, pulls from more than 60 languages. Published in 1939, it has been confounding scholars and casual readers alike ever since.

The first line of the enigmatic novel begins mid-sentence: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” By the end of the third paragraph, Joyce has introduced words such as “humptyhillhead,” “tumptytumtoes,” “upturnpikepointandplace” and even “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk.”

The novel is, in a small word, dense.

Finnegans Wake annotations
A heavily annotated copy of Finnegans Wake Richard Cowdell via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

“[Joyce] couldn’t have counted on many readers, or any readers, to get it,” Samuel Slote, a literary scholar at Trinity College Dublin, tells the New York Times’ Livia Albeck-Ripka. “No one person can really fully master it.”

Over the years, the format and composition of Fialka’s group have evolved. Members came and went. Some returned after long absences; others died. Readers between the ages of 12 and 98 have taken part.

Talking about Joyce with the group has been “the most fulfilling thing in my life,” Peter Quadrino, a 38-year-old accountant, tells the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick. At one point, he was regularly driving three hours from San Diego to participate in the monthly gatherings.

Another member, Roy Benjamin, 70, has been joining the group remotely from New York City for about two years. “Joyce is an obsession,” he tells the Times. “The more things that you learn, the more it makes sense, and nonsense, to you.”

For many readers, Finnegans Wake isn’t a text to master or a puzzle to solve. Instead, it’s something of a psychoactive agent. The question of what it means is less interesting than how it affects the reader.

“People think they’re reading a book; they’re not,” Fialka tells the Times. “They’re breathing and living together as human beings in a room, looking at printed matter and figuring out what printed matter does to us.”

Group photo of book club
A group photo of the Finnegans Wake book club in 2008 Alfred Benjamin

The group used to meet in person, eventually switching to Zoom during the pandemic. On October 3, more than a dozen readers signed on to discuss the final page. Fialka instructed them to “take one conscious breath in together.” They took turns reading two lines each until they reached the end.

Fialka, however, isn’t particularly interested in endings. Looking ahead, the group’s meetings will continue apace.

“There is no next book,” he tells the Observer. “We’re only reading one book. Forever.”

For Joyce, endings aren’t really endings. The novel’s final line—“A way a lone a last a loved a long the”—cuts off mid-sentence, and scholars say it’s meant to continue into the book’s first line.

The group’s readers, meanwhile, will go where Joyce takes them: back to page one.

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