By Richard Wagamese
I started to run again. It’s been twenty years or more since I ran anything further than a trip around the bases in a slow pitch rec league. Back then it was still possible for me to entertain the idea of a marathon or competing in distance races. Back then it was elevating and somehow freeing.
Now, today, after chugging around a couple short miles, alternating between walking and running, it feels restrictive, flagging and darn hard work. The scenery’s nice and the air on the gravel road by the lake is clear and invigorating. But I’m in my fifties now and starting over is tough.
Still, there’s something big in it. There’s the promise of something buried in the sweat and burning lungs and concrete legs. Maybe it’s the possibility of reclaiming something of the youth I was, maybe it’s the idea of sticking around the planet a little longer or even just the knowledge that I’m out there.
It takes me back to another challenge when I was eighteen.
I’d dropped out of school with a Grade Nine education. The work I was able to find was less than fulfilling and there was a part of me that craved more. I understood the dangers inherent in a lack of formal schooling and I was afraid to be left behind, to appear stupid or unenlightened. Libraries gave me the opportunity to continue learning and I always took it.
But one night, sitting at a bar, I overheard the knot of people next to me discussing a book called Finnegans Wake. They talked earnestly and I understood that the book they referred to was important. They made references to other books, debated story structure and elements of the writing and I was impressed by the energy of their talk as well as the idea that a book could drive people to such impassioned heights.
Well, I asked the librarian for it the next day. She gave me a quizzical look but retrieved it form the stacks nonetheless. It was huge. That was my first impression and there was nothing on the cover to give any indication of what kind of story to expect. But carrying it across the library to a carrel near the window I felt, well, studious almost.
When I opened it, that feeling changed.
The language of James Joyce was dense, quirky and alluded to things more than simply stating them. The first sentence was mind boggling and the first paragraph sent my mind reeling. I put the book down and stared out the window. Then I picked it up and tried again. The language was daunting, unyielding and seemed to ask something of me that I did not possess.
I walked out of the library discouraged. But the book would not leave me be. I thought about it all that night and when I went back the next day I was determined to read it through. I got through the first page. When I asked the librarian what it was about the answer she gave me was a convoluted as the book itself. I left disheartened.
But there was something in the challenge that book represented that called to me. I didn’t know what it was or why it should be so important but I felt the pull of it anyway. So I checked it out and took it home. Each time I opened it I got a little further. Still, it was a writhing mess of aphorism, allusion, mythology, dream and seemed conjured by a fierce, raging intellect I was at odds to harness.
It haunted me. It invaded my waking thought. It irritated me that I couldn’t grasp the narrative thread of it and angered me to think that a story could elude me. Each time I picked it up I had to force myself to stick with it. Each time I picked it up I was confronted again with the thick hodge-podge of idea and image and each time I fought my way through. It took me over five months to read it.
The day I finished it was amazing. I’d allowed that book to take me over and when I closed it I felt awed by the passage of time. I’d been displaced and when I went walking to mull it over I was shocked to see that it was autumn. It had been late spring when I started. I understood then why the people I’d overheard were so smitten by Finnegans Wake.
It wasn’t that it was a rousing story. It wasn’t that it was a captivating and elevating read. It was because James Joyce had taken language by the neck and shaken it vigorously. He’d taken form and structure like a Lego set and created something odd and fantastic and magical. He showed me in the course of six hundred odd pages what was possible with language and story.
I read other books after that. I read Homer and Aristotle, Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Henrik Ibsen and Shakespeare, all the writers that influenced James Joyce in the writing of Finnegans Wake. Then I read Beckett, Borges, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Wolfe, Vladimir Nabokov, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams and Jack Kerouac. Reading Finnegans Wake proved to me that I had the intellectual mettle to tackle anything and that I could emerge from it a more aware human being.
It took everything I had to finish it. But like the first run around the gravel road I sensed that there was something big in it for me. I didn’t know what it was then but I know today.
Finnegans Wake allowed me to construct a dream of language. It was a dream that I might create worlds upon a page, a dream that I might throttle language too and shake it into new and fascinating forms. It took everything I had to finish it, but like running, at the end, I was bigger, hardier, full of grit and eager for the next challenge.