I really hate it when I can’t finish a book, and, particularly since the summer, I’ve put down an unprecedented number. I think I’ve been feeling unusually hard to please and looking for something specific in what I’ve been reading. But it still makes me feel that I’ve failed the trust the book has placed in me to see it in its best light and understand what it was trying to do. I can never quite bring myself to put half-finished books back on the shelf and instead they lie around the house reproaching me. Rather in the manner of my cat who, when shut out of the sitting room (she simply cannot keep her tail out of my tea mug), will go and sit the other side of the French windows and just stare unblinkingly at me. Should you wish to make anyone feel guilty, this is an unparalleled strategy.
So what didn’t make the cut for me this year? An embarrassing amount of ostensibly very good literature. Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (aka The Bear Boy), which has delighted and awed a number of bloggers I know, but in which I ground to a halt midway through. I really must learn that there are some books that do not suit well to being interrupted. I was wallowing in the slow-paced middle section when something brighter and shinier caught my eye. Whilst I told myself I was just putting it aside for a brief while, I have never managed to pick it up again since. It’s the story of dispossessed people: Rose Meadows, orphaned at 18 (though her father when alive was a plausible rogue and not much of a parent) ends up finding temporary and eccentrically paid employment with a family of intellectual Jews, recently emigrated from Berlin. She is there to look after the children, but ends up as the prime carer of Frau Mitwisser, whom the loss of country and job has thrown into a bitter depression. Professor Mitwisser is an intellectual fanatic, obsessed with an obscure sect called the Karaites, and quite blind to the miseries and struggles of his family. They are supported financially (and erratically) by a strange benefactor. The wealthy son of a famous children’s story writer, James A’Bair is the living counterpart of his father’s famous creation, The Bear Boy. As the novel unfolds, Rose gradually learns the secrets of the family, about their curious relation to the Bear Boy and their even more curious relationships to one another. This is a very well-written book, but one that privileges thought above emotion, and as such I found it cold and a little resistant. It is also highly episodic with very little plot, and un-admirable as it may be, I find it quite a chore sometimes to read books in which I do not have a genuine desire to see what happens next. A compilation of well-drawn scenes is nothing if the author isn’t forging connections for me, making me think beyond the immediacy of the interactions. But it must be said I by no means hated this book – there is a great deal here to appreciate, and if I’d kept going, I might well have finished it. I just fell into a fatal indifference.
I’m in danger of falling into the same trap with a book I am (supposedly) currently reading that has also ended up displaced by other volumes. It’s The Music Room, by William Fiennes, yet another book that has been greeted with a roar of critical approval, particularly among people who like their books exquisitely tasteful. Several reviews I’ve read have said the same thing: ‘This is not a misery memoir!’, when it could be – it’s about Fiennes’ growing up in the shadow of an older brother with severe epilepsy, but it’s also a hymn to the geni locus, as he lived in a beautiful moated castle, open to the public regularly, used by film crews, the site of a hundred special events, and yet still a private, much-loved family home. Evocations of the castle are interspersed with more personal recollections of his brother’s unpredictable, violent behaviour and with a slow-moving study of medical science’s understanding of epilepsy. It’s another very beautiful book, but I’m once again trying hard not to be bored by the lack of plot. The form of it doesn’t quite work for me, as the interpolated scenes do not seem to speak to one another, except perhaps to the extent that accounts of the more upsetting things his brother does are quickly replaced by long, slow, soothing descriptions of childhood delights like pike fishing, or cutting down a Christmas tree. It’s a book all about restraint, about finding love and loyalty towards difficult family members and searching for compensation in natural beauty. And all those things are wonderful. But the emotional tone is one of permanent stoicism, a sort of stiff upper lip that reduces his parents to ciphers in my mind, and which almost seems to hint at the deadness of trauma in Fiennes himself, as if it is too difficult to let that awkward emotion in and acknowledge the depth of his solitary suffering. I really must pick it up again and try to get to the end.
Being very difficult to please this year, I have also put down books in which there is too much emotion. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout I mentioned earlier in the year, as a book whose representation of the dark side of ageing was just too much for me. As was the harrowing story of Jewish persecution in J M G Le Clézio’s Wandering Star. In both cases it was the sheer quality of the writing which ironically got to me. Had they been less affecting books, I would have finished them. Nabokov’s Lolita is hovering dangerously near this category, but is still waiting in limbo, not yet rejected, not yet quite taken on board, either. I really want to read this novel; it’s a great classic of the twentieth century and it is clearly a clever, desperate, powerful book. But it’s December out there, cold and dank and a little wretched; there’s no light in the sky to counteract the darkness in a book like Lolita. I will get back to it, just not yet, not now.
And then there was Anita Brookner, who annoyed me with a wealth of tortured emotion about not very much at all. This was a real shame as she used to be one of my favourite authors and I anticipated returning to her work with enthusiasm. The book I picked up was A Closed Eye, the story of Harriet Lytton, one of Brookner’s classic disappointed heroines, who has settled for a life that contains so much less than she would have wanted. The child of parents who are themselves eternal children, Harriet is married off to a much older man, Freddie, for whom she has no genuine emotion other than vague gratitude. She has had a lifelong friendship with the glamorous and altogether more excitement-friendly Tessa, but then Tessa makes a real misstep, trapping the handsome but fiercely independent Jack through pregnancy and suffering the humiliation of a disconnected marriage. Her daughter, Lizzie, is a heart-wrenching creation, a silent, sullen, watchful child, loving nothing but her capricious and neglectful parents. Lizzie is repeatedly dumped on Harriet who has a daughter of her own, Imogen. Imogen is, by contrast, a spoiled princess of a child, utterly indulged by Harriet who is enthralled by her lively spirit and her beauty. You may imagine how Imogen and Lizzie do not get on. But then tragedy alters all the relations, when Tessa falls ill and dies. Harriet is assailed by charitable impulses to care for Lizzie, but also by uncharitable ones of having an affair with Tessa’s husband, Jack. Much as she is not at all the kind of woman for whom such sinful possibilities beckon (and she goes on about this at length), Harriet nevertheless manages to arrange an encounter with Jack in which they kiss. Having tasted – and forbidden herself – the kind of life she imagines to be all illicit pleasure and delight, Harriet must come down to earth with a bump. After I read the opening words of the chapter that followed this kiss, I found myself rolling my eyes and putting the book down instantaneously, without much of a qualm. ‘After that the dark days started,’ Brookner writes, ‘culminating in that darkest day of all, from which there never was, and never would be, any remission.’ Oh please, just shoot me now. I just couldn’t find the patience for such futile bleakness, or the sympathy for an attitude that seemed indulgently self-defeating.
So, what does it take for me to put a book down? At the moment it seems that the classier the book is, the better written, the slower and more intricate its descriptions, the more polite or painfully accurate its emotional descriptions, the closer it is to being relegated back to the shelf. This is amusingly worrying. I feel really sorry for the world of literature at the moment, which deserves a far better critic than me. But I seem to be on a hunt for sunny, accessible, insightful, but emotionally robust books at present. Books that don’t take themselves too seriously, books that want to have a laugh as well as a cry at the human condition. Between you and me, I think this is fine. I’ve read enough dreary books in my time to feel I’ve paid my dues, and if I give in to the passing fad, I will get sated and my tastes will rearrange themselves again. And maybe then some of these books will get a proper review from me – the fault always lies with me and not with them.