STUFF I’VE BEEN READING
A MONTHLY COLUMN
by Nick Hornby
- On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
- My Life with Nye—Jennie Lee
- Novel (abandoned)—A. Non
- On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
- In My Father’s House—Miranda Seymour
- The Blind Side—Michael Lewis
This morning, while shaving, I listened to a reading from Anna Politkovskaya’s A Russian Diary on BBC Radio 4. It was pretty extraordinary—brutal and brave (Politkovskaya, as I’m sure you know, was murdered, presumably because of her determination to bring some of her country’s darkest wrongdoings into the light). And its depiction of a country where the state is so brazenly lawless is so bizarre that I couldn’t help but think of fiction—specifically, a novel I had just abandoned by a senior, highly regarded literary figure. Politkovskaya’s words reminded me that the reason I gave up on the novel was partly because I became frustrated with the deliberate imprecision of its language, its obfuscation, its unwillingness to give up its meaning quickly and easily. This, of course, is precisely what some people prize in a certain kind of fiction, and good luck to them. I can’t say that this kind of ambiguity is my favorite thing, and it’s certainly not what I look for first in a novel, but I know that I would have missed out on an awful lot of good stuff if I wasn’t prepared to tolerate a little incomprehension and attendant exasperation every now and again. In this novel, however, I found myself feeling particularly impatient. “A perfect day begins in death, in the semblance of death, in deep surrender,” the novelist (or his omniscient narrator) tells us. Does it? Not for me it doesn’t, pal. Unless, of course, death here means “a good night’s sleep.” Or “a strong cup of coffee.” Maybe that’s it? “Death” = “a strong cup of coffee” and “the semblance of death” = some kind of coffee substitute, like a Frappuccino? Then why doesn’t he say so? There is no mistaking what the word death means in Politkovskaya’s diaries, and once again I found myself wondering whether the complication of language is in inverse proportion to the size of the subject under discussion. Politkovskaya is writing about the agonies of a nation plagued by corruption, terrorism, and despotism; the highly regarded literary figure is writing about some middle-class people who are bored of their marriage. My case rests.
The highly regarded literary figure recently quoted Irwin Shaw’s observation that “the great machines of the world do not run on fidelity,” in an attempt to explain his views on matrimony, and though this sounds pretty good when you first hear it, lofty and practical all at the same time, on further reflection it starts to fall apart. If we are going to judge things on their ability to power the great machines of the world, then we will have to agree that music, charity, tolerance, and bacon-flavored potato chips, to name only four things that we prize here at the Believer, are worse than useless.
It wasn’t just the opacity of the prose that led me to abandon the novel, however; I didn’t like the characters who populated it much, either. They were all languidly middle-class, and they drank good wine and talked about Sartre, and I didn’t want to know anything about them. This is entirely unreasonable of me, I accept that, but prejudice has to be an important part of our decision-making process when it comes to reading, otherwise we would become overwhelmed. For months I have been refusing to read a novel that a couple of friends have been urging upon me, a novel that received wonderful reviews and got nominated for prestigious prizes. I’m sure it’s great, but I know it’s not for me: the author is posh—posh English, which is somehow worse than posh American, even—and he writes about posh people, and I have taken the view that life is too short to spend any time worrying about the travails of the English upper classes. If you had spent the last half century listening to the strangled vows and the unexamined and usually very dim assumptions that frequently emerge from the mouths of a certain kind of Englishman, you’d feel entitled to a little bit of inverted snobbery.
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