Saturday, 17 December 2011

My Year in Abandoned Books

I decided, after sticking to the bitter end with so many putrid novels, to stop this stupid behaviour at once and simply cast aside any book that fails to ignite my loins. These are the books I peevishly quit this year after one hundred, fifty, ten or two pages. My “reviews” are pasted direct from my “seduced and abandoned” Goodreads shelf.

1. Marc Cholodenko — Mordechai Schamz

For some reason I found this book unconscionably boring I had to pull out ten pages in. Books where an eloquent poet based on the author shares his poetic thoughts for 120 sheets leave me ice-cold. This explains the love-hate thing I have with Calvino and why books by poets are usually best left in a small fridge freezer in the Outer Hebrides. There are exceptions, there always are, which makes these grand dismissals impossible to do these days, as some smart-tongued galoop will always sidle up to throw eggs of logic at you. Considering no one on this site will probably ever read this, I’m saved an egging.

2. Herta Müller — Nadirs

I got 30 pages into this and the violins began swelling from the page in mocking staccatos. This is a book of Romanian shorts, all narrated from a child’s perspective (i.e. descriptions of things she sees and nothing else), all about impoverished Romanian villages and backward peasants. Well, it’s an odd idea for a story collection. I could not understand the reason for writing like this, for stripping all the components of a story away, paring it down to descriptions (too advanced for a child) of scenes. Sometimes striking and sometimes macabre, but mostly tedious and miserable. Why, Herta Müller, why?

3. Raymond Queneau — The Skin of Dreams

I went along to the NLS to read this, but had to pack it in when the multi-character screwball antics got too much. I love Queneau but he really wrote one too many of these novels: a little disappointing for such a daring innovator! The same thing again and again! I won’t get around to finishing this unless I go back because the book is going for £100 on Amazon. All my rich uncles passed away in the 1800s, so it doesn’t look like a finisher. I have to admit, though Queneau is brilliant and witty, and well worth reading . . . reading ALL Queneau’s works in English isn’t a good idea. Or maybe I need a little time away to really appreciate them. Unless this title is reprinted, I’ll have eternity away.

4. Jennifer Johnston — This is Not a Novel

This Is Not a Novel is not some David Marksonlike mosaic of quotes, wisdom and fractured narrative, it is the exact polar opposite of such an approach: a directly emotional novel in the first-person intercut with letters and assorted correspondence. Nonlinear approach aside, there could not be two more opposing novels with the same title. Markson’s This is Not a Novel autopsies all fictional tropes and invites the reader to reassemble their components into a strange, original work. In Johnson’s novel her protagonist proclaims: “This is not a novel. I want to make that perfectly clear.” Thus establishing first-person character narration, a voice, a tone, and a style. Ergo: classic novel. I was attracted to this since it shared a title with Markson and expected something a little more original, seeing Review Press are the publishers. Instead, this is a tissue of scenes from a well-to-do Irish family with emphasis on tears, conflict, etc . . . mainstream fodder. Not for me. Lesson learned: be more choosy about reading material. Or go read the David Markson.

5. Claude Simon — The Flanders Road

Bailing out of this one at p82. Oneworld Classics is almost as impressive as Dalkey in bringing esoteric out-of-print novels back into the world. Have a gander at their catalogue if such a thing impresses you. The Flanders Road is an important novel of the nouveau roman movement: Mr. Simon uses an atemporal third-person narrative voice, narrating war horrors in a nightmarish stream-of-thought style, popular among Beckett and late-period modernists. For the contemporary reader, the style is a dated experiment, tiresome to read and more historically curious than narratively explosive. I don’t have the patience to wade through punctuation-free avant-garde monsters these days. I think I’m growing up.

6. Guy Davenport — Eclogues

OK, I didn’t give Guy much of a chance, but I could see where it was going. Endless Greek references, academic indulgence, unbearable polyglot showboating. Bah. Bah. I like random Greek and German phrases and words like boondoggle and whoopdedo as much as the next reader—OK, I don’t—but these difficult stories went over my head, and don’t fall into my corner of the avant-garde, where Sorrentino and Queneau hang out quipping and smoking. I hear his essay collections are the bees knees, so I’ll try those instead.

7. Aurelie Sheehan — Jack Kerouac is Pregnant

Not my teacup. Oblique, down-at-home stories with that tone of assumed melancholy, mystery or profundity, yawningly repetitive for a whole collection. People write like this all over the internet, and McSweeney’s are partly at fault for popularising this stripped-down, bland, reaching-for-the-lyrical style.

8. Gustave Flaubert — Madame Bovary

I have two Czech novels to read ahead of my second book group meeting so I’m throwing in the towel on Bovary. So far, I’ve found at least two people in Glasgow who like to read—the others must be opera lovers—and with some luck I might net a third! Fingers crossed. So: I really can’t decide why Flaubert’s ultra-precious, excessively descriptive style frustrated me in this novel, but had me hooked in A Sentimental Education. I don’t understand. Here’s an attempt: Education has a more epic span and frenetic narrative pace—it weaves an exhilarating tale of illicit love, socio-political upheaval and coming-of-age lunacy into one spiffing tome. MB, despite its satirical underpinnings, falls more into the “costume drama” camp, and progresses at a leisurely, claustrophobic pace: I got 134 pages into the novel and I didn’t feel Bovary had any presence as a character, and Flaubert’s excruciating depiction of bourgeois pleasantries between his various nonentities didn’t help the story spark into life, nor generate interest or compassion. His reliance on omniscient narration over dialogue also presents a problem. So I’m going to watch the BBC adaptation later. Call me lazy, call me crazy, call me Miss Daisy. Onwards!

9. Marie NDiaye — Rosie Carpe

An endearing and breathless style, bringing to mind Boris Vian’s little pearl Heartsnatcher, kept me skating along the thin-ice plot, opaque happenings and wraithlike protagonist for the first two parts. Rosie Carpe is a deliriously enigmatic character, a female receptacle, airily disengaged from her surroundings, who finds herself knocked up by a hotel manager and amateur pornographer, constantly pining for her brother Lazare. NDiaye’s narrator is cheek-to-cheek with her characters, yet she offers erudite assessments of their behaviour (don’t tell the creative writing tutors)—flighty and profound in Rosie’s case, not so strong in Lagrand’s narrative. In fact, this position switch disengaged me completely from the text—our microbiological attachment to Rosie, distant even when close, is taxing enough, so when the position swifts to a lesser character, it’s near impossible to pass through the opaque fog. So I gave up. Sorry Marie. I’ll try harder next time. NDiaye is one of France’s top female black writers: this is her only book in English translation.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre — Nausea

An insufferable philosophical classic, penned in nauseating and styleless first person prose. Roquentin is an arrogant buffoon whose existential woes are trivial, arch and pathetic. No attempt to create a novel has been made, apart from using that most lazy of constructs, the diary, opening the whole work out to a meandering thought-stream of excruciating random dullness. It isn’t accessible to confused students, unless those students happen to be aesthetes on private incomes writing dull historical theses, who like lifeless tracts of flat and horrible prose and can tolerate being bashed over the head with dated postwar ideas. I think that was Sartre’s intention, anyway, I might be wrong. But I get it. Yes. OK. Thanks. Life is horrible, etc, free will is illusory, etc etc. Got it. I read up to p50. That’ll do. The novel was never a useful medium for complex philosophical ideas, except perhaps Camus’s The Stranger, but that was under one hundred pages, and so tolerable. Absolute tish-pock.

11. John Burnside — The Mercy Boys

A poet’s novel about various Dundee alcoholics, malcontents and miserable men leading their miserable lives, written in excessively descriptive, somewhat flat prose. This is what rankles me about the Scottish novel—the sheer unflinching lugubriousness of the enterprise. This is why reading A.L. Kennedy or James Kelman or any other thistled luminary makes me break out in hives. Let’s be honest, Scots writing today sucks balls, except Ali Smith, the high priestess who will pull us from this depressing mire. Alan Bissett? Rodge Glass? Please! Give me a Uruguayan drunk writing isosyllabic iambs in crayon any day. John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father is really neat, howevs.


  1. Thank you for making the negative reviews of these works a fantastic read. I love these posts.

  2. Hurrah! Here's to more books to hurl at the wall in 2012!

  3. When you hurl them, do any stick or is that only the retired porn? ... "thistled luminary" ... Hah! You're good. Still!

  4. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my taskbar.