February reading: Means, DeLillo, Hollis, Perrotta, Walser, Baker, Proust

Close reading is one of the joys of academia. You have to read stuff over and over again, you can’t give it the benefit of the doubt, and let it just slide by you. Thus a multiple reading, among the chaos of a weekend when I probably should have been doing something familial, of David Means’ story The Gulch.

Short stories have such obvious pleasures, and yet are – for me – such hedged around with confusion and uncertainty, that I positively love it when someone instructs or encourages me to read one. One – out of so many.

Collections of short stories, it often seems to me, are quite the worst place to read short stories. The presence of so many others, equally good, a few pages to the left or the right, seem to make the piece you are reading embarrassingly contingent, at worst redundant, as if they’re somehow shrugging at their own existence.

It is the wonderful trick of the novel, the bossy, lazy, egotistical novel, to make you feel, as you are reading it, that it is somehow necessary, obvious,  inescapable. That they are the only novel in your life. In between readings, if it’s a good one, the novel will percolate, stew, grow, run the laps of your synapses. It’s got stamina. It’s got the time and the space to include its own rereadings (repetitions). Stories, even those as good as The Gulch, demand rereadings – which is a risk: after all there are all those other stories right there waiting to be read.

The DeLillo jag (Point Omega, again, most of The Angel Esmerelda, Running Dog) was academia-related, too. Point Omega, on about the third reading, is increasingly brilliant. What I’m coming to admire most about DeLillo, once I get beyond the pacing and the dialogue (okay: the sentences – even the spaces between the words seem charged, the prose equivalent of the Pinter pause) is the insouciance with which he manages to bring tacky low-rent thrillerish elements into his ascetic, high-flown prose. In Point Omega he actually (okay: not actually at all) brings Norman Bates down off the screen in the plot of the novel. He’s got a serial killer in his book, for crying out loud. It shouldn’t work. It should be like having a clown tumble on stage in the middle of Swan Lake. But somehow he pulls it off.

Of course, DeLillo can be rubbish. Running Dog is rubbish. I found myself reading it faster and faster, not caring about the characters – not differentiating between them at all. The novel – one of DeLillo’s conspiracy pastiches – is all about the ludicrousness of there actually being doofus-ish ultra-covert operations at the heart of Washington, of there actually being a porn film made in Hitler’s bunker, of there being porn connoisseurs who will kill to get such a thing… but that ludicrousness is all there is. None of it is real. All that’s left is the fun of telling yourself, page after page, how funny it is that Don DeLillo reads like a high-brown parodyof  Dan Brown avant la lettre. (The revelation, though, is stunning, too good to spoil: worth reading a rubbish book for, if you can’t find someone to tell you it in the pub. I’m not going to tell you.)

The stories in The Angel Esmerelda made me think again about the difference between stories and novels, about how wary I am of novelists who write stories: of course they’re going to feel like off-cuts. The great thing about novels, if you’re any good at them, is that you can fit pretty much anything into them. If you can’t fit this piece into your current novel, don’t write it as a story, save it for another novel. Which isn’t to say that it would be a waste to write it as a story, but that stories take different muscles, and if you’re thinking in terms of novels, the stories you write might not be any good.

For the record: Creation, The Runner, Baader-Meinhof: excellent. The Ivory Acrobat, The Starveling: good. The others: not good.

I was blown away by Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France, his partial biography of Edward Thomas, focusing on his last years, when he struck up the momentous – for both of them – friendship with Robert Frost, started writing poetry rather than criticism and pointless books-for-cash, shilly-shallied over enlisting, and then went to France and was killed.

Yes, the portrait of pre-war literary London is entertaining, and dispiriting (all those forgotten names, dredged up one more time for the sole purpose of being forgotten by a new generation), and yes Hollis gives a depressingly credible account of Thomas as the useless family man, uncertain of his own talents but not stopping himself taking out that uncertainty on those around him, but what really moved me was the construction of the piece as a whole. By not trying to give the whole life, but concentrating on the last section of it, Hollis infuses it with a devastating sense of mortality. He begins, in an italicized prologue, with Thomas’s death, and everything else following this seems to be leading back to it.

It might seem daft and obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: the biography, as a form, is all about death; about the way that a life cannot be thoroughly defined until it is over; about the tragic irony that death offers the chance to examine a life to everyone except the person who desperately needed it when they were alive.

That is the strange message of Hollis’s book: that Thomas (who never lived to see his poetry become popular and influential, who never lived to see the damage that his death caused to Helen, his widow) is the person who should have read it. It is him to whom it is addressed. The fact that it is we who are reading it, we who are uselessly reaping the benefit of Hollis’s achievement, only makes this sadder… uselessly, of course, because should someone write this book about us, it would, necessarily, be after our death.

Reading the book didn’t make me like Thomas’s poetry any more. The lines too short. The pastoralism needing that viciousness and modernity that Ted Hughes would bring to it. But strangely it did open my eyes to Frost a little. It even goes some way to redeeming that piece of doggerel The Road Not Taken.

That thing I said earlier about novels living on between reading sessions: it doesn’t always work. I blazed through Tom Perrotta’s Election in two sessions that, if it had been one, would have left wondering if it wasn’t the best thing I’d read all year. It is brilliant… so long as you’re actually reading it, largely by virtue of the gradual deepening of what seem like simple, shallow characters, and the slick movement between them. It’s a suburban pond that quickly develops a whirlpool in its centre, that you’re sorry to see these people disappearing down. (Without having seen the movie, I get the feeling that it’s a lot less nuanced in its depiction of those characters than Perrotta’s original.)

But I didn’t read it all the way through. I put it down, regretfully, after midnight on a Saturday, with only 30 or so pages to go. When I picked it up again, the next day or the day after, I couldn’t get the whirlpool going again. The whole thing seemed static, when it was so obviously careering towards its climax, and I couldn’t remember why I’d cared about those characters in the first place.

As stated in previous posts, reading happens off the page as well as on it. These are different kinds of reading. Election is a book that would make you miss your stop on the tube or the bus, no question. But it loses its grip on you the moment it lets you out of its sight. It’s a performance, not an investigation, its characters just the usual collection of high school brats and horny, messed up teachers… when, on the page, in the moment, Perrotta managed to give the impression they were so much more.

Compare that to Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, read in January: more of that book has stayed with me, after a similarly rushed, involved reading experience, than this. As with DeLillo, it’s not just the words, it’s the spaces between the words.

What I also wanted to write about, but will have to save for another day, is the kind of reading I (we) do all the time, but which goes largely unremarked: partial reading.

This month, for instance, I began reading Robert Walser’s Institute Benjamenta for probably the third time (I’ve never finished it), I re-read the Combray section of Swann’s Way (sent there by Karl O Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family), I wrestled again with Alain Badiou’s Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophyand I picked up, by chance in a charity shop, Nicholson Baker’s wondrous Room Temperature and read a little of that (reminding me that I never finished The Anthologist).

All these partial readings have different meanings, different purposes, different weights. The fact that none of these were complete readings of the book in no way negates the time spent. In fact, I think a version of heaven would be to read two or three pages of good, innocuous Nicholson Baker (Room Temperature or Mezzanine) and then have your memory wiped and be given them to read again. The glory of the observations, the love for the world that they show… having been knocked back to Proust by Knausgaard I found myself wondering about the connection between Proust and Baker: both are virtuoso observers of the world. If love is about feeling a connection, then both of them are great lovers of the world.

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