>Rembrandt and Classic Literature: Finnegan’s Wake, The Unnamable


He painted this at 25.

Yesterday I went to the Frick to see the Rembrandt and School exhibit. Rembrandt was a master by the time he was 25. If I had to choose one painting from the Frick to have in my home, it would be the Hans Holbein of Sir Thomas More. The thing about this museum is that it has representative works by most of the masters of Western art.

Now I’m sitting at Barnes & Noble (an activity which will become historical within a few years after all the bricks and mortar bookstores close) reading Finnegan’s Wake. Very unlike Rembrandt stylistically. It’s like Joyce was just talking out loud for six hundred pages, messing around, and he wrote it all down. Except it took him seventeen years.

Meanwhile I’m almost done with Beckett’s The Unnamable, from his prose contribution to classic literature, Three Novels. When you run across three page sentences, it’s easy to see the influence of the elder on the younger. The intensity’s there, but I tellya, it can get tiresome after a while. That doesn’t mean I won’t incorporate those stylistic tendencies, especially into a passage I call the big city feeling, which my old man has helped me with writing. I find these techniques very good for building tension, in the same way a Woody Allen joke does.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.


  1. If i could have one painting from the Frick it would be Ingres’ Comtesse d’Haussonville, although I’d definitely try to sneak the Holbein out too. I don’t know much about Beckett, but there is an interesting installation at the Sean Kelly gallery in Chelsea by the artist Joseph Kosuth which involves a pitch black room with quotations from “Waiting for Godot” written in white neon lights encircling the top. The purely visual experience is stunning but I couldn’t make sense of the text. Maybe your literary mind can decipher it.

  2. Alright, I saw your link in the comments section on the Economist review of the second volume of Beckett’s letters, and I had to write something here because I’m a pedantic prick. First, nobody but certain publishers call Beckett’s trilogy ‘Three Novels.’ It’s usually just called the Trilogy (capitalized or otherwise). Beckett himself barely conceived it as a trilogy: it was only after writing Molloy and Malone Dies that he felt another book was warranted. Afterwards he occasionally resented its being classified as a trilogy.

    Second, this: ‘When you run across three page sentences, it’s easy to see the influence of the elder on the younger. The intensity’s there, but I tellya, it can get tiresome after a while.’ It’s a bit much to ascribe to Joyce’s influence the long sentences in Beckett’s trilogy (The Unnameable especially). After his earliest efforts at fiction, Beckett consciously ran away from Joyce’s style and supremacy.

    My last quibble is small but merited, I think. You wrote, ‘It’s like Joyce was just talking out loud for six hundred pages, messing around, and he wrote it all down.’ This is a bit silly. Finnegans Wake is nothing like anybody talking (talking out loud, you say? as opposed to talking silently, I guess, which isn’t talking at all); it is, in fact, the result of a very carefully constructed linguistic architecture (although this isn’t to say Joyce wasn’t open to leaving certain things to chance, given his notoriously superstitious nature—the story of Beckett transcribing ‘come in’ comes to mind). Joyce was a control freak. Even those episodes in Ulysses which have a very freewheeling feel (Penelope, Lestrygonians, Cyclops) were written with great care and considerable pain, and the same goes for everything he published.

    Again, sorry for being a terrible pedant. I think we might be around the same age and I too am a novelist en fleurs. So there you go.

    Oh, one last thing: I would be totally remiss if I failed to point out your error, which is unsurprisingly common and constant and for Joyce the origin of blackest nightmare: a certain possessive comma appended between the last ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Finnegans. It’s called Finnegans Wake, not Finnegan’s Wake.

  3. F.H.,
    I appreciate your pedantry and I feel it warrants a warm-hearted response. My particular old school edition of Beckett’s Trilogy was called Three Novels. You’re probably right about Beckett getting away from Joyce, but I like the image of a young Beckett working to beat Joyce at his own game. And of course I know that Joyce didn’t just ramble on throughout Finnegans Wake; seventeen years spent on a work should allow it to seem as though it were composed haphazardly though of course we know Joyce’s mastery was due to dedication and perseverance. Thanks for telling me about Finnegans also. I haven’t read the beast and I assume you have. This makes you a young novelist worth knowing. Tell me about your work, please, where do you live, etc?

  4. I’m guessing you’ve got the Grove Press paperback. If you enjoy the novels, I suggest you give away that edition, or maybe put it on a shelf somewhere out of sight, and buy the Everyman’s Library edition. It’s very nice hardcover and the excellent introduction is written by Gabriel Josipovici.

    I don’t know about even the image of a young Beckett trying to beat Joyce at his own game. Have you read any biographies of Beckett? (There are two really good ones, by James Knowlson and Anthony Cronin, the latter being the better, I think.) His letters? (Volume II was just published a few days ago.) He practically worshiped Joyce, even adopting some of his physical mannerisms—the way he sat on a chair, wearing thin French shoes too small for his (Beckett’s) feet, etc. It’s true they became as close as anyone outside Joyce’s family could be close to him, with Joyce calling Beckett, well, ‘Beckett.’ (With Joyce, Beckett said, everyone is Mister. He was profoundly moved when Joyce dropped the honorific.)

    You’ve left out the most important member of the triumvirate behind Joyce’s success: genius. I deeply admire Joyce (can you tell?), and while he’s not my favorite writer I do think he was the greatest master of English the language has ever known, ahead even of Shakespeare.

    I’ve read a decent chunk of Finnegans Wake and I’ve read all of John Bishop’s excellent exegesis of it, Joyce’s Book of the Dark. But if I had read all of the Wake straight through I don’t think I could bring myself to admit it publicly.

    I’d rather not give out too many personal details here. I’ll write only that I turned 25 a week ago. If you want to know more or continue the discussion, you can e-mail me at felix(dot)h(dot)knapp(at)gmail(dot)com.

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