Preface & Introduction to FINN’S HOTEL


.i..’. .o..l  : A Preface to Finn’s Hotel

We can discern a repeating pattern in Joyce’s compositional method. First he creates a text, or texts, in which he musters his characters. He develops this to a greater or lesser extent, then abandons it, having since (with his characters now in situ) re-conceived it. He then newly develops the re-imagined version, occasionally cannibalising the earlier texts in the process.

Thus we have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerging from the fragments of Stephen Hero, Ulysses emerging from the fragments of a sequel to A Portrait, from Giacomo Joyce, and from a planned but unwritten Dubliners story (also called Ulysses).  His big books are, in a sense, a two-step process, a single step being too high a climb. The ur-works are like enzymes precipitating his creativity.

The same thing happened with his last novel. Joyce’s original idea was of an aged Finn McCool asleep on the banks of the Liffey while the history of Ireland flowed past him as in a dream. With this seminal notion in place, partly to be realised in Finn’s Hotel, he began to write.

Finn’s Hotel—a place where people come and go—bridges the gap between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. It is both a work in itself and a wonderful, serio-comic, and easily-read introduction to the key themes and characters of the notoriously difficult later work.

Finn’s Hotel was originally conceived as a series of fables: short, concise and concentrated pieces of prose fiction (‘epiclets’, to use Joyce’s neologism), centering on formative Irish historic or mythic moments, spanning the millennium and a half since the arrival in Ireland of Saint Patrick. He composed the pieces in 1923, some six months after his final disengagement from Ulysses and before he had as yet conceived of the plot, structure, or sheer immensity of his epic Finnegans Wake.

The episodes of Finn’s Hotel are written in a unique diversity of styles and for the most part in plain English. Taken together, they form the true (and hitherto unknown) precursor to the multi-modulated voices of the Wake. Joyce composed the episodes one by one, revising some, leaving some in first draft, before he finally laid them aside. And there they remained, all but forgotten, some for sixteen years (until he rifled that wardrobe for material for the last-written sections of the Wake), and some forever, that is, until now. Only a single episode, the Pop piece (‘Here Comes Everybody’), stood apart. Towards the end of 1923, on reflection he saw in it an opening, a line of literary development that he could follow and expand into his new Irish (as opposed to his old Dublin) epic, Finnegans Wake.

Even so, back in the old days, in the sean aimsir, I (apparently alone) was not happy about the general understanding of the nature and position within the oeuvre of the fragments. They simply did not lock into the genesis of the Wake, of which we have learned a great deal, in great particularity. We can trace ab ovo and in fine point the evolution of the various chapters, sections, and subsections of the Wake from start to finish and at no point do we have need of, or can rationally discern, any superstructure that these ‘earliest’ elements (‘nodes’ in David Hayman’s terminology) could supposedly have supplied. Certainly one of them, ‘Here Comes Everybody’—narrating how Pop got his name of Earwicker—did become the hopping-off point for Finnegans Wake and certainly the themes of letter-writer and letter-carrier were profoundly developed; but the main lines of the latter went elsewhere, and the ad hoc absorption of some of the Finn’s Hotel pieces into the work in progress (Finnegans Wake) at a very late moment, in 1938, did in no wise support their supposed nature as early drafts.

The next logical step in the argument—they do not seem to fit because they do not fit—became clear after I had put the pieces together, separating them out from the larger collection, and after I had traced the order of their composition and related these (and not Finnegans Wake) to the otherwise inapplicable and inexplicable comments made by Joyce in his correspondence of the period (for example, how the title of what he was writing was a direct nod to Nora Barnacle; how he was tunnelling through a mountain from both sides and hoping to meet in the middle; how it was a history of Ireland; and so on), and, most importantly, on working out that there was an original title for the ‘misfit’ pieces, ‘Finn’s Hotel’, the shadow of which extended right across the subsequent seventeen years of the composition of Finnegans Wake. In fact, it seems that Joyce intended to hold on to the original name. Only towards the end of the ‘work in progress’ years did he, naturally, find it no longer apposite and opted instead for the new title ‘Finnegans Wake’. The ‘old’ title he buried (as .i..’.  .o..l) in the body of the text of the work in progress, a title within a title.

The larger work emerged out of the ‘Here Comes Everybody’ episode of Finn’s Hotel: the story of a ‘man mountain’ named Earwicker. Always working in a profoundly Irish comic vein, Joyce went on to write variously about Earwicker’s history, his alleged original sin ‘in the park’ and its consequences, about Mom (re-imagined as Anna Livia) writing a letter to ‘the king’ in exoneration / inculpation of her husband, and about Earwicker’s family (two warring sons who are to grow up to be a writer and a postman, respectively, and their sister, who is going to break hearts as soon as she is old enough). With this family nucleus well embedded both in Chapelizod and in world history, nothing now stood between him and the new novel’s exponential expansion into his very own Book of the Dead, the book destined to become Ireland’s and arguably the world’s greatest fairytale: Finnegans Wake.

With this publication, another small piece of the complex jigsaw of Irish history and literature escapes repression and provides us with a clearer picture of what actually happened. I am happy to play the role of the postman turning up, if belatedly and zigzaggedly, with a most ‘beautiful crossmess parzel’.


Finn’s Hotel : A History of Ireland by James Joyce

Finn’s Hotel is and yet is not the world of Finnegans Wake. It is close to the great work in many respects and much of it is later blended into drafts of the Wake; but it is, in the main, a sequence of separate and yet interconnected studies, comic meditations upon a condition, the condition of lastness—of sovereignty over truth, self, love, memory, territory, over a name, sovereignty over letters—that is constantly threatened by time, treachery, rebellion, gossip, and is finally taken over (or overtaken) by the otherness that emerges when that series of patriarchal principles and phases dies. The condition of lastness is always turning into the condition of firstness.

The centrality of Ireland as an historical entity is also more pronounced in Finn’s Hotel. Joyce’s manipulation here of the issues surrounding the construction of the ‘idea’ of Ireland—a pervasive preoccupation of Irish nationalist discourse, especially in the first decades of the twentieth century—later provided a paradigm for the more elaborate developments in the Wake. Finn’s Hotel is also his first prose work that does not use Dublin as its central geographical-historical-cultural trope.

Finn’s Hotel is both an extension of Ulysses and an anticipation of Finnegans Wake. But when these episodes, ‘storiellas’, sketches or recits are read thematically as exempla of repression the integral, interconnected status of the Finn’s Hotel pieces is clearest. Joyce’s preoccupation with the relationship between sovereignty and possession is continued in the Wake, but in Finn’s Hotel it is more clearly exposed.

The world of Finn’s Hotel is one of cycles of sameness initiated by pivotal—or seemingly pivotal—historical moments. Joyce took this vision of teleology into Finnegans Wake, where his characters become abstract entities—mere signs—that yet hold within their ‘memory’ entire life-cycles, driven forward by a mere handful of deep-structural tropes: sex, gender, authority, language, race, age, relationship, and ritual.

The almost exclusively Irish range of reference in Finn’s Hotel allows us to see Joyce’s fascination with the spectacle of his own country and culture attempting to define for itself an identity, by raiding history, by affirming racial characteristics that manifest themselves in history, by supplanting disobliging, imposed stereotypes with more benign versions.

Finn’s Hotel tracks this process in purely Irish terms; as such, it provides illumination in retrospect for his earlier works and in prospect for the Wake. Because it is not syncretised and encyclopaedic like the Wake and is yet largely enfolded within it, it is both the great work in nuce and a seminal, distinct work in itself.

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