Introducing Islam in Finnegans Wake

A Fragment from “Introducing Islam in Finnegans Wake” By Aida Yared

While writing Finnegans Wake, Joyce jotted down abbreviated entries in some fifty notebooks1 that he took great care to preserve. The entries are mainly fragments of sentences from books or newspapers that Joyce was reading – or that were being read to him, scraps of conversations, and personal thoughts or commentaries. Their study is essential to our understanding of Joyce’s last published work.

When a given Notebook entry was incorporated into his Work in Progress, the Irish writer was in the habit of crossing it out with a colored crayon. Pages 103-110 of VI.B.45, that deal with Islam, are among the Notebooks pages most heavily marked in this fashion: they can be deciphered only when viewed through an orange-red filter, the color of the crayon used by Joyce in deleting the entries. Their source can be traced back to The Story of Mohammed, a biography of the Islamic Prophet by Edith Holland.2VI.B.45 was compiled, according to Danis Rose, in Jan-Feb 1938.3 By that time, Joyce was very familiar with Mohammed and the Mohammedan religion. His reading on the topic, as evidenced by his note-taking, spanned the period during which he was working on Finnegans Wake.

He owned a copy of the Koran in a French translation by J.-C. Mardrus,4 and took notes from its first few pages in 1926 (VI.B.12.137).5 Other works he had closely read include the Encyclopædia Britannica (article Mecca, VI.B.24.209-216) in 1929-31; The Speeches and Table-Talk of the Prophet Mohammad by Stanley Lane-Poole (VI.B.31.45-69)6 in April-November 1931; and Sir Richard Burton’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night,7 which has extensive marginalia on “the manners and customs of Moslem men,” and to which Joyce intermittently turned from 1922 to 1939 (Notebooks VI.A, VI.B.28, VI.B.32 and VI.B33). Additional notes on Islam are scattered throughout the Notebooks, and include a sizeable cluster on Islamic rituals (VI.B.31.180-182), taken from a source that is still untraced.

Joyce inserted numerous details of Mohammad’s life and creed – including the origin and structure of the Koran, into Finnegans Wake, where they appear as important components of the framework and collective unconscious of the book.8 The notes from The Story of Mohammed were the closest in time to the publication of Finnegans Wake (1939). Joyce probably took them in the first half of January 1938, as they were used in the revisions of II.3§4-5 for transition (January 18, 1938; JJA 54.253), the second set of Book I galleys (received by Harriet Shaw Weaver on May 16, 1938; JJA 49.287-288), and II.1-II.3§1 galleys.

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