Wednesday, August 08, 2012

10 Most Difficult Books? + Coelho Slams Joyce

So often I'll Tweet things I hope to blog about, then I look up and an entire week has passed without the planned post. I do accomplish the required tasks, though, so I guess that's what's most important. But before another week zipped by I said I must write even a brief entry about this list, originally posted by Emily Colette Williams and Garth Risk Hallberg (I love that name) at The Millions, of what they find to be the top 10 most difficult books, which are mostly the most difficult novels, with two works of philosophy, and one long book of poetry. So first, the list, as reposted by Alison Flood at the Guardian's website:

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes;
A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift;
The Phenomenology of Spirit by G. F. Hegel;
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf;
Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson;
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce;
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger;
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser;
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein;
and Women and Men by Joseph McElroy.

They have set up a conversation on these books on Publishers Weekly's website. I am going to say that I agree with them about 7 of these books, of which I have begun 7, but have finished only three: 1) Nightwood; 2) To the Lighthouse; and 3) Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady. I read the first two for pleasure and curiosity, the third for a graduate class. I have started but never finished The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Finnegans Wake, Being and Time, The Fairie Queene, or The Making of Americans. I have never even begun A Tale of the Tub or Women and Men. Nightwood is written as if its author was high and striving to twist the entire book into a series of knots, but it isn't not too long, so if you stick with it, you can at least finish it even if you don't fully grasp it. To The Lighthouse isn't difficult at all, in my opinion, but it requires, like the first two sections of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, utmost concentration to grasp how the rhythms of the interleaving thoughts guide the narration. Clarissa is also not difficult in terms of its narrative, style or language, just monstrously long and tedious in parts, with horrific bits (I mean, Richardson really was trying to scare the daylights out of young female readers!), but if you can stick with it, you can grasp it.

Now, to the others: though I've long wanted to I simply have never had the time or patience to read Finnegans Wake, though I have read Ulysses (which has very tough bits but is quite enjoyable) and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man several times, including in a race when I was in high school (don't ask). The Hegel and Heidegger texts are the most difficult of all their works, in my opinion. I didn't study philosophy, analytic or otherwise, so I didn't have to get through either, but I think that would have been the only way I could have. I also would venture that there are probably philosophical texts that are as if not more difficult. For example, some of the work of Baruch Spinoza, or Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. From what I can tell, some of the analytic material is also pretty tough going, though it may be a lot easier to a more mathematically minded person. The Fairie Queene is just long and densely allusive, and since I have never had the time nor inclination to complete it, I didn't. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no one, not even John Ashbery, who claims to have read it, has completed The Making of Americans. Not even Stein herself. Well, that's not true, because I know that at least a handful of scholars, Lord help them, have read it fully enough it to write about it. But it is written, I think, in such a manner as to frustrate forward reading.

There are other very difficult books, though. A few years ago, I taught Wilson Harris's Carnival in a graduate course, and several students mentioned that they were struggling to get through the text; it isn't too long, but verges on impenetrability. Harris manages, in a way few others do, to layer multiple narratives atop each other, much in keeping with the novel's thematics of time, in which Carnival spatiotemporality allows a fluid movement between past, present and future, and Carnival time, which might exist in all or none of these. The prose also brims with paradoxes, rhetorical curlicues and so forth, and seems straightforward until you try to read it that way. You can't. Two other very difficult books are Claude Simon's The Flanders Road and Triptych. Almost any of the major novels by this author, though, save The Visit, I have found very difficult to get through. Again, none is Clarissa-length, but all are almost riverrine in their handling of temporality. Simon's insight, following Faulkner, was to combine multiple temporal and narrative snippets together as in The Sound and the Fury's "Quentin" chapter, but extended over pages, with analeptic leaps, and radical shifts in voice. I actually did finish The Flanders Road and think Simon, who received the Nobel Prize in 1985, is a major author, but I will not be reading the book again if I can help it. Julián Ríos's novels Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel and Poundemonium throw up multiple hurdles because of their Joycean inventiveness, but are ultimately navigeable, as is José Lezama Lima's lone novel, the masterpiece Paradíso, whose difficulty lies not only in its baroque syntactic style, but in the baroque complexity of its plotting. Persistence will get you through it, though.

More difficult authors: another Nobelist whose work is just like cutting through granite is Elfriede Jelinek. I am not going to lie; I simply could not bear, let alone get through, the book version of The Piano Teacher. (The movie version--whew!) I tried several other of her books and had a similar response.  I started to think that she was having a joke on readers, because the marmoreal quality of her prose retards progress. There supposedly is a strategy and a theory behind all of this. But I haven't figured it out, and after the several tries, I'm not going to try. Almost everything William Gaddis wrote is tough going. The Recognitions requires a test of will, and time. J R requires a forensic scientist's capacity to follow threads. A Frolic of His Own is, to me, the easiest of his big books, because of the humor. But none is easy to get through. In fact, a good deal of the experimental US fiction of the 1960s and 1970s is like spelunking without a compass, or rock-climbing with a rope. If you make it to the end, you really deserve a medal. But Gaddis is the most difficult, even compared to John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, and the rest.

I am going to confess that I have never, ever been able to finish a Stanley Elkin novel, not even The Dick Gibson Show, The McGuffin and Mrs Ted Bliss, and he is hardly the most difficult author out there. I don't know why. I tried to read him repeatedly when I was younger because he was a St. Louis celebrity (of sorts) and won many major prizes. But I cannot for the life of me get into his prose. There could be a code in it for winning $1 million, but I'd have to forgo it. Well, maybe. Samuel Delany's long works are challenging, but I find all of them quite enjoyable to read, as he usually spices them up with action, vibrant descriptions, vivid scenes, sex, you name it. I feel this way about other authors of very long works of fiction--Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, Herman Melville (though his poetry is hard to get through!), Mikhail Bulgakov, Roberto Bolaño, João Guimarães Rosa in the original, etc.--who at least give the reader things to hang onto. I feel less this way about David Foster Wallace; over this past year I had to reread War and Peace (the newer translation being one I hadn't read before) and Infinite Jest to supervise a brilliant undergraduate (who is now writing comparative essays on both books), and while I tremendously enjoyed Tolstoy's endless but extraordinary novel, which in the newer translation includes long sections in French, which Tolstoy originally used alongside the Russian, I strongly disliked Wallace's book, the awful black dialect in it being just icing on a rotten cake. UGH! There is always a portion of my male students who adore him, though, and I find some of his stories, especially the earlier ones, fascinating. But I am not a fan by any means, and think he's overhyped.

I am surely leaving out other works people could cite (Juan Goytisolo, Diamela Eltit, B.H. Johnson, Alasdair Gray, Ricardo Piglia, Mark Danielewski, etc.). Many a person has complained to me about the difficult of Toni Morrison's work, though I've never had that experience with any of her books, and read Beloved from cover to cover without a break I was so enthralled. Jazz was a bit harder, but in general I don't think she's that tough. At a dinner I attended just before I left Chicago, two people told me that they thought Morrison's work was "horrible," mainly because they found Beloved unreadable. Again, I think it's a matter of taste; she's not exactly easy, but there are far more difficult writers and works out there. Henry James is another author that students at least have complained about, and a work like The Golden Bowl or The Ambassadors can be strenous to get through, just because of James's style, but again, there is usually enough of a plot, and enough interesting description and commentary, as well as the unrealing of thought, to make him bearable for me. The author I always find perhaps the most baffling in terms of citations of difficulty is William Shakespeare; there isn't a single play by him, or any of the sonnets, that anyone with a basic familiarity with English cannot read all the way through and gain the gist of. But many have been the people, including lawyers (!--they work with some of the most impenetrable language out there), who've told me Shakespeare is "too difficult" or "I just can't understand him at all." I usually cite Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, and they will revise their statements to say, "Most of his plays."

In terms of poetry, I'd say there are countless examples of very long works that I have started but not finished, both in terms of older texts and in terms of post-mid-century US poetry. I have read large portions of Ezra Pound's The Cantos, but have neither read all of them nor even grasped a large portion of the later ones. Some long works, like Derek Walcott's Omeros, James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover and John Ashbery's Flowchart, pose challenges, but are not exceedingly difficult, just as one could say of much older long works of poetry, like The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, The Ring and the Book, etc. The Stein cited above is in a category of its own, even for her work. Anything by the British poet David Jones is difficult, for sure. Again, I know I'm probably leaving out a great deal of work. I was trying to think of very difficult poems or plays, but most of the ones that come to mind are just long--cf. Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh--but hardly impossible to understand. I should mention Samuel Beckett, whose work is not especially easy to grasp, the novels being more difficult than the plays or the experimental prose, but often with him I find the humor, his use of repetition, and his larger themes make finishing the work not only possible but enjoyable. Watt, however, is a doozy.

If any J's Theater readers want to sound off on this topic, please do. I'm interested to hear your thoughts.


Paulo Coelho
As an addendum, I wanted to point to this commentary by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, whose spiritual-lite novels have sold millions of copies, denouncing James Joyce's Ulysses as "pure style." Coelho's full statement, which initially appeared in the Folha de São Paulo, was: "One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce's Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit." He is not the first to criticize Joyce for this work or for his profound influence on contemporary literature, as Guardian critic Stuart Kelly notes in his follow-up. He follows the likes of Roddy Doyle, Dale Peck, Jonathan Franzen, and many more, but on top of his misreading he appears to utterly miss the specifics of the novel, which is nearly bursting with incident, details, language, everything--and has a plot to boot. There are novels that are pure style; I think of one I recently reread, Clarice Lispector's Água Viva, which has neither character nor plot, and is really all theme, voice and style, but Ulysses, for all its successes and faults, goes well beyond Joyce's style to achieve a portrait, singular in its richness and depth, of a single day in a single city, filtered through the consciousnesses of a trio (really, though there are more of course) of characters: Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom.

As Kelly points out, one should consider the source; Coelho may sell books as easily as McDonalds sells hamburgers (65 million copies of his novel The Alchemist are in print) and bind readers in his spell, but despite his self-aggrandizement as one who can "make the difficult seem easy," he does not come close to Joyce in terms of richness of style, his characterizations, his capacity to represent reality, or his deployment of language (Portuguese in his case).  Nor does he approach in his literary gifts the many authors from his own country (Lispector, Machado de Assis, Mário de Andrade, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Iván Ángelo, etc.) who have made major contributions to Brazilian, Lusophone, Latin American or global literature. He knows how to tell a good tale, or many variations on a few, certainly. Joyce could do that--read nearly any of the stories in Dubliners if you have any doubt--but also grasped the power of language itself at its most fundamental levels, as well as the multiple possibilities of storytelling. He is a literary mint. That counts for something--or a great deal, in financial terms. But James Joyce he isn't.


  1. Re: Coelho on Joyce...are you kidding me? What a nerve. Coelho can't write, or not particularly well. I can't believe he has the nerve to criticise one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, who is a true original and whose style was profoundly influential, and who had substance as well.

  2. What is 'hard'?

    There's a big difference between a book that is hard to comprehend and a book that is hard to finish. When I don't finish a book it is generally not because it is hard to comprehend, but more because it is dreary, or biased, or condescending, or blatantly egocentric, or offensive, or dull, or obscure, or pointless, or.... etc.

    One person's masterpiece is another persons egocentric twaddle.