Saturday, September 25, 2010

Unreadable books

One night when I was very young I was crossing a bit of wasteland in Sheffield when I said to my companion, “I never leave a book unfinished.” Struggling to explain myself, I added, “The author has gone out of their way to try and tell me something –to express something – it seems wrong not to read their book.” “That’s as deep,” returned my companion in broad Scouse, “as a muddy puddle.” For these were the sort of young men I went to university with.

Since then I have discovered, sadly, that there are unreadable books. It isn’t necessarily that the books are “bad”, though it might be. Occasionally a book is so bad I’ve flung it against a wall; once I even trampled on one. (And no, I won’t tell you which it was. It might be your favourite.) To qualify for this thankfully rare treatment a book must exhibit something cynical in the workmanship. It will be a smug, complacent, passionless piece characterised by sloppy thinking and lazy writing.

But most books have something to offer and I’m prepared to accept that even if I don’t like them, someone else will. This can be disconcerting, especially if I’ve just lobbed the latest big thing across the room, the books everyone’s reading, the Bookers and Oranges, the reviewers’ darlings, the book club choices. At times like this I doubt my literary sanity: What am I missing? Why can’t I see it? Is it me that’s mad or everyone else? In these cases it’s best to quietly slip the book into the Amnesty International pile and say nothing. Never, ever, criticise a popular book, my friend! It will only bring down wrath upon your head.

Badly written books aren’t necessarily unreadable books. In fact, a book by someone who hasn’t the least feel for language and only the weakest hold on grammar can be perfectly readable. Its badness might even be part of the pleasure of reading it. What a relief not to have to attend to the quality of the writing and just get on with enjoying a good story! (And if it is a good story is it a ‘bad’ book at all…?) A book may survive a preposterous plot, silly characters, and dialogue like this:-

“You’re just in time,” said Chloe, “we’re giving a dance next week.”
“A dance! How peerless! But I’ve nothing to wear.”
“Oh, that’s all right. It’s a ‘drency’.”
“That means fancy dress,” I explained to Peter. “When we all lurked together as students we had a lot of portmanteau words. ‘Prill’ means ‘pretty foul’, and it is a nice crinkle-your-nose-in-disgust word, isn’t it?”
“Ah, but our most useful word was ‘cuxt’,” said Jo.

F Tennyson Jesse’s The Milky Way (1913), scoring high in all three categories. In spite of it, I read the book. Fey, gushing, and downright daft, yet something in it appealed to me: the otherness of the lives and people, their passion for art, even its outmoded style. And tucked away amongst all the nonsense is some beautiful prose: descriptions of the sea, the south of France, sunlight on water. Of course, I know no one reads books for description these days. Words only exist to rush us through the plot or convey information; why waste time on seeing beauty in them as well?

Books I have no intention of reading may, for all I know, be quite readable. I read scores of book reviews but I buy only a fraction of the books mentioned. It’s just that the setting, story, characters, style, or genre of the rest simply don’t appeal to me. And there are already so many waiting on the shelves! On the other hand, an unreadable book is necessarily one I am drawn to.

Take Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. Here is a book I have wanted to read for years, Hardy’s retelling of the Napoleonic Wars written as an epic-drama meant for reading, not performance, intended says Hardy, “for mental performance, and not for the stage”. What an intriguing idea - what an exciting experiment – what a stirring subject! While Hardy is not one of my favourite writers I have enjoyed many of his novels and found his work and ideas interesting. Then, too, The Dynasts was a challenge. I’d heard that no one reads it. Ah hah! thought I, Bet I can.

I opened the book with excited anticipation. I began to read. I began to wonder. I began to realize. It is an unreadable book.

Yet how can this be? Here are passion, ideas, theories, vision, interesting characters, daring devices, and crafted writing. But what is one to make of this:-

Hold what ye list, fond unbelieving Sprites,
You cannot serve the pulsion of the Byss,
Which thinking on, yet weighting not Its thought,
Unchecks Its clock-like laws.

Or this speech from a Lady:-

Something uncanny’s in it all, if true.
Good Lord, the thought gives me a sudden sweat,
That fairly makes my linen stick to me!

Or

These are the Prime Volitions, - fibrils, veins,
Will-tissues, nerves, and pulses of the Cause,
That heave throughout the Earth’s compositure.

If you want to explore Hardy’s philosophy then you must study this book. If you’re looking for a topic for a dissertation this is dripping with them. If you admire Hardy you will not cease until you have got yourself a copy and devoured every word. But it’s unreadable.

Or perhaps it’s my literary sanity that’s at stake. Michael Millgate in his entry on Hardy in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments that although “The verse of The Dynasts has come to seem flaccid, its structure ponderous, and the cosmic apparatus of the Spirits perhaps a little absurd” yet “at the same time, it remains highly readable”. Flaccid – ponderous – absurd. It all adds up to unreadable for me I’m afraid.

And so ends my unreadable blog.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Playing Away

Last Saturday I enjoyed seven plays, four of them at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond and three in the London Library.

The Orange Tree – a wonderful theatre I’ve mentioned before – had put on another staged reading of suffragette plays. This time we were treated to Edith by Elizabeth Baker, The Surprise of His Life by Jess Dorynne, and The Pot and the Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Chris St John. In Edith a family gather to discuss the terms of the father’s will: to their surprise and horror he has left his retail business to his daughter rather than his son. In Edith’s absence they decide to sell the shop – but when Edith arrives she has other ideas. The Surprise of His Life tells the story of a young working class woman who is pregnant and has been deserted by the father: her father struggles to persuade the young man to marry her though he is a horrible piece of work.

Both had comic moments but the second was moving too as the girl faced her father’s wrath, confronted the ghastly young man, and learned of her mother’s and aunt’s experiences. The best for me though was reserved to last, with another delight from Hamilton and St John. A young respectable woman is charged with assault after attending an anti-suffrage meeting – only it turns out that she is an anti and her victim a suffragette!

Then off to the London Library for an afternoon in the reading room. I am very irritated by (mostly male I think) critics and writers who treat women’s fiction as if it is no more than a precursor to the superior and fully realised work of male authors. I am thinking, for example, of Eliza Heywood and Samuel Richardson. Having recently seen Sheridan’s The Critic I had Sheridan on the brain, and in particular his Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals. It’s often said that while he may have got the idea for a character who misuses words to comic effect from his mother, Frances – a successful writer in her own right – he vastly improved on it. Frances Sheridan’s prototype is Mrs Tryfort in her unpublished play A Journey to Bath. It was in order to read this play that I went to the London Library, finding it in an edition of Sheridan’s plays published by David Nutt in 1902 (edited by W Fraser Rae).

Well, dear sweet honied reader, I have to report that it is perfectly true that Richard Brinsley Sheridan took what was in his mother’s drama nothing more than the germ of an idea and made it into the glorious Mrs Malaprop of The Rivals. I had time to read two more of his plays: St Patrick’s Day which was laugh-out loud funny, and The Duenna, a droll and well-plotted piece in the tradition of Behn’s The Rover with closeted ladies, fiercesome duennas, Don Pedros galore, and some very comic songs.

Back then to the Orange Tree for the evening’s performance of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Thunderbolt. I’d read two plays of Pinero previously, and admired them enormously: The Second Mrs Tanquerary and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith. I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see one of his plays performed but, once again thanks to the Orange Tree, here was another well-deserved revival. I’d tried to find a copy at the Library, thinking to read it before the performance, and I’m glad they didn’t have one. I was on the edge of my seat as events unfolded: discovery and counter-discovery as an unpleasant, greedy clan vulturise over the estate of their brother who has died intestate. The situation seems clear cut: the wealth will be divided amongst them. Then they learn that there is someone else with a right to the property. What follows is a most satisfying satire on greed and family relationships.

I love a good story, and The Thunderbolt certainly delivered that. There’s nothing like a will to get the fiction flowing. I hope to read some more Pinero in the coming months, and of course any more suffragette drama that comes my way.


The Thunderbolt by Arthur Wing Pinero at the Orange Tree Theatre – http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/The-Thunderbolt/