Monday, July 02, 2007

That List Thing

Two short books I read last week reminded me of others, or rather of other reading experiences.

I'd never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut before, but I picked up Cat's Cradle and liked it a lot - funny, intelligent stuff. But the more it went on and the more science-fictiony it became, the more I cooled to it. It stopped bearing on the world and became a story. The last time this happened to me was with Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, where, once I'd realised that the Devil could do anything and therefore that whatever did happen didn't matter (it almost literally had no plot in the sense that later events always undercut earlier ones), I rather lost interest. (In the case of the Bulgakov that's part of the point, a depiction of life under Stalinism, but that fact doesn't solve the aesthetic problem.)

So I wonder if it's just that I don't like science fiction, or (and this is probably the same thing) that I look for realism in my fiction - it's got to bear on the way things are, or it doesn't interest me. Put in bald terms like that, I don't want to assent to it, but my experience with the Vonnegut demands that I consider it. I'll try another, probably Slaughterhouse Five, when I get round to it.

Also, don't ask me to define 'realism'.

The other book was John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. When I was reading it I had that exhilarating feeling of reading a great book. So now I'm tempted to do that list thing and say what other books I got that feeling with. I mean not just thinking this was a great book, or enjoying it a lot, etc, but the gut certainty that this is masterful writing. Some books produce it, others don't, even books that I do think are great. For example:
Tolstoy: War and Peace yes, Anna Karenina yes, Hadji Murat yes, Resurrection no, The Kreutzer Sonata no
Dostoyevsky: The Idiot yes, The Brothers Karamazov no, Crime and Punishment I think so
Achebe, Things Fall Apart yes
Trollope's The Warden yes
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a book very similar to the Steinbeck in some ways, no
I don't mean this to be a list of Great Books, or even of Look at the Books I Have Read. I'm interested in that feeling - is it contingent, a chance product of the circumstance of reading as much as anything? I remember getting it when I read Sartre's The Age of Reason when quite young, and I suspect if I reread that book now I'd not feel the same. Or is it something in the work, the writer's technique finding, obscurely, a subject matter which it really suits?


Blogger robert d said...

It makes one wonder what you are doing with your time, reading all these books that a zillion people have already read before. And zut alors, most of the tombs are not even written in English?

Even more to the point, why are you reading instead of writing?

You are either being done or doing,


12:11 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

A highly relevant wonder, Robert. The truth, sickening for you, is that the UK government pays me to read books and sometimes to try to write one too.

But they don't pay me enough to read virgin books, so I work to rule by reading ones whose spines are well and truly broken. Believe me when I tell you that both Vonnegut and Steinbeck, being C20th, are daringly late compared to me usual range. I make up for this slackness by trying to write a book that no one has ever written before.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Translation might be one reason why some Dostoyevsky, f'rinstance, struck you as masterful writing and some didn't.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

That's a good point, Harry. Come to think of it, my version of the Brothers Karamazov is an old 2-vol Heron Books effort, certainly not an up-to-date one. Mind you - but this is a whole other topic - sometimes the older translations suit me better.

5:43 PM  

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