Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Usefulness Of Literature In The Form Of Bulky Books

‘War and Peace’(1,296 pages), ‘Atlas Shrugged’(1,200), ‘Infinite Jest’(1,088) – I’m tempted one day to go into a library, request them all, and in homage to Tony Hancock use them to stand on in order to reach ‘Lady Don’t Fall Backwards’. As long-term readers will know, I’m partial to Galton and Simpson’s joke, perhaps because it strikes a chord with me. Not that I’ve ever quite aspired to intellectual greatness in the way Hancock did, but there have been times when I’ve tried to take on literary giants, by which I mean writers of big books. After all, some of the greatest thinkers and novelists have said a great deal in relatively few words. I’m thinking Nietzsche, only because I have read him. And in fiction, Graham Greene, because I’m currently reading ‘The Quiet American’. Greene was right. He knew the length a novel should be. Big enough to contain ideas and interesting characters without excessive descriptions and a cast of hundreds.
   Muriel Spark said: ‘Write as if writing to a friend and use a few words as possible’. I agree with the latter half of that statement, but I’m not sure that ‘writing to a friend’ is a great premise for novelists. It would limit the use of the English language, I imagine. Then again, it depends on who your friends are and how clever they are.
   I did buy David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ once, in the days when I occasionally felt inclined to undergo a literary endurance test. I wish I had kept it because it would make an excellent missile to launch at cats who stray into the garden and I like the idea of hurling 1,088 bound pages at a marauding moggy. The weight would ensure considerable distance should I be able to muster the strength to throw it, and you can imagine the impact. I would find it funny, anyway.
   So I’m reading Greene because I’m not reading Jean-Patrick Manchette’s ‘Fatale’, which has recently been published, making it only the third of his works to be translated. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book, but sadly, all it did was to cast doubt upon my belief in him as one of the great under-translated crime writers. I enjoyed ‘The Prone Gunman’ so much that people ask for crime novel recommendations it’s usually the first thing I recommend. ‘Three To Kill’ is good too, but ‘Fatale’...well, this girl gets involved in small town society and...nothing much happens. It’s a big letdown, and the writing, allowing for translation, is not that great. On the plus side, it’s not even 100 pages long, yet I gave up, and having just looked again, I gave up merely 20 pages from the end. This really is poor on my behalf. I must go back and speed read through to the conclusion.
   Greene, on the other hand, succeeds once again in captivating me, as he always did when I was working through his novels over thirty years ago. Of all the writers I’ve read and loved, along with, say, Chandler, he is the most reliable. By this I mean, like an old friend, I can turn to him and seek a kind of solace when I grow weary of literature, all the words in all the books that fail to give me what I want.
   Greeneland is not a happy place to visit, being full of mostly miserable, desperate, doomed, doubt-ridden characters for whom there’s no salvation in either love or religion. And whilst in the realms of the melancholy, Robert Burton said ‘How much more cruel the pen may be than the sword’, which is true in a sense, as anyone who has read vicious comments online will know. I also think it a little cruel of New York Review Books to publish an inferior Manchette novel, letting me down as they have. But they must think otherwise, obviously. They did, however, also publish Burton’s 17th century epic, ‘The Anatomy Of Melancholy’ (547 pages), which has proved incredibly useful over the years. It currently sits, along with John Dos Passos’s ‘U.S.A’ (1,184 pages), on top of the hard drive, holding up a computer speaker. Thick books do have their uses.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...