When you hate a book, it’s always personal, I think. By which I mean that the book cannot possibly be as bad as you think it is – the hatred and dislike arise from whichever personal nerve has been tweaked, and reading through the subsequent red mist is never going to be rewarding.
It’s quite rare for me to hate a book, but when Adam Gopnik’s Winter; Five Windows on the Season came along, it very rapidly fell into that rare category. I did not even manage to make it to the very end of the first chapter. I had three attempts at reading that chapter and any number of refusals at picking it up. The book arose out of a series of lectures that Adam Gopnik gave. Knowing that publication would be simultaneous with the lectures, he actually prepared the material that formed the basis of the book well in advance, and delivered improvised speeches to friends and family in his living room. In the introduction he writes: ‘These chapters are meant to sound vocal, and I hope that some of the sound of a man who has boned up on a subject – in several cases, just boned up – and is sharing the afternoon’s enthusiasm with an evening’s friends is still in place.’
He really need not have worried: he meets his own criteria perfectly. But he would have done better to include a few enemies amongst his audience of friends. What follows is, to my mind, the exact replica of those 70s slide show evenings, when the neighbours would bore their hosts rigid with photos from trips abroad. It’s like Adam Gopnik came for a visit inside my head, saying ‘Hi, I’ve just taken a fabulous trip through the world of art and brought back a few pictures, poems and pieces of music I’d love to share with you.’ And then for what seems like forever, he witters on about each slide, roughly grouped together under a theme – in the case of the first chapter ‘Romantic Winter’ – though you learn nothing from this whistle-stop tour with an amateur tour guide. It’s such a lazy format, and the insights gleaned from skating lightly over the top of so much ground just aren’t worth it.
But let’s be fair here; on the grounds that it can’t possibly be as bad as I thought it was, I should state my personal investment. I’ve spent the past five years hearing from agents and editors that immense care must be taken when transferring academic-type writing on art and literature into the commercial arena. No one’s interested in the old school style any more, it’s got to be new, bright, fresh, different. Okay, fine – I quite agree. So why make me read through this kind of tedious McRomanticism which is, to my mind, gaspingly old and sterile? Oh but feel free to go ahead and read it – and enjoy it, too. The problem with ranting reviews is the same as for gushing ones – they’re written from extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, and it’s highly unlikely that subsequent readers will find themselves in the same place, particularly not if they’re expecting it. With my own thoughts on the book in mind, I picked it up and flicked through it, and it didn’t seem so bad. Though I do have a theory that it reads better backwards; that way you’re not waiting for an argument to be developed.
The next DNF was, thankfully, not dreadful, it was just a terminal case of the ‘meh’s’. Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French is a coming of age story about Kate, an American student who bags herself the holiday job of her dreams with ‘difficult’ photo journalist, Lydia Schell. The Berlin wall is coming down, Salman Rushdie’s in hot water, and Lydia is rushing about trying to make serious art out of these situations, leaving Kate in charge at her apartment in Paris. There Kate finds Lydia’s husband, Clarence, who is an academic with writer’s block, and Olivier, who is the boyfriend of Lydia’s troubled daughter, Portia. Kate immediately falls for Olivier (who is headed back to America) and then spends a lot of time angsting about what she may have ‘done’. And angsting about the difficult/inappropriate jobs Lydia asks her to do.
I picked this up thinking it would be a fun, jolly sort of read and it began that way. The main problem is that it suffers from too many ‘first novel’ issues. The writing is very patchy – there are a lot of nice sentences, but also far too much awkward, implausible dialogue, and the whole thing never really coheres into a compelling story. Then, there are all sorts of issues with character, most of which fall under the banner of ‘determined to make her characters “sympathetic” they become dull and incoherent.’ Oh this sympathetic character thing! Somehow the word ‘sympathetic’ had become unhitched from its mooring and taken on a demonic half-life of its own. I think it has come to mean: ‘characters who behave with the kind of integrity and moral courage that the vast majority of us could never access in the moment.’ But much worse than that, I think it’s taken the word ‘interesting’ hostage. What we really want is interesting characters, not sympathetic ones. In Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant novels there is always one character I loathe with a virulent passion. It means I cannot put the book down, because the idea that this character’s schemes might dominate the outcome and ruin the lives of those around him/her is quite intolerable. I have to read on to see that awful person (hopefully) defeated.
What’s a book without a decent villain? Or without a situation that poses a truly stark or upsetting ethical conflict? These things are incompatible with a bunch of characters for whom we are obliged to feel ‘sympathy’ all the time. Kate ends up beige bland, and Lydia is not the demon boss I had hoped she might be, just self-absorbed and pretentious. I would probably have limped to the end of this one if I hadn’t had quite so many books I needed to read. But about halfway through I began to feel that life was very short.
In all fairness, these books had the misfortune to arrive in my hands when I wanted something specific from them – I wanted delicious enlightenment from Winter, and I wanted entertaining comfort from Lessons in French. I did not read them in the spirit of ‘don’t know much about this, but let’s see where it goes,’ which is by far and away the most productive attitude for reading. So they already had high hurdles to clear, and they should be viewed more gently because they had to suffer my demands.