I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Source: Translated from a letter to the art historian Oskar Pollak January 27, 1904.
What Kafka is advocating I think is a reading experience in which the words provoke a reaction in you the reader. Texts which slip effortlessly in and out of your consciousness have little value in his estimation, the true test of a good book is one which forces you to engage with it; to take hold of your emotions and move them in some way. That’s a tall order but if you find a book that does it, the experience can be breathtaking.
Have I read anything that wounded or stabbed me? Very few in fact but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
From my teenage days Albert Camus’ L’Estranger comes to mind as a book that affected me not just as I read it but for a long time afterwards even though I wasn’t absolutely sure I understood it fully. My thirties were my fallow years when though I enjoyed many books, I can barely remember them. It wasn’t until my forties when I decided to start a formal course in literature again that I began reading more deeply and found some novels which were remarkable. Of them, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir with its bleak portrayal of life in an impoverished French community, could definitely be considered as giving me a ‘blow to the head’. And then, more recently my adventures in reading authors from far flung corners of the world led me to a discovery of a book equally painful to read – Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
If you’re in the UK at the moment, I hope you have something long and cool by your side to help you through this heatwave. It’s typical of this country – we go for months when the weather is anything but the summer sunshine and blue skies we all look forward to and then wham, we go straight into a heatwave with temperatures today around the 30C mark. No middle way here – it’s either cloud and chilly or scorching. No grumbles in my corner however. I shall enjoy it while it lasts because we Brits all know that this kind of weather don’t stay around too long in these parts.
Enough of the weather you say!. What about the books?? This is meant to be BookerTalk after all. Quite so. And so without further ado let me catch you up on a few literary things.
Today’s headline news is that I’ve just become the moderator for The Complete Booker blog, taking over from Laura (of Laura’s Musings). After six years managing the blog she’s decided to concentrate on other things in her life. Since no-one else stepped forward and I didn’t want to see all that effort go to waste, I volunteered to take over. If you don’t know about this blog, I’m going to quite shamelessly put in a plug or two now and again. If you’re interested in any of the Man Booker prize winners or short and long listed titles, come and take a look at this site.
In other news
- I finished reading what has been the hardest book I’ve read all year so far; Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It’s taken me around six weeks to read this because it’s not only a long book (almost five hundred pages of small text) but because it contained so much human suffering I could cope with it only in short bursts. The novel is set in post Independence Kenya and follows the lives of four people who all come to settle in a remote village where they struggle against drought and harvest failure but even more painfully against first the indifference and then the greed of their political and religious leaders. An incredibly powerful novel that’s now gone into my list of all time favourites.
- As an antidote, I read a few lighter novels in recent weeks. Truth in Advertising (review published yesterday) was a reasonably good read and its humorous digs at the world of advertising reminded me what a lucky escape I had when my job interview with an ad agency many years ago came to nothing. All I can remember of the interview is a bizarre conversation about instant potato with a man who wore gold tipped shoes. I also read The Cleaner of Chartres by Sally Vickers. It was the choice for the book club this month but I unfortunately forgot that I would be on way back from a business trip to Belgium so would miss the actual meeting. I say unfortunate because this wasn’t a book I enjoyed by any stretch of the imagination. I could see why she is an incredibly popular author but this one was far too light and cosy for my taste.
- Later today I’m planning to find a shady spot in the garden where I can spend an hour finishing Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Not only will this be another step closer to completing my Booker Prize challenge but it means I can join in the Brookner reading month hosted by HeavenAli.
And that – as White House press secretary C J Craig says in one of my favourite TV series (West Wing)…. is a full lid for today. See you all same time same place next week.
The Classics Club question this week asks “What are you looking forward to reading in May?” The answer to which, for me, is “the one I never got around to reading.”
I’d planned to read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart having heard so many comments from friends and other bloggers about how wonderful it is. And I really did mean to read it. Honestly!
But May is almost over and I haven’t even opened it. Why not?
Part of the reason (or should that be excuse) is that I’m already reading a novel set in Africa — Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o which is taking me longer than expected to read. It’s an epic that chronicles the lives of four people from a small, forgotten village as they deal with the aftermath of colonialism, the devastation of drought and the indifference of their government. It’s not a book you can read quickly. It’s fascinating reading but I don’t think I can crowd my brain with a book that has some similarities at the same time.
But the other reason is that I’ve been distracted by the fact I’m off to the Hay Literature Festival tomorrow where I’ll be listening to a discussion with Man Booker prize winner John Banville talk about his latest novel Ancient Life and preview the film of his prize winning novel The Sea. Light dawned only this week that I hadn’t actually ever read anything by Banville even though I have a copy of The Sea on my bookshelf ( a bargain copy picked up during a library sale). So I’m trying to finish it or at least get far enough forward that I’ll understand some of his comments. It’s a mesmerising book about memory and loss told in a wonderfully lyrical style.
So the upshot is that Achebe will have to wait until later in the year.