If you’ve been hanging around the Culture section of the Guardian or any book blogs lately, you might have noticed that Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg at Publisher’s Weekly did their list of the ten most difficult books. Their selections:
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
A Tale of A Tub by Jonathan Swift
The Phenomenology of the 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 & Time by Martin Heidegger
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Women & Men by Joseph McElroy
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
Personally, I would first make a small semantic suggestion of “challenging” in place of “difficult”. A lot of these books have hefty reputations as it is and, in a time when the world isn’t exactly overflowing with people looking to consume novels more advanced than The Hunger Games, “difficult” makes the experience sound turgid on top of all that. Both terms are implicitly confrontational but, while we stumble at difficulties, we rise to challenges. Making a list of difficult books sounds like a task with spurious loyalties (though in this case it isn’t: Wilkinson and Hallberg’s explanations for each book reveal their enthusiasm for the titles they’ve picked), whereas making a list of challenging books would seem, to me at least, to be nothing more ambiguous than trying to get the works more readers, even if the two lists ended up containing the same titles for the same reasoning.
On the books themselves… well, I’d chuck Clarissa out right away. Compared to the rest, it’s an easy read: just a very, very long one. Which does make it arduous, but there are even longer books that are even psychologically messier.
Hegel and Heidegger stick out like sore thumbs. Yes, they are brutally tough reads. I mean, Heidegger just made up his own words for seemingly increasingly obscure concepts and threw them in there, so if you don’t know your gelassenheit from your geworfenheit you’re going to have a pretty hard time of reading him. But if we’re allowing works of philosophy in, then Immanuel Kant’s ludicrously laborious sentences surely make him as stubborn a customer as Hegel; furthermore, I can think of a few mathematical treatises or scientific publications that are going to make reading Virginia Woolf seem as easy as breathing.
On that note, I never found Woolf particularly opaque. Nor Swift, though they’ve certainly chosen his hardest – due to it being a satire of its specific political context rather than the more universal formulations of his more widely-read works. But then, you could say the same about a lot of the Get Your Own Back! bits of The Inferno (ooh, there’s an idea… replace Virgil with Dave Benson Phillips and brimstone with large quantities of Natrasol and we’re already halfway there to a for-all-ages adaptation of La Commedia). And if The Fairie Queene makes it in presumably for its archaic language as well as its “semiotic promiscuity”, then Dante surely has to figure on that basis within his own context – the reason La Commedia was such a game changer was because it broke the dominance of the Classics (to revive a Swiftian theme) by writing in the Tuscan dialect instead of Latin (making it the Finnegans Wake of Medieval Italy… if the language of Finnegans Wake had caught on and replaced English as the dominant literary language of the literature of the British Isles) and terza rima instead of dactylic hexameter (compare its fortunes to that of Petrarch’s at least technically equal Africa to see what I mean: one has become a literary classic on the level of Homer and the other, far closer to Homer in style, has fallen into obscurity). And on the point about semiotics, you don’t get works more allegorical than Dante.
But, ah, Dante couldn’t possibly make a list like this, because in the context of a 21st centurier reading it in an English translation, it ain’t that difficult. Which may be the distinction between difficult and challenging I neglected before. Dante was difficult; now he is challenging. Kant is more difficult than he is challenging; Schopenhauer more challenging than he is difficult.
Stein and Barnes I aim to have read by the end of the year, if not by the end of summer (I also have a biography of Barnes I’m looking forward to). McElroy stands apart on the page in terms of how little I know about him and his work – I have something to say about every other book except Women and Men, so I’ve duly added it to my Amazon wishlist. Which makes this list a success, I suppose, if it was indeed an attempt at repopularising some works that were never built to be popular. I won’t have a millionth of the audience enjoyed by its authors, but with that in mind I have a few suggestions of my own:
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
A schizoid, dysmetric, amnesiac, shattered-crystalline 800-page prose poem.
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Took thirty years to write, and would take most of its characters twice as long to read.
The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs
The experiment has been taken further than in Naked Lunch, and has not yet cohered to the point it would in the superior Western Lands trilogy. I read it as a warm-up for Gravity’s Rainbow, but the latter would only qualify ahead because of Pynchon’s awkward prose style rather than the genuine ballsyness of the Machine.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Surviving an encounter with this novel is all you can really do, and you never recover. It probably doesn’t help that I grew up in the same town as the author. It haunted me again during an alcohol-soaked, heat-abundant trip to Spain in the middle of a local festival last year. Unfriendly, irascible, impenetrable and brilliant.
Molloy by Samuel Beckett
This paragraphless meander through the mind of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators seems to anticipate Dhalgren, but whilst Delany’s book is pregnant with potential meaning, Beckett’s katabasis of humanity is home only to a kenosis, the void that’s left once the smoke of the modern world has cleared.
Tetraology of Elements by Rikki Ducornet
If criteria for inclusion are either that the book is challenging on a thematic or linguistic level, then Ducornet’s cycle ticks both boxes. In fact, it scratches them through the page.
On a final note, I haven’t slept in 48 hours.