STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece — Jan Stuart
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City — Jonathan Mahler
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare — James Shapiro
  • Essays — George Orwell
  • The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game —Michael Lewis
  • Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer — James L. Swanson

BOOKS READ:

  • The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece — Jan Stuart
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City — Jonathan Mahler
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare — James Shapiro
  • Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man — Claire Tomalin

One thing I knew for sure before I started Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy: I wouldn’t be going back to the work. Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of the Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding. When I was seventeen, the scene in Jude the Obscure where Jude’s children hang themselves “becos they are meny” provided much-needed confirmation that adult life was going to be thrillingly, unimaginably, deliciously awful. Now I have too meny children myself, however, the appeal seems to have gone. I’m glad I have read Hardy’s novels, and equally glad that I can go through the rest of my life without having to deal with his particular and peculiar gloom ever again.

I suppose there may be one or two people who pick up Tomalin’s biography hoping to learn that the author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude turned into a cheerful sort of a chap once he’d put away his laptop for the night; these hopes, however, are dashed against the convincing evidence to the contrary. When Hardy’s friend Henry Rider Haggard loses his ten-year-old son, Hardy wrote to console him thus: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.” Every cloud, and all that… Those wise words could only have failed to help Haggard if he was completely mired in self-pity.

Hardy died in 1928, and one of the unexpected treats of Tomalin’s biography is her depiction of this quintessentially rural Victorian writer living a metropolitan twentieth-century life. It’s hard to believe that Hardy went to the cinema to see a film adaptation of one of his own novels, but he did; hard to believe, too, that he attended the wedding of Harold Macmillan, who was Britain’s prime minister in the year that the Beatles’ first album was released. What happened to Hardy after his death seemed weirdly appropriate: In a gruesome attempt to appease both those who wanted the old boy to stay in Wessex and those who wanted a flashy public funeral in London, Hardy was buried twice. His heart was cut out and buried in the churchyard at Stinsford where he’d always hoped he’d be laid to rest; what was left of him was cremated and placed in Westminster Abbey, where his pallbearers included Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie, and Edmund Gosse. Hardy was a modern celebrity, but his characters inhabited a brutal, strange, preindustrial England.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby is the author, most recently, of Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a collection of his columns from this magazine.

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