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I’m With Stupid – February 1, 2013

by Todd Hartley

Todd Hartley-smallI once read somewhere that James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” was the best book ever written, so a few years ago when I found an old copy for a dollar I bought it. I’d heard cautionary tales, but I figured I’d give it a try anyway. I got about 50 pages into it before realizing I didn’t understand a single word and would never make it to the end. It’ll be back in the dollar box at a thrift store as soon as I remember to get rid of it.

Coincidentally, 50 pages is also as far as I made it into “Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, which I was supposed to read for a class in college. Pynchon’s magnum opus is one of TIME magazine’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels,” but I don’t see how a book can qualify when you have to read every word twice to have any idea what the author is talking about. Thankfully, no one else in the class read the book either, so the professor didn’t hold it against me.

I suppose I should have known better than to attempt “Ulysses.” If a book is supposed to be the best one ever, it can’t possibly live up to the hype. I heard somewhere that “Moby Dick” was the greatest book ever written, so over the course of a year back in the ’90’s I actually finished it. Meh. First of all, Melville didn’t even know that whales aren’t fish. That’s just starting off on the wrong foot right there. Secondly: meh. It’s not bad. It’s just too long and not that interesting.

Speaking of which, back to Joyce. To me, there is no better summation of James Joyce than the one given by Tom Robbins in “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.” Robbins doesn’t come right out and tell you what he thinks of Joyce. Instead, he makes the book’s protagonist, Switters, a member of an international book club that reads only Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” The members meet once a year to discuss the book, but they can’t; none of them has ever made it past the first page.

(Speaking of the best books of all time, “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates” is very high on the list, in my estimation. If you’re a Tom Robbins’ fan – and I can understand why you wouldn’t be – this one might be his best. Switters is one of the greatest characters ever.)

But back to “Finnegan’s Wake,” Joyce’s exceptionally hard-to-read tale of … something. (Even Joycean scholars don’t know what it’s about.) Though it was ostensibly written in English or something derived from English, “Finnegan’s Wake” remains largely unread by English-speaking audiences. However, it’s currently a sensation in the unlikeliest place you can think of: China. According to the BBC, the first Chinese printing of “Finnegan’s Wake” sold out in a month, and a second edition is being printed to meet demand.

It took Dai Congrong, the lady who translated the book, eight years to do it, and apparently it’s just as confounding in Chinese.

“I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel,” said Congrong, “if my translation made it easy to comprehend.”

The amazing thing is that she was able to translate the thing at all. As Switters could tell you, the first page contains the word “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” How the hell are you supposed to express that with a Chinese character?

It would be interesting to think that the book’s nonlinear format and lack of plot and character development jibe well with the nature of the inscrutable Eastern mind, and that’s why it’s selling out in China. Apparently, though, that’s not the case.

The BBC article noted that some critics say the book is only selling because it “has pandered to a superficial demand among some Chinese for high-brow imports.” One blogger even claimed it was “pushed by a current of unprecedented vanity.”

So I think I see what’s going on here. Chinese people are buying the book so other Chinese people will see it on their shelf and think they’re oh-so sophisticated. Those Chinese copies of “Finnegan’s Wake” are no more likely to be read than English copies. That’s so pathetic, and so Western. I’ve got to be honest: I expected more from you, China.

Pushed by vanity or not, the success of “Finnegan’s Wake” does have at least one positive going for it: Switters’ book club can finally have a Chinese member who doesn’t make it past the first page.

Todd Hartley translates books into Pig Latin. His latest, “Obymay Ickday,” is available through Amazon. 

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