When I start reading a book, I’m usually able to soldier on and finish it, no matter how structurally complex, linguistically dense or just plain long the book might be. In fact, I pride myself on this ability. It’s served me well. There may have been moments when I thought I was floundering in the middle of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, or Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet, or pretty much anything by Malcolm Lowry, but I felt intellectually and spiritually enhanced after I’d knuckled down and made it to the end.
There are, however, books out there that’ve defeated even me. There aren’t many of them, only a handful, but they exist – books that, sooner or later, made me throw up my hands in despair and exclaim, “What’s the f**king point?” Just before I went off and spent my time more profitably reading something by Alastair Maclean.
Here are four titles that I especially remember in this category – four allegedly great books that I had to leave unfinished.
(c) Jonathan Cape
Daniel Martin by John Fowles (1977). I’m generally a big fan of Fowles’ work. I really like The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Ebony Tower and A Maggot, and even though I found The Magus a bit iffy, it was still interesting enough for me to read it through. But with Daniel Martin, the most autobiographical of his books, I threw in the towel at about page 600, with a hundred more pages to go. I’d had enough. I couldn’t take any more.
Actually, the scenes from Daniel’s youth, set against the backdrop of the English countryside during World War II, are engrossing. But the contemporary stuff – an unengaging soap opera where posh Oxford-educated people try to sort out their relationships, involving a mishmash of themes that include art, politics and Egyptian archaeology – slowly ground me down with its contrived-ness and tedium. In an obituary for Fowles published in the Observer in 2005, Robert McCrum noted that “(i)t was the American literary press that saluted Daniel Martin; the English critics who murdered it.” I’m afraid I’m firmly in agreement with those on the European side of the Atlantic.
(c) George Allen & Unwin
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55). When I was a teenager I had The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King contained within the covers of one weighty volume that ran to 1000-odd pages. I stumbled through about 800 pages of it. Sometimes I left it aside for months on end and when I returned I had to reread long tracts of it to remind myself what was going on. Eventually, I abandoned it forever at the bit where Frodo and Sam blunder into the lair of Shelob, the giant spider. I think I persevered with the Lord of the Rings trilogy for so long because a lot of people I knew at school kept telling me how good it was – though in hindsight, most of them were people who didn’t seem to have read any other books in their lives.
What defeated me was a combination of Tolkien’s plodding writing style and the dullness of many of the characters, especially the Hobbits of the Shire. In fact, those Hobbits seemed annoyingly bland in a nicey-nicey, respectable middle-class, doff-your-hat-to-your-betters-and-keep-your-head-down way that suggested that if the Shire had had its own newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express would have dominated the market.
No wonder the fantasy author Michael Moorcock has written sourly of Lord of the Rings: “If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence, the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom ‘good taste’ is synonymous with ‘restraint’… and ‘civilised’ behaviour means ‘conventional behaviour in all circumstances’.” Here’s a link to the full essay by Moorcock:
So I’m afraid, Frodo, for me you never got to complete your quest. You only got as far as Shelob’s lair, where you ended up as giant-spider-food. Sorry!
(c) Viking Press
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988). I didn’t get far into this one. I thought the opening episode, in which the two protagonists Farishta and Chamcha are thrown out of an airplane as it explodes over the English Channel, was so pretentious and poorly-written that it gave me an aversion to the reading the rest of the book. I remember seeing the phrase ‘like titbits of cigar’ used to describe how the two men fell from the fragmenting fuselage and thinking how bad it was. If the manuscript hadn’t borne Rushdie’s already-prestigious name, I’m sure it would never have escaped from the publishing company’s slush pile.
I read a little more of The Satanic Verses and admittedly it got better – the description of Bollywood was quite engaging. But my interest had been fatally weakened by that shit opening. I was preparing to move to another country at the time and, unfinished, the book got stashed away in a box with some things I wasn’t taking with me. I’ve never felt the urge to dig it out since.
Actually, with hindsight, I suppose Rushdie’s life afterwards might have been easier if everyone else in the world had read only the first 50 pages of The Satanic Verses, as I had.
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767). Or to give it its full rambling title, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. And ramble it does, although of course that’s the whole joke of the book. Tristram himself doesn’t actually emerge from his mother’s womb until Volume III, but by that point I’d already abandoned ship. I know I was meant to be enjoying the eccentricities and buffoonery of Uncle Toby, Trim, Doctor Slop, Parson Yorick and co. and revelling in how the narrative flew off on a wild tangent every couple of pages, but I wasn’t. The humour missed my wavelength entirely.
That said, I do think 2006’s A Cock and Bull Story, the metatextually-playful film adaptation adaption of Tristram Shandy directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, is pretty good.
Here’s a link to another article by Robert McCrum, in which he suggests ten titles that are the world’s hardest books to finish: