If it’s not a classic, do I have to finish it?
This month I have slogged through several contemporary books, because I resolved to read four new books a month.
Of the new books I’ve read this month, I can only strongly recommend Nick Hornby’s More Baths Less Talk, a collection of essays about books. But, as usual, I have read some excellent “older” novels: Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), Angela Lambert’s Love Among the Single Classes (1989), and Elizabeth Berridge’s Sing Me Who You Are (1967).
But with the new books I am reading like a goddamned bookseller or book reviewer: 200 pages here, 200 pages there, hoping to find something compelling.
I would rather be reading classics. I’ve just spent a month on George Meredith’s The Egoist, but much as I enjoyed this witty, epigrammatic 19th-century comedy, it has left me longing for something with more depth. I find I have nothing much to say about it: if you like Oscar Wilde, you’ll like The Egoist.
The Egoist didn’t fulfill the classical yearning. I am meant to live in 1st century B.C.-A.D. Rome, or in the Brontes’ 19th century England.
But I shouldn’t complain about the following new books, because they’re good as these things go.
1. Will Self’s Umbrella. I’ve already blogged about it, and it’s very good, but I have 100 pages left. Is it a contemporary classic? Yes. Should I finish it? Yes. The Booker committee has chosen a sophisticated work of literature for the shortlist after last year’s pop fiction debacle. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, it is rich and complex, but I prefer How the Dead Live, another experimental novel by Self.
2. Zadie Smith’s NW. It’s a good, readable, old-fashioned (some say experimental, but they obviously haven’t read Self) novel about some residents of northwest London, particularly the neighborhood Willesden. The characters include: Leah, an unconfident, generous woman who works at a low-level job for a charity and is under pressure to have children; her husband, Michel, a black hairdresser, who defends her against a big tough man who it turns out is NOT the one who made a menacing phone call to her; and Natalie, her old school friend, who has risen financially and is a master of anecdotal chatter at dinner parties.
But Smith has KILLED OFF my favorite character, Felix, a black mechanic with a history of not sticking to jobs and a father who likes weed and scorns a white man’s books of photos of the projects where they used to live.
The reviewers are obviously relieved to see a well-written book this season (they read so much crap, I can hardly believe it.) So, yes, I should finish this book–I’ve read 200 pages–to support contemporary literary fiction.
It won the Orange Prize. It is well-written. It has many fans. It made me want to reread Homer.
But I have possibly read too many retellings of myths over the years.
4. Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy. A retelling of Jane Eyre, set in the ’50s, not Livesey’s best. It’s very, very hard to do justice to the Brontes. I LOVE Livesey’s prose as a rule, and I recommend LIvesey’s The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona, and The House on Fortune Street.
So, as you can see, I’m hardly suffering with these good, solid new books (I keep coming back to the word “solid”), but I will post about classics and older books for the rest of the month (with one exception), because they are better and I’ve decided I DON’T have to read four new books a month.