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Otherwise my novels, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations, responses, apologies. I'm only serious by accident. Education? Forget it. I hold posts to 300 words* since I've found less is better than more. One quasi-certainty in an uncertain world: I almost always re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
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Monday, 11 February 2013

Is the DNF book a rarity?

It is one thing to read a book and regret it; quite another to fail to finish. Joe Hyam tells me this happens rarely but admits defeat by Moby Dick. I failed five times with The Brothers Karamazov (the fourth time after 150 pages, the fifth, quite recently, after over 300 pages).

My failure is the more condemnable. Both are "classics" but whereas BK is simply hard, MD is whimsically hard. One suspects one is being teased and therefore entitled to give up.

I suspect DNF (Did not finish) is rare with most people who take books seriously. Given a broad panorama one simply avoids books where it's likely. There was no way I was ever going to read George Meredith. That great omnivore, my wife, was discouraged at school by Mrs Gaskell and I simply accepted that view without question.

As to modern books I have convinced myself I can distinguish between wilful and worthwhile complexity. Thus The Cloud Atlas was banged shut after two pages but that, I think, was not DNF. On the other hand I absorbed Gravity's Rainbow and V, both arguably more complex.

Getting older I look instead for junk. But junk can be junk in all senses. If one were able to love the novels of James Paterson there would be thirty or forty titles to go at. But the way they are written grates like a nail on chalkboard. This is not writing as such, merely assembly. I never reached the point at which I could judge his plotting.

Whodunnits have a built-in flaw. All those futile interviews in which alibis are checked and re-checked. No writer has been able to turn such dross into gold.

Have you got a DNF? Was despair the reason?

21 comments:

Joe Hyam said...

One book I started by didn't finish was Zola's Germinal. I tried several time and gave up. But on the final go I got through to the end and have subsequently read all but one of the 20-novel Rougon Macquart series of novels by Zola. So I tell myself it is worth persisting like Captain Ahab himself in pursuit of Moby Dick. There is novel of which I am better acquanted with the first chapter than Moby Dick.

Sir Hugh said...

A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations were choices for a set book at school. After trying several times with the first, and not getting beyond a few pages I opted for the latter and was well rewarded.

On your recommendation I read to page 579 of 700 of Updike’s Rabbit saga. I acknowledge the fine writing, but the whole thing carried a melancholy atmosphere, and I became weary, and Rabbit was just about to commit yet another very predictable indiscretion, and I gave up.

I certainly wouldn’t have finished Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself. except that it was set for the Writers and Thinkers group that I attend. I reckon that is one of the worst books I have ever finished. I could give a number of reasons on top of my prevailing feeling for the subject of the Titanic which has been so overdone it sends me to depths of boredom deeper than the Atlantic where the thing sank.

Ellena said...

I'm trying to recall the titles but only the Bible comes to mind for now.

Joe Hyam said...

I meant of course to say "There is no novel with the first chapter of which I am better acquainted than that of Moby Dick" Another clumsy sentence but closer to sense than the earlier attempt.

Roderick Robinson said...

Joe: I have forced my way through several well-thought-of books (most recently The Awkward Age) and thereafter wondered whether I should have done so.You're not alone with Germinal. Ron Brown, my Stephen Ivall replacement on S&WC never saw G's final page. Nor did he finish William Morris's biography. Can't think why he started latter.

Sir Hugh: Bleak House was the best constructed, most adult Dickens for me. A view which many appear to share. For forgotten reasons recently I trawled through a few pages of ToTC and found it gushy.

I'm sorry about the Rabbit tetralogy. I recommended it to another acquaintance and sent him new copies. He didn't finish it either. I said surely one might admire JU's skill in having a Toyota dealer as the hero. He became even more grumpy and said he thought it was wrong for JU to even try.

I'll steer clear of the BB/Titanic thing.

Ellena: In that case I won't tell you how it ends.

Joe: I stumbled through.

Lucy said...

I started Moby Dick when I was about 19 and stalled mostly, I think, because it was heavily annotated, not only with explanatory but with lengthily interpretive additions and commentary. At that time I was such a studious and biddable reader, I felt obliged to follow them all up. It's waiting on the Kindle for me to make another attempt, and oddly was at the top of the contents page it opened to when I picked the device up this morning just after reading this.

I have a VS Naipaul upstairs which I read a not-negligable chunk of last year some time and with which I so completely failed to engage that I couldn't remember its title or indeed anything about it; it is in fact 'A Way in the World'. I made no decision not to finish it, and ddn't consider it bad, I just failed to pick it up again one day.

I once read a James Patterson, the chapters were very short, I seem to recall. I'm with you on Bleak House, and also on whodunnits - those alibi longueurs are shoals of tedium which cause me to think I must have an attention deficit - though I don't mind TV detective things so much. I quite recently read a Ngaio Marsh for the first and only time because a 'friend' pressed it on me and almost begged me to read it because she liked it so much and thought that I simply must do likewise because it was set in a theatre staging Macbeth. I felt as though I was suffocating with my head inside a Bourne and Hollingsworth carrier bag with a Bronnley lemon soap stuffed in my mouth. I recently also tried to oblige a friend by reading a Joanne Harris novel she lent me, but no ties of friendship were strong enough there.

In non-fiction, Graham Robb's 'Discovery of France' was such a good read for about the first two-thirds, then kind of falls apart. I thought it was just me and the ADD but then someone else remarked he needed an editor with a firmer hand.

By and large though, I either chew on down to the bitter end refusing to be defeated, or else gobble down junk with seeming pleasure then feel kind of dirty afterwards. But I'm trying to give that up.

Rouchswalwe said...

Funny that Lucy should mention Joanne Harris; I found her first novel Chocolat, riveting. But I could not make it through any of her other novels. The one novel that has defeated me over the years has been Tolstoi's War and Peace, which saddens me because I was named after one of the characters. I simply cannot get through it. At one point, I even attempted a condensed version. No luck.

Roderick Robinson said...

Lucy: I don't suppose I'm alone in finding lists of antipathies and/or "difficulties" more instructive than enthusiams. And you have started so many hares, here.

I'd forgotten how the footnotes and interpolations interfered with the rhythm of reading the so-often-outweighed text of Moby Dick. I too was of an age when I found it necessary to read all that stuff in smaller type and it must surely have been MD which introduced me to that real heart-breaker - the footnote that is so long that it "turns" on to the next page.

Now in the fullness of time (How I used to hate that phrase when I was younger; how irresistible it now seems given the age I am) I see MD belonging to that period when I was spending my literary virginity - a state of mind which, unlike the real thing, comes in discrete parts. To get through the book I needed a sort of innocence and optimism that are now just a memory. I doubt very much whether I have the patience to manage the task these days.

An apophthegm occurs: Reading most masterpieces requires not only effort but also conviction. If the latter is lacking the former may easily be insurmountable.

Naipaul. Here's a writer who has outstayed his welcome. I actively enjoyed the early A House For Mr Biswas and The Suffrage of Elvira but both date back over fifty years. Since then he has passed through several Seven-Veil Dances, revealing more and more of his unpleasant personality and I have turned my back on him just as surely as I believe he has done the same to me. Not exactly lit crit, I fear.

Ah, those "friends" who press books on you (there is no other term). What mounds of reluctance they ensure. But how grateful I am to your "friend" who brought about that wonderfully metro-centric nightmare you describe. I would pay good money if she could guarantee a similar outcome by insisting on the merits of Jeffrey Archer.

And so you chew or gobble. And feel dirty afterwards. Sometimes I feel dirty beforehand, too, and that is shameful.

RW (zS): Saw the film, had an injection of insulin, and the name Joanne Harris passed out of my mind until now. I have already mentioned one solution to W&P - a bookmark with all the real names, patronymics, and job titles. Invaluable, since forty years later I was tempted and succumbed to a re-read. As did VR, since so much of our respective lives operate in parallel.

Sir Hugh said...

The bookmark idea - A couple of years ago I read Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time (certainly in my top ten of "enjoyable" reads). There is an excellent aid: Hilary Spurling's Invitation to the Dance - quote from rear cover: "...dealing with over 400 characters and one million words of Powell's lively fifty-year dance of fiction and fact". The format is an alphabetical list of characters. You can use it as you read providing you are careful not to read ahead chronologically for fear of succumbing to a spoiler.

I had no problem with Germinal, then went on to read La Bete Humaine which was better. I read La Terre when I was about 16 and have no recollection whatsoever.

Lucy said...

I have far more books unstarted than unfinished. Nothing short of the threat of imminent beheading would persuade me to touch a Jeffrey Archer or even have one in the house, though my dad used to read them, along with Georgette Heyer and Arthur Bryant.

I have wondered about the possibility of separating the war element from the peace element in W&P, and one could take one's pick. I did finish it, but have to admit to skating rather quickly over some of the war bits. The BBC TV series from the 70s with Anthony Hopkins was a good one, available on DVD and has worn well, I'm sure Rouchswalwe would like it...

The Naipaul was also given by another friend, my formidable nearly-nonagenarian Welsh/French poet, whose challenges I'm a little more inclined to take up, and she did warn me he was an unpleasant character, I'd not read any before. I can't say I particularly got that impression, just didn't really get any impression at all, as if there was nothing in it to respond to one way or the other.

I do like your idea of literary virginity.

Joe Hyam said...

Sir Salman Rushdie (yes he received a knighthood recently, an improvement on a fatwa, I suppose)heads my list of authors whose books I have neither finished nor even begun. Neither Midnight's Children nor The Satanic Verses is on my shelves or in my Kindle. Yet I have been feeling for a long time that I must be missing something.

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh: Good idea but you really need it with the Russians: many of them have three different names.

You say Germinal was OK, Joe says he had problems. That's the whole point of this exercise. None of us can legislate for the others. To tell the truth W&P didn't faze me but some modern writers, said to be pellucid in their intentions, I find an enormous drag. Ian McEwan, for instance.

Lucy: Unstarted novels. You've given me an idea.

One problem with filmed versions of W&P (there's one with Henry Fonda as Pierre) is that western actors never seen to catch that roistery, random, reflective, moody, money-conscious melange of characteristics that constitutes a Russian and which makes the books so different.

You were lucky to escape VSN's misanthropy.

Joe: I was never going to read Satanic Verses and some of the misguided critical reaction to Midnight's Children kept me at arm's length for thirty years. Then for some unexplained reason I read it and wondered what all the fuss was about. Whatever the appeal of the story, the style is quite accessible. Mind you, I'm not recomending it.

hhb said...

I have atempted to read 'The life of Pi' twice now, it will remain DNF. Diito War and Peace (even with the bookmark).

I want to like anything by Terry Pratchett, but the two I tried will remain DNF.

Roderick Robinson said...

HHB: Such a sad comment from Perth; you could have fleshed it out with something happier. As it is my curiously selective memory is able to do this for you. I remember you mentioning a book you were desperatey trying to ration; trying to postpone the moment when you were forced to read The End.

It was The Hare With The Amber Eyes. A few weeks later it passed quickly through the book-crunching machine I am married to and I glanced at the opening page. Not for me but that didn't matter. I will go to my grave remembering your poignantly under-stated post.

Chin up, HHB. From one of your more recent posts it sounded as if it was just too hot to read chez toi.

Sir Hugh said...

Well this seems to have got everybody going.

Ian McEwan - I have only read Enduring Love; at the start it had one of the most gripping scenes I have ever read concerning a hot-air balloon, but went a bit downhill after that.

Roderick Robinson said...

Sir Hugh: Not a moment too soon; I was thinking of cutting my throat.

Or booking a balloon.

Beth said...

Well, we've already spoken about my issues with Ulysses, finally put to rest this past summer. I have no qualms about DNFs. If a book fails to engage me, I won't force myself to finish, but frankly this happens more with contemporary lit than with classics. I'm currently stalled with Robert Graves' "The White Goddess," and with "Bleak House." The former, I think, is temporary, but I'm not sure I'll finish the Dickens. We shall see! Oh (she says after reading the comments) I am listening to The Life of Pi - and think it may be easier to take while on the elliptical than if reading it in print. I'm not sure I'dhave the patience.

hhb said...

Ah, BB! You asked about books DNF. But I did finish Anna Karenina and enjoyed it. Mind you I did speed read much of the stuff on agriculture and the army!

Re hot weather. It is the ideal time to read and I have finished several books since christmas (18 at last count), so be happy BB, be happy!

Roderick Robinson said...

Beth: Just tried to post another monster comment on your blog but - as in the past - it won't have it. I think your hubris filter has found me out.

I suppose when we're looking down the double-barrels of a potential DNF we need to ask ourselves how we reached such a situation in the first place. I know nothing about the Graves but if I cast my mind back a month or two I'm pretty sure I know why you're reading Bleak House. Various of your commenters (me included) were urging you to do so; as I say here, a few comments back, I felt it was Dickens' most adult novel. Now I must share the blame.

Let me make a tiny - but inevitably provocative - suggestion. Since I have only a dim idea about the Graves (I think it passed through our house; I think my wife read it last year) I've had to Google it. Ah yes, a book way beyond my inclinations. But useful info. Might the fact that the Graves is a possible, while the Dickens seems unlikely, represent a microcosmic summary of your literary preferences? The two books are, after all, widely separated as to subject matter. Perhaps too provocative. I've read your lists and read your blog; I think you can justifiably claim many mansions.

HHB: Ah HHB. Of course, of course. I'd almost forgotten how all this started out and somehow saw your comment in isolation. But you're terribly naughty for skipping those bits about agriculture. I've always thought that Levin was rather more interesting than the doomed lovers, perhaps because I was born into his state of awkwardness.

And I am happy, blissfully happy - but not surprised - about your throughput. Far, far more than me. By the way Hereford's Borderlines Film Festival is imminent and we're booked for 20 films. Including, as it so happens, Anna K.

Beth said...

Hmm -- interesting, and maybe so (Dickens vs. Graves.) I'm much more likely to plow through classical texts or essays about them, for insights, than to wade through pages and pages of 19th c. English prose. Sorry about the lost comment - try to do it in pieces, maybe, like cutting bits of meat for a hungry but small-mouthed child?

Roderick Robinson said...

Beth: Further experiments with the long comment have led to an explanation of the problem if not its resolution. Two (shortish) comments on cassandrapages make the point. As to sending comments in installments I can't help feeling this is too portentous. (It was also at the heart of some of Dickens's worst failures, notably Dombey And Son.) A better solution would be conciseness or silence.