I finished In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower a couple of days into March, this being the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the translation by James Grieve, which means I’m not quite reading a book a month. I’m also reading not much else. As I said in last month’s post, reading Proust at any time, but especially at bedtime, is slow going. Picking up an Iris Murdoch novel – I’m trying to tick another one or two off before taking part in a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month – I find that I zip through double or even triple the number of pages.
The other books in the photograph are by Samuel Beckett, whose abstruse essay on Proust I’ve been glancing at at work, more in hope of the odd brief flint-like spark of understanding than of any general illumination. I turned to ‘The End’, collected with ‘The Expelled’ and other “novellas”, following the introduction to this story by Daragh McCausland in his Personal Anthology. (If you don’t know this online project, run by me, then check it out here.)
Daragh called it “a masterpiece”, and I’m afraid it didn’t seem so to me. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but I found it unrewarding, dark and constipated, and not shot through with any lyricism to speak of. Which is not to contradict Daragh, who wrote wonderfully about Beckett’s favourite short fiction, but to note my unsureness when it comes to this writer.
The late, spare stuff – the bleached bones of thought – is great, but can scarcely be read: like koans, they are there to be looked at and contemplated, not imbibed and processed as we do with most prose. And the “early, funny” stuff is great in its own way, if you ignore Beckett’s self-immolating hermeneutic diversions, the bonfires he makes of his own intellectual vanity. But ‘The End’ seems to me to fall between those two stools. He has sloughed off the early, conflicted attempts at connecting with the reader, and is telling stories of disconnection instead, but hasn’t yet built that rejection into the form of the writing.
So I turned to Murphy, right in the middle of my Proust, wondering if I would still get from this what I have done in the past. It was a quick check-in: is this still good? Do I still get it?
(This is a permanent aspect of reading that doesn’t show up in these blog posts. We’re always glancing into previously read work, as well as those unread, those come newly into the house. This month, for instance, I read a few pages of the Patrick Melrose novels, after watching the first episode of the Cumberbatch-starring adaptation, which was very good, if you ask me. The novels, of course, are splendid, already part of the literary landscape, with a status of their own quite disconnected from their author. I must re-read them, I think, leaving the book on a surface, where it sits for days or weeks before being reluctantly reshelved.)
(February also featured a certain amount of reading for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, about which I hope to write another blog post.)
So Murphy. I picked it up to check, then thought: I can read this, now, if I read it quickly. It’s a book to go through you like a dose of salts. It is perhaps the prose work by Beckett that most taunts the reader with the idea of what he could have produced, had he been of a more amenable disposition, had he accepted the role of writer as, among other things, entertainer. Continue reading
Reading Lászlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was a struggle. I wish it hadn’t been, and I’m the first to argue for the improving qualities of difficult books, but this was one that I persevered with in the face of a dwindling conviction that I was going to be able to make any sense of it.
I picked it up largely out of respect for the names on the cover and title page – admiring quotes from WG Sebald (who has loomed large in my reading this year) and Susan Sontag, and the added interest of reading the translation of George Szirtes, lest we forget he is significantly more substantial a literary presence than his marvellous Twitter feed.
I knew nothing about the author, nothing about the book, and took the opportunity to add nothing to this sum before reading – as someone pointed out about the Olympic opening ceremony, the opportunity to sit down to a cultural experience with absolutely no preconceptions is a rare one. Nor have I read anything about the book since finishing it, which I am tempted to do now, in part to see what it is I missed. For a lot of its incredibly dense 270 pages I was trying, trying so hard, to find meaning, discern allegory, pick out the thread or symbol or standpoint that would allow me to take a view on the book as a whole.
Forgive the clumsy phrasing, but never has there been a book so impossible to read between the lines of. Continue reading
Some months go by and you look at the list of books you’ve read and wonder: how so short? How can I have read so little? The reasons are often dull, though sometimes they do come down to a lack of engagement with the books to hand, sometimes a lack of engagement with the idea itself of reading, or perhaps the idea of reading novels.
After finishing Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (which I’ll get to below) I picked up and put down Christoph Simon’s Zbinden’s Progress (didn’t grab me at all), Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead (oh, I thought, after reading less than two pages, it’s Joseph Heller’s God Knows) and Thierry Jonquet’s Tarantula (as recommended by a detective in Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory… but, my god, the translation is appalling, and the “story of obsession and desire, or power and revenge” more or less the level of any other Sade knock-off). Perhaps I’m jaded. Perhaps I’m read out. Perhaps I’m waiting for August, and the chance to leave London and sit outside a tent or by a pool and really get into a ‘big’, ‘proper’ novel. Continue reading