The ten “most difficult” books

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.

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5 thoughts on “The ten “most difficult” books

  1. Not counting drunken 100 page sojourn through Finnegans’s Wake the only book on your list that I have read is Djuna Barne’s Nightwood, and this I read nearly 50 years ago. I don’t remember this as a difficult read; what I do recall and what to me is truly memorable is the crystaline prose,a prose of a quality I can liken to only a few others I have read: Nabokov and Theroux (you must know which brother I refer to). Maybe I am a dolt and I am reminded of what Niels Bohr said about quantum mechanics, that if you don’t find it shocking, you don’t understand it. Please know that my friend Peter D’Epiro wrote a superb translation of Dante’s Inferno (11 cantos rendered in terza rima in a vigorous English and which, to me, is no doubt the best English translatiion, exant) He has your blog address, but I am not sure he has subscribed to the mailings, so I am forwarding this blog to him. PS I am not a “literary type”. I am a burned out scientist and a poet (reawakend after a 30 year’s sleep). Looking forward to your comments on Barnes. (It is a short novel, more a novella as I recal, so do put it up on your next to read list.)

    1. Hi Frederick,

      Thank you so much for your comment, it was a pleasure to read.

      I did almost include Theroux but I’ve only read (the extremely underrated) Three Wogs. As for Bohr, you’re probably not far wrong, as the links from Joyce to quantum mechanics run deeper than the coining of ‘quark’. I read this a few years ago and it’s worth the effort, if memory serves: http://duszenko.northern.edu/joyce/quanta.html

      I haven’t come across Dr D’Epiro’s translation but I will certainly keep an eye out; having no Italian, I don’t recall having read Dante in terza rima, my only exposure coming through the likes of Byron IIRC.

      1. Yes, it had to be Three Wogs, as the book consisted of three delightfully droll stories involving racial prejudice. Dr. Epiro’s work is unpublished save for one canto appearing in a scholarly journal. The reason: He completed only eleven cantos. I believe the Herculean task he had set for himself cost him his marriage. I can only imagine the nights spent struggling over one line, one word! I will send you a specimen, one canto (Canto !). I think you will see that it is remarkable feat of translation.

      2. Canto I

        Midway along this life we journey through,
        I found myself in a dark wood, astray,
        For the right path was wholly lost to view.
        Ah me, how difficult it is to say
        How wild that forest was, how harsh and dense;
        Mere thought of it revives all my dismay!
        Death’s bitterness is scarcely more intense.
        But I will treat of all I chanced to find,
        So as to tell what good I salvaged thence.
        How I came there I cannot call to mind: 10
        I was so drowsy at that point I could
        Not help but leave the one true path behind.
        But when I’d crossed the valley of that wood
        Which had transfixed my very heart with dread,
        A hill loomed right before me where I stood,
        And, looking up, I saw high overhead
        Its shoulders vested with that planet’s light
        Which guides men right, whatever path they tread.
        And only then could I allay the fright
        That had maintained its vigil in my breast 20
        Through all the anguish I endured that night.
        Just as a man who has, with panting chest,
        Escaped to shore from clutch of deadly sea,
        Turns back to gaze at what his eyes detest,
        So too my mind, though counseling to flee,
        Turned back to look again upon that trail
        That never yet let living man go free.
        I rested briefly from the night’s travail,
        Then started up that desert mountain-side,
        The firm foot always the nearer to the vale. 30
        And as I started, see what I espied!–
        A leopard, light and nimble in its pace,
        And covered with a thickly spotted hide.
        Nor would it move from right before my face,
        Having so blocked the path I thought to climb
        That more than once I turned to leave that place.
        The time of day was morning’s early prime;
        The sun was rising with those stars that went
        To bear it company when Love Sublime
        First moved those things, so fair and excellent. 40
        The hour and sweet season of the year
        Gave cause for hope and firm encouragement
        Against that gay-skinned creature and my fear.
        Yet, even so, my resolution fled
        When suddenly I saw a lion appear.
        It seemed to come against me with its head
        Uplifted high, with hunger-maddened stare;
        The air around it seemed to quake with dread.
        And then a she-wolf came, which seemed to bear
        Within her famished frame a craving will— 50
        To many nations had she brought despair.
        Such terror did the sight of her instill,
        Such heaviness she worked within my veins,
        That I lost hope of going up the hill.
        And like a man rejoicing in his gains
        Until the day he loses all he’d won,
        When deep inside he sorrows and complains,
        So by that restless beast was I undone,
        Which, step by step advancing, made me go
        Back toward the region of the silent sun. 60
        As I was rushing to ruin down below,
        Someone appeared before me, while I ran,
        Whose voice, through long disuse, seemed weak and low.
        Seeing him in that desert, I began,
        “Have pity on my plight!” with voice aflame,
        “Whatever you are, a shade or living man!”
        “Not man,” he said, “though once I held that name.
        My parents both were of Lombardic seed,
        And Mantua the town from which they came.
        Sub Julio was I born, though late. Indeed, 70
        I lived in Rome in good Augustus’ days,
        When gods were of that false, deceitful breed.
        I was a poet, and I sang to praise
        Anchises’ righteous son who came from Troy
        When haughty Ilium was set ablaze.
        But you, why seek those regions that destroy,
        Instead of climbing this delightful mount,
        Which is both source and cause of every joy?”
        “And are you then that Virgil and that fount
        From which proceeds so rich a stream of speech?” 80
        I said with shame that I could not surmount.
        “O glory of all poets, light of each,
        May my long, loving studies serve me now,
        Which bade me search for all your book could teach!
        My master, you, my author! I avow
        From you alone that lovely style I learned,
        Which set both praise and honor on my brow.
        But see the beast—the reason why I turned.
        Against her, famous sage, O lend your aid!
        For her, the blood within my veins is churned.” 90
        “By you a different journey must be made,”
        He said in answer when he saw me cry,
        “To flee this savage place to which you’ve strayed,
        Because this beast that makes you weep and sigh
        Forbids a man to climb up any higher,
        Hindering him until she makes him die.
        Her nature is all viciousness and ire,
        Her greedy maw impossible to sate:
        The more she feeds, the greater her desire.
        With many creatures is she known to mate, 100
        And shall with many more—until the Hound
        Shall come to deal this beast her deadly fate.
        He will not feed on loot or barren ground,
        But wisdom, love, and valor in great store;
        And felt and felt his hour of birth shall bound.
        He’ll save poor Italy, for which those four—
        The chaste Camilla, Turnus, Nisus, and
        Euryalus—all died from wounds of war.
        He’ll hunt her through each city in the land
        Till into Hell she shall again be thrown, 110
        Whence first she came, at envy’s dread command.
        I thus determine, for your good alone,
        That you should follow where I lead, and go
        Through an eternal place you shall you be shown.
        There shall you hear despairing shrieks of woe,
        There shall you witness ancient souls in pain,
        Who all bewail the second death below.
        Then shall you see those spirits who remain
        Contented in the flames, for they believe
        That someday they shall win that blest domain. 120
        If there you would ascend, you shall receive
        A worthier guide to take you in her care;
        To her shall I entrust you when I leave.
        For that great Emperor who rules up there–
        Because I lived outside his law–by rights
        Forbids that to his city I repair.
        Though everywhere he reigns, he rules those heights;
        There is his city and his lofty seat—
        Oh, happy whom he chooses for those sights!”
        I answered him: “O poet, I entreat 130
        You by that God you did not recognize,
        To help me flee this evil beast’s deceit,
        And worse to come, and lead me where my eyes
        May see Saint Peter’s gate and look upon
        Those souls on whom you say such sorrow lies.”
        He then set out; behind him, I moved on.

  2. .PS Indentations lost in the cutting and pasting. Dr, Epiro may have made some minor changes by now. He is putting his hand to renewed translation, but forgoing the terza rima this time, and beginnning with Canto XII.

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