The Melancholy of Persistence (Or Bookish OCD)

on Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Yesterday's post got me thinking. Although I have no intention of abandoning poor Don Quixote, that swaying tower of new releases continues to tempt me.

Which leads me to a question. Is it ever okay not to finish a book? People often speak of the 100 page rule. If you aren't well and truly sucked in by the time you hit triple digits, give up. I suppose it is a perfectly functional approach to reading, but it only really applies to a certain breed of books. It presupposes a need for 'enjoyment'. It also doesn't allow for subtlety, for those books that set about weaving their magic at a more glacial pace. I can think of a whole slew of books that I have loved but that didn't 'click' until the end. The brilliance lay in the final chapter. Or paragraph. Or sentence.

Whatever the case may be, it is all rather irrelevant to me. I suffer from what someone once called Obsessive Conclusion Disorder (though I find Obsessive Conclusive Disorder linguistically funnier), an almost pathological need to finish any book I start. I can count on a single hand the books I have begun only to put down without finishing. The Brothers Karamazov, but only because I left my copy on a plane and, by the time I got around to buying another, was already a slave to whatever it was I was reading next. In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn. Cancer Ward by Solz... You get the point. That guy is impenetrable! And then there was The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. I started it once. Twice. Probably six times, before forcibly trudging my way through it. And hating it. It made Solzhenitsyn look like Beatrix Potter. I totally should have chucked that sludge to the side.

So, why the compulsion? What would I lose by putting down a book that I am not enjoying? I've done it a few times and lived to tell the tale. Perhaps, I enjoy a challenge. Sluggish books may well be my Everest. Maybe I approach books like I approached my law degree. By the time I considered dropping it, I was too far gone. It made more sense to just suck it in and finish the bloody thing. Or perhaps, I just don't want to admit failure. There are only so many books in the world. With an annual uptake of about 200 a year, I am doing my darndest to read them all. I am, however, willing to admit (reluctantly, and only in whispers) that it would be impossible to do so, and therefore I pride myself on being able to pick the good ones.

Obsessive Conclusion Disorder is playing havoc with my reading life. Maybe I need to go see my local librarian, lie down on the trolley and talk these things through. Maybe I can wean myself onto the idea of discarding unfinished books, starting with some of the dross I am given to review, and then moving on to selective missteps. But only when I am able to count the books I have started, got the flavour of, and then closed before the end amongst my annual reading catalogue will I be truly cured. Ah, who am I kidding? That ain't gonna happen. Time to jump back on Rocinante and joust with livestock, for beyond the field, on the sunny Spanish horizon, I think I spy Paul Auster.

Drop Everything and Read!

on Tuesday, October 26, 2010
What on Earth was I thinking? Don Quixote? In October? I've always meant to read Cervantes's great tale of the knight errant, but holy crap it's massive! I set aside last year to read the big classics, the tomes, but I could only get through so many. So while Melville, Hugo and Musil got a guernsey, Cervantes didn't make the cut. I've found it difficult to rev myself up about big books since then. There are just so many smaller ones I'd rather tackle. Let's face it. What can you say in nine-hundred pages that can't be said more succinctly in three?

My recent trip to Toledo, and purchase of a metal Quixote statuette pushed me over the edge. I could hardly place the thing in my library without having read the book. I'd look like a schmuck. So I prepared myself for two weeks of committed reading (far removed from my usual literary promiscuity), and dived in. Glad to say I'm loving it. But by the time the gallant madman was charging his first windmill, I received a package with Nicole Krauss's latest novel inside. Plus Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. And The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink. Then, just as Don Quixote attacked a flock of sheep (an hilarious scene, I know), I happened upon the new Paul Auster novel in my local bookstore, a month before I thought it was due to be published. It was sitting alongside the latest from Mister Pip author Lloyd Jones. Yes, it's October. The month of big releases. Which means now I don't know what I should do.

I have very little self-control and even less patience. There are some authors for whom I will drop whatever I am doing, even take days off work, to read their latest work the day it is released. J. M. Coetzee is the main one. Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy as well. Jose Saramago while he was still alive. And Paul Auster, though I have grown a little wary of his later output. There are also times when a particular book, whether I have read the author before or not, actually causes me to salivate. Right now, there is an ever-growing stack of such novels, including a couple by the authors I just mentioned, tilting perilously in my direction. I am at serious risk of physical harm from the imminent collapse of my bedside book tower. So do I drop Don Quixote halfway though? Do I do the unthinkable and put down a book without finishing it? Sure, I might intend to go back but we all know I won't. Such existential angst. I don't know if I can bear it. For now I'll persist, but I am beginning to think that turning a blind eye to the excitement I feel for the books released this month, the ones poking their tongues out at me from their colourful spines, would be like doffing my brass barber's bucket at a fair maiden in the field. Truly mad!

The Finkler Answer

on Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Damn I wish I would have placed a bet! I wanted Howard Jacobson to win. I thought he deserved to win. I even believed he stood a chance of winning. But after my little Mister Pip experience, I shied away from coughing up the dough. Damn you Lloyd Jones. You have lost me money again!!!

The haters are already out slagging off The Finkler Question. "How," asked one bookselling Tweeter (or is that Twit?), "am I going to sell this to my customers?" Yes, those poms must be quaking in their boots at the prospect of having to convince a goyishe general public to buy such a niche (on the surface) Yiddische novel. Never mind that Jacobson is, after Philip Roth, the best chronicler of modern Jewish life writing today. Or that The Finkler Question is not just a Jewish book, but a very English one too and, as such, can be appreciated equally on both levels. Indeed, you don't even have to 'get' the 'Jewish thing' to love (and laugh with) this book. Jacobson is the modern master of the complex literary joke. He has proven that time and time again. The Finkler Question takes it to a new level. It is an hilarious comedy of (bad) manners and an acerbic commentary on what it means to be an English 'man' today.

It was fantastic to see that Booker judges saw fit to award the prize to one of only two deserving novels on the shortlist. And that they weren't afraid to bestow such an honour on what is, in essence, a comic novel.

I really wish I was in England right now, just to watch those dour Brits trudge into their local Waterstone's and begrudgingly buy The Finkler Question expecting to hate it... They're in for a rude, if oddly riotous, surprise!

The Book Most Travelled

on Monday, October 11, 2010
One of the most exciting aspects of travel for me is choosing what book I want to read on the plane. And by book, I mean books. And by books, I mean at least ten. I try to make a point of mixing genres and always have a couple of 'light-reading' alternatives or, as I liked to call them, literary sorbet jammed between the wanky highbrow stuff. There is only so much I like my brain taxed at thirty nine thousand feet. My sorbet flavour of choice is usually Terry Pratchett or some cheap airport noir. However, a few trips ago I decided to take it up a notch and go for a slightly more sophisticated sci-fi alternative. Usually that would mean Stanislaw Lem or Iain M. Banks. But quite a few of my bookish friends were raving about China Mieville's The City and The City so I thought I'd give it a go.

Oh well, you know what they say about best laid plans. If books could rack up frequent flyer points, my copy of The City and The City would be eligible for a free trip to Bali by now. Business class. I'm not sure how it would look with its pages braided, but I think that poor piece of pulp deserves a holiday. From the humble Avenue Bookstore in Melbourne, I have schlepped it to Israel twice, Spain twice, England, Jordan, Lizard Island and Thailand. It is now with me in Bangkok. Again.

I have no excuse for not having read it on any of those long haul trips. But I do have an explanation. I err on the side of caution, lest I be left for hours with nary a paragraph to skim and so I always carry more than I could possibly hope to read. Plus, if I pass a bookstore on my travels, I invariably buy a few extras. But it ends now. I have depleted my supply and, for once, gone zen and resisted the temptation to top up. Yes, I still have nine hours of flying to go and only one thing to read. Try as it might to hide behind the Peter Carey, Orson Welles, Fernando Pessoa, Klaus Mann, Howard Jacobson, Salman Rushide, Filip Florian and Hansjorg Schertenleib in my backpack, it won't escape this time. No siree. When I get home tomorrow, I will finally have read The City and The City. And the minute I walk through the door I'll make a beeline for my bookshelf and put it out to pasture where it can live out a relatively undisturbed life. Really, it's the least I can do.

The Regurgitated Read: Booker Prize Edition

on Sunday, October 10, 2010
Well, we're only days away from the biggest announcement in the Commonwealth literary world. Who will win this year's prestigious and occasionally relevant Man Booker Prize? As I've said before I'm hopeless at picking these things and pretty much gave up even trying after sinking 200 bucks on Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip a few years back. In lieu of making an ass of myself again, I've decided to give you a quick potted summary of each of the shortlisted novels so that, come the big announcement, you can pretend to know what you're on about. You are probably familiar with John Crace's Digested Read in The Guardian, so here I give you its cheaper step-cousin, The Regurgitated Read. Because we all know it's not about whether or not you've actually read the winner, but whether you are able to make a few pithy, disparaging comments about it in polite company! So here you go, I've taken one (or six) for the team!

ROOM by EMMA DONOGHUE. Supposedly 'triggered' by Austria's horrible Hans Fritzl case (though really more akin to Natascha Kampusch), Room is a brilliantly realised, razor-sharp short story puffed out to novel length for the Oprah crowd. And how they are lapping it up! Five year old Jack has never been outside the garden shed that nasty Old Nick has used as a dungeon since kidnapping the tyke's mum. He knows every item in the singular and the outside world as mere fantasy. Cue a whole host of harrowing moments (when Jack is made to hide in 'cupboard' while the villain rapes his mum), plenty of pathos and oodles of cutesy cheese. It's smart, it's topical and there's a fair chance it's going to win. Poor Austria won't have had it stuck to them so royally since the Anschluss.

PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA by PETER CAREY. I should declare straight out that I don't particularly like Peter Carey. Yeah, yeah Tall Poppy Syndrome blah blah balh. Get stuffed. My lawnmower calls it like it is. The History of The Kelly Gang was pretty great, but other than that I generally find him cringeworthy (I'm talking to you My Life As A Fake... and Theft... and Bliss... and His Illegal Self... and.... snore!). Anyway, it looks like he's also hopped on the 'inspired by a true story' bandwagon. Again. Actually I suspect Carey drives it. But while Donoghue barely had to slide into her Delorian, Carey has zipped back to the Nineteenth century for some fancy riffing on that great experiment of freedom, America as viewed through the eyes of a thinly veiled Alexis de Tocqueville. The master and servant relationship gets a good once or twice over, as do the fledgling institutions of the New World. But when all is said and done, Olivier is a whining French prat and Parrot reads like an attempt to out-Dickens Dickens, making this rather hefty book kind of slim in terms of substance.

THE LONG SONG by ANDREA LEVY. I have loved Andrea Levy since hearing her read from Small Island a couple of years ago. Talk about bringing a book to life. So I was pretty excited when I got my hands on this gorgeously packaged follow-up. I was raving about it on this very blog before I had even read past the first chapter. Um... Let me try to say this while maintaining my dignity. The Long Song is great if you liked Small Island but could never be stuffed reading Roots by Alex Haley. As a slave narrative it ticks all the boxes - beatings, rapes, backbreaking labour and families torn apart. It also focuses on a little explored - at least in terms of fiction - episode, the Jamaican Slave rebellion that was brutally quashed by colonial forces. But for all that, it reads a little hollow. Levy's gentle touch doesn't quite allow the degradation to reach what I felt would have, in reality, been its realistic endpoint.

THE FINKLER QUESTION by HOWARD JACOBSON. Jacobson is England's answer to gefilte fish. Or Philip Roth. An entity so Jewish that I suspect Manischewitz courses through his veins. After lurking rather brilliantly in the shadows for a while now, he has finally hit his stride with this spectacularly funny snapshot of modern Jewish Diaspora life. Take two self-loathing Jews, intent on doing everything they can to be cosmopolitan goys, and one goy wishing he was a Jew and you have a recipe for hilarious disaster. Not since Portnoy's Complaint has a book so perfectly captured what it means to be 'Jewish' in a particular time and place. And, to Jacobson's credit, he didn't need to have Sam Finkler jacking off with some luke-warm chopped liver to get a laugh. For my money this should win, but we all know what my money's worth!

IN A STRANGE ROOM by DAMON GALGUT. Ok, so let's get this clear. Galgut, who I have loved since The Good Doctor and who I think was criminally overlooked for The Impostor, writes three short travelogue memoirs, publishes them in The Paris Review (or some similar rag) and then cobbles them together as a collection and manages to score a Booker nomination? Some furious back peddling has seen the wanky literati set claim that In A Strange Room explores the border between fact and fiction, memoir and imagination. I call shenanigans on them all. It's an alright book. The story about his friend's suicide is incredibly affecting. But doll it up in whatever hyperbole you want, this is not a novel. I want Galgut to win a Booker, but giving it to him for this would be like giving it to John Banville for The Sea. Oh...

C by TOM McCARTHY. Ladbrokes have just suspended betting on the Booker because some schmuck dropped 15K on this to win. Nice. It seems said canny punter has seen through the 'experimental' bulldust and recognised C for the excellent novel (yes, there I said it, NOVEL - get it through your heads, it's a pretty conventional novel) that it is. For all the fancy shmancy hype that surrounds McCarthy, he is a damn fine writer of extremely engaging books. This vibrant, almost explosive allegory for the proliferation of new media dwarfs all the other books on the list in terms of intellectual vigour and pure imaginative gymnastics. Why McCarthy doesn't receive the same adulation as Dave Eggars is beyond me. They are two sides of the same coin. McCarthy is the side that writes well.

So where does this leave us? I'd love McCarthy or Jacobson to win. Their books are by far the most deserving. Which, of course, means Carey actually will. Because we all know that he deserves a third before McEwan, Rushdie or just about anyone else good gets a second. Or just give it to Donoghue. For Oprah's sake!

Once Again Roth Is a Llosa

on Friday, October 8, 2010
The folks at the Swedish Academy sure love their South Americans. As you would all know by now, Mario Vargas Llosa, got the nod this year and joins such hallowed company as Elfreide Jelinek, Johannes Jensen and Henrik Pontoppidan in the Nobel Pantheon. All jokes aside, it was a relief to see a familiar name even if he wasn't one of the writers I was gunning for. At least people won't be raising their eyebrows and asking, "Who?" this time around. Not to take anything away from Herta Muller or J.M.G. Le Clezio - I think they are both wonderful, if somewhat obscure, writers - but Llosa's books are widely available around the world and many 'general' readers will have read at least one of them. I, reader of pretty much everyone ever, have read two: The Feast of The Goat and Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter. And I enjoyed them immensely. Which means that I'm not complaining about this year's choice. Indeed, for the first time in a long while, I can say that the Academy has picked a 'people's laureate'. Llosa is not some stuffy intellectual. His writing is accessible to readers of all levels which sure makes for a nice change.

What then is to be made of the eternal Nobel bridesmaid, Philip Roth? The poor bastard is still writing brilliant novels. Indeed, Nemesis is among the best in his later canon. But here's the thing. He is at no risk of being forgotten. He will be read long after he has died and, frankly, does not need an accolade like the Nobel Prize to ensure his literary immortality. Once he reaches that great library in the sky, he'll be able to pull up a chair alongside James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, Jorge Louis Borges and Marcel Proust - all of whom were denied the Swedish gong - and flick snotballs at Saint-John Perse. Who? Exactly! Until then, I guess it's time he donated that dusty tuxedo to his local thrift shop.

Writers I Want To Win The Nobel

on Thursday, October 7, 2010
Only seventeen hours to go before my annual dose of literary disappointment. Here are a bunch of people that, despite the ousting of the Eurocentric douche Horace Engdahl, will be robbed yet again when the announcement is made:

Philip Roth
Peter Shaffer
Alberto Manguel
Antonio Skarmeta
Harry Mulisch
Elias Khoury
Cormac McCarthy
E.L. Doctorow
Andre Brink
Michel Tournier
Aharon Appelfeld
David Grossman
David Mamet

Oh well. Here's hoping I've at least heard of this year's laureate.

Nobel Prize-a-Palooza!

on Saturday, October 2, 2010
So word has it that the Swedish Academy has picked the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature and will be announcing it next week. Does this mean Philip Roth should be dragging the floppy-lapelled suit that he bought 30 years ago out of the closet, giving it its annual dusting and pinning it on a cork board called hope? Or will Ismail Kadare pip him at the post before he drops off the perch? I really am at a loss to pick it. That, and I have been proven wrong every year since Coetzee (and let's face it, I only picked him because I had been doing so for the ten years leading up to 2003). I didn't mind Herta Muller last year, but I hope they haven't gone searching up the snooty arse of literature (where most of the more obscure authors hide) to find a worthy recipient. For what it's worth - my useless vote goes to Peter Shaffer.

Anyone else care to guess?