Friday, November 12, 2010

Literary Blog Hop: Don't be Difficult!

Literary Blog Hop

The Blue Bookcase has started a "Literary Blog Hop" for blogs "that primarily feature reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion."

Each week, in addition to hopping around and visiting some terrific book blogs, participants answer a bookish question.  This week's question comes from Debbie Nance at Readerbuzz:

What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult? 

Ingrid answered the question for the Blue Bookcase crew this week. Her essay on Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is excellent. I read Goethe's Faust in college, but never Mann's retake. Ingrid makes a good case for doing so.

For me, that question is a lead pipe cinch to answer, because I've read Finnegans Wake. If anyone who has read it does not pick it as the most difficult book, he is lying.

Before I started FW, I knew nothing about how it was written and had no idea that it was so crazy. I knew that it is Joyce’s magnum opus, that it took him 17 years or so to write, and that he had staff helping him research.

I also knew from reading about FW that it all takes place in one night, but is a history of all time, and that the main dream character feels guilt about something he did in a park with two "temptresses" and for vaguely incestuous feelings he has towards his daughter. I "knew" these ideas only in the sense that I read about their existence. But by 100 pages or so into the book itself, I still had no actual comprehension of them. Or anything, for that matter. The closest I could get would be a vague suggestion of some of these themes from sentences like this:
And so they went on, the fourbottle men, the analists, unguam and nunguam and lunguam again, their anschluss about her whosebefore and his whereafters and how she was lost away away in the fern and how he was founded deap on deep in anear, and the rustlings and the twitterings and the raspings and the snappings and the sighings and the paintings and the ukukuings and the (hist!) the springapartings and the (hast!) the bybyscuttlings and all the scandalmunkers and the pure craigs that used to be (up) that time living and lying and rating and riding round Nunsbelly Square.
Yep. That's what the entire book is like. All 620 pages. Made up words, foreign words, amalgamated words – crazy stuff. I never understood an entire paragraph; only occasionally comprehended an entire sentence, and definitely only short ones; and was delighted at every word I caught. I read it for the experience of reading it, but gave up trying to understand it after the first page. Yes, I tried reading it out loud, and that helped – but only to a point. I decided to just let it flow over me and enjoy the sounds like poetry or music.

And I was so pleased with myself for finishing it. I was free to "shun the Punman" after months of effort. I was also a little concerned, because I seemed to understand it better after about page 500. I hoped this meant it just hits an easier patch as it gets to the end. I hoped it did not mean that I had learned enough FW language to comprehend more, because then I would have been tempted to start over at the beginning!

Of course, that is what Joyce intended. He wanted to publish FW in a spiral binding without covers, so there would be no official beginning or end and people would read it non-stop. As it is, it starts in the middle of a sentence. The final sentence in the book is the beginning of the sentence that starts the book.

Finnegans Wake was definitely the most difficult book I have ever read. It is not that I hated it. It was incredibly frustrating, but it has poetic beauty. I do not think anyone should read it unless they are compulsive about finishing their book lists (like me), or are really into James Joyce. But I like the idea that there is a structure to it (even if I couldn't follow the structure). For me, it was like that famous Hieronymus Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. I do not like it. I think it is weird. It takes too long to look at and there are so many things in it that I do not understand. But, I admire the mind and talent that created it.

That said, I was thrilled to be done with FW! When I finished it, I keep thinking of that joke about the 85-year-old, widowed rabbi who goes into the confessional at St. Mary's and says to the priest, "Father, I just had sexual relations with a 24-year-old aerobics instructor." The priest says, "But Rabbi, why are you confessing? You aren't Catholic." The rabbi says, "Confessing? Are you kidding? I'm telling EVERYBODY." That was me – I told EVERYBODY.

And now you can "suck it yourself, Sugarstick"!


  1. Ha ha! I don't think I've really met anyone who liked Finnegan's Wake.
    Thanks for your post and the shout out!

  2. Holy cow is all I could think after reading the first two sentences of that quote. I've only read Joyce's short stories, and maybe I should stick to them!

  3. Ingrid: Only graduate students, I would think. Those few people who have spent careers studying it.

    Lorren Lemmons: It's heavy sledding, that's for sure!

  4. I've only read A Portrait of the Artist twice for required reading. Hated it both times. :) Some bloggers are talking about doing a readalong of Ulysses next year and I can't believe I'm actually considering. I'm guessing the experience would be much like Finnegan's Wake! What was your original reason for reading it?

  5. This weeks blog hop is making me steer clear of any Joyce. I haven't read any, and now don't intend to any time soon!


  6. oh no I just bought this book. only for a couple dollars second hand, but gosh. I'm scared of it now!

    haha but seriously, great post. I'm a new follower :)

  7. *For me, it was like that famous Hieronymus Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. I do not like it. I think it is weird. It takes too long to look at and there are so many things in it that I do not understand. But, I admire the mind and talent that created it. *

    Yes, I have that kind of respect for a lot of work I don't personally like.

    And... now I'm afraid of Joyce. :-)

  8. Huge kudos to you for reading the 'Wake'! I believe you are the only person I have ever met who actually read it successfully. That bit you shared has absolute reinforced my desire to avoid Joyce for the rest of my days on the planet. You'll get a kick out my posting today, as I do a bit of mild Joyce-bashing (it is my problem, not Joyce's ;-). I'm just too dumb for Joyce, I fear.

    I also cracked up when you alluded to the complexity of FW and how it reminded you of looking at a Bosch painting. I used precisely the same analogy when describing my relationship with Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian." Great minds think alike!

    Great posting! Cheers! Chris

  9. oh dear, first visit to your blog & i'm a dissenter. not quite the polite "hello" I'd planned, but I love Joyce, yes he's hard work, yes he speaks gobbledygook, but give him time, like all good relationship, humour him, & its amazing what you'll gain in return. sorry about that. oh &

  10. Everything by Marcel Proust. The sentences span almost an entire page.

  11. Trish: Don't be scared off of Joyce by FW. I actually liked Ulysses and plan to read it again. I may join you in the read-along.

    I sort of enjoyed Portrait, until the endless fire & brimstone sermon part.

    Sam: I think everyone should read something by Joyce, just to say they did. :)

    Toni: Thanks for following!

    Jillian: I have a similar reaction to Henry James, although I usually compare him to artists who paint on grains of rice.

    Chris: How funny that you used the same HB analogy! I will come by for a visit this weekend when I do my hopping.

    parrish lantern: Don't get me wrong. I actually like and enjoy Joyce. It was just FW that almost did me in. I've read the others (I think all of them) and liked them all, especially Ulysses. Have you read Wake?

    Charleydog: I've been afraid to try Proust for that exact reason!

  12. Finnigan's Wake sounds like it's written by the author for the author, and no one else. It may have been great fun for him to write but I don't see why anyone would seriously want to read and understand it.

    To me it seems like a piece of art work. Put it in a museum, for people to wow over, but read it? Nah. Leeswammes (Judith)

  13. Judith: I think even better -- put it in a graduate lit program and let Phd. candidates struggle with it. :)

  14. Brilliant post. Loved reading this one. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with this book. I do not know know why, but now I have this strange compulsion to go out and find this book and read it. Scary.

    And why am I not following your posts? I would have bet money that I was, but apparently, no. I am now, however. Quite happily.

    Here's my post:

  15. wow-I think my eyes crossed when I was reading that sentence! I think I would go nuts if I tried to get through 620 pages of that.

  16. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    Honestly, Joyce terrifies me. I've heard so many people say that he's the most brilliant writer ever, but then I get to a paragraph like the one you just posted, and I'm scared away all over again. One of my life goals is to read Ulysses, but I honestly don't know if I ever will.

  17. readerbuzz: Thanks for coming up with such a great prompt! This was a lot of fun to answer and I am enjoying reading everyone's posts.

    MJ: When I say I "read" Wake, I mean that my eyeballs looked at every word and my brain at least tried to pronounce them, but there was minimum comprehension. Minimum.

  18. Hi Rose city reader(Referencing Trish) Its the Fire & Brimstone, thst I like.

  19. Congratulations on making it through Finnegan's Wake. Maybe someday when I'm retired I'll attempt Ulysses, but I'm staying away from FW.
    Susan from Reading World

  20. Ha. Love your joke at the end, and the Bosch analogy. At least the painting would take a few minutes of your life to mull over, not months of your life to try and read. Thank you for reading Finnegan's Wake, so that I'll never have to. I don't think I could get through 20 pages of the snippet you've given, let alone 620. I do like the spiral bound idea, and starting and ending midway through the same sentence, that's very clever actually. But to fill it with 620 pages of what may as well be in Bulgarian for all the sense I'm going to make of it, well that definitely puts FW smack bang in the middle of my Life's Too Short category.

  21. Emily: You snuck in there when I was leaving a comment. I didn't mean to skip you.

    I read Ulysses for a class and that made a big difference. But with the internet, there are always resources to help figure things out. I am thinking of re-reading Ulysses with google at my side.

    parrish lantern: The fire & brimstone sermon was pitch perfect, that's for sure!

    Susan: I think Ulysses is worth the effort. FW is too long and crazy. It is like trying to read a book in a foreign language.

    Louise: "Like trying to read a book in Bulgarian" is a perfect analogy. You might find a word here or there or even get the gist of a phrase, but it is impossible to actually understand it. Glad you liked the joke. :)

  22. Yep. I asked my husband, and he had the exact same answer. He finally managed to get through Finnegan after five months last year!

  23. Kudos to you for braving the intemperate waters of Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, required reading a few lives ago, didn't seem nearly as dense to me as some make it... but of course it pales in comparison to the puzzling maze of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake.

  24. Ohh my goodness. That excerpt you posted is one of the most confusing things I've ever read. And come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard people raving about how much they adore Joyce's writing style..

  25. Haven't tried FW - Had to read Ulysses in college, and that was enough. I also had to read The Dubliners - much more accessible.

  26. haha nice post. and as one of your other commenters said, i now have this unnerving desire to go out and read FW. why? i've never heard a good thing about this book. i came here through the hop but am definitely going to be adding you to my regular reads!

  27. gautami tripathy: Thanks for hopping by and for leaving the link to your post.

    Amanda: I'm glad to hear that someone other than me read it not for a class. Please tell your husband that he has my sympathy!

    Dan Cafaro: Thanks for visiting! I agree with you that Portrait is much more accessible than Ulysses. And everything is easier than Wake.

    Kelly: That's something, isn't it!? Crazy. Every word has a meaning, but it was beyond me to figure out what they were, not to mention the overall meaning.

    2manybooks2littletime: I agree. Dubliners was enjoyable and Ulysses was doable. I am going to re-read Ulysses because now I think I would like it more than I did in college. Please do!b Read Wake and then come back an commiserate with me! Actually, please come back before then . . .

  28. I loved this post, and particularly loved the comparison to the Bosch painting. Actually, the comparison seems apt, given Joyce's conflicts with his mother church, and rather self-flagellating (at times) persona...

  29. bibliophiliac: Good point about Bosch and Joyce's own conflicts with Mother Church. Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for the compliment!

  30. Oh, you've inspired me! I love James Joyce and spent nearly a year reading Ulysses, one chapter each month. (see
    I'm definitely moving FW up the TBR now, all I needed was to know that it 'speaks to' people who are not academics who will also enjoy it. Thanks!
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers


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