"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is Finishing Books You Have Started A Good Thing?

The library is a wonderful resource.  You can take out a bagful of books, read a few pages of each to decide if you are going to like the stories, and if not return them. Juliet Lapidos, writing in The Atlantic (11.6.14) finds this practice abhorrent. Give the book a chance, she pleads.  After 300 pages of Bleak House you might come across a lyrical if not transformative passage.  In other words, it is worth slogging your way through a book that instinctively you dislike on the chance that you will find something of value.  She suggests that we do it out of respect to the author and  because fortitude builds character.

On the other hand, life and time are finite; and it takes a long time to read Bleak House when you could be reading something more attuned to your liking.  Why waste time on the possibility of a reward deep in very thick prose when you could be satisfying your taste from the very first page of another book?

Not only can you not judge a book by its cover, says Lapidos, but the first few chapters won’t help much either. Give the author time to develop characters and themes before you judge.

I have been reading fiction my whole life, and if you count comic books, from a very early age indeed.  Now, after thousands of books read, I know from the first page whether or not the book is right.  The author’s language, tone, style, and introduction of character on Page One always reveals what is to come.

This is perhaps best exemplified by Somerset Maugham’s short stories. Here is the opening paragraphs of French Joe:

It was Captain Bartlett who told me of him. I do not think that many people have been to Thursday Island. It is in the Torres Straits and is so called because it was discovered on a Thursday by Captain Cook. I went there since they told me in Sydney that it was the last place God ever made. They said there was nothing to see and warned me that I should probably get my throat cut. I had come up from Sydney in a Japanese tramp and they put me ashore in a small boat. It was in the middle of the night and there was not a soul on the jetty. One of the sailors who landed my kit told me that if I turned to the left I should presently come to a two-story building and this was the hotel.

The boat pushed off and I was left alone. I do not much like being separated from my luggage, but I like still less to pass the night on a jetty and sleep on hard stones; so I shouldered a bag and set out. It was pitch dark. I seemed to walk much more than a few hundred yards which they had spoken of and was afraid I had missed my way, but at last saw dimly a building which seemed to be important enough to suggest that it might be the hotel. No light showed, but my eyes by now were pretty well accustomed to the darkness and I found a door. I struck a match, but could see no bell. I knocked; there was no reply; I knocked again, with my stick as loudly as I could, then a window above me was opened and a woman's voice asked me what I wanted.

There is no way that I could put the book down.  Any short story because of the genre’s format demands conciseness; but if the author tries too hard to pack every paragraph, the writing becomes dense and factual.  The trick is to convey atmosphere, foreboding, anticipation, or interest; and it is Maugham’s effortless and elegant language which accomplishes this.

This is the opening paragraph of Red:

The skipper thrust his hand into one of his trouser pockets and with difficulty, for they were not at the sides but in front and he was a portly man, pulled out a large silver watch. He looked at it and then looked again at the declining sun. The Kanaka at the wheel gave him a glance, but did not speak. The skipper`s eyes rested on the island they were approaching. A white line of foam marked the reef. He knew there was an opening large enough to get his ship through, and when they came a little nearer he counted on seeing it. They had nearly an hour of daylight still before them. In the lagoon the water was deep and they could anchor comfortably. The chief of the village, which he could already see among the coconut trees was a friend of the mate`s, and it would be pleasant to go ashore for the night. The mate came forward at that minute and the skipper turned to him.

Everything is here – the introduction of character, time, and place; and the creation of atmosphere, ambience, and setting.  It is masterful.

Here is the most compelling, lyrical, and complete opening passages of any novel – Rosa Coldfield’s reflections on her life with Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom

From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler and which as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them. 

There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came no and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

The passage is so masterful because it creates the feel of the old South, the fevered remembrances of Rosa, a lyrical description of her physical and mental isolation, and an introduction of all the themes of the book – love, hate, revenge, frustration, family, disappointment, and desire.

There is no way that I could possibly put this book down although I knew of the complexity of Faulkner’s writing, and his often maddening juxtapositions of time, place, and character.  Yet I knew that this would be a unique, powerful story of the South, Thomas Sutpen, and his family. 

Faulkner could summarize the history of the South in a few pages – not by relying on events and personages, but through evocative, emotive passages about poverty, octoroons, New Orleans, the War, and the very American entrepreneurial spirit of Thomas Sutpen who cleared 100 square miles of bottomland and built his new life.

The opening passage of Ulysses does not and cannot give intimations of Molly, Bloom, or Stephen Dedalus; and it is all about the language.  We want to read more because the language is like no other (except Faulkner):

INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI. Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely: -Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful Jesuit! Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

What more compelling opening to any work of literature is there than the first lines of the King James Bible:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light:and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

By the same token there are millions – hundreds of millions – of books with lame, stilted, forced and formulaic openings:

John Bartlett snapped the brim of his fedora and turned on the bare bulb overhead light.  It snapped and the chain clinked against the glass. The neon sign of the hotel across the street flashed on and off in garish reds, blues, and whites.  Bartlett could sense that he was not alone…

Marcia Griffiths lay on her bed thinking of Peter.  She held his picture in front of her eyes and began to cry when she thought of their first kiss. Moon River was playing on the radio – their song…

“Captain, we’ve got a situation here.  There’s a VC gun emplacement three clicks beyond the perimeter and those cocksuckers are tearing up my men.”

Who would ever read more than a page of these novels?.  The point is, a careful, experienced reader can tell what’s coming.  

Selecting books carefully is another way of ensuring a complete read. As a twenty-year old, I left Tolstoy and Dostoevsky on the curb, irritated with the patronymics and endless cast of characters; but now with infinite patience and time I have read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and all of Chekhov’s Short Stories twice this year alone.

Why have I chosen to reread these books rather than turn to the smorgasbord of modern literature? Because they mean something to me.  There is something instructive about Ivan’s discourses with the Devil, Levin’s libertarianism, Tolstoy’s reflections on war and the nature of history, Prince Andrei’s battlefield epiphanies, Ivan Ilyich’s confrontation with death.

I am infinitely patient with Tolstoy’s gradual, deliberate, and progressive creation of character.  I read the passages on the stratagems of war because I know at heart they are reflective of Tolstoy’s nihilistic view of human events.  Even Anna Karenina, a true potboiler romance, has much to say about pre-Revolutionary Russia, the nature of work, the importance of class, and the ‘eternal mysteries of the heart’.

Even in the days when I was far less restrictive and focused in my reading, I picked carefully.  I knew that Paul Theroux would never disappoint because in many ways he is my alter ego – an early and young traveller to Africa, a sexual adventurer, and hungry consumer of culture. We have aged together, and both of us are contemplating the flickering light at the end of the tunnel with some anxiety and curiosity.  His Lower River is a chilling tale about not being able to go back anymore.

Richard Ford is one of America’s best novelists; and while I was intrigued with Frank Bascombe, I quickly became frustrated with the character’s lassitude and inaction.  His nihilism was clearly a defense mechanism; and it had none of the appeal of Chekhov’s characters who also are inactive and burdened by the weight of the past but tragic in their desperation.  “Do something!”, I yelled at the printed page of The Sportswriter; but still went on to the second book in the trilogy, hoping for an epiphany, a resurrection, or at least some kind of cathartic outburst.  Neither in this book nor in the third volume of the trilogy – which I abandoned after 100 pages – did any of this happen.

I read Ford because I sensed that he had something important to say; but I did not like Frank Bascombe; and it was only because of my familiarity with tragic drama that I assumed or hoped that there would be some moment of epiphany or enlightenment even though it might be the character’s downfall.

In those rare occasions when I step out the Russian steppes and try a new author, I do what I have always done – read the first page and make up my mind quickly and decisively. I have no respect for bad authors although I admire them for having sussed out the market and made some money.  I see no value in fortitude or dogged perseverance, and I don’t read “for pleasure’ as Juliet Lapidos suggests.  I have never divided my reading into ‘airplane books’ and ‘serious books’. After decades of being immersed in Shakespeare, the Russians, Faulkner, Joyce, the Bible, and Paradise Lost, how can I possibly turn off my critical faculties and tuck into a bad spy novel?

I never finish the odd bad book that I have bought.  I leave movies after the first half hour.  I leave at theatre intermissions; and the old Yiddish axiom, “Too soon old, too late schmart” has always been my guiding principle.

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