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.
2. 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.
4. 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.
9. 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.
Shadowy benefactors, corrupt policemen, ghostly figures, tortured love: the elements that made Shadow of the Wind such a commercial success for Carlos Ruiz Zafon, make their return appearance in his prequel The Angel’s Game.
Zafon takes us once more on an adventure through the twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona where the fading grandeur of bourgeoisie homes mingle with Gaudí’s strange and surreal constructions and a maze of dark passages created in Roman and medieval times. The city’s back alleys, parks and cemeteries provide the perfect setting for a story of mystery, death and devilment. It’s the city’s darker side that the narrator David Martin has to navigate in order to save his life, win back the love of his life and solve the mystery of the abandoned tower in which he lives.
David is an unhappy soul. Robbed of his mother at an early age, he is raised by his illiterate, brutish drunkard father. The boy’s only joy is reading, particularly his favourite novel, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. David gets his own chance of betterment when he begins writing a weekly newspaper serial. His stories, written in ‘penny dreadful’ style, feature a glamorous murderess who kills with a kiss made deadly by her poison-impregnated. Though readers love them, David is less than enthused. Nor does his mood improve when he gets a contract with some dubious publishers which requires him to produce a monthly pseudonymous series of books entitled “City of the Damned,” a pace of writing which brings him to the brink of exhaustion and a medical diagnosis of an incurable brain tumour.
The answer to his prayers may lie in an approach from Andreas Corelli, a suave and civilised man who describes himself as a publisher from Paris. He offers David a lucrative deal – 1000,000 French francs to write a sacred text that will create a new religion and a legion of believers. As attractive as the money is, the stronger enticement for David is Corelli’s promise that in return for writing the book he will live. But who is Corelli? And what was his connection with Diego Marlasca a former lawyer who once owned David’s house but who died in mysterious circumstances. Is it simply a coincidence that Diego was also occupied in writing a book and his initials are also those of David’s? The more David encounters Corelli, the more suspicious he becomes and the more convinced that he has made a pact with something evil. But then the sense of selling one’s soul goes is part and parcel of the writer’s life according to David.
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that if he succeeds in no letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal … and what he coverts most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.
What we get with The Angel’s Game is a spirited, fast moving adventure story full of the conventions of pulp fiction and the Gothic mystery. It’s absurd in parts (David evades police, survives gun shots and almost near death from being thrown out of a funicular) but then it wouldn’t be an adventure story without those absurdities. The narrative is also of patchy quality in places – cliched conversations between David and his lost love and tedious conversations between David and Corelli about the nature of belief and religion slow the pace down. The denouement also felt rushed with many elements and sub plots not completely resolved.
But for all that I enjoyed re-visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – the secret labyrinth of texts by authors doomed never to be remembered. I loved the way Zufon made Barcelona seem almost a character in the novel, using very cinematic techniques. And I laughed at the tongue in cheek way he portrays the life of a writer.
“Normal people bring children into the world, we novelists brings books,’ says David at one point and then goes on to bemoan the consequences of that birth:
We are condemned to put our whole lives into them, even though they hardly ever thank us for it. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let our books be the ones who, in the end, will take our lives.
I’m not aware of that many authors who have died because they’ve written a book but it would certainly make for an interesting ’cause of death’ in an inquest report.
The Book: The Angel’s Game is part of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series which began with Shadow of the Wind. The Angel’s Game was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2009. Translation from the Spanish is by Lucia Graves.
The Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon was best known in Spain as the author of young adult novels until Shadow of the Wind (his first adult novel). His newest novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits will be published in 2018.
Why I read this: I bought this from a charity shop having enjoyed Shadow of the Wind in 2012 (see my review here). But I never got around to reading it until this month when I started digging into the shelves of my personal library in pursuit of one of my 2017 goals.
The Sleeping World, a debut novel by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes, takes us into the period after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco and the early years of democracy in Spain. Freed from military rule for the first time in almost four decades, the country is still subject to internal strife between those who want democracy and those who want to retain the fascist principles of the past. For the younger generations it’s an exhilarating time of illegal basement bars, bootleg punk music, uprisings and protests.
Among those experiencing the new spirit of euphoria is Mosca, a young university student. She’s smart but cynical and disillusioned, largely because of the disappearance of her brother two years earlier. She suspects he is one of thousands murdered by the regime for collaborating with militants and his body dumped in an unmarked grave. But yet she clings to the hope that one day she will see him again.
Mosca should be sitting her final exams but instead she hangs out in bars where she playacts the role of a heavy drinking punk. One night she and three other students get caught up in an act of violence which results in the death of a daylights out of a ‘facha’, (a uniformed policeman). The quartet have to make a quick escape from their hometown in the provinces. The go on the run, travelling aimlessly ending up in Madrid and then Paris, uncovering secrets about each other as they travel. For Mosca this becomes a search for her brother and the further they travel the more she believes her brother is alive.
The Sleeping World is essentially a story about loss and political and cultural rebellion. It’s meant to depict the desperation of the young in their desire for change and the dangers of the new unsettled political climate in which they have to operate. It would have worked better if the characters hadn’t been hampered by being made to utter political slogans at every opportunity or if there was deeper analysis of their motivations. It’s hard to keep interested in characters who do bizarre things like burning all their clothing when they’re forced to spend the night on a freezing, exposed mountainside – without any explanation why. Hard also to be interested in people who just seem angry all the time. I needed more light and shade, more nuanced portrayals to feel these were real people rather than ciphers.
The novel also takes ages to get into its stride. I skipped forward a few times to see if it picked up but it just descended into some hallucinatory final section. I didn’t have the interest or inclination to find out what happened and the unravel the muddle of the author’s intentions so gave up on the book well before I reached the end.
Author: The Sleeping World by Gabriel Lucille Fuentes
Published: 2016 by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Length: 292 pages
My copy: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It was intended to be part of my reading for Women In Translation 2016
The Infatuations is a dark murder mystery that also poses moral and philosophical questions about the extremes to which we humans will go in pursuit of love. Coming from the pen of Javiar Marias, considered one of Spain’s greatest contemporary writers, all the elements seemed in place for a deeply engaging read. And for people who have a fondness for verbosity, philosophical meandering and convoluted sentence constructions, it probably does equate to an enjoyable experience. I am not one of them and so this has gone onto the Did Not Finish pile.
I enjoyed the first few chapters as we get to know Maria Dolz, the narrator. She cuts a lonely figure as she recounts her daily routine of breakfast in a cafe near her Barcelona apartment. She observes the other customers. One couple in particular catch her eye; well-dressed, confident and so happy in each other’s company, that Maria labels them The Perfect Couple’. Perfect until that is, the husband Miguel Deverne is stabbed to death. Soon after Maria becomes more closely involved in the life of his widow Luisa and intimately acquainted with Luisa’s friend Javier. The more she is drawn into their world, the more she begins to feel that something doesn’t quite add up.
I never got to discover anything more about the murder and whether Luisa or Javier were implicated since it was at this point that my patience ran out with The Infatuations. For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we’d had barely any plot development but oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again, the essence of which was whether a widow should feel so welded to her former love that she cannot then find happiness with another partner. Javier Marias kept returning to this question like a dog returning to its favourite bone.
It all became overwhelmingly tedious to the point I began skimming – never a good sign for me with a book. With a different style of writing I could have continued but Marias seems to specialise in tremendously long sentences consisting of multiple clauses hitched together so by the time you’ve reached the end of the sentence, the meaning of the first part has long since disappeared. There is little to break up this piling up of words so you keep going back to find the start of the point or just something — anything — to hang onto. Javiar Marias’ novel seems appropriately titled since the guy seems infatuated with his ability to create words regardless of whether they add to our understanding or enjoyment
Here’s an example from page 105 of my copy:
I didn’t see Luisa Alady again for quite some time, and in the long between-time I began going out with a man I vaguely liked, and fell stupidly and secretly in love with another, with her adoring Diaz-Varela, whom I met shortly afterwards in the most unlikely of places, very close to where Deverne had died, in the reddish building that houses the Natural History Museum, which is right next to or, rather, part of the same complex as the technical college, with its gleaming glass-and-zinc cupola, about twenty-seven metres high and about twenty in diameter, erected around 1881, when these buildings were neither college nor museum, but the brand-new National Palace for the Arts and Industry, which was the site of an important exhibition that year; the area used to be known as the Altos del Hippodromo, the Hippodrome Heights, because of its various promontories and its proximity to a few horses whose ghostly exploits have become doubly or definitively so, since there can be no one alive who saw or remembered them.
One hundred and eighty one words in one sentence with details that add nothing to our understanding of the characters or the plot. Despite reading this four times I still wasn’t absolutely sure from the syntax whether the technical college had the cupola or if it was the museum.
This and several later similar examples tested my patience too far. Farewell The Infatuations. I doubt I will want to attempt anything by this author again.
I’ve talked before about the issue that most readers face at some point — what to do when the book you’re reading just isn’t grabbing your attention. Do you just try to get the end as quickly as you can on the basis that:
1. it might, just might, get better or
2. you’ve invested money/ time in this book so you may as well finish it?
Or are you one of those people who believe there is little point in reading something you don’t enjoy when there are so many thousands of better books to be discovered. I used to be in the first group but in the last couple of years my attitude has moved far more to the second.
Which is why this week I had my first ‘did not finish’ experience of 2014. And just possibly my second.
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips is a fictionalised account of a based on a real life serial murderer called Harry Powers who used lonely-hearts columns to con lonely women into thinking he would marry them. Among his victims was Anna Eicher, a single mother, and her three children, who perished in a torture chamber under his garage. He was hanged in 1932 An interesting story but one I couldn’t read further than page 30 because the author takes so long to get going. I don’t look for the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s brick through the window approach to grab attention at the beginning of a book — slow pace is fine as long as I feel there is a purpose for that pace and a promise of a story progression at some point . With Quiet Dell I got neither. The opening was a ponderous introduction to Eicher and her family and the background of her marriage. I didn’t get any strong sense of the location in West Virginia or of the characters as real people, just a lot of detail. As if the author was clearing her throat ready for the main performance ahead. Not having a lot of interest in throat clearing, I ditched the book.
After that miss, I turned to Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas which has been languishing on the bookshelves for more than a year. I bought it as part of my plan to read writers from countries along the Equator. I wanted something by a Spanish author that wasn’t a classic in the vein of Cervantes but was rather more literary than Carlos Ruis Zafon, much as I enjoyed Shdow in the Wind. I landed on Matas who is considered one of the most distinguished and inventive of contemporary Spanish novelists and whose most recent novel Dublinesque had been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013.
Samuel Riba is a sixty year old recovering alcoholic whose publishing business has collapsed. Nothing in life seems to matter to him any more except what he fears is the imminent end of the book in the era of digitalisation. 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 are still nowhere near Dublin. Instead we’ve had a lot of talking, a lot of reflecting and a mass of literary references, many of which I don’t understand. I can appreciate the skill that’s gone into the novel but it’s not making for a pleasurable experience as yet. I’ll keep going for a while, at least until they get to Dublin, and then decide.
Fortunately I do have one book that is an absolute hit even though I haven’t got very far along yet. You may remember in last Sunday’s Salon posting, I was sharing my excitement at the prospect of The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead but also wondering if I could last out until my birthday before acquiring it or could I justify breaking my book buying resolution to get it before that date. Thanks to the generosity I’ve seen in the blogosphere, my dilemma is over. Tanya at 52booksorbust.wordpress.com came to my rescue by donating a copy she didn’t want (thanks again Tanya). It’s every bit as good as the reviews I’ve read indicated it would be. I just have to be careful not to read it at breakfast otherwise I will never get to work.
So that’s been my week — what are all of you up to? Any hits or misses to share?