This article on Moby Dick from the New Yorker got me thinking of classic novels I've never been able to finish, Moby Dick being perhaps first and foremost among them. I found it impossibly dense and turgid, the prose style convoluted and confusing, and it just failed to keep my interest.
War and Peace is another classic that's defeated me. I've started it at least four times and never gotten past page 20. That's probably as far as I got in Pride and Prejudice, too. I forced myself to read Crime and Punishment all the way through, but I'll be damned if I remember much about it or got anything out of it. The only way I got through Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks was by skimming it and concentrating almost exclusively on the dialogue.
There's a certain pattern here -- I obviously have a problem with the 19th century (I count Buddenbrooks there, even though it was published in 1901), and it doesn't help if a book is long. (On the other hand, I love Dickens and Wuthering Heights -- it really is "the strangest love story every told" -- and I did read every word of Finnegan's Wake, though I now consider that to have been a colossal waste of time.)
I can think of other classics that failed to move me: The Aeneid, The Great Gatsby (which I have read three times, trying to get what everyone else gets about it), Henderson the Rain King (long!), A Passage to India. There doesn't seem to be a pattern after all.
It used to bother me that I couldn't get interested in these books. After all, they're classics, great works of literature. If I didn't get them, what did that say about me and my lack of intellectual heft?
I don't worry about it anymore. The infinite combining and recombining of DNA within our species results in an infinite number of individuals, each with sensibilities and tastes that set him or her apart. The womb is a sort of aesthetic Thunderdome -- no two individuals emerge from it the same.
What famous novel do you find insufferable?