...with Finnegans Wake.
I tend to read it four pages at a sitting. The first page I think, "Why am I back to this? This is ridiculous." By the second page I am getting into the swing of things, enjoying the rhythm, the so-called words forming almost complete thoughts, themes coalescing, sometimes familiar ones. This is when I smile, or laugh, or say, "Hmmm!" By the fourth page I'm getting tired of it, and close the volume, but look forward to coming back.
I become more and more convinced that I have done the right thing in avoiding the guide books. I ran a little experiment, fed "Finnegans Wake" into the Amazon searcher and put about fifteen books into the buy-basket, each being a guide of some sort, and each having the "Look Inside" feature. So at my leisure I would occasionally pull it up, choose one of the books, look at the introduction or table of contents, or a random selection. And what I found of course was references to references that I would have never gleaned in a million years, many of which I don't doubt are accurate, but which would extend reading the book, if taken seriously, to many lifetimes. Many are quite interesting, but, of course, deceptively suggest that they themselves are anything like what they are purporting to explain. Maybe, after completing the book itself, from cover to cover, it might be fun to chase down some of these rabbit trails. But to take this kind of thing too seriously is to undermine the whole idea that an ordinary reader can actually read this book, a proposition I am still reluctant to abandon.
That's not to say that Finnegans Wake isn't more than usually dependent upon prior knowledge of rather arbitrary and obscure things. I would go so far as to call that a defect. But it is also a feature, since it highlights the fact that, yes, almost all literature comes to us needing some degree of background. You don't need a knowledge of Victorian history, politics, economics, religion, law or social classes to understand or appreciate Dickens--but surely they help, and enrich the experience.
Let me conclude this brief pause on the journey with a consideration of two passages: Finn MacCool and the Mookse and the Gripes.
At a certain point (still in section I) a paragraph began with the number, "1." That's new, I thought. Flip, flip, flip, flip. There was another paragraph some six pages on, preceded with a number, "2." And immediately before it: "ANSWER: Finn MacCool!" So what we had here, plainly, was a series of questions, an examination, and the answer to those pages I had flipped through was Finn MacCool, or, more properly, Fionn Mac Cumhail, the legendary Irish king and giant, whose Fennians were, to him, what the knights of the round table were to Arthur. So, before proceeding further, I pull out a mostly-neglected volume from the shelf, "Wars of the Irish Kings," and read an account of the revolt of Midac, son of Colga, against Fionn, and, for good measure, I pull out my copy of "Celtic Myths and Legends" and skimm over the story there of Fionn's pursuit of the Giolla Dacker (and His Horse). Now I'm ready, think I.
Except that nothing, or next to nothing, in the six relevant pages seemed to relate to anything I knew of Fionn. It was a pretty opaque passage, and my preparation had mattered not a bit.
But shortly thereafter came the tale of the mookse and the gripes. Now here I had a little help, an illustration in the Folio edition of a fox on a throne wearing papal robes and the triple crown. The passage was obviously a riff on the fox and the grapes, with Pope Adrian as the fox and, presumably, the gripes/grapes as Protestants, on the other side of a river (the Tiber, I suppose--and a gripe is a sort of protest). Not, understand, that there was any intelligible story here, but there was a wealth of clever references and wordplays that, were I excerpting this crazy text for a beginner, I might well draw on for a suggestion of the unusual entertainment that this text can provide.
Toward the end of this passage a woman appears, Nuvoletta, who seems to be our dear Anna Livia, who is identified with all waters, and all rivers, and, more specifically, the River Liffy, which riverruns through Dublin, and I actually laughed out loud at the silly pun on the Father of Waters in this sentence:
"And into the river that had been a stream (for a thousand of tears had gone eon her and come on her and she was stout and struck on dancing and her muddied name was Missisliffi) there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears."
In short, what I despaired of in the Finn MacCool passage I regained in the Mooske and the Gripes. And so onward.