On this day…3 August

On 3 August 1938 Joyce paid Eugene Jolas 1000 francs for guessing the name of his book.

From the time he started work on what became Finnegans Wake, Joyce had kept the title of his book secret. On 2 August Eugene Jolas correctly guessed the name and the following day Joyce paid him 1000 francs, and asked him to keep the title secret.

Joyce seems to have come up with the title of his book very early, even before he was sure of its final structure, but he was determined to keep it a secret. When Ford Madox Ford offered to publish part of the book in his transatlantic review, he also suggested using the title Work in Progress as a way of avoiding naming the book, and from then until the work was published in full, it was known only as Work in Progress.

In March 1924 Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver to explain the various sigla he was using to designate characters in the novel. He used □ to designate the name of the book which, he told her, he didn’t want to say until more of the book had written itself, as he put it. This siglum also designated houses of one kind or another, including a lunatic asylum, and in his notes Joyce equates the book with a house.

He also used this siglum in connection with the competition to guess the name of the book. While keeping the name secret, Joyce encouraged his friends to guess what it might be and offered a thousand francs to whoever correctly guessed the name.

Ellmann claims that this guessing game was one way of keeping the sceptical Harriet Weaver involved and interested in the book. In May 1927 Joyce told her the name was simple and commonplace and consisted of two words. She guessed titles like ‘One Squared,’ ‘Dublin Ale,’ ‘Ireland’s Eye,’ ‘Phoenix Park,’ and ‘Finn’s Town.’ Though Joyce encouraged her guessing by giving her clues to the title, he didn’t really want her to guess it, only to play the guessing game.

The same was true of other friends who were also drawn into the guessing game, but on a night in July 1938, Joyce drunkenly went too far with his clues, and Maria Jolas almost guessed the name. She and her husband thought it over for the next few days, until on 2 August Eugene Jolas realised the name must be Finnegans Wake. At dinner with Joyce that evening, Jolas dropped the name, and Joyce went white. Though a little sad at first, Joyce soon became quite merry, and asked Jolas how he would like to be paid: ‘In sous,’ came the answer, and the next day Joyce arrived at the Jolases’ apartment with a bag containing a thousand francs in coins.

Joyce, who still hadn’t even told his publishers what the book was called, swore Jolas to secrecy until the book was published. Harriet Weaver only found out what it was called when she saw the proof for the title page on 4 February 1939.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.

McHugh, Roland: The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, London: Edward Arnold, 1976.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Plagrave Macmillan, 2004.