There are a few books that I consider a badge of accomplishment for finishing. Not because they’re boring and I have to chew through them at any cost (I have had some of those and they were quickly cast aside as you’ll soon see), but rather because I find them very dense with metaphor, allusion, and reference making them more difficult to read quickly. The slow pace is attributed to the number of times I have to reread passages while simultaneously consulting the notes that an editor has provided for assistance in wading through the dense underbrush and scrub of literary tropes and references. For me, this makes these books more of a rewarding endeavour and thus an investment in myself more than just merely entertainment.
Most of the books that I’ve encountered like this were in the context of university. The notches on my literary belt include Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (a 16th century epic poem that thankfully has nothing to do with homosexual cross-dressers), Thomas Nashes’ picaresque novel The Unfortunate Traveller (a satirical tale of debauchery and corruption that would make Idi Amin blush), Sir Philip Sidney’s The Old Arcadia (I’m still waiting for the sequel – the New Arcadia), Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (a 17th century story of an awkward love triangle), and, of course, John Milton’s treatise on craps, Paradise Lost.
I subjected myself to others, like Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, on my own time. I use the word “subjected” in the dictionary sense: “person owing obedience to another.” By this I mean I had to be obedient and do what the author demands of me (i.e. read the notes, reread passage, and some cases . . . consult Wikipedia).
All of James Joyce falls into this class; and frankly, being of Irish heritage, I’ve always felt that I needed to do my cultural duty and read something by him, so I started with Finnegan’s Wake. I skipped the introduction and dove right in. Here’s what was waiting for me halfway down the page:
The great fall of the oftwall entailed at such short notice the pftschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself promptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptyteetumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy (3).
This is the first page of the book. I’m already lost and have no idea what he’s talking about. It goes on like this for over 600 more pages. I don’t mean to parade my ignorance around, but I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only person that is completely lost when trying to read this stuff. I flip through the book. Nothing makes any sense to me. Then I go right to the start of the introduction. Sure enough, right there in the introduction by Seamus Deane to the Penguin Classic’s Finnegan’s Wake, was my warning:
“The first thing to say about Finnegan’s Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.”
Huh? The joke’s on me, apparently. The book is unreadable, but I tried to read it . . . this paradox troubled, but didn’t deter me. (Incidentally, I truly commend anyone that can spend the necessary time reading this 626 page tome and still walk away from it with their head screwed on straight and have something meaningful to say about it.)
So clearly, I decided that if I want to read James Joyce, this is not the place to start. (In my opinion, neither is his other tome Ulysses.) I needed something entry level to get my feet wet. Enter A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I found a copy of it in a used book store for a $1.25. I borrowed the money from my wife and scooped the book up. I was determined to join the ranks of the dozens of people before me that had read the master. This was over two months ago and I just finished it yesterday. Now, I’m not a quick reader at the best of times, but two months? Most people would probably have given up. Not me, though. I persevere.
The book was actually pretty good. The main character, Stephen Dedalus, is in many ways a literary equivalent of how I imagine Joyce himself grew up. If I had to pigeon hole the story, I would say it’s like the prototypical coming of age tale, but about nine million times deeper.
He talks about beauty: “The Greek, the Turk, the Chinese, the Copt, the Hottentot . . . all admire a different type of female beauty. That seems to be the maze out of which we cannot escape” (226);
Farts: “Did an angel speak?” (250);
Sex: “Tell me, for example, would you deflower a virgin?” asks his friend Cranly. To which Stephen replies, “Excuse me . . . is that not the ambition of most young gentlemen?” (268);
And a few other things that all the early twentieth century kids thought about as they grew up: religion (specifically Catholicism and whether or not transubstantiation is real), identity (or why it sucks to be Irish), poetry (how best to woe young maidens), women (see previous note), parents (my how they change as you get older), friends (bums, the lot of them), limbo (unbaptised kids go there – oh wait, that was repealed), and hell (he writes on this to great extent).
In the end though Stephen’s main concern is “to discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom” (267). Damn straight James! That’s my goal too.
Now the book is done and I’ve marked another notch on my literary belt and I’m wearing it with pride.
So, in the immortal words of Joyce, “Mickmichael’s soords shrieking schrecks through the wilkinses and neckannicholas’ toastingforks pricking prongs up the tunnybladders. Let there be fight? And there was. Foght. On the site of angels, you said? Guinney’s Gap, he said, between what they said and the pussykitties.”
Yes James, yes indeed, between the pussykitties.
He gets me every time.