Check out my latest “A Reader’s Log(orrhea)” column, ” entitled “Mr. Tellibly Divicult!”: James Joyce and the Joy of Must-Read Books, Like Finnegans Wake.
Here’s an excerpt:
The trouble with discussing what you’re reading is that you might sometimes be clobbered by someone else’s dislike of the book you’re reading, a dislike sometimes felt and then expressed without their having read said book. It’s something I’m sure to have done, too, with books and just about everything else, forgetting the wise admonition to never “yuck somebody’s yummy”; and, perhaps in some kind of karmic retribution for my past, and surely upcoming, perpetrations of said admonition, when I’d recently mentioned I was reading Finnegans Wake (I’ve since finished it, falling way short of my goal to read it in as close to a single sitting as possible (it took me seven days, the significance of the number exaggerated in my mind)), trying to stay up while reading about someone who was, presumably, asleep, I received a few “yucks,” including, “I tried reading it, but I only know how to read English,” or something of the sort, the comment meant as nothing more than a joke, but, as we know with most jokes, it revealed an underlying belief, and the belief here was that Finnegans Wake is at best incomprehensible to readers, excepting the few academics still wheezing around in the dusty stacks, expert at splitting all kinds of exegetical hairs; or is, at worst, just a hodgepodge of navel-gazing jabberwocky. Joyce, however, quoted in Derek Attridge’s The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, would disagree: “If you take a characteristic obscure passage of one of these people [modern writers] and asked him what it meant, he couldn’t tell you; whereas I can justify every line of my book.” Notwithstanding the various inconsistencies in the book (surface research reveals as much), and despite my general skepticism about what artists say about their work, I unhesitatingly trust Joyce; first, because of the authority and sheer mastery evinced in all of his other books (though I’ll quibble that his poems and play don’t measure up to his major works); and second, because even after reading only a page or two of this novel, this epic poem, really, I found myself overwhelmed by its wordplay, its music, its tapestry of sound and sense, and could say with certainty that it wasn’t simply a word salad tossed with the aplomb of a foaming at the mouth babbler falling from the roof of the Tower of Babel, but a carefully composed work of art, an art that made me feel like Gaston Bachelard, who in Fragments of a Poetics of Fire wrote that:
To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry. In endeavoring to experience these poetic flashes, both the large and the small,…I discovered that poetic language opens a door upon the very heights of language. Here language beyond language, a poetic language, gives transcendence form. One might live double lives if only one might live poetically, speaking the language of poetry instinctively, as if one meant it.