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Scholars make 9,000 corrections to James Joyce classic

Does the new edition of "Finnegans Wake" express or distort the author's intention?

James Joyce
An undated reproduction of a photo of Irishman James Joyce, author of the recently re-edited "Finnegans Wake." (Fran Caffrey/AFP/Getty Images)

Scholars find new ways to present even the most classic works of literature. In this greatest hit of 2010, read about the edits made to James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake." Then check out a more recent story about a new translation of the Bible.

DUBLIN, Ireland ― After 30 years of detective work and eye-strain, two Dubliners have produced a corrected version of "Finnegans Wake."

Their new edition of James Joyce’s most difficult work is being launched in Dublin on March 11. It is naturally the literary event of the year in Ireland, where everyone will acclaim Joyce, though few have actually read his works, and certainly not "Finnegans Wake," one of the most obscure masterpieces in the English language.

Since 1980 scholars Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon have pored over 50 or more of Joyce’s notebooks containing the manuscript of "Finnegans Wake" to identify the thousands of errors that crept into the original publication. They have made 9,000 corrections and alterations, changing punctuation marks, fonts, misspellings, misplaced phrases and ruptured syntax. They attribute the mistakes to Joyce’s failing eyesight, which made it difficult for him to identify type-setting errors when reading the proofs before publication in 1939.

As anyone who has glanced through the book will know, it is full of made-up words, obscure references and ungrammatical sentence constructions intended to convey stream of consciousness. The publication of the new edition, the first since the novel was originally published 70 years ago, is a huge event in the disputatious world of Joycean scholarship, where the placing or omission of a comma can start a war of words. The editors claim that their new edition, typographically re-set for the first time in the book’s publishing history, is the form which Joyce intended. Their assertion that the corrections are crucial for a smooth reading should spark debate among the critics.

Here is an example from the book's opening lines, with changes highlighted:

1939 original: "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."

2010 revision: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle Environs."

Rose, a prominent Joyce scholar, once got himself into hot water for changes he made in a widely accepted version of "Ulysses," Joyce’s best-loved novel about a day in the life of a Dubliner named Leopold Bloom. In his 1997 "Reader’s Edition" of "Ulysses," Rose inserted punctuation into Molly Bloom’s famous closing soliloquy, provoking fury among lovers of the famous comma-free passage that ends, “… and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Most Irish people would claim to have some knowledge of "Ulysses," but will freely admit that "Finnegans Wake" is too difficult for them. The basic story-line is simple enough, however. It is derived from a popular Irish-American ballad about a wake, a party for the dead, held for Timothy Finnegan, who died in a fall from a ladder but was miraculously revived when accidentally splashed with whiskey.