Monday, 22 June 2009

Reading difficult books

Of course, I like reading easy books. I read books for pleasure and one pleasure is being absorbed into a world, a set of characters and train of events so thoroughly that, while I'm reading it, I feel involved. I'm still reading Scandanavian crime fiction - wondering if Erlendur's life will become any more miserable and looking forward to the second volume in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy.

But sometimes I'm not looking for escape or easy answers. I want a book that makes demands on me, that takes me somewhere I hadn't expected or presents me with problems I won't be able to resolve and put away as I reach the final page.

With some books, the subject, plot and characters linger powerfully. I'm still caught in the world of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I finished only a few weeks ago. This is partly because it seems to present ethical dilemmas which resonate now: problems of wealth and poverty, the nature of influence in politics, the role of money and the market, the point at which the most well-intentioned individuals become complicit in violence and torture. But while these questions are raised, the novel also evokes a strong sense of the time and place in which it is set - it's a novel set around Henry VIII's court at the time of his obsession with Anne Boleyn.

Elsewhere the difficulty and the strangeness of part of the attraction. This is often at the level of language. I don't think I'll ever forget the delight I felt in opening a slim Penguin book in a small bookshop and finding the lines:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:
Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde,
Þat siþen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneȝe of al þe wele in þe west iles.

It's the opening of the anonymous mediaeval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and something in the language enthralled me in a way that Chaucer never has. It was the difficulty and the sense of strangeness, I think.

At about the same time I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the library and found myself sounding out the Greek word for sand - and that determined me to find a way of learning Classical Greek. I was never particularly good at it but in recent days I've picked up my Loeb parallel text of books 1-12 of the Odyssey and am wallowing in the pleasure of a language I don't fully understand and systems of customs and belief that are strange to me.

I've also returned to Finnegans Wake. It's famously difficult and I haven't got very far. I keep re-reading, relishing the language and catching the jokes. Yes! There are jokes in Finnegans Wake. Nobody warned me about that but I found them for myself. It happened as I was reading (for the third time) the passage which, I think, is about a visit to a Dublin museum with exhibits about the Duke of Wellington and the Battle of Waterlook. It begins like this, with the voice of the museum guide:

This the way to the museyroom. Mind your hats goan in! Now yiz are in the Willingdone Museyroom. This is a Prooshi-ous gunn. This is a ffrinch. Tip. This is the flag of the Prooshi— ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang the flag of the Prooshious. Saloos the Crossgunn! Up with your pike and fork! Tip. (Bullsfoot! Fine!) This is the triplewon hat of Lipoleum. Tip. Lipoleumhat. This is the Willingdone on his same white harse, the Cokenhape. This is the big Sraughter Wil-lingdone, grand and magentic in his goldtin spurs and his ironed dux and his quarterbrass woodyshoes and his magnate’s gharters and his bangkok’s best and goliar’s goloshes and his pullupon-easyan wartrews. This is his big wide harse. Tip.

In Finnegans Wake it's necessary to hear someone else's voice and take the risk that all children take when learning to speak and read - the risk of not understanding everything all at once. Learning a language is like that too. We have to face moments of uncertainty and live with incomprehension. It's not a bad basis for life. I'd recommend more difficult books and more willingness to say "I'm not sure" or "I don't understand." After all, the alternative is clinging to the safety of the familiar and never daring to leave home.


Kate J said...

I've got the Hilary Mantel book on order from the library (currently 3rd in the queue, so not long...) I'm glad to hear it's a good one! I do find her books very mixed - some I liked, some I didn't, some I thought I didn't but they stuck in my mind and so I read them again and enjoyed them more the second time. That's the power of a good writer, I guess.
I'm currently reading Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, and have just finished Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, and before that I was re-reading David Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest. I don't know suppose these would qualify as "difficult" for you, but I guess many people might find them tough going. Anne Michaels certainly warrants second reading - when I finished Fugitive Pieces I went straight back to the beginning, meaning only to re-read the opening chapter, but ended up reading the whole thing again.

I've pretty well given up on detective fiction, except for the sublime Sarah Paretsky, the intriguing Donna Leon, and the wonderful (and local) Phil Rickman. In all of these, the characters, location and politics are more important that the crime.

On your difficult books, I failed with Finnegan and have only read Sir Gawain with a parallel text translation, so I was feeling a bit inadequate. Until, that is, I remembered that I'm now reading Welsh poetry in Welsh, and getting to grips with the intricacies of cynghanedd... is that worth a point or two on the literary front, I wonder?

Kathz said...

Given the number of languages you speak - not to mention your knowledge of cynghanedd, I hardly think you're afraid of difficulty. I think most people do things where difficulty (which they might call "challenge") is part of the attraction. It's not always reading, of course - some people face difficulty in sports or painting or trying to acquire new skills. The odd thing is that so many people assume that the only motive for reading a difficult book is some kind of pretentiousness. But in fact the attitude which such books require is quite the reverse - a willingness to take risks an to admit the boundaries of knowledge and understanding.

I haven't read any Anne Michaels, though she's an author I mean to read, nor that David Guterson. I certainly enjoy books that aren't difficult, especially when they are written with skill and imagination.

I would strongly recommend the Stieg Larsson book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as an introduction to his work. I avoided it for a while because there was such a fuss about it but then found it thoroughly gripping. Your knowledge of Sweden and Swedish would probably make it even more interesting to you. (And I have the next one in the series for holiday reading.)

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, even if my favourite difficult reads tend to be non-fiction.

I will probably never manage Finnegans Wake (or maybe as an audiobook?) but Wolf Hall sounds fascinating. And speaking of 16th century historical fiction, have you read My name is red?

KateJ, have you tried Lindsey Davis?

Kate J said...

Yes, I have read Lindsey Davis' Didius Falco books, and really enjoyed them too. A detective story needs to have an interesting and likeable detective if they're going to work for me! Why I dislike PD James' books - Adam Dalgliesh is not a character I can feel any empathy for at all (an understatement!). But I didn't actually like Stieg Larssen at all, I'm afraid. I did try!

And I'm afraid my knowledge of languages is exagerrated... although I've learned several, I've forgotten them too, more's the pity. I can only keep one in my mind clearly at a time. So although I used to read Russian, for instance, I no longer can. Sad, but true.

Geoff J said...

As a fan of 'tec fiction, I'm surprised you liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I looked forward to reading it but I thought it was a crude pastiche of the US genre (tho' not quite as bad as Dan Brown).
It seemed to me to be saying "Please Hollywood, buy me for lots of dollars to make the next blockbuster."