Unfinished Sympathy*

UlyssesSeveral 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.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

More by Claire Zorn ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
    A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole (yes, I know)
    Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

    and, dare I confess …

    A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela

    Very enjoyable post, right to the end, thank you Claire.

  2. Oh man. I gave up on The Corrections about two weeks ago. It hurt me to read. I just… I don’t want to read five hundred odd pages about people fighting and slowly destroying their own lives. I just don’t.

    let’s see.

    The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins. Agonizing.
    Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

    It took me about eight tries to get through The Satanic Verses. It’s hard.

    and um… a lot of recent non fiction.

    1. The Moonstone! Agrhh! I had to read that as part of my study, under the pretense it was the first crime novel. I couldn’t help thinking it was a wonder crime fiction got off the ground with that as its pilot.

      1. and I loved ‘The Moonstone’. So much that I immediately read – and preferred – Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’. You’re so right Emmett, not every book is for every reader, and vice versa. Vive la difference!

  3. In William Carlos Williams’s long poem Kora in Hell, he recounts Ezra Pound saying the following: ‘”It is not necessary,” [Pound] said, “to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it. Don’t tell everybody I said so,” he added.’

    I’ve read the first half of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children on two occasions and gave up on it both times at around the same point. During my undergrad, I tried (and failed) to finish Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses. I’ve now read and re-read both and love them dearly, but they are undeniably (and wonderfully) difficult books. But just because you don’t finish a book doesn’t mean it’s bad – not every book is for every reader (and vice versa).

  4. That reminds me of a book a gave up on because it hurt to read: ‘Revolutionary Road’ also about people fighting and slowing destroying their own lives. And about lost dreams. No wonder Kate Winslett and Sam Mendes split after making the film (which I haven’t seen either for the same reason). I was given the book.

    But I did finish Ulysses – my copy was stolen twice so it took me three attempts – and it really is fantastic if you don’t mind being lost for at least 200 pages. And never really being found until Molly Bloom’s stupendous closing monologue.

    Yes, great post Claire.

    1. There is a novel in this story, Jane GW – Ulysses stolen … twice!

      Okay – reCAPTCHA has given me Chinese characters again. I think the Oracle has turned on me…could that be considered delusional? Should I see a doctor?

  5. Thanks for enjoyable post, Claire.

    I eventually got through ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ but found it terribly hard going. I have such a poor recollection of it, that I will have to tackle it again. I also couldn’t get through William Faulkner’s ‘As I lay dying’ which seems to be on just about every author I admire must-read-list, so I’ve obviously missed something. And I’m finding a lot of recent fiction that’s had good reviews (one in last week’s Age), quite disappointing.

  6. I skipped the middle of the post and went stright to the end once you promised to reveal the three books…

    But, I actually do read books to the end, though it’s increasingly a trial (and they’re more and more accumulating by the side of my bed, like little paper pockets of recrimination…). I did a calculation recently about how many books I’ll read before I die (at the rate I read) which made me reassess this practice. Suffice to say, I don’t need to buy any more for my shelves…

      1. Ulysses, despite the overtures from my lecturer that a student of literature must indeed persevere.

        A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Which I found to be staggeringly bereft of genius, despite his aptitude for ironic titles.

        Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Whose genius was smeared to heavily in every foul bodily secretion for me to swallow.

        Oh, and Claire, if you are going to open your work with issues of academic disdain, you should probably spell it right…I’m just saying.

      2. Are you saying it wasn’t a choose you own adventure? I’ve been sorely misled… Can you write a post as a choose your own adventure next time? Please…

          1. That should be: If you would like THE SEED HAS BEEN PLANTED, go to 1). If you’d prefer, GET STUFFED, go to 2):


            2)GET STUFFED


  7. Nice idea for a post Claire. I think that anyone who reads a lot,and who wants to read more, has to inevitably try and then discard more books than they finish. In other words, for every book we read and love. there have to many more we try and can’t stomach. I think a habit of picking up a book, giving it 5 minutes of interrogation and so on is probably a very useful habit. At least I find so. As Rjurik points out, life is indefinitely finite and far too short to waste on ploughing thru books that we find boring or whatever. I think 5 minutes is heaps of time to give a book, no matter how ‘difficult’.

  8. Midnight’s Children! That book pains me so and, as such, remains unfinished. Incidentally, it should win some kind of award for chronic overuse of the ellipsis.

    I’m yet to finish Capital. I’ve never completed anything by Tim Winton. I almost gave up on The Magus, yet persevered. (It wasn’t worth it.)

    I am still to begin Infinite Jest though it’s on my to-read shelf, but who knows what it’s chances are. I read and admired Ulysses, though it was quite some time ago.

    1. I recently read a review of The Magus that said it’s very difficult but worth the effort. Hmmm… I have a copy sitting on my shelf, perhaps it will stay there unread…

  9. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

    Apparently it has the most disproportionately satisfying ending-to-beginning ratio in literary history, but I’ve never been able to get past that extremely arduous beginning.

    Claire – I did manage to finish Madame Bovary, but only because I was studying it and felt nerdily compelled to complete the task (rather than complete the *book* itself). Hated every page.

  10. I used to be one of those annoying ‘Must Finish’ kinda people, and was doing quite well too until I hit the wall with Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Oh, the pain.

    Since then I have gone on to leave Vernon God Little (really, an award winner?), A Confederacy of Dunces (the shame!), and Oliver Twist unfinished.

    I am sure there’s a Rushdie in there too somewhere, but I know it’s not Midnight’s Children, as I still carry the torturous memory of toiling right to the very end of that one in the vain hope that something, anything, would happen in the end that would redeem my efforts of perserverance.

    I was wrong.

  11. Great post! I only ever made it through two pages of Ulysses – which I had to read three times in order to try and understand what was happening – before deciding that if I was going to have to do that all the way through, I couldn’t be bothered. Other classics I’ve tried to read but never finished: Pickwick Papers, Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Eyre and Heart of Darkness.

    It’s been pointed out to me that a person capable of reading the Silmarillion multiple times, for pleasure, should thereinafter be able to read anything else. But apparently not.

  12. I really enjoyed this post! I couldn’t get through Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Which is a shame because I ripped through White Noise and adored it.

  13. The one I remember is The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler. I made a couple of concerted efforts to read it (for work, honest!!) (methinks I’m protesting too much) but at the very same point in the novel (sic) I was overwhelmed by disgust and threw it aside.

  14. I did get through Ulysses and War and Peace, but couldn’t finish The Dice Man, which I picked up as a recommended ‘cult classic’. I enjoyed the premise, but it wore thin very quickly. I wsn’t pleased with the fact that his first act was to rape a neighbour, and I felt that the fact that she ended up a willing participant in her rape lacked literary courage – it conveniently removes the moral aspect of his actions.

  15. As a form of penance, I read the books I oculdn’t get through at uni, such as D H Lawrence’s The Rainbow, which I really enjoyed, and set me back for more DHL.

    1. I’ve never finished Capital myself but then I’ve only ever read excerpts from it for critical theory subjects.

      two books i haven’t finished that you mentioned are

      Vernon God Little- read the first few pages and couldn’t get into it. bouht it up to alice when i moved up here so will try again

      Ulysses- got caught up in Uni work at the time might go back to it.

      2666- got halfway then life took over. keep meaning to try and get back.

  16. Funny, Rjurik and I were just talking about this yesterday (and I nominate Badiou’s The Century for him, cos he fessed up to it).
    I’ve never been able to finish Midnight’s Children, either. Nor The Corrections.
    I really wanted to like that Lars Lih book on Lenin but once I’d read the reviews the book seemed superfluous and very, very long.
    What else? The Althusser autobiography. That biogaraphy of Lee Perry that was too much of a fanboy thing.
    There must be about a zillion more, too.

  17. I have heard the theory, and think I agree that you are ‘allowed’ to discard books that you don’t want to finish because there is not enough time to complete them all. I think the theory also suggest that your age number reflects the numbers of pages (or minutes?) you should give a book before laying aside. or perhaps the inverse of your age?
    that said, I too couldn’t complete- Shriver’s, we need to talk about Kevin, or Wilkes woman in white, Donna Tarts’ 2nd which I cannot name, amongst others. but I have, like you Claire, read Conrad’s heart of darkness.

    1. That’s funny, I couldn’t finish Donna Tart’second either (The Little Friend?). The rule about your age is a good one, certainly works with two year-olds.

  18. And to think I was nervous about confessing! Here’s some more: ‘The Information’ Martin Amis, ‘The Shallows’ & ‘An Open Swimmer’ Tim Winton. Tim, I’m sorry!

  19. I’ve read the first 3 chapters (or thereabouts) of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum at least 4 times and never got any further. Although I’m not dead yet so it may happen one day…

    I struggled through A S Byatt’s Possession, which just about killed me, and have not been able to go near anything else she has written.

    Strangely I’ve been reading the comments and thinking ‘oh, I must try that and see how I find it’… some sort of perverse fascination with what exactly others find difficult perhaps? Who knows but it seems like an odd thing to be thinking given the reason the books are being mentioned.

    1. I feel better about ‘Dunces’ and am going to have to ferret out a copy of The Moonstone to assuage my curiosity, for I must say, I share lianakay’s ‘perverse fascination’. Midnight’s Children is on my list of happily-abandoned books, also.

  20. I quite enjoyed Satanic Verses, but have given up twice on Midnight’s Children (will try again one of these days, what with the whole Booker of Bookers thing) and Fear.

    DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow did me in. I could tell it was sometimes brilliant and occasionally the language made me swoon, but mostly it wasn’t and didn’t.

    I need to try again with 2666. I loved the first part but as I started the second, I realised I was also very confused regarding a couple of the characters and needed to take notes.

    I’m kind of a freak, but I’ve finished Ulysses a couple of times and Finnegans Wake once. (Would love to pull that one out again, but there are too many other books to read or at least start.)

  21. Recently tried but failed to read Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Got about halfway through and really struggled to get that far. I have too many books on my ‘must read’ list to perservere with anything that doesn’t pull me in.
    Loved Midnights Children & also The God of Small Things (brilliant book). Had to read Ulysses for uni back years ago & must have read it about 3 or 4 times for an assignment but never got it.

  22. I used to doggedly finish every book I started, but was liberated by somebody who said a book had 40 pages to earn the reader’s attention. I’ve applied that rule happily ever since, and found it allowed me to start (and frequently finish) books that I might not have dared to embark on in the past. I tend to forget discarded books (except for Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach which I don’t wish to get caught up with again). I’ve read the Rushdie books mentioned here happily enough, but not recently. And yesterday I read Tim Winton’s Breath and loved it. But I find it hard to start his books. The range of likes shown here is wonderful. And it was a lovely post to read.

    1. Thank you, Greg. You are most kind. That’s a good point you make about Winton’s books, I think I am the same and I forgot that when I attempted An Open Swimmer and the Shallows. Will try them again.

  23. I let The Sound of One Hand Clapping have fifty pages to convince me why I should keep reading it, though the issue had been settled for me after about fifteen

  24. Four fifths into Tolstoy’s War and Peace and I abandoned it. It’s far too late to pick up where I left off now. I must confess to skipping most of the ‘war bits’ too. Would it be wrong to claim it as read?

  25. Oh yeah this post is really therapeutic – Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot really did my head in. Nearly died of boredom ploughing my way through Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but eventually found Mrs Dalloway and loved it. Some books intimidate just browsing them in the bookshop – not sure if I will shell out for a copy of Infinite Jest. Have read the first volume on In Search of Lost Time a couple of times but not supposing anyone is going to hold it against me for not reading the other five volumes. At least feel I may potentially get back to that but will never proceed beyond the first 100 pages of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

    Oh yeah ‘theory’ might deserve another post just on the struggle to comprehend but agree with Jeff on Badiou: anything that suggests an interest in mathematics and I’m usually out of there (will though be reading his new book on communism I guess). Get the feeling that Zizek writes the same book over and over so not too bothered if I give up on one – just pick up the thread in another.

    Agree though with Emmett’s comment about a book not necessarily being bad if you have given up on it the first time. Also tried reading Ulysses several times before finally getting through it and now also love it dearly along with Joyce’s other works and re-read something from Joyce at least yearly. Love the aesthetic ambition of Joyce and Woolf and love also that one of their aims was to provoke a new audience into being.

  26. Very interesting post, and great comments. Is it a kind of confessional? To admit to the books we haven’t finished? I don’t feel under any obligation to finish books I read for pleasure, but the reasons I stop vary – and I know my list of three (that I can think of now) are very fine books, just not for me, not at a particular time: Crime and Punishment I just petered out on, not very far from the end at all. Dead Europe I couldn’t bear. And when I was very young I just didn’t persevere with Jane Eyre, and I never got back to it. Love that comment, Gary, about the aesthetic ambition of Joyce and Woolf. I find myself returning to Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’ now, even though I didn’t like it all that much when I first read it (and I didn’t like the movie with Angelica Houston much either), to read the parts of the story that I thought dragged on my earlier reading – all those scenes and conversations at the party – the social fabric, the city of Dublin, that Joyce creates. And I’ve got to say I adored The Corrections – it was a novel that brought me back to novel reading. (I read the book propped on a music stand while I nursed my first baby – could only do that with the first!) I must have missed the point – that they were all destroying each other – I thought it was funny and true and that Franzen seems to have a great affection for his characters.

  27. A brilliant post, Claire. I’ve found it fascinating to read what people have been unable to finish, and feel vindicated that I’m not alone in quickly abandoning Midnight’s Children!

    1. Very hilarious post, Claire. Funnily, I only managed to get through the first few pages of ‘Vernon God Little’. I found the teenage boy thing too relentless and the thought of hearing it for another, however many pages, was enough to make me close the cover for good. Strangely though I loved ‘The Autograph Man’ by Zadie although I hadn’t read ‘White Teeth’ when I picked it up. I did subsequently read ‘WT’ and found it dragged; did I really care that much? And ‘On Beauty’ I put down after 30 or so pages.

      I’ve noticed for me that not finishing a book is sometimes because of bad timing and sometimes because of the repetition of voice; either in the novel itself or because a writer from my point of view isn’t mixing it up enough from one book to the next. I do have a second go, however, even a third sometimes. So there’s always hope that I’ll get back to some of the great classics I’ve also put down.

  28. I can join the ranks of those who didn’t finish Vernon God Little. To me, it was like reading really crap american television.

    In my time, I’ve also cast aside Tess of the D’Urbavilles (sorry Hardy, its soporific effect was detrimental to page turning) and Gould’s Book of Fish (pretentious wankery, Flanigan. I did, however, like The Sound of One Hand Clapping)

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