I’d been reading around Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for years, if not decades, before finally squaring up to it this week. I liked it a lot, though it is a profoundly unhappy book, and impossible to read without regular reference to the author as one follows her narrator Esther Greenwood’s breakdown and its aftermath.
The book is also a pleasure to read, being well styled, intelligent, rebellious, unflinching, and quite often funny. It has a nice passage on Finnegans Wake, which Greenwood was on the verge of reading, or studying, and which I reproduce here:
The thick book made an unpleasant dent in my stomach.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…
I thought the small letter at the start might mean that nothing ever really began all new, with a capital, but that it just flowed on from what came before. Eve and Adam’s was Adam and Eve, of course, but it probably signified something else as well.
Maybe it was a pub in Dublin.
My eyes sank through an alphabet soup of letters to the long word in the middle of the page.
I counted the letters. There were exactly a hundred of them. I thought this must be important.
Why should there be a hundred letters?
Haltingly, I tried the word aloud.
It sounded like a heavy wooden object falling downstairs, boomp boomp boomp, step after step. Lifting the pages of the book, I let them fan slowly by my eyes. Words, dimly familiar, but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain.
I squinted at the page.
The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.
I decided to junk my thesis.
James Joyce’s Ulysses, a great and justly famous book, is also a famously unread book, being far more often begun than finished. Finnegans Wake is more daunting still, bewildering the reader from the first page and continuing to do so for several hundred more, unless you’re prepared to read annotations alongside.
But FW has immediate rewards of its own, not least its effect on the ear – which Plath quickly picked up on. It comes to life, if not lucidity, in the reading, and may be enjoyed for the uniquely musical pleasure it offers on top of the relentless obscurity. If you’ve made it through Ulysses and are unsure about tackling its successor, my earlier post on reading Finnegans Wake might help you decide.