27 May 2007

In which the virtues of giving up and moving on are considered at tedious length

[Prescript: my reasons for writing this one will be puzzling unless I say, in advance, that it followed on from writing a comment to yesterday's post over at Thinking through my fingers.]

The first time I started a book and didn't finish it was in 1968.

No, that's not accurate. It was 1968 when I started, but 1970 by the time I finally admitted to myself that I had given up and wasn't going to finish. Since I was in an adolescent orgy of reading at that time, consuming two or three novels a day, that two year span for one book is amazing.

Also surprising is that the particular book was a core set text for my A-level English Literature course. The suggested booklist for that course, including criticism and wide reading, contained two hundred titles, most of them not essential, and I read one hundred and ninety nine of them. The two hundredth book, the one on which I gave up, was Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

One of the others was Max Beerböhm's Zuleika Dobson, of which I remember nothing whatsoever.

Somewhere around the middle of that two years Mr Abbot, one of my teachers, lent me Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. I read them all and returned them to him the following week. When he asked what I thought of them I stalled briefly but, since I respected him deeply enough to owe him the truth above politeness, admitted that they hadn't really grabbed me. He looked at me incredulously, and said "And yet you read all four?" Puzzled, I answered: yes, of course. Why, he asked? Because I owed it to the author to read the whole before judging it, I replied (I meant this sincerely, at the time, however pompous it sounds; I might also have added, but didn't, that I owed it to the person who had taken the trouble to lend me the books). He shook his head, and said that he disagreed with me. If a fiction didn't catch hold of me and make me read it, then I was wasting precious time, energy and imagination in sticking with it. I would be better taking the time and energy elsewhere, to material which would feed and fire the imagination. To squander on duty what could be given to wonder was, he told me, probably the greatest crime a reader could commit.

Looking back now, I still think I had a point about owing the author enough time to judge the work fairly ... but not the time taken to read a complete quartet. By the end of a chapter I now feel my obligation to be thoroughly discharged. Mr Abbot had it right – especially as I can no longer read two or three novels a day, let alone do it alongside other passions. Nowadays, if I feel in the opening pages that a book doesn't really grab me, I will flick ahead to see if there are signs that it will come to do so ... if I find them, I continue awhile; if not, I bail out with no guilt, doubts or regrets.

At the time, however, I wasn't able to accept Mr Abbot's view of things. I went on finishing every book I started. I plodded on with Wuthering Heights for several more months until the moment of epiphany when I truly saw with my own eyes, not his, that I didn't have to: I could put it down, walk away, and be free.

There is, I have since realised, another reason to abandon a book which isn't working. To push ahead out of duty can spoil a book. That it isn't working doesn't mean it's a bad book; just that it's not right for this reader at moment. We never step twice into the same river, and we never read the same book twice. A book which doesn't grab me now may well do so next week, next year, or a decade hence, when my mood or my understanding or my life experience have changed. Better to leave it, respectfully, until then. If it never becomes right, that's OK too.

I have, since, finished Wuthering Heights. Thirty five years after I put it down, I picked it up again out of curiosity – and, with some trepidation, out of the desire to lay a ghost. I spent five minutes flicking quickly through the two thirds which I had read in my teens, to refresh my memory of the rough plot line. I found the point where I had given up, and read a page or two. It still wasn't really my cup of tea, but this time it did catch hold of me and I read the rest of the book before putting it own. I was glad that I had. The balancing of raw, untrammelled emotion is set against meticulous documentation of landscape is amazingly powerful. So I read it again, from the beginning. I doubt I'll read it again (though I've reread particular passages since, and no doubt will again); it's still not my sort of book, but nonetheless a good book deserving of my respect. It has a reputation for being a hit with adolescents and I can see why; but it didn't work for the adolescent me.

I've read the Alexandria Quartet again, too: Justine first and then, finding that I now enjoyed it, the rest over period of time. As with Wuthering Heights, it's a shame that the revisiting had to wait half a lifetime. If I had dropped these books sooner, the first time around, I might have returned to them sooner as well.

Not everything works the next time, of course. Since writing the above, I've picked up a copy of Zuleika Dobson ... and this time I was old enough and wise enough to abandon it after a few pages.

You're not a bad ghost,
Just an old song
... ... ...
Right for the moment,
Not for life,
But you'd b right tonight
'Cos I'm singing
Old songs.[1]

[1] Melanie Safka. As I see it now. "Not a bad ghost". 1976, Neighborhood Records. NBH80636 or NB3000.

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