Books I’ll (probably) never finish (yet return to again and again)

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A week or so ago, I wrote about the books (specifically novels) that I can’t seem to finish despite beginning them five, six, seven plus times. In that post, I noted that there “are certain books I’ll probably never ‘finish,’ that I have no aim of finishing,” and hence didn’t include in my silly little list. Such titles seemed to need their own post.

“Finish” is probably the wrong verb to use to denote the act of reading, in traditional sequence, all the words on all the pages of a grand great novel. I have never really “finished” the books that I’ve read the most times from cover to cover—books like Adventures of Huckleberry FinnTheir Eyes Were Watching GodMoby-Dick, UlyssesBlood Meridian2666. Something about such books remains somewhere inside of me, unfinished (in contrast to the many, many novels—most often contemporary “literary” fictions—that I truly finish by reading and then jettisoning from memory). The great books that I’ve finished are unfinished. Something of the really great novels wriggles around in the background of consciousness, whispering, howling.

Putting together a little list of books I’m always reading but will likely never finish was not difficult, although I should clarify that I’ve intentionally left off a good number of critical texts—stuff like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.—as well as the letters, notebooks, and journals of writers that I return to again and again. I tried to stick to novels. But are the works pictured/listed here—Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon QuixoteFinnegans Wake, and 1982, Janine—are these actually novels? The question is complex and productive, but I’ll answer it with the simple, “Yes, but– 

(And yet, parenthetically: That the novelness of these novels is suspect is perhaps a key to why these are the works that fascinate me, that these unnovelly novels make me stumble; I resort to shelving them, grab for critical interpretations, guides, commentaries, etc.—in the hopes of…of what?)

Joyce’s Finnnegans Wake is a nice starting place for this little list. The novel’s famous opening line (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) actually completes the novel’s “final” (non-)sentence (“A lone a last a loved a long the”). So Finnegans Wake is a loop, an infinite jest. Over the past decade, I’ve dipped into the book again and again, using Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key as a friendly guide. I’ve learned to have fun with Finnegans Wake, taking something from its language, its connections, its syntheses, while abandoning the pretense that I’ve anything to gain by trucking through it at full speed just to “finish” it.

I pick up Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman less often than I used to, having recovered from trying to understand it. The novel seems to me proof that the term “postmodern” is simply a description of a way of seeing, and not a set of aesthetic conditions. Also, I love that Sterne loves the dash—

It’s perhaps a great moral failing on my part that I’ve never made it past the first few chapters of the Second Part of Don QuixoteI’m familiar with it, largely by way of Nabokov’s lectures and summaries. Anyway, I fail to understand Don Quixote; I fail to read it rightly.

Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine doesn’t have the same reputation as the other novels I’ve listed here; its inclusion wasn’t so much an afterthought but a realization—I bought it four years ago and have yet to shelve it. It’s always on a coffee table, the edge of a sofa, next to my bed, cooing, Start again. I start reading it and then I skip ahead to its weird black heart, then I read from the end, then I go back to the beginning. Then I put it aside, having made no “progress.”

I don’t know what Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is. Is it a novel? (Wait. I think we went through this above). I first encountered it as a bewildered undergrad, checking out an old huge hardback edition from the library. I made a small dent (aided by Ritalin). All that Latin is Greek to me. In his preface to the NYRB edition, William H. Gass advises, “Be prepared to proceed slowly and you will soon go swiftly enough. Read a member a day; it will chase gloom away.” I have not read a member a day, but I do like to pull Melancholy from the shelf late at night, after a few glasses of wine, and dip into it somewhere. I will never finish it.

And yet I’ve retained more from these unfinished novels than most of the contemporary fiction novels I’ve read. Anna Livia Plurabelle. The priest burning poor Quixote’s beautiful books. The marbled pages, the blacked out pages, the squiggles of Tristram Shandy. The typographic explosions in 1982, Janine. The dirty bits. The lists. The force of language, above all.

In a sense, not “finishing” these grand weird novels keeps them vital to me, present somehow, promising in their possibility, taunting and tantalizing in their pregnant unfinishabilty.

“Accounts to reconcile: Anecdotes to pick up: Inscriptions to make out: Stories to weave in: Traditions to sift: Personages to call upon: Panegyricks to paste up at this door; Pasquinades at that” — A Passage from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy

Chapter 1.XIV. Upon looking into my mother’s marriage settlement, in order to satisfy myself and reader in a point necessary to be cleared up, before we could proceed any farther in this history;–I had the good fortune to pop upon the very thing I wanted before I had read a day and a half straight forwards,–it might have taken me up a month;–which shews plainly, that when a man sits down to write a history,–tho’ it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way,–or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over. Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,– straight forward;–for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside, either to the right hand or to the left,- -he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end;–but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various Accounts to reconcile: Anecdotes to pick up: Inscriptions to make out: Stories to weave in: Traditions to sift: Personages to call upon: Panegyricks to paste up at this door; Pasquinades at that:–All which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from. To sum up all; there are archives at every stage to be look’d into, and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:–In short there is no end of it;–for my own part, I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,–and am not yet born:–I have just been able, and that’s all, to tell you when it happen’d, but not how;–so that you see the thing is yet far from being accomplished. These unforeseen stoppages, which I own I had no conception of when I first set out;–but which, I am convinced now, will rather increase than diminish as I advance,–have struck out a hint which I am resolved to follow;–and that is,–not to be in a hurry;–but to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year;–which, if I am suffered to go on quietly, and can make a tolerable bargain with my bookseller, I shall continue to do as long as I live.

Chapter XIV of the first book of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

“The Freest Writer” — Nietzsche on Laurence Sterne

Nietzsche upholds Laurence Sterne as “the freest writer of all times” in Human, All Too Human, Part II:

113. The Freest Writer. —In a book for free spirits one cannot avoid mention of Laurence Sterne, the man whom Goethe honoured as the freest spirit of his century. May he be satisfied with the honour of being called the freest writer of all times, in comparison with whom all others appear stiff, square-toed, intolerant, and downright boorish! In his case we should not speak of the clear and rounded but of “the endless melody”—if by this phrase we arrive at a name for an artistic style in which the definite form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that it signifies one and the other at the same time. Sterne is the great master of double entendre , this phrase being naturally used in a far wider sense than is commonly done when one applies it to sexual relations. We may give up for lost the reader who always wants to know exactly what Sterne thinks about a matter, and whether he be making a serious or a smiling face (for he can do both with one wrinkling of his features; he can be and even wishes to be right and wrong at the same moment, to interweave profundity and farce). His digressions are at once continuations and further developments of the story, his maxims contain a satire on all that is sententious, his dislike of seriousness is bound up with a disposition to take no matter merely externally and on the surface. So in the proper reader he arouses a feeling of uncertainty whether he be walking, lying, or standing, a feeling most closely akin to that of floating in the air. He, the most versatile of writers, communicates something of this versatility to his reader. Yes, Sterne unexpectedly changes the parts, and is often as much reader as author, his book being like a play within a play, a theatre audience before another theatre audience. We must surrender at discretion to the mood of Sterne, although we can always expect it to be gracious. It is strangely instructive to see how so great a writer as Diderot has affected this double entendre of Sterne’s—to be equally ambiguous throughout is just the Sternian super-humour. Did Diderot imitate, admire, ridicule, or parody Sterne in his Jacques le Fataliste ? One cannot be exactly certain, and this uncertainty was perhaps intended by the author. This very doubt makes the French unjust to the work of one of their first masters, one [pg 062] who need not be ashamed of comparison with any of the ancients or moderns. For humour (and especially for this humorous attitude towards humour itself) the French are too serious. Is it necessary to add that of all great authors Sterne is the worst model, in fact the inimitable author, and that even Diderot had to pay for his daring? What the worthy Frenchmen and before them some Greeks and Romans aimed at and attained in prose is the very opposite of what Sterne aims at and attains. He raises himself as a masterly exception above all that artists in writing demand of themselves—propriety, reserve, character, steadfastness of purpose, comprehensiveness, perspicuity, good deportment in gait and feature. Unfortunately Sterne the man seems to have been only too closely related to Sterne the writer. His squirrel-soul sprang with insatiable unrest from branch to branch; he knew what lies between sublimity and rascality; he had sat on every seat, always with unabashed watery eyes and mobile play of feature. He was—if language does not revolt from such a combination—of a hard-hearted kindness, and in the midst of the joys of a grotesque and even corrupt imagination he showed the bashful grace of innocence. Such a carnal and spiritual hermaphroditism, such untrammelled wit penetrating into every vein and muscle, was perhaps never possessed by any other man.

“My Father Had Two Domestic Obligations” — A Scene from Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (NSFW)

Laurence Sterne’s Death Mask

Beer and Book Pairing: Shandies + García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

While the special pleasures of drinking a beer have undergone something of a renaissance in the past ten years in America, what with all the awesome microbreweries popping up left and right, there remains among many a staunch and unjustified prejudice against the world’s oldest liquor. In short, wine is still the go-to beverage for fine dining, and for many, the mark of sophistication and refinement. And while we certainly don’t begrudge a glass of pinot or chardonnay, why all the prejudice? Beer goes great with food–especially fine food–and also with books. In order to make headway against overcoming beer’s unjust vulgar reputation with some folks, we proudly present a new ongoing series of beer-book pairings, hopefully lending a little weight to our favorite beverage’s literary caché. It’s Spring Break Week at Biblioklept International Headquarters, and what better way to celebrate the season than with our crisp homemade shandies paired with Gabriel García Márquez’ s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

Shandies are made simply by mixing beer with ginger ale, ginger beer, or, preferably, lemonade. Our recipe for shandies is pretty basic. We recommend starting with a lager–Tecate, Red Stripe, or even Corona will do fine (we’re featuring Red Stripe at the BIH this week). You can certainly use an ale, but ales tend to have richer, sharper, and more complex flavors, and they tend to be not as smooth as lagers. (We suppose you could make shandies with a porter or stout or a lambic ale, but this seems kinda sorta reprehensible). Next, you’ll need either an imperial pint glass (20 oz.) or an American pint glass (16 oz.). Pour your lager into the glass, then add your lemonade in desired ratio (we prefer to fill an imperial pint glass, creating roughly a 3 to 2 ratio of beer to lemonade. Oh yeah, we’re lazy and use store bought lemonade (Minute Maid sugar free), but we’ve made our own in the past. Making your own lemonade is easy, and if you don’t know how to do it you probably are too dimwitted to be reading these words right now). Final step: stir, drink, enjoy.

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We’ve chosen shandies for their crisp lightness. They’re the perfect early afternoon drink, cool and refreshing, preferably enjoyed on porches or hammocks (we don’t really recommend them for indoors or at night). We’ve paired them with a fresh little jewel of a book, Gabriel García Márquez’ s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Chronicle is a murder/love story with about a million little twists, the biggest twist being that there is no twist: we know from the first sentences exactly what will happen. Still, García Márquez’ s kaleidescopic reconstruction of the day of the murder is thoroughly engrossing, bewildering, and un-put-downable. The book’s rhetoric is hardly as morbid as its subject matter–it’s great hammock/beach reading, and its crisp lightness belies its complex flavors. Like a shandy, it slowly, subtly intoxicates you. It’s also pretty short, about 130 pages, and despite its infinite digressions, its the sort of book that you read in just one or two sittings.

Of course, maybe you’ve read Chronicle but you’re still dying to drink some shandies on your porch with a good book, and you want Biblioklept to give you a literary excuse. Well, here’s another option: take a shot at another book of infinite digressions, Laurence Sterne’s 1759 (anti-)novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The fun of pairing a shandy with Shandy will be doubled in Sterne’s love of wordplay in the text. And sure, there’s no way you’ll finish it, but it’s not that sort of book anyway–it doesn’t finish its self! Pick it up at random, flip around, marvel at its weirdness, at the very idea that the first post-modern novel could somehow come before the modern novel. Then get up, make another shandy, and pick up again elsewhere. Fun stuff.

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Shandy charts the course of his narrative thus far