Friday, February 14, 2014

Der Roman mit zu vielen Eigenschaften

When bent with cares, and weight of years,
periodically  we must refresh ourselves,
not merely from the stream,
but in the deep.
-- Paracelsus

This first I did  when still in my early twenties.  Residing in a tiny chamber on the second floor of a down-at-heels rooming house in one of the less-better parts of Berkeley,  unemployed and quite penniless, having just dropped out of the mathematics Ph.D. program,  for lack  equally of the wherewithal for tuition, and of Vocation,
I turned to things that, being both dense and plain long, many of us  go through life  never having the time to tackle.   Seated at a bare deal table, clad in an old much-stained and -perforated labcoat  which I had retained (for all outer-wear) from palmier days in freshman chemistry lab,
I patiently pored over, reading and digesting from cover to cover,  and unaccompanied by any appetizer (being at all events  at that time  a vegetarian, more from constraints of purse than of conviction),  such meaty main-courses as:
=>  the Bible;  all seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu; both stout volumes of the Wilhelm Meister Bildungsromane (along with occasional, shorter, not hors d’oeuvres but rince-gueles, from Goethe’s pen),
=> all of Kafka,  all of Orwell (essays and novels both),
=> along with several quite entertaining but l-o-n-g, multivolume studies (Mencken American Language, cum supplements; Havelock Ellis’ Psychology of Sex) and biographies (of Trotsky, of Proust, of Freud).
Many a doctoral candidate in the humanities, at one of the more exacting (non-Internet) universities, plows on through similar expanses, but  by professional exigency  they are channeled along a particular path, and even more hermetically chambered than sat I,
building  brick by (brick by) brick
that Babelian structure that will someday become their dissertation,
crown of their youthful labors, mausoleum of all their hopes,
which will (in most cases) be read by three people (those on their dissertation committee),
and by never a man else, till the Sun wink out like a candle. 
For them, something as wide-ranging and unfocused as my own reading-list of that time, would have struck any of their thesis-advisors as mere gaspillage.


And now, with the leisure of an empty-nester, all earthly debts settled, and the prospect of retirement  so soon as I shall have received the nunc dimittis,
I turn again to certain lengthy works  which, decades earlier, I might have pecked at, but let drop.
Dropped not, unfortunately, because they contain a deep hard wisdom  for which I was as yet unripe, but because, to this fitful cognition at any rate, they were, frankly, wearisome, not worth the candle.   Hence I do not anticipate that, in the course of this current return to masticating tough and leathery belts of prose, I shall be experiencing any epiphanies.    It is unlikely that mine eyes shall, suddenly scaleless, peep forth astonished at a bright new world, the way Phantastes quickened CSL.

Nor that, changing careers yet again, I shall take up the mantle as the Official Astronaut-Clown of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, realizing at last that this is the very role for which Life, all along, had been mysteriously preparing me.


It was thus that I turned, a few months ago, to the massive heft of that doorstopper of a novel, much-praised but less-perused, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, by Robert Musil;  the tale of that encounter (as yet incomplete), has been told here:

            Eigenschaften  ohne Männer

That project has alas  been shelved for the nonce, since, the stray epigram and choice asides aside, that book is filled with what the French, with unsurpassable mot-justitude, denominate  longueurs”.
Such likewise has proved the case  with much of Gibbon (half-way through that now), and -- though I sigh to say it -- with Don Quixote.


Now --  Not in that studious spirit, but purely for relaxation, in spare moments, I recently reread  a slender and easy-to-read novel,  which I had already breezed-through back in high school:  J.P. Donleavy’s  The Ginger Man.    It’s a rousing good read, partaking of the spirit of much of Kingsley Amis (One Fat Englishman) or William Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man.  It leaves not much deposit in the mind, and none in the soul;  but as I set the volume down with a smile, I realized that it had whetted my appetite for more Celtic matter -- an appetizer indeed, and no main course.

And thus it was that I turned, speculatively and with strange surmise, to that unread-masterpiece to end all unread-masterpieces -- to plant a stake through the heart of all literature whatever --  Finnegan’s Wake, by Mr. James “Jim” Joyce,  late of Ireland.
In high school (or rather in that well-remembered summer session at Mount Hermon;  thank you again, Mr. Zilliak!)   I had read (and loved) Portrait of the Artist, and various stories:  short, and very accessible.   Much later, after repeated attempts, I finally forced myself all the way through the much longer and more contorted Ulysses.   Its reputation among the exquisite literati stands much higher than that of its youthful slender cousin,  but I am here to tell you that anyone who tells you it is a breeze to read, is talking through his hat.   Beyond that lies only the cold northern slope of that nec plus ultra of ultima Thule -- Finnegan.   Discouraged by the Ulysses experience, I never made more than a half-hearted attempt to scale its cliffs, or even the scree about its skirts, never reaching, in the course of a half-dozen sallies over the space of many years, beyond (candor compels) the first page.  No doubt, by the second page, things pick up considerably;  but I never had the stamina to find out.

Now, however, much juiced with pep and zeste de vivre   after downing, in a couple of mouthfuls, The Ginger Man (with a Guiness chaser),  I pulled from its shelf  that dusty old Viking paperback, its cover much-thumbed (and all the rest new as though fresh from the bookseller’s), and (aided  this time  by stronger spirits, again from the Emerald Isle)  sat down to read with a will.
Yet --  vae mihi ! -- the Momentum that had been accumulated (integrating the Impulse over the Interval)  was quickly spent, not sufficing to propel me even so far as the second paragraph, before, with a groan, and tired of life, I let the volume drop with nerveless fingers.

Hours later, coming to my senses, I found the item on the floor, among detritus, and -- unaccountably -- the usquebaugh-bottle empty, as though having been meanwhile  consumed by some leprechaun.   Retrieving the former  from amidst the flotsam,  I idly turned to the inside-back-cover, and discovered a quotation that, many years ago, I had written-in in pen, from William Empson, who, in his celebrated work of literary-linguistic criticism, The Structure of Complex Words, calls Finnegan’s Wake “a titanic corpse”, and puts his finger on what Jeeves would call the “res”:

The trouble about the double meanings in Finnegan’s Wake is that, since they are wholly artificial, one cannot tell which way round  they are meant to go.


Here matters might well have remained, save that, beside it on the shelves, was a companion volume from Viking, A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake,  by Joseph Campbell and H. M. Robinson.  Book-length itself, it is a sort of Thinking Man’s Cliff Notes.  I had (decades ago) once read through about a chapter of it, then let it lie;  and now I took up the volume again, to see what excuse these gentlemen might be able to make, for the hundreds of pages of trickylinguistic gibberish, of which I had shortly before  waded through but a pageful, before drowning.
And am forced to report, that this Skeleton Key is so engaging, that it renews my interest into the lock (the seven seals) which it claims to fit.
That is quite an achievement.  Had the authors, Messers Campbell & Robinson, instead bent their considerable talents to touting a washday product, rather than an unreadable masterpiece, they might have retired as millionaires.

So there things stand.  I have resolved, not to tackle that meganovel again, until such time as I shall have read through and digested this excellent adjutant.   We have, in short, at this point -- nothing at all;  a hint at a possible promise  of something to come.    What I am hoping is that, thus instructed, I shall eventually return to that hitherto-unchewable wad, and extract some juice from it.  In which case, we shall have a tribute to Criticism, as much as to Literature;  for, unaided, I must confess myself  unequal to the task.

More (deo volente) anon.
Another stout volume  from the same shelf, purchased in college  decades ago, and now sitting on my night-stand, is Richard Ellmann’s massive and standard biography, James Joyce.    I have done no more than peck at a few pages (apart from restricted sections read, not for Joyce’s sake, but for another perspective on something else I was pursuing, such as the whole American-exiles, Robert McAlmon  Being-Geniuses coterie).    That book was first published anno domini 1959;  and such has been my dilatoriness, that it has since been overtaken by a substantially revised and (oh no!) enlarged edition, published in the 1980s.
You’ve got to sprint as fast as you can, just to stay in one place …


All this might fall under the rubric, Making Too Big a Deal over a Book.  Clearly, some-body has too much time on his hands.  (Though for that matter, since  after all   you are reading this, so do you -- indeed, one level lower, an idler paravail.)   Not often just yet, in fact  -- this breather, from the accident of a weekend being bookended by the President’s Day holiday plus a couple of snow-days -- but retirement is in imaginable prospect, and several good friends have already retired (and report they are enjoying it).    And since, at our stately age, we spend few of our days sky-diving or cliff-climbing (though one stubborn old colleague still doggedly runs several miles a day, winter and summer), the question of reading-matter does naturally arise.  It is certainly a lot more central to our time of life, than the impression you’d get from the Sunday supplements -- “Sex at Seventy” or whatever.  (Sex at Twenty was just great, thankyouverymuch; but now it’s time to move on.)

There has sprung up  a sort of micro-mini-genre, which we may expect to expand as the boomers retire (and possibly, in retirement, become even more narcissistic than we already were) of book-length memoirs, purely parasitic upon some book the writer has read.  As, Reading Lolita in Tehran, or the recent My Life with Middlemarch.   There is something to be said for a bit of this -- and certainly it is preferable to that other fad of self-strokers, O My Childhood How Cruelly Was I Abused -- but one shudders to think of this sort of thing extending very far:  Reading Lolita in Poughkeepsie;  Poring through War and Peace on the ToiletMy Secret Romance with “Joy of Cooking”.

[Update, President’s Day -- continuing with this mini-essay-fleuve]

My friend the Blindman writes:

My limited exposure to Finnegan suggests it needs to be read aloud because a lot of the content is sound.

I replied:

You may have something there.   I never appreciated “Paradise Lost” until I heard it as an audiobook;  and Joyce’s effervescent work  cries out to be read aloud by an Irishman.    Visually, the layers and lathers of puns  are wearying;  much of that would melt into the cadence of the dialect speech.  As, why Joyce wrote “sprids the boord” rather than “spreads the board”  I don’t know, and haven’t the interest to inquire;  but read aloud, you would simply understand it right off, rather than being sent off on a fruitless detour by the written form.   Just as with The Ginger Man, it is the sheer Celtic energy that sweeps you away, and not this detail or that. 
In a somewhat similar way,  I found Milton’s syntax, read written, annoying, but all that faded into the background in the recitation of the poem.

I have got much more from audiobook Dickens -- which after all  only approximates its original frequent consumption,  read aloud around the family fire -- than from the printed page.   Dickens has a brilliant interpreter in Frederick Davidson.   Whoever would successfully tackle Finnegan  would need similarly excellent qualifications.

For a single performer to actually read-aloud the entire book, would be a labor both of heroism and of folly, reminiscent of those round-the-clock marathon public readings of Gravity’s Rainbow in its entirety:

However, the Internet comes to our aid  with convenient excerpts.  Here, the opening page, rousingly read by a wild Irishman:

[Update 23 February 2014]  I have now managed to wade through a fair number of pages of the Skeleton Key, without  however  yet getting caught up in the sweep of its mythology.  Quite clearly, Joyce’s final offering is not a work to be unriddled and deciphered, line by line, the way your would a Sumerian inscription:  for one thing, it’s far too long.   You either you get swept up, or not.  So far, not.  We’ll see.  If I ever do wind up doing a deep-dive into that novel, it will be  not merely to puzzle it out, but to absorb and inform it, as I did with the Rootabaga Stories.

Nay more -- I am beginning to fear, that this late work of the Irishman, is like that folly of the Frenchman’s dotage:

Il serait injuste  de juger  comme une œuvre achevée  le roman posthume de Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881).  Ces expériences  incessamment renouvelées  de la bêtise bourgeoise  deviennent vite  fastidieuse[s] et fatigantes …
-- G. Lanson, Histoire de la littérature française (1895; rev. ed. P. Tuffrau, 1951), p. 1083

[Update 3 March 2014]   In Northrop Frye’s essay-collection Myth and Metaphor, I just stumbled upon his treatment of Finnegan’s Wake.
He too begins with a spot of bibliographic autobiography, saying that when he first met the book as a young man, he was “in no position to go into orbit around it” (the image is well-chosen).    He proceeds to a brief and appreciative précis, which reads like a sort of skeleton key to the Skeleton Key.
It is quite valuable to approach an inaccessible work by the guidance of someone whose mind you understand and admire.   But alas, in this instance, the exercise left me even less interested in Joyce than before.   Because the otherwise unfailingly companionable essayist  here fails to bring really anything to the table.  If Finnegan’s Wake can bring out the least-good in a fine author, then it is something better avoided.

[Update 26 April 2014]  A remarkably compact and trenchant summary of Finnegan’s Wake  appears in the “Dream of H.C. Earwicker” chapter of  The Wound and the Bow (1941), by Edmund Wilson.  He, mm, notices things  that other readers might not.   If ever I do return to the attempt to scale the north face of this intimidating mega-novel,  it will be on the coat-tails, or rather the climbing-rope, of such as he.


  1. Another rewarding slog (through which I have so far slogged, according to my Kindle's reckoning, 37%), is David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest". It, too, already has tomes attempting analysis.

  2. If all those words -printed, read or imagined- were amassed in the dubious length of a human life (namely yours), makes sense that someone somewhere sometime ever dauntlessly undertook the conception of Babel's tower.
    My deepest gratitude for your extravagant squander (sic) of \-abundant-\ time.