You may remember a few posts back I extolled the virtues of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about marriage, Committed. ‘I’d be quite interested to read that,’ said Mister Litlove, and with some alacrity, I handed it over. Several hours later I asked how he was getting on.
He made a face. ‘It’s a bit slow,’ he complained. ‘She does go on and on about the same point and I’m waiting for her to get to the next bit.’
Then just the other day, I unearthed my copy of Nicholson Baker’s wonderful novel, The Anthologist, from underneath a pile of my husband’s stuff in the kitchen. It took me a moment to remember why he had it, but then it came back to me. After my glowing review of the book, he’d borrowed it for the train ride to London.
‘What do you think of it?’ I’d asked eagerly, at the time.
‘Well, he has a nice voice and I find it skips along okay while I’m reading it.’
I recognize damning with faint praise when I see it. I’m not sure the book ever made it onto the train a second time. Being married to Mister Litlove forces me time and again to consider the perplexing problem of taste, because ours are surprisingly different. His side of the bed is a graveyard, often, for the books that have triumphed on mine. Where books are concerned, he is critical and picky. It surprises me how few there are (particularly in fiction) that have been an unqualified success for him – I can think of Bonfire of the Vanities, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, J. G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes. None of these are books I would rush to read myself, and yet I like to I think of myself as one of the most eclectic readers I know.
And then when it comes to television, everything changes. Mister Litlove has a terrible reputation in this household for his abiding passion for dreadful tv. Made for tv movies, The Scorpion King, new and experimental comedy series put in awkward time slots on BBC2 (or worse, BBC4). Whatever you may think is just too awful for anyone to watch, you’ll find Mister Litlove glued to. When my son and I flick through the channels and declare ‘There’s nothing on’, Mister Litlove will demur. For him, there is always something on. He’s like a one-man charity; there is no programme too misconceived or ridiculous or unlovable for his welcoming embrace.
Taste is such a peculiar thing. Where do our tastes come from? How are we to understand them? Back in the eighteenth century, philosophers like Kant and Hume wrote a great deal about aesthetics, or the creation and appreciation of beauty. They believed that education and class determined our tastes, but the finer points of this discussion elude me. For one thing, I simply cannot bear Enlightenment philosophy; in a delightful irony, it is not to my taste. It makes my brain glaze over, and for this very reason I am prejudiced against it. But I also think its premises are out of date. Mister Litlove and I have had very similar educations and we share a certain social strata and yet our tastes are wildly different. In a very democratic culture, where high art is no longer the exclusive property of the rich and educated, and where popular art is encouraged because of its commercial potential, taste is not so easily determined.
No, I think taste in artworks, be they books or films or paintings or whatever, is an unfolding quality that develops out of the intersection of nebulous things. I do think it’s about where we come from, but it’s also about where we’d like to be headed. As such, taste is a measure of our rebellion and our compliance. It’s about our gut response to the familiar and to the alien. It’s about where we do and do not want to be in our heads; and in this way, taste is built up out of our desires for escape, as well as our aspirations for understanding. It’s about what we find comforting, reassuring, exciting and seductive. I think our taste resides along a certain knife-edge where challenge is balanced out by security. You might be able to describe the parameters of the space, but its coordinate point location would be different for everyone. It’s an emotional and psychological accident, which is why no one can lord it over anyone else as far as their taste is concerned (except I claim the right to tease Mister Litlove about television because, well, really).
Over at the literary blog hop, the task is to describe a book we read in college and hated. My prize goes to the collected works of Voltaire, whom I loathed. I’ll single out one of his books for special mention here: Candide. Candide is a novel that lots of people like; it’s a picaresque tale of the eponymous hero who goes on a global journey that (to my mind like any journey) lurches the travelers from disaster to catastrophe. Anything that can go wrong, does go wrong. This all takes place in a jolly cartoon-style format, where we barely pause to weep over the victims before swinging onto the next apocalyptic chapter. And all the while the on-board philosopher intones that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, an ironic message there of sledgehammer subtlety.
Why is this book not to my taste? Well, let’s start by pointing out that I was a mere 18 when I read it, at my most idealistic about literature. I thought it could save the world, and that it could certainly save me from the perils of youth, naivety and general bewilderment. At the time, this story horrified me, by its callous outlook, its surreality, its emphasis on chaos and futility. All this was apparently balanced out if you found it funny; I most certainly did not. It challenged me, mocked my sensibilities, and seemed unable to offer me anything reparative to cling to by way of understanding of the human condition. I thought it was a very silly book.
And what would happen if I returned to it now, all those years of experience later? Alas, I would hate it still. I’ve come to recognize a certain kind of narrative that repels me, one bound up with a sort of plasticky satire, which fails to touch reality. Only last year I tried to read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and barely reached the second page. I need a thread of tender humanity to attach me to a story, a recognizable quality of sensual life as we live it and breathe it. I’ve come to understand that I use literature to think through life, to open up the world I already know and reveal its deeper layers. The more a book does that, the more it is to my taste.