Several years ago, when I was studying writing at university, a lecturer of mine expressed utter disdain when a student confessed to abandoning James Joyce’s Ulysses mid-way through. The lecturer, who was an author herself (well you’d want to hope so, wouldn’t you?), said that to give up on a book before the end was lazy and disrespectful to the author and Literature itself. This exchange took place in the first week of semester and, like the chap who asked how much a published author can expect to earn in a year, the student concerned did not return the following week. The rest of us sat nodding in agreement with our lecturer in an attempt to demonstrate that we had not only finished Ulysses, but read it several times, along with many fat books by Russian writers. I myself had to put extra effort into appearing smug to cover the fact that, not only had I never finished Ulysses, I had never started it either. (Unlike my grandfather, who started reading it under the false belief it was about motorcycle gangs.) What’s worse, I was guilty of abandoning several books – some of them ‘Classics’ – not two chapters in, but two chapters short of the end. (I tell you what: if you keep reading this post till the end, I’ll reveal what they were.)
I recall this episode now because the author of one of my all-time favourite books is appearing in Sydney next month to talk about his latest release. That’s right folks, the ‘bad boy’ of literature (perhaps that should be a bad boy of literature – there seem to be so many these days), DBC Pierre, is returning to allude to incidents in his bad-boy past while doing his best Thom Yorke impersonation. For those of you not familiar with Mr Pierre, he is the author of Vernon God Little, the novel for which he was awarded the Booker prize in 2003. Ironically for me, he was also awarded the James Joyce Award for that same work. (I did some research into DBC’s full name, in the hope that it was Darryl Barry Cecil, only to discover it is a nom de plume for Peter Finlay. DBC stands for Dirty But Clean. Oh.)
You see, dear Overlanders, I would love to go and listen to Peter or Darryl or Pierre, or whoever he is, but the kind people at the Oxford Arts Factory inform me that he will be there to talk specifically about his new book, not Vernon. I haven’t read his new book, in fact, I am reluctant to because I tried to read his second, Ludmila’s Broken English, and couldn’t finish it. In fact, I hated it – call me crazy but I just didn’t find the blithely described scenes of Ludmila’s repeated rape by her grandfather amusing, not even in a glib ironic way. And I suspect I was supposed to.
Perhaps it was Second Book Syndrome, where the author writes such a cracker of a debut that anything that comes after is a disappointment. I found this to be the case with another fave author of mine, Zadie Smith. White Teeth made me want to be a writer. It literally changed my life. Her second book, The Autograph Man, I’m sad to say was underwhelming. I gave it several goes, but I can’t remember if I finished. It’s horrible that I can’t remember, I think that’s worse than not finishing at all. Zadie got back on the proverbial horse with On Beauty, which – while not earning her a clear round – certainly got her a ribbon, if that’s not stretching the pony club metaphor too far. (It probably is. Apologies.)
Yet, I do think it’s possible for early abandonment to be a mark of a good book. Some weeks ago, Irma Gold wrote about books that were rejected several times before going on to be highly acclaimed. One such book was We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Just months before Irma’s post, WNTAK joined the pile of books I abandoned before finishing. I had to stop reading it because I couldn’t detach myself from the narrative – it was that vivid, that engaging, that disturbing. I still think about it and my fellow had to give me a summary of the second half to satisfy my curiosity.
This was not the only book I had to stop reading because it was just too poignant. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was another. I know, I know, it is a fabulous book, but I was reading it when I was six months pregnant and I just couldn’t keep immersing myself in Franzen’s cutting observations about dysfunctional families when I was preparing to start a family of my own. I am going to give it another crack though, not only because I recall that the first three-quarters were very good, but also because I managed to acquire an American first-edition signed copy, complete with publisher’s note of apology for the fact that pages 430 and 431 are printed in reverse order. (Didn’t see note until I’d already read these pages and failed to notice that they were in wrong order. This proves that I was suffering from a particularly bad case of baby brain.)
Time and time again I read interviews with authors and critics in which they state that they always finish the books they start. Can this really be true? In the interests of openness and honesty (and the cleansing of my own conscience), I hereby invite readers to offer up the titles of books they have not finished, be anonymous if you wish, but try, do try, to be honest.
I’ll start us off:
Middlemarch – George Eliot
The Book of Dave – Will Self
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
By means of atonement though, I would like to point out that I have read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness twice. So there.
* I can’t claim responsibility for this excellent title. It is stolen from Massive Attack. If you haven’t heard Unfinished Sympathy, go and listen to it now, and listen all the way through.