As It Happens

This man is memorizing and performing all 688 pages of Finnegans Wake

It took Joyce 17 years to write Finnegans Wake. Kosaly-Meyer says that's how long it will take him to memorize and perform it.

Seattle's Neal Kosaly-Meyer is 6 years into a 17-year project to commit the notoriously dense novel to memory

Neal Kosaly-Meyer is a Seattle composer and pianist who is memorizing all of James Joyce's notoriously inscrutable novel, Finnegans Wake. (Submitted by Neal Kosaly-Meyer)

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Neal Kosaly-Meyer gave up trying to understand Finnegans Wake a long time ago. Instead, he's memorizing it.

The 1939 novel by James Joyce has been described as the most unreadable book ever written. The Penguins Classic edition clocks in at 688 pages, all of them penned in an inscrutable stream-of-consciousness prose, complete with 100-letter words and puns that require a working knowledge of several languages.

"It's a tough go if you're just going to try and read it. It's an even tougher go if your main goal is to understand it," the 61-year-old man from Seattle told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I'm determined to memorize it because I'm not really determined to understand it at all."

Finnegans Wake, as far as anyone can tell, is about scandal and allegations that befall the Earwicker family in Dublin. It took Joyce 17 years to write it, and Kosaly-Meyer says that's how long it will take him to memorize it. 

Fortunately for him, he's already six chapters in.

He learns one new chapter every year, then performs it locally in Seattle. He debuted Chapter 6 on Saturday at the Good Shepherd Center.

"I'm going to be 72 years old by the time I learn the last one," he said.

An undated reproduction of a photo of Irishman James Joyce, author of several of Dublin's most famous literary masterpieces. (Fran Caffrey/AFP/Getty Images)

Kosaly-Meyer is a pianist and a composer, and he says he's taking a musical approach to memorizing Joyce's complicated prose.

It's a method he first thought of when he was 25 and attempting to read the book for the first time. Like most readers, he hit his first stumbling block on the very first page — a 100-letter word that Joyce invented:

"Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawn-
toohoohoordenenthurnuk."

"The thought was I would have to, like, study this and practice this and take it like one syllable at a time if I were going to read this. And that was like an 'a-ha' that this is more like a difficult piece of piano music," he said.

"I'm not a great piano player, but I had definitely had some things that I'd had to work on, and work on separately and slowly and a little bit at a time, you know, when you work the tempo up as you go."

Kosaly-Meyer doesn't struggle with that behemoth of a word anymore. He can rhyme it off on command, right off the top of his head. 

And the more he memorizes and performs Finnegans Wake, the more he says he realizes this is the perfect way to read it.

"Finnegans Wake is a book to be experienced. It's a book to be heard," he said.

"I think the beautiful thing about it is you can have a delightful time reading the book without understanding anything."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Neal Kosaly-Meyer produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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