Finnegans Wake (Modern Library #77)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Kim.)

It has been five years since I last tendered any heartfelt words about 20th century fiction for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. An infernal yet magnificent Irish genius is to blame for the delay. Five years is frankly too damned long, especially if I hope to complete this massive and somewhat insane project before I croak my own answer to Joyce’s “Does nobody understand?” Frank Delaney’s recent passing has made me keenly cognizant that being a wallflower is not an option when any of us could fall off the wall. (The poor man never got to finish Re: Joyce, his wonderful podcast on Ulysses.) So here we go.

What I have wondered during this Joyce-populated reading period is whether one should even attempt to match Jimmy Jimmy Jo Jo Bop’s unquestionable erudition, for this is the kooky bodkin he has wielded before readers. A Wake expert once told me that fencing with this book is comparable to being diagnosed with a disease. A good friend, as deeply moved by Ulysses as I am, told me that he never bothered with Finnegans Wake. I asked why. He said that he refused to play James Joyce’s game. I replied, “Yes, but in the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, you are missing out on some marvelous puns and portmanteaus and the limitless richness of an obscurant dreamscape!” But I do see my pal’s point. Where Ulysses provides us with an invitational beauty to be treasured and reconsidered at nearly any time in life, Finnegans Wake is the loutish intoxicating charmer for the young, the book declaring itself the cleverest in the room, the novel above all novels that says, “Well, if you really love literature…”

In attempting to come to terms with the Wake, I certainly don’t wish to align myself with such execrable anti-intellectual oafs like Dan Kois, who see the joyful act of great art mesmerizing a daredevil reader as something akin to eating cultural vegetables. I have enjoyed longass offerings from Marugerite Young, Samuel R. Delany, Laurence Sterne, Umberto Eco, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Mark Z. Danielewski (see The Familiar, the fifth of its twenty-seven volumes will be released in October), and William T. Vollmann, but none of this could prepare me for the Wake. Finnegans Wake is worth the cerebral sweat if you are willing to sign up for the gym package, which involves knowing a little German, Gaelic, and French, familiarizing yourself with Vedic commentary, reading up on Giambattista Vico and Irish history, and doing your best to encourage and resist the urge to plunge further. It is certainly difficult to argue against the Wake‘s enchanting use of language. But if cleverness — even from a bedazzling and often sprightly brainiac such as the Wake — involves adjusting one’s mind and heart entirely to that of the author, there is unquestionably a form of literary tyranny involved. On the other hand, the Wake, unlike any other book I have ever read, does test the limits of what we’re willing to know and how you can live with not knowing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that reading the Wake aloud and letting much of the esoterica wash over you is the best way to approach it and to love it. The only sane option is to accept that you will never know all the answers, that Joyce is smarter than you, and to enjoy the experience.

The book left me baffled, delighted, and often drove me mad. I am not sure that I want to read it again, although who’s kidding whom? I probably will. Finnegans Wake often felt like some bright and charming friend with benefits who texts you at 2AM, asking if you’re down to hook up, only to make you its bottom and leaving you cooking breakfast the next morning as your sexy lover basks in languor in your bed, singing pitch-perfect melodic ballads and cracking the smartest jokes in German. You sometimes wonder if you’re receiving any pleasure in a consummation that was supposed to be fun and spontaneous. Did I catch a case of the ten thunderclap words sprinkled throughout the book (Adam Harvey has kindly made YouTube videos on how to pronounce these) or merely the clap? These carnal metaphors on a book that essentially builds a dreamy narrative from an episode of sexual humiliation are no accident. Like Tinder, Finnegans Wake is a young man’s game. I would recommend attempting it before the age of forty, when there is still the time and the hunger to unravel the arcane wisecracking. Perhaps my mistake was reading this book on both sides of forty, with one foot steeped in bountiful possibility and the other more aware of mortality and the grave. My earlier plunges were largely felicitous. My subsequent belly flops were coated with the minor sting of missing out on something vital in the real world. And given the choice between staying home with the Wake or having a fun night out, it was a fairly easy decision. Many unreportable evenings later, I still believe I made the right choice. But how could any sensible reader not be wowed and enamored by Joyce’s uncompromising commitment to a difficult aesthetic?

All told, I worked my way through this intoxicating and frustrating melange in its full inimitable entirety twice, returning to the beginning of the Earwicker saga and then rereading other bits out of sequence, such as the mirthful and genuinely pleasurable showdown between Shaun and Shem in Book I, Chapter 7, which is among my favorite parts of the book. I can certainly follow the primary points of this “commodious vicus of recirculation,” even if the music of words usually triumphs over narrative coherence, which is often sandbagged altogether by later events such as Shaun’s ever-shifting identity. While I have largely enjoyed my journey, there were several points in which I cursed out Joyce for leading me down another rabbit hole. (The Dubliners’ low-key musical version of “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly? My weeks-long obsession with the Wellington Monument near the south of Dublin’s Phoenix Park? My futile attempts to learn Gaelic on Duolingo? My concern with ellipses and a surprising preoccupation for how reels of film turned upon encountering “the lazily eye of his lupis” and the diagram above? My efforts to reconcile Butt and Taff with Mutt and Jute and follow the batty Irish-American connections — extending to a few visiting American characters and the dual Dublin in Laurens County, Georgia, which Joyce cites?) It has left me to ponder in all this time if Finnegans Wake and its “futurist onehorse balletbattle pictures” were entirely worth understanding. It has left me feeling very sorry indeed for Joyce’s very patient benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver. The phrase “tough sledding” is an understatement.

Still, you can’t help but sympathize with a man who, buttressed by the wealth and the literary notoriety that came after Ulysses, saw his “Work in Progress” (early selections of the Wake published in journals) abandoned by many of his prominent supporters as he was going blind. Stanislaus Joyce had already become suspicious of Ulysses‘s famously difficult “Oxen of the Sun” chapter and proceeded to condemn his brother further for the bits of the Wake that had appeared in the transatlantic review and would later tell Jim to his face that his “book of the night” was impenetrable. His benefactor Harriet Shaw Weaver went along with Joyce’s new direction for a while, with Joyce providing her with a pre-Campbell skeleton key on January 27, 1925, but later that year, some printers refused to set the type for these new excerpts. And two years later, Weaver would condemn the “Wholesale Safety Pun Factory” that Joyce had wrought. Ezra Pound, the putative paragon of poetic innovation, turned on Joyce, badmouthing this “circumambient peripherization.” H.G. Wells called it a dead end. (Did Rebecca West put a burr in Herbert’s ear?) In the face of declining love, Joyce’s remaining admirers published Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, featuring the likes of Samuel Beckett, Frank Budgen, and William Carlos Williams defending Joyce’s new direction. Beckett would write:

Here form is content, content is form. You complaint that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something: it is that something itself….When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep….When the sense is dancing, the words dance.

It was believed that Joyce himself wrote one of the two letters of protest featured in this small volume. Certainly the voice in the letter is unmistakably recognizable:

You must not stink I am attempting to ridicul (de sac! )you or to be smart, but I am so disturd by my inhumility to onthorstand most of the impsolocations constrained in your work…

Joyce wanted to have it both ways. He both longed for recognition and was contemptuous of anyone who didn’t recognize his genius. The remarkably vanilla-minded Arnold Bennett, a troublesome gnat who I wrote about earlier and who only boorish bores like Philip Hensher now have wet dreams about, redoubled the troubling conventionalism that he had expressed for Ulysses and continued to attack Joyce in the press, which inspired Joyce to send him up as Jute.

In reading the Wake, I have often wondered if I have understood anything at all, but I cannot abide by D.H. Lawrence’s characterization of Joyce as “too terribly would-be and done-on purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.” For Joyce does not bore me. He merely maddens me with his demands on my time. I ken the puns in many tongues and can divine much of the history blurring into alluring verbs. Joyce’s wildly arrogant but nonetheless remarkable goal was to keep the professors arguing over enigmas and riddles for centuries. And with the Internet, he has succeeded. Finnegans Wiki is a vital companion when you first start reading and hope to know everything, until you realize that you never will. What is more important here is to feel the book, to take in its miasmic rushes and quell the urge to order mimosas when your noggin explodes from too much “folkenfather of familyans.”

In my early days of reading the Wake, I kept up a Tumblr on my notes. I filled up a five subject notebook with crazed and often indecipherable notes. And then I realized that to carry on like this was futile. It would be akin to resolving every unsolved mystery about life. The Wake contains almost as many tributaries.

Finnegans Wake is not a book to be read. It is a book to be lived, ideally with fellow travelers. So if you have a very rich and active life, there’s no getting around the need to make time for it. Fortunately, it has inspired any number of marvelous online offerings. The incredible project, Waywords and Meansigns, has performed three different musical versions of the Wake. Listening to these interpretations helped lift my spirits when I wondered if I should give up entirely (the bluesy interpretation of the pearlagraph episode near the beginning of Book II came at a time when I was about to throw my book into the wall for the seventh time). I attended a meeting of The Finnegans Wake Society of New York, which not only led me to this invaluable annotative resource, but allowed me to understand that even the smartest and most literary people imaginable could not entirely make head or tail of Joyce and that any and all interpretive suggestions were fair game.

If Joyce wrote Ulysses for people to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick after the apocalypse, then Finnegans Wake was written to reconstruct the whole of human existence, albeit a region teetering somewhere between reality and dreams. There are crazed Russian generals and discordance and recursiveness and twins and families and lust and religion and bawdiness and drinking and blasphemy, but, much like Molly Bloom’s beautifully baring “Penelope” monologue, the Wake ends with the singular motive voice of a woman:

First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns. And all the greedy gushes out through their small souls. And all the lazy leaks down over their brash bodies. How small it’s all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time. I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny. Home! My people were not their sort out beyond there so far as I can. For all the bold and bad and bleary they are blamed, the seahags. No! Nor for all our wild dances in all their wild din.

And then we read “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” and feel and fall some more, and turn back to the beginning to finish the aborted sentence. And every time we run through the loop, there is laughter, marvel, something we missed, something that aggravates us, and something that makes the rest of literature feel irrelevant.

Next Up: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!

The Old Wives’ Tale (Modern Library #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Call of the Wild)

I am fairly certain that I found The Old Wives’ Tale compelling for reasons that Arnold Bennett did not intend. After my great excitement with Jack London, Bennett was something of a letdown, reading more like fossilized culch than a lively adventure from the 20th century, although I experienced a great deal of pleasure as characters began to die and as they became needlessly blamed for other deaths. Consider the manner in which Sophia, assigned to watch over her bedridden father, sneaks away for a few minutes to chat with the strapping Gerald Scales. When she returns, something terribly odd occurs:

After having been unceasingly watched for fourteen years, he had, with an invalid’s natural perverseness, taken advantage of Sophia’s brief dereliction to expire. Say what you will, amid Sophia’s horror, and her terrible grief and shame, she had visitings of the idea: he did it on purpose!

As I continued to push through this 600 page novel, surprised by such lively spurts written in a mode I initially appraised as kitschy, there was a part of me that longed for the invention of time travel. I might roll a joint and get it into Bennett’s hands before he banged out another overly serious manuscript. His eccentricities, however, were also part of the charm. I must confess that I couldn’t quite shake Bennett.

* * *

Bennett was hot shit at one point in time. I suspect his inclusion on the Modern Library list involves some guilt over his swift fall from grace. In 1923, Virginia Woolf got nasty with an essay entitled “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”: “he is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there.” And many seemed to believe her. The literary critic FR Leavis dismissed Bennett in a sentence. The situation became so desperate that Margaret Drabble felt compelled to publish an appreciative 400 page Bennett biography in 1974.

I asked several literary friends if they had read Bennett. But only one had. And this friend made strong suggestions that Anna of the Five Towns was one of the more dispiriting reads in her formative years. I was roundly rebuked for daring to mention Bennett, the name as ancient and as displeasing to her ears as Linda Ronstadt, and was banned from discussing literary matters with my friend for a week. It’s very possible that I’m one of the few Americans under the age of 40 who has actually finished one of Bennett’s novels. (Apparently, I am not the first to raise this observation. Shortly after drafting this essay, I discovered that Wendy Lesser, writing in The New York Times in 1997, had also pointed out Bennett’s stunning precipitation. Fourteen years later, the Bennett situation is considerably worse.)

In recent years, Bennett has found a few (still living) defenders in Drabble, Francine Prose, and Philip Hensher. And while two of these boosters can be rightly praised as skilled novelists, by all reports, this collective humor-impaired trio cannot be said to be especially vivacious at social gatherings. That’s part of the problem. To get Bennett, you have to take him somewhat seriously. And that means abdicating a healthy skepticism deeply valued by any freethinker who grew up in a post-Nixon or a post-Thatcher world. These days, Arnold Bennett is best known for an omelette recipe established at the Savoy. It’s worth observing that Bennett did not come up with the recipe. He was too busy writing a novel. There are certainly worse fates for an author. But despite my gripes, I still believe Bennett deserves more than a mere legacy of haddock and peppercorns.

* * *

The Old Wives’ Tale is a strange novel, imperious and engaging at times, but I cannot call it a classic — despite its admirable narrative ambition in tracking two sisters, Sophia and Constance Baines, and their families from youth to old age. It is plagued by inhebetating verbosity (“The horror of what had occurred did not instantly take full possession of them, because the power of credence, of imaginatively realizing a supreme event, whether of great grief or of great happiness, is ridiculously finite”). It feels the need to bully the reader into excitement with obnoxious exclamation marks (“This was what he had brought her to, then! The horrors of the night, of the dawn, and of the morning! Ineffable suffering and humiliation, anguish and torture that could never be forgotten!”). It is often condescending towards its characters, using bizarre interrogatory to suggest feeling (“But why, when nearly three months had elapsed after her father’s death, had she spent more and more time in the shop, secretly aflame with expectancy?”).

There is something needlessly systematic and almost Asperger’s-like in Bennett’s fixations. Here is Bennett describing the inner life of Constance’s son:

He had apparently finished his home-lessons. The books were pushed aside, and he was sketching in lead-pencil on a drawing block. To the right of the fireplace, over the sofa, there hung an engraving after Landseer, showing a lonely stag paddling into a lake The stag at eve had drunk or was about to drink his fill, and Cyril was copying him. He had already indicated a flight of birds in the middle distance; vague birds on the wing being easier than detailed stags, he had begun with the birds.

Bennett is more interested in positioning objects rather than being explicit about what his characters feel. His fixation on external imagery prevents him from contending with emotions. And this inferential approach does have its drawbacks. Even in describing the engraving, Bennett isn’t quite sure: “had drunk or was about to drink his fill.” Shortly after this moment, Cyril feels his mother’s hand on his shoulder and, before he replies, Bennett writes: “Before speaking, Cyril gazed up at the picture with a frowning, busy expression, and then replied in an absent-minded voice.” Frowning, busy expression? My mind drew uncomfortable parallels with the autistic passages contained in Tao Lin’s Richard Yates. One could make the argument that Bennett’s superficial imagery reflects both Cyril’s transformation into a young artist or the overall shift from bucolic business to a more modern age. Yet this aesthetic approach is hardly confined to Cyril. Of one of Sophia’s clients in France: “There was a self-conscious look in his eye.” Near novel’s end, Bennett even makes a big show of how characters look at others: “Peel-Swynnerton had just time to notice that she was handsome and pale, and that her hair was black, and that she was gone again, followed by a clipped poodle that accompanied her.” Considering these odd emphases and the sweeping melodramatic statements contained elsewhere in the book, it became necessary to investigate the man further.

* * *

Arnold Bennett began writing The Old Wives’ Tale on October 8, 1907. We know this because he wasted no time marking the notches in his journal:

Yesterday I began The Old Wives’ Tale. I wrote 350 words yesterday afternoon and 900 this morning. I felt less self-conscious than I usually do in beginning a novel. In order to find a clear 3 hours for it every morning I have had to make a time-table, getting out of bed earlier and lunching later.

The next day (October 10, 1907), Bennett offers this exacting news, worthy of Trollope or a chartered accountant: “I walked 4 miles between 8:30 and 9:30, and then wrote 1,000 words of the novel.”

Bennett would finish his novel less than a year later, noting on August 30, 1908: “Finished The Old Wives’ Tale at 11:30 A.M. today. 200,000 words. Now I can begin to keep this journal again.”

Bennett was indeed a man of his word. The volume I am presently consulting from, which contains all of Bennett’s journal entries, is more than 1,000 pages. While assembling this essay over several days, I have been on the lookout for a cockroach, hoping to test the density of Bennett’s private thoughts against a very 21st century dilemma. Unfortunately, the apartment is clean, the exterminator who last doused the place (along with my own independent boric appliqué) was too efficient, and I have not seen any insect life in the order of Blattaria for many weeks. Now I can begin to write this essay again.

As Bennett was working on The Old Wives’ Tale, he worked with an industry that might put Joyce Carol Oates to shame. He wrote two short novels (Helen of the High Road and Buried Alive), any number of articles and short stories, a scenario, a play, and a few popular works of reductionist philosophy (throughout his life, Bennett was a one man self-help book factory, writing such prescriptive pabulum as How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and Self and Self-Management; he even had the temerity to argue that men were superior to women). As he was to explain in an April 9, 1908 journal entry:

Habit of work is growing on me. I could get into the way of giving to my desk as a man goes to whiskey, or rather to chloral. Now that I have finished all my odd jobs and have nothing to do but 10,000 words of novel a week and two articles a week, I feel quite lost, and at once begin to think without effort, of ideas fora new novel. My instinct is to multiply books and articles and plays. I constantly gloat over the number of words I have written in a given period.

One curious quality about this period is Bennett’s reticence to name-check his fetching French wife Marguerite. I should hasten to add that Bennett’s “habit of work” came only a few months after his marriage. Bennett does register that he walked with his wife in the pouring rain on October 16, 1907, but he is more devoted to discussing how he enjoys “splashing waterproof boots into deep puddles” than Marguerite’s feelings on the matter. When Marguerite does show up in Bennett’s journal, it is mostly through “we” rather than “Oui!” And even then, Bennett is more driven by his inner “I” than any subtle references to Marguerite’s enticing third eye. By January 4, 1908, he is preoccupied by what he misinterprets as “unconscious and honest sexuality” from a Scottish woman in a London hotel.

I mention Bennett’s myopic matrimony not because I want to gossip about an English novelist who has been dead for a good eighty years (well, that’s not entirely true; on the other hand, since Bennett was writing a column of book gossip for New Age under a pseudonym during the same period, perhaps I am unintentionally avenging his targets, even though they are now all dead and have long stopped caring), but because his treatment of Marguerite is remarkably similar to the transactional manner that salesman Samuel Povey treats Constance Baines after they are married in The Old Wives’ Tale:

The basis of this contentment was the fact that she and Samuel comprehended and esteemed each other, and made allowances for each other. Their characters had been tested and had stood the test. Affection, love, was not to them a salient phenomenon in their relations. Habit had inevitably dulled its glitter.

* * *

What does a reader do with Arnold Bennett in 2011? Bennett undoubtedly had the stuff to stir the reader, but it’s difficult to let some of his more impetuous ideas about human behavior slide. This was a weakness cited by his most ardent defenders. Even Rebecca West was to confess that Bennett struck her “as being one of the most observant and unobservant persons I have ever known. He would remember the order of the shops in an unimportant street in a foreign city for years, but he was curiously blind about human beings. He would know a man and a woman for years and see them constantly without realizing that they were engaged in a tragical love affair; he could meet a man shaken by a recent bereavement and notice nothing unusual about him til he was told.”

Yet despite Bennett’s obvious blind spots, I feel a charitable impulse for the man. Few of today’s novelists are willing to write in such a reckless yet revealing manner. Were he working today, Bennett’s work would be rent in an MFA minute. But without this rampant rashness, Bennett would not have kept up his voice.

Next Up: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime!