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10 novels I wrestled with .. and sometimes failed

The topic for this week’ s Top Ten Tuesday meme is all about books that were a struggle to get through.

Lets start with two that were such a struggle I never made it to the final page. They were both Booker prize winners.

1. The Famished Road by Ben Okri was the first Booker winner that I failed to finish. In fact I barely got off the starting blocks with this one because the first chapter was so full of what seemed to me pretentious magical realism nonsense that I simply could not bear to read any more. This is the opening sentence:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

Now I was ok with the first two sentences but the third pulled  me up short. It just didn’t make any sense – why is a river hungry and why is it more hungry than a road?

The book continued in similar odd style about  some spirit child whose siblings want to rescue him from the human world. I made it to page 80 and then lost patience.

finkler question-12. I fared better with The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson in the sense that I read more of it before it too, was abandoned.  The issue this time wasn’t pretentiousness; I just found the book boring. I could have persevered to the end but it would have been a real self ad that’s now how I want to use my time. Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. My review is here.

Let’s move on to a few novels that I did finish even though sometimes it was a painful experience.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Yes I know it’s a classic (it will celebrate its bicentenary next year)  and I know it was an exceptionally bold book particularly from a female writer. As I said in a post earlier this week, there are some parts which I think work really well. Who can forget the passage when Dr Frankenstein first set the creature he has formed as a result of  his experiment:

It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

It all went downhill from there on unfortunately with some ludicrously improbable plot developments. Even a memorable scene towards the end where Frankenstein and the creature are engaged in a battle on the Arctic ice field  failed to rescue the book for me.

Now I bet you are wondering why, if I disliked this book so intensely, I read it to the end. The answer is simple – it was required reading for a course I was taking with the Open University about realism in the novel. We were asked to consider how even within a novel held as a prime example of the Gothic genre, it was possible to find many characteristics of realism.

Another set text for the Open University, although in a different module, also proved challenging for me.

dracula.jpg4. In my young teens I saw countless Dracula films ( my dad liked them but was too scared to go on his own) but I never got around to reading the Bram Stoker novel until about 2005. I took it on holiday and remember being transfixed by the first section which is set in Dracula’s castle in Trannsylvania. Jonathan Harker is a solicitor sent to provide legal support for a property transaction  but after a few days at the castle realises he is effectively a prisoner and that his host has some strange powers. Worse follows when he encounters three female vampires who simultaneously entrance and repulse him. Stoker is masterful at building the suspense in this section – real ‘ hold your breath’ kind of writing. The rest of the novel is essentially an adventure story with good ranged against evil. The Count gets to London but has to contend with the forces of good in the form of Harker’s fiance and an odd character by the name of Van Helsing.  They and a few others begin rushing around London to try and track down Dracula and eradicate him. It’s all good fun if rather silly at times but the major obstacle for me was the dreadful manner in which Stoker renders Van Helsing’s speech. He’s meant to be an eminent scientist, a doctor, philosopher, and metaphysician, an intelligent man in other words yet Stoker makes him come across as a bumbling idiot much given to malapropisms and clumsy phrases. Maybe this is an attempt to emphasise his foreign origin (he is from Amsterdam) but it was difficult to keep a straight face sometimes when he was in a scene.

This reminds me of a couple of other ‘classics’ that I’ve found a challenge. Both happen to be by the same author.

5.  Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens I think I’ve now tried to read this about five times but have yet to finish it. The odd thing is that I come to a halt at almost the same place each time – shortly after we begin the chapters set in Paris. There is one chapter which has an elderly shoemaker who is going to be rescued and taken to home to England and to safety. I can’t put my finger on why I struggle to get beyond this point but my husband also hits the same brick wall.

6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  This novel has an outstanding opening which Dickens uses to criticise the English legal system and the way one of its divisions, the Chancery Court ruins people’s lives. He uses the symbolism of heavy fog which persists in London and particularly around the court which is sitting in judgement on a long-running case of wardship and inheritance – the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This being Dickens its not long before he introduces us to a host of characters – and therin lies my problem. I cannot get these various people straight in my head which is disappointing because some of them are wonderful creations ( particularly one Lady Dedlock). I have reached the halfway mark but came to a halt – not that I have given up. I recently watched a BBC adaptation which proved invaluable in helping me work out who is who. I am determined to return to the fray with Mr Dickens at some point in the future.

It’s not just the classics that I’ve struggled with, sometimes I have an issue with bestsellers.

7. I usually enjoy Kate Atkinson‘s writing but her 2013 novel  Life After Life (my review) left me cold. The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The central character Ursula Todd is born, dies, is born again, dies again .. and again… and again. An interesting premise but it became repetitive and I wasn’t interested enough to want to know how it all turned out so I gave up.

8. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those novels that ‘everyone’ seemed to be reading a few years ago. It tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army. A lot of reviewers and bloggers thought this was a page turner but I found the style of writing hard to digest. Virtually every noun had to come with an adjective, there were many anachronistic Americanisms and a heavy reliance on short sentences which had the effect of making the text feel very choppy.

And finally, I have a challenge with fiction from one particular country – Spain.

Infatuations9. The Infatuations by Javier Marías was a novel I was looking forward to reading on a holiday in Spain. He’s considered one of the country’s greatest contemporary writers and had come highly recommended by bloggers who know a thing or two about literature in translation. My experience was disappointing. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we had barely any plot development yet oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again. I abandoned it and went in search of a different Spanish author.

10  I landed on  Enrique Villa  Matas who is often described as one of the most inventive  of contemporary Spanish novelists. Dublinesque  had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.  It’s about a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed.  On the strength of a dream he hatches a plan to take three of his former authors on a pilgrimage to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce masterpiece Ulysses is set.  While there they will also commemorate the end of the Gutenberg era. One hundred pages into the book we were still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I didn’t understand. It felt like a game was being played and I was not asked to be a member of the team. I abandoned the book. I’m still in search of a good Spanish author so if anyone has recommendations, do let me know.

The ideal travelling companion?

sundaysalonSuitcase is packed. Passport and currency checked and rechecked. Now all that remains is to decide what book will accompany me on my work trip to Michigan later today.

It’s even more difficult a decision to make than the one around how many pairs of shoes.

The last thing I want is to be on an eight hour flight with a book that I’m not enjoying. Which is why I invariably end up buying another book in the airport ‘just in case’. And why my iPad has been loaded with e books – again ‘just in case’ of a calamity. Because that’s what it would be to me if I run out of reading options before landing.

So the choice of book requires some careful thought.

If I was being good, then I would of course take one of the reading texts from the Plagues, Witches and War historical fiction course:

FeverFever by Mary Beth Keane. This is a novel based on the true life story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallone was an immigrant to the United States who was discovered to be a carrier of the disease, passing it on though never suffering herself. Branded by the press as a murderer, she was arrested and held in confinement. The plot sounds good but I’ve seen some comments that the narrative style isn’t wonderful.

Ghost bride

Ghost Brides by Yangsze Choo. Set in colonial Malaya, this novel looks at an ancient custom of ghost brides which is a practice said to placate a restless spirit. It features a genteel but bankrupt family who are tempted by the offer of a ghost marriage for their daughter who otherwise would have few prospects. The setting of turn of the century Malaysia is considered to be one of the highlights of the book.

My hesitation is that I’ve read a lot of historical fiction recently so a change of genre could be welcome. My two shortlisted options are:

The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell. This is the selection for the December book club. It’s about a man who steps off a London Underground train one day (there is a suggestion he was involved in a terrorist attack or a fire) and has no idea who he is. The rest of the novel involves him trying to piece together his life.

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. This is on my Classics Club list. I’ve enjoyed two of the other books in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and this one has come highly recommended. But I’ve also had one experience with another highly recommended Zola novel – Nana – which I couldn’t finish. So it might be a gamble.

Any suggestions on how to resolve this dilemma? What would you recommend if you’ve read any of these books?

To read or to re-read?

RepeatThere was a column published recently by Stuart Kelly in the Guardian newspaper here in the UK, that got me thinking about my reading habits. More particularly it got me thinking about my re-reading habits. Or rather the lack of them.

Kelly was one of the judges for this year’s Man Booker Prize which meant he got to read rather a lot of novels. He read all 151 submitted novels once but then, because of the way the judging process works, he read the 13 longlisted novels again. And then read six of those a third time in order to chose the ultimate winner. It was a process which made him realise that he seldom re-reads contemporary novels.  Classics yes, but modern day fiction – very rarely.

It was something I’d never really considered before but now I too have come to the same realisation as Kelly. I hardly ever read a book more than once. I can count on two hands the books I’ve read twice. Those I’ve read more than twice are even more rare, particularly when I discount texts I had to read for school or university. I can actually only think of six books I’ve read multiple times because I wanted to do so:

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion 

George Eliot: Middlemarch

Emile Zola: Germinal 

Paul Scott: Jewel in the Crown

Anthony Trollope: The Warden & Barchester Towers

Not much in that list that could remotely be considered ‘modern’ let alone contemporary. In fact there is only one that was published in the twentieth century (Paul Scott).

And yet I have scores of books at home that I’ve been reluctant to give away because “I want to read that again”.  So why don’t I? That’s a question that’s been running through my brain as I’ve been driving to work.

As Kelly says, some types of book just don’t lend themselves to more than one read. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but when I do, once I’ve discovered who the murderer is and how the crime was committed, I don’t have a lot of interest in going back to it a few years later.  Nothing will have changed, the murderer will still be the murderer and the way they committed the crime is still the same . Literary fiction on the other hand offers many more possibilities for discovering something new in the text.

So maybe I don’t re-read because somehow I don’t consider modern day fiction on a par with those classics from the nineteenth century?.  A convenient answer but wrong. I don’t happen to believe literature more than 100 years ago was necessarily ‘better’  any more than I think that every summer in my childhood was warm and sunny (although  I remain firmly of the opinion that when it comes to tomatoes,they actually were more tasty in the past. On that point I refuse to budge). Nor do I believe the old masters were more creative or more inventive than their modern counterparts.   I don’t happen to enjoy his work but there is no denying the innovation in narrative techniques coming from Will Self for example, or the freshness of voice and ways of seeing the world evident in the writers on Granta’s Best Young British Writers list. The ‘novel’ aspect of the novel isn’t confined to the UK either – some of the most enjoyable writers I’ve experienced this year are from Africa.

Then I started to wonder if the real reason I don’t re-read some books is because I’m afraid that a book I thoroughly enjoyed will not stand up to the scrutiny of a second read and I don’t want to dilute the pleasure of the first experience? A bit like going back to a restaurant where you had a wonderful meal only to find the service or the food wasn’t anywhere as good. Except each time I’ve returned to Middlemarch I’ve actually enjoyed it more, not less.

It took multiple journeys before the penny dropped. What really stops me re-reading is the lure of the unfamiliar.   There are just so many writers I have yet to discover and, thanks to the blogosphere, the list grows every day.   It’s so tempting to think that the very next author I read could become my favourite.  Old friends are set aside in favour of the new. I wonder whether that will ever change – that as I advance in years and face the reality that I only have so many reading hours left, will I change my affiliations and go back to those old familiar friends that are so comforting.

I’m curious whether my habits will change in the future. I’m also curious to hear your experiences of reading and re-reading….

End Note

Stuart Kelly’s article is here if you’re interested in what sparked my meditation.

Classic Club: Favourite opening sentence

Crown You open a book for the first time and read the first few sentences. You might be confronted with a ‘brick through the wall’ type of opening much favoured by writers of crime and adventure stories  – the kind that plunges you straight into the action with barely a pause to work out what’s happening.

Other times you’ll be faced with one of those measured openings, the type that might not contain any great revelation or insight but intrigues you enough to want to read on. And as you do, the power of the language takes hold and you become suffused with the consciousness that you’re leaving the world you inhabit and being taken over the threshold into a newly imagined world.

That’s the feeling I get with the book I’m using to answer this month’s Classics Club question: What is your favourite opening sentence from a classic novel (and why)?

For me, just choosing one sentence from all the classics on my bookshelves, felt like an almost impossible task. That’s why it’s taken me almost a month to decide and even now, it’s a close run thing between two novels that are tremendous, though vastly different.

Runner up is George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the book that is my number one favourite and the novel that, were I ever to be stranded on some desert island with only one book available, I know could sustain repeated readings. Although it has an extensive Preface, the story proper begins with this sentence:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

It’s a classical opening; simple and lucid yet there is a ironic hint about the character concealed beneath its stylishness. Reading further into the novel is to discover how Eliot continues to gently mock her heroine’s desire to vouchsafe everything that doesn’t  fit her ardent desire to do good in the world. This is to be a story of misguided ambition and thwarted dreams.

But the novel I chose in the end is Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the first of his Raj Quartet series set in an India in the dying days of British colonial rule. It opens:

Imagine then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of  distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but in the alluvial plain  between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.

This is a sentence that grabs my attention because it’s so mysterious:  Why is the girl running? Who is Miss Crane? What’s the significance of the Bibighar Gardens? And so elliptical – there’s a hint of a connection between the two women. Some experience they both had but there is no clue as to what this might be.  It’s a paragraph that’s so replete with atmosphere, of darkness and of space.

What emerges on reading further is that the girl is white and running away from the Bibighar Gardens where she has been raped by four Indian men. She, like Miss Crane, had dared to cross the line between two cultures and paid the price; an event that has political repercussions in a country where relations between the ruling class and the native inhabitants is about to reach a turning point.

It’s a book that poses serious questions about racism and cultural divisions, about colonialism and self determination. A powerful novel that more than lives up to the promise of that opening line.

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