China’s surprise bestseller: ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ by James Joyce

China’s surprise bestseller: ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ by James Joyce
Billboards promoting “Finnegan’s Wake” went up in Shanghai, above, and other major Chinese cities. One reason for the book’s popularity may be advertising.
(Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg)

Readers in China have been snapping up copies of James Joyce’s notoriously difficult novel “Finnegan’s Wake,” published in Chinese for the first time. Its publisher says that the first print run sold out in five weeks.

The Associated Press reports that the book was No. 2 on Shanghai’s “good books” bestseller list -- its serious reads -- second only to a new biography of Deng Xiaoping.


One reason for its popularity may be advertising. The Chinese translation of “Finnegan’s Wake” is said to be the first book to be the subject of a billboard campaign. Billboards promoting the novel went up in Shanghai and other major Chinese cities.

The book’s difficulty may also have been a factor in its success. "It has the reputation of being inscrutable, and people are so curious they want to read it themselves,” Chinese writer and critic Murong Xuecun told the Associated Press. “I am sure that’s universal around the world. It does not say the Chinese readers have a higher taste.”


Shanghai People’s Publishing House editor Wang Weisong said the initial print run was just 8,000 -- the response to Joyce’s classic came as a surprise. “Finnegan’s Wake” in Chinese has gone back to the printer.

Those who get it can expect to be as baffled as those who read the book in English. “I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend,” said the book’s translator, Dai Congrong.


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