Monday, April 21, 2014

Five world masterpieces I'm never gonna read

The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez last week reminded me that the Nobel Prize winner is in that small but select group of authors whose greatest works I don't expect to finish. I've read a collection of his short stories and two of his short novels, but long-form Marquez doesn't work for me. I have tried three times to force my way into "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and I would need 100 years of solitude to complete it.

Yet he's not even close to the Forbidden Zone for this college English major. Nothing short of a kidnapper threatening my wife would make me pick up these five books again:

Beloved teacher Reynolds Price devoted an entire course to John Milton's epic "Paradise Lost" at Duke University; I didn't take it, but friends called it revelatory. Maybe I needed that kind of guidance to appreciate the book-length poem, because Milton remains the only one among the Holy Trio of early English authors I can't penetrate. Chaucer and Shakespeare, I love. Milton, I don't.
Yes, that's a photo of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce's "Ulysses." Or maybe just staring at it, as I did on my three attempts to get past page 50. I've never taken to books that required endless footnotes or explanations of countless references. But I consider "The Dead" to be the most moving collection of short stories in the English language, so I took my shots at Joyce's titanic novel. It defeated me every time.
I carried an unabridged copy of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" on a trip to Iceland, figuring I could get through all 1400 pages if I read a mere 100 pages a night. A cinch, yeah? Once the sun went down in tiny towns outside Reykjavik, there was nothing to do but read. I'd enjoyed "Anna Karenina," but I got lost in this much vaster compendium of characters and situations. Finally, in desperation, I started to skip around. So maybe I have finished "War and Peace," but I've actually read about half of it.
I read "Swann's Way" at the urging of college friends and congratulated myself for (I think) grasping Marcel Proust's points about the elusiveness of memory, the decline of desire with age, regret for things that were unattainable or couldn't be retained, etc. Then I realized I had six more novels to go. I felt like a guy who'd completed a 5K and realized he was now expected to run back-to-back marathons. But I'd hit the wall.
I have enjoyed Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," which someone once called "the Cliff's Notes version of 'Faust'." But multiple attempts to scale Goethe's mountainous volumes have left me dazed and tired. The language seems impenetrable and repetitious; the concepts may be worth considering, but I've dozed through them in multiple forms: a translation from the German original, Schumann's opera/oratorio "Scenes from Goethe's 'Faust'," Mahler's Eighth Symphony, you name it. I could handle the first, shorter book of the two. But the second -- well, if the Devil snatches me down to Hell, I'll have time to read it there.


Anonymous said...

"Ulysses" has nothing on "Finnegans Wake."

Anonymous said...

Yes, I got about 20 pages into "Finnegans" and drew the same conclusion. Couldn't find a picture of a movie star reading it, though.

Frazer Dobson said...

In grad school, I took an entire COURSE on Finnegan's Wake. Over the course of the semester, we got through a full 40 pages of the text. I never bothered to go further, though I did enjoy having the phrase "commodius vicus of recirculation" added to my repertoire. Brilliant meta-novel or elaborate joke on the reader? You tell me.

par said...

As much as I wish I could. Unfortunately, just do have the patience anymore to read these classics.

Mark Caplan said...

When I read a Great World Classic that turns out a dud, I just blame the translator, unless, like PARADISE LOST and ULYSSES, it was originally written in no known language.