I like challenging myself with difficult books now and then, but there are some books that leave me quaking in my boots. There are challenges, and then there are challenges, right? And then there’s a category of book that is quite possibly beyond me entirely. So, to get specific, a challenge of the first sort, the sort that is difficult but doesn’t leave me quaking, would be something like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, a book that is rather difficult to piece together, but still something I can follow, more or less, that makes a kind of sense, and if I read it a time or two more, I’ll feel like I can understand. Proust was like this too.
The sort of book that makes me quake is something like Ulysses, which I had to read in a college course, although I’m not sure how much I really got out of it. I know I can read this book and get it for the most part, especially with some critical help, but it requires an awful lot of work. I’m not opposed to doing this kind of work, I just want to do it in a time I have tons of energy and enthusiasm for it. I’d put the longer novels of Pynchon in this category, and certain kinds of poetry qualifies here too, like if I were to undertake reading the collected poems of John Ashbery, someone known for being a bit obscure.
The books that are perhaps beyond me entirely? What comes to mind immediately is Finnegans Wake. In fact, this may be the only book in this category. I’m okay reading books I can’t fully make sense of, but a book I can’t make sense of at all? That’s different. Not that I’ve tried, I must say — perhaps the book isn’t as difficult as I’m imagining. But I have my doubts.
I’m thinking about this issue because I just read this article in the New York Review of Books on Gertrude Stein. It’s a review of Janet Malcolm’s new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. As I understand it, the book is about their lives, most interestingly about their lives during World War II, and also about Stein’s writing. Stein is a writer who makes me quake a little bit. I’ve read her book of poetry Tender Buttons, and I thought it was quite beautiful, even if it didn’t make any sort of logical sense. But it’s the kind of book you just let wash over you; you savor the language and give up trying to pull together a logical meaning.
But her other work scares me a bit, particularly the longer work, such as The Making of Americans, which the article describes as “gigantic and impenetrable.” Janet Malcolm calls it “a text of magisterial disorder.” And the article also says this:
Again, about The Making of Americans, Malcolm calls the book a laboratory for Stein, ponderous and unforgiving, a morass, a nervous breakdown of a novel, swerving between conventional narrative and gibberish, “a work that Stein evidently had to get out of her system—almost like a person having to vomit—before she could become Gertrude Stein as we know her.” But Malcolm admires its refusal to “impose a false order on disorderly complexity,” which might also be said of Cézanne’s art, in all its ambiguity and mystery.
I like that description, “a nervous breakdown of a novel,” but do I want to read it?
I don’t like the idea that any book is beyond me, though. I feel torn between not wanting to spend my time on impenetrable books that would frustrate me and not wanting to give up on any interesting-sounding book out there. I may never try to read The Making of Americans, but I don’t like the way it’s out there, taunting me with its difficulty.