Which classic work do you think this comes from? ‘Her teeth were white in her brown face and her skin and her eyes were the same golden tawny brown. She had high cheek-bones, merry eyes and a straight mouth with full lips. Her hair was the golden brown of a grain field that has been burned dark in the sun but it was cut short all over her head so that it was but little longer than the fur on a beaver pelt.’ Jeffrey Archer? Jackie Collins? Lee Child? I’ll give you one more clue.
After another 150 pages, the hero finally gets to roll in the heather with the brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired woman with the straight mouth and the hair like a beaver pelt, ‘and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves’.
Well, my lips move smally and by themselves, and I imagine yours do, too, unless you’re the dog (‘Oh, yuss!’) on the Churchill insurance ad, but it’s not something we boast about. The writer is, in fact, Ernest Hemingway, and the book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s described on the cover, by the Observer, as ‘one of the greatest novels which our troubled age will produce’ but it strikes me as soapy old tosh.
It could easily have been War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov but I plan to have another bash at those so I’m keeping them in reserve. Since I was 18 I have been told I should read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu by people who knew all seven volumes by heart and loved every line. You cannot, it seems, be lukewarm about Proust. Knowing that love of it is a badge of honour, and mark of a finely attuned and appreciative literary mind, I have tried eversomany times to get beyond Book One. Indeed, I have probably read Book One more often than I have read Great Expectations, which is saying something. I have even plucked Volume Three or Seven, off the shelf and tried to start there, so please don’t judge me, or tell me I haven’t given it a chance. It’s no good. I find the endless sentences distancing, the people without interest. I cannot care about upper-class French people of the 19th century. Mea culpa, of course. My loss too. But if I have not managed to find the key by the age of 70, I guess I never will. I am denied any enjoyment of Proust’s great novel and there it is. I tried to find one word to sum up how it seems to me. The word is ‘anaemic’.
At the Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s we were told on no account to be rude about the novelist Anthony Powell. The old monster wrote for our books pages and was touchy. Bron Waugh duly ignored the rule, savaging Powell magnificently. Powell never again put quill pen to paper for the Telegraph, even though the paper commissioned a bronze bust of him to say sorry. Intrigued by this haughty behaviour, I thought, ‘Gosh, his books must be good.’ I tried The Acceptance World, volume three of A Dance to the Music of Time. I made it to page 46. Later I tried it a second time, but the description of a dank Bayswater hotel and some mad uncle sent me to sleep two evenings in succession. Recently I tried it for the third time. Zzzzzzz. I can’t recall what Bron wrote about Powell but I bet he was right.
If you can’t get beyond half a dozen pages of On The Road at the age of 18 it’s unlikely that you will later in life. I have, however, on a couple of occasions punished myself by pressing on and coming to the benevolent conclusion that it must possess some sort of sociological importance that is extra-literary. ‘It defines a generation’ — that sort of tosh. Of course it doesn’t. Like all of the beats, with the exception of Burroughs, Jack Kerouac was an artless, undisciplined, unfunny solipsist wrapped in a mantle of cosy outsiderness, comforting self-pity and snug alienation.
My literary aversion is such an offence against the civilising grain that I need to be placed in the US government’s Witness Protection Program, where they stash you in some hidden location so that the people who disagree with you can’t find you and kill you. In a word, I hate Jane Austen. Trying to read her novels reminds me of putting up with the girls at school who were always yammering about who was dating whom, who was about to get engaged, and what the upset fathers intended to do about it. My aversion to Austen proves that I’m not feminine, which, of course, is the great tragedy of my life. However, I can atone at least partially by announcing that I am the modern reader who saved Charles Reade’s bacon: I adored The Cloister and the Hearth. Every word of it.
I have read Don Quixote only quite recently. It is one of those books you think you must have read long ago, and maybe you have dipped into the famously ‘hilarious’ moments, such as when he tilts at the windmill. And of course, you know that all picaresque novels since have their origins in Cervantes’ original. I am bound to say I was very, very disappointed by reading it through properly. It is a one-joke book, and it goes on for hundreds of pages.
The joke is that a silly old man keeps mistaking events and characters around him, because inside his head, he is living in the romances of Amadis de Gaul. Great amusement is had, both by characters in the book who take delight in mocking, tricking and deriding the silly old man; and by the author, who plainly expects us to join in the sadism. I found the character of Sancho Panza terribly disappointing, too. Not nearly as rich as, say, Sam Weller, who is plainly based on him.
How do I explain the fact that Don Quixote is regarded as one of the great novels of the world? First, it appeared when there were almost no other novels to read, and it sustained many inventive and amusing readers, such as Dickens and Gogol, who made much better books than it. Once it was established as a ‘classic’, I suspect that generation upon generation never really read Don Quixote. Or perhaps there really have been millions of readers, over the last four centuries, who have thought it was brilliantly funny to laugh at repetitive jokes about a deluded old dunderhead as he made his confused journey through Spain.
Some years ago a question about overrated books was asked by one of the Sunday papers, and the respondents included the great John Bayley, the critic and sometime professor at Oxford. He said that when he was an undergraduate there just after the war, the fashion among the literary elite was to say that The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was the greatest of all modernist works, ‘the only French novel in English’, and whatnot. Being as susceptible to fashionable opinion as most of us were at that age, he repeated all this, when the truth was that he hadn’t read it, and couldn’t read it, however often he tried, although it’s quite a short book. But he persevered and one day, after many years and many attempts, he finally got to the end. And then he couldn’t work out what had happened, or see the point of the book at all, or begin to understand why people claimed to admire it. On reading which, I wanted to embrace Professor Bayley, since that was exactly my experience, in every particular. As to Parade’s End, don’t get me started. In fact I could get started, or at any rate much further, and when it was being televised recently I felt a pang of pity for old ladies I saw buying the fat paperback in the local supermarket. They’re in for some grim evenings, thought I.
It’s an abysmally shameful admission, but I’ve never been able to read an entire novel by Charles Dickens. I mean ‘read’ because I’ve listened to most of the novels (on audio-books) and thought them marvellous — every bit as brilliant, inventive, moving, insightful as everyone says. But when it comes to reading them, the multitude of asides and digressions soon defeats my staying powers. On page two of David Copperfield, the narrator talks about ‘meandering’; ‘Not to meander myself, at present…’, he writes. It’s precisely this meandering quality that I find indigestible — not helped by the occasional jocularity of tone and the lapses into sentimentality. These qualities, when the novels are read aloud, are subsumed by Dickens’s greatness. So, as far as I’m concerned, his fiction works for the outer, rather than the inner ear.
‘They’re making hay under the Andes…’ It’s the only line I know from Moby-Dick and I may not even have quoted it correctly. But somehow, I have never managed to read all of that book. It is not as though I don’t admire Herman Melville, and Bartleby is one of the finest stories I have ever read. But I always have trouble with the book about the whale. I suppose nautical books in general have never appealed to me and I certainly never understood the fuss about Patrick O’Brian, whose books seem as phony as his Irish lineage. I must have read bits of Moby-Dick to remember that evocative quotation, and undoubtedly Starbuck is a great fictional creation I should have got to know, but his name is now irrevocably associated with that ubiquitous purveyor of hot brown water.
The great writer I can’t stand is D.H. Lawrence. I should qualify that: I love Lawrence’s lyric poetry. If only he’d never ventured into fiction. Clumping, pompous, sentimental, entirely without a sense of humour — a very bad thing in any writer, a sign of being false to the world — and terribly repetitive. And as for all that guff about ‘the untamed Pan’! I can’t get through more than a couple of pages without wanting to dig him up and — as Mark Twain unimprovably put it of Jane Austen — beat him over the skull with his own shinbone.
Here’s a sentence cut and pasted, honestly at random, from St Mawr (his famous novella about an erection inadequately disguised as a horse): ‘Lou, who had strayed into the yard to see, looked so much younger and so many thousand of years older than her mother, as she stood in her wisp-like diffidence, the clusters of grape-like bobbed hair hanging beside her face, with its fresh colouring and its ancient weariness, her slightly squinting eyes, that were so disillusioned they were becoming faunlike.’
That’s not a sentence so much as a series of extra clauses tacked onto the arse of a declaration, isn’t it? And what is he getting at with the ‘grape-like hair’? Do eyes get disillusioned? And how do they start to resemble fauns when they do so: does the upper eyelid resemble a man and the lower lid a goat’s bum? No. It’s just bollocks.
Nowadays I chuck rubbish history books after a couple of pages, but sometimes one has to persevere, regardless of mood. It’s the awful weight of superfluous detail, and the inconsequence of it all. Oddvar Hoidal’s Quisling: A Study of Treason (Norwegian University Press) was a real pain. I can vividly recall that, like the Terminator, he kept getting up again. After I thought, with his arrest, on p. 714, ‘that’s it’, my heart sank when I turned over and there was ‘Imprisonment, Trial and Execution’. Then the ‘Epilogue’, with the, to me, horrible prospect, in the final sentence on p. 777, ‘Quisling is still very much alive (in the nation’s consciousness)’. I have hidden this book, so I will never have to re-read it.
I haven’t read most books, among them Crime and Punishment. I don’t know any Russian, and translations soon bring me up short. ‘I’ve learned to chatter this last month, lying for days together in my den thinking… of Jack the Giant-killer,’ says Raskolnikov on the first page. Did Dostoevsky mention Jack the Giant-killer, or was it some other tale, familiar in Russia? Would Dostoevsky really have expressed things in the language used? I stop reading and turn to something else.
The 900-page Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell begins like this: ‘The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.’ Not bad, eh? Can’t you just see, hear, feel, smell and taste that image? Read no further. Seriously. It’s as good as it gets. Quit while you’re ahead. If you don’t believe me, go into a charity shop, any one will do, and you’ll find a cheap copy right there on the bookshelves. There always is one. You’ll find it just to the left of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Learn a language instead would be my advice.
The most forbidding great novel seemed to me to be Ulysses. Unemployed, I treated it as work, three hours every morning. Also a critical study to explain to me what I had just read. I am a slow reader. It took weeks. I don’t say the book is a fake or a trick but I got amazingly little out of the experience: the surface was what I liked best, the atmosphere in an Irish pub. My critical work told me of parodies of writers I did not know, references and parallels I had missed, not just by the dozen but by the hundred. It was all very depressing. This happened almost 50 years ago and I have never got up the will or the energy to have another go.
I cannot be doing with À la recherche du temps perdu. I used to attempt it once a decade or so. You have to read it all in one go or you lose interest — so any episode which stops you in your tracks is a great nuisance as you then don’t pick it up for another ten years, or more. And that means starting at the beginning. Again. Last century, I came undone in Sodom and Gomorrah: Baron Charlus has a quick knee-trembler with the valet Jupien which Proust describes — interminably — in terms of a bee pollinating a flower. It’s clearly a seminal tour de force etc etc. But I remember thinking David Attenborough does bees better.
Moving swiftly on, the once-revered novels I tried recently to read again, only for my eyes to roll back lifeless into their sockets, are David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights. The opening chapter of DC is an encyclopaedia entry on the history and significance of cauls. But really, who cares about cauls when the Mudstones, Micawber and Uriah Heep are in the wings? Press delete, Mr Dickens, make it snappy. As for Emily Bronte, the sexiness of Heathcliff is much overplayed. He needs a good bath.
I know that The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is regarded as a masterpiece, but I find the heroine, Isabel Archer, so irritating that I can never read the book with any pleasure. Isabel comes to England from Albany, New York, to stay with her maternal aunt, Lydia Touchett, and her rich husband, and meets her cousin, Ralph. She has proposals of marriage from the highly eligible Lord Warburton, and by an American, Caspar Goodwood, heir to a Boston fortune, whom she loves. Her uncle dies and, at the request of Ralph, leaves Isabel a fortune. With the world and its possibilities open to her, she rejects both suitors and, under the influence of Madame Merle, marries the egotistical poseur Gilbert Osmond, unaware that Madame Merle was Osmond’s mistress and is the mother of his child, Pansy, whom Isabel befriends.
As any intelligent woman could have foreseen, the marriage is deeply unhappy, especially when Ralph is dying and Osmond refuses Isabel permission to leave Rome to visit him. She learns the truth about Pansy and Madame Merle, and surely this should enable her, as a wealthy and independent woman, to leave Osmond, taking Pansy with her. Instead the ending is irritatingly ambiguous. Isabel rejects Goodwood and is obviously about to return to Osmond. Whether this is because she is a masochist, has an inflated view of the responsibilities of marriage, or has promised Pansy she will return, is never made clear. Perhaps she has some deeper plan to free herself. Despite the novel’s brilliance, I have never been able greatly to care. Osmond is a sadistic dilettante, Madame Merle is so obviously devious that for me the heroine, whom I am expected to admire, seems almost wilfully gullible. Why were Victorian novelists, particularly the men, so ready to portray women as victims?
I never finished the Henry James thing that was set in Boston. It had a name that’s on the tip of my tongue. The Bostoners? Boston Me Up? Meet the Bostons? Argh.
Compiled by Digby Warde-Aldam.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012