Tackling Tough Books

Is it me or am I seeing a lot about difficult books? Life is too short and abandoning Finnegans Wake being recurrent themes. I’ve yet to even attempt the Wake and may come to sympathise with those who leap overboard. I do however disagree with those that give up difficult books and then encourage others that these books are not worth trying to understand.

I share the view that I’d rather tackle a dense, chewy book that has entranced or confused or challenged readers for many decades or centuries, than tackle some fashionable jujube that will be forgotten within a decade. You have probably come across the fantastic series of articles running at The Millions, encouraging readers to tackle a series of “difficult” books.

What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness.

In addition to those in the article, the series continues in the sidebar, including two of my favourites: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle and To the Lighthouse.

Portals of Discovery

-What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.

Part 2, chapter 6 of Ulysses: Nabokov instructs his students thus:

The discussion in this chapter is one of those things that is more amusing for a writer to write than for a reader to read, and so its details need not be examined.

Here, I disagree with the late Professor Nabokov. Yes, it is a dense chapter  of allusion and erudition. Much of it I fail to penetrate on this first reading. But to miss the wit and the satisfaction of unlocking at least some of Joyce’s allusion would be a loss, arguably acceptable for students but not for ardent readers.

During a debate about Shakespeare, Eglinton contends that Shakespeare’s marriage was a mistake:

-The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best as he could.

-Bosh! Stephen [Dedalus] said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.

Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous.

Ulysses and the Odyssey

Unlike Finnegans Wake, to which he was indifferent, Nabokov thought Ulysses one of the greatest  novels of the twentieth century. In his dissection of the novel, when teaching at Cornell, he disdained the Homeric parallels, supplying only a map of Dublin. Quizzed about this practise in Strong Opinions Nabokov answers:

Joyce himself very soon realized with dismay that the harping on those essentially easy and vulgar “Homeric parallelisms” would only distract one’s attention from the real beauty of the book. He soon dropped these pretentious chapter titles which already were “explaining” the book to non-readers. In my lectures I tried to give factual data only.

In Lectures on Literature Nabokov goes further:

 I must especially warn against seeing in Leopold Bloom’s humdrum wanderings and minor adventures on a summer day in Dublin a close parody of the Odyssey, with the adman Bloom acting the part of Odysseus, otherwise Ulysses, man of many devices, and Bloom’s wife representing chaste Penelope while Stephen Dedalus is given the part of Telemachus. That there is a very vague and very general Homeric echo of the theme of wanderings in Bloom’s case is obvious, as the title of the novel suggests, and there are a number of classical allusions in the course of the book; but it would be a complete waste of time to look for close parallels in every chapter and every scene of the book. There is nothing more tedious than a protracted and sustained allegory based on a well-worn myth; and after the work had appeared in parts, Joyce promptly deleted the pseudo-Homeric titles of his chapters when he saw what scholarly and pseudoscholarly bores were up to.

Thankfully Steven Riddle was helpful, in commenting on an earlier post, to steer me away from worrying too much about the Homeric allusions and more toward a visit to Dublin. Very sound advice which I shall surely take.

Ulysses In Progress

With limited reading time I am slowly savouring Ulysses. I paused before Leopold Bloom’s entrance in Episode 4: Calypso. Without gushing at such an early stage, I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying Ulysses, but if you have read it before you know how extraordinary is Joyce’s prose.

In Episode 3 Stephen is helping a student, Sargent, to comprehend algebra. For a moment he senses an echo of his own boyhood:

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.

Some sections I read over and over to appreciate the writing.
To my good fortune, more advanced Ulysses readers are posting useful thoughts:The solstice in Circe.Daylight and darkness.Ulysses as an act of fiscal responsibility.

Chefs Pick Food Books

Asked to name their favourite non-cookbook food books, leading chefs nominated:

  1. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure – Joseph Wechsberg
  2. The Art of Eating – M. F. K. Fisher
  3. Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris – A. J. Liebling
  4. The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village – Pierre-Jakez Helias
  5. The Food of Italy and The Food of France – Waverley Root
  6. Giving Good Weight – John McPhee
  7. The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine – Rudolph Chelminski
  8. The Gumbo Tales – Sara Roahen

The first two would appear high on my list but I would also add:

  1. Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain
  2. The Perfect Egg – Aldo Buzzi
  3. On Food And Cooking – Harold McGee
  4. The Man Who Ate Everything – Jeffrey Steingarten
  5. Comfort Me With Apples – Ruth Reichl
  6. Where shall we go for dinner? – Tamasin Day-Lewis
  7. Sushi and Beyond – Michael Booth

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Always so strange to return to a book that we revered in earlier days.

In my twenties Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kafka’s Amerika and Sartre’s Nausea were my literary touchstones. The latter I reread annually but I was warier of Portrait. Did I make the error of injecting too much of myself into my original reading?

I quoted a couple of beautiful words, and right now add no further commentary. The book is stunning.

Love of Words

He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:

– A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Dreyfus in Our Times

“What is collective passion?” begins an incisive article in the London Review of Books. Jacqueline Rose examines the Dreyfus affair, the argument that, “What happened [to Dreyfus] in France at the turn of the century was in many ways a forerunner of Vichy,” and the part played in the affair by four heroes:

The affair has three heroes: Zola, the less known Colonel Picquart, one of Dreyfus’s few defenders inside the army, and Bernard Lazare, the Jewish socialist-anarchist and critic who was first to speak out publicly in Dreyfus’s defence. But we should also add a fourth: the radical, little-known literary journal La Revue Blanche.

Rose also explores contemporary parallels:

On grounds of national security, the state prosecutors argued that the most incriminating evidence against Dreyfus, which in fact did not exist, could not be revealed in court. David Miliband recently used exactly the same argument to justify withholding details of Great Britain’s policy on and, the evidence suggests, complicity in rendition and torture. National security as the cover for the erosion of civil liberties is something we have all become familiar with since 9/11.

If your knowledge of the Dreyfus affair was as meager as mine, you may find the article illuminating. I have ordered Louis Begley’s Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (2009), cited by Rose in her article. (Begley wrote the first-rate The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head, Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay.)

Jacqueline Rose’s article is adapted from a lecture available here.

On Reading Ulysses for the First Time

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. Don’t panic if after the first episode you haven’t understood much.
  3. Don’t panic if you don’t know if you’ve come to the end of the first episode.
  4. Everything comes to those that wait.
  5. Everything will be revealed by Linati and Gorman-Gilbert.
  6. Everything comes in twos and threes.
  7. If time permits, read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
  8. If further time permits, read Homer’s Odyssey.
  9. If further time permits (after time permitting and further time permitting), read Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’.
  10. Time is of the essence as it happens. All events take place on one day, 16 June 1904; ‘Bloomsday’ to later devotees.
  11. The novel begins twice, once with Stephen’s early morning and once with Bloom’s.
  12. The novel ends twice, once with Stephen and Bloom having ‘found’ each other and once with Molly’s soliloquy in bed.
  13. The novel’s space also matters.
  14. The Blooms live at number 7 Eccles Street on the north side of Dublin; Stephen is staying at the Martello Tower 9  miles south of Dublin on the coast at Sandycove (where the novel begins).
  15. Bloom is an advertising agent, Stephen for the time being a school-teacher. Dublin is where they meet.
  16. Consult the Linati schema and the Gilbert-Gorman plan.
  17. Begin now.
  18. I will. Yes.

A condensed version of a handout David Pierce gave to his students as preparation for reading Ulysses. It must be twenty years since I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. My next reading stop.

The Porcupine of Authors

Recognise this portrait?

When Constantin Brancusi’s sketch of James Joyce was shown to Joyce’s father, the latter quipped that his son had changed somewhat since he last saw him.

I read this in David Pierce’s outstanding (so far) Reading Joyce, preparation for my summer plan to tackle Ulysses. Pierce’s book is about far more than Ulysses and essential reading to my mind as a Joyce refresher or introduction. Taking inspiration from W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, Pierce’s guide introduces itself thus:

Reading Joyce is not for everyone, and nor should it be, but, for those who develop an interest, the habit can be forming and even last a lifetime. . . This book is written to convey something of the pleasure in reading Joyce, and it is informed therefore by a spirit of humour and appreciation. It issues from a belief that the reader new to Joyce needs a certain amount of guidance, but not an excessive amount. I look to the reader, therefore, who appreciates a challenge and who, long after the prompt books have been put down, will continue reading ‘the porcupine of authors’ . . . Indeed, the reader I have in mind is sceptical of reading books with ‘notes’ in the title and is looking for a critical engagement with a writer who is so highly regarded.

Sufficient introduction to lure me in.

Later in the introduction Pierce returns to Brancusi’s sketch:

. . . Brancusi’s spiral is also an epiphany, an epiphany being Joyce’s borrowed term to convey the distinctive character of his collection of stories – the moment, for example when a character or the reader suddenly understands their destiny or the narrative’s destination.