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On Reading Huge Books
At the end of a decade of evolving trends that brought us the “cell phone novel” and accustomed the world to measuring change in 140-character segments, there might be something to be said for the unfashionable, astringent and utterly distinctive pleasure of reading huge books. Not just sizable works measured in hundreds of pages, or poorly-edited best sellers with a chapter too many, but one of the impossibly lengthy, unabashedly rambling, sprawling, luxuriant narratives that occasionally grace our canon, spread over three, four, fifteen volumes. Embarking on a literary journey that won’t just fill up a couple of lazy afternoons but engage your memory and imagination over months of disciplined reverie can be as thrilling as locking one’s door before a world cruise, and as daunting as a trek in Central Asia. Most importantly, it challenges our understanding of the novel and its mechanics, and calls into question our very motives as readers. When you realize that the 1000-page mark has carried you no farther than the general neighbourhood of act II, but still you cannot put the damn thing down, something is bound to happen. Perhaps it has already happened.
Remembrance of Things Past is the archetypal make-it-or-break-it test of literary endurance, a trial by fire that needs to be faced once in a lifetime, particularly when one is serious about one’s habit of thumbing through books, so much that the world might legitimately be divided into people who have read Proust to the dregs and people who have not, or won’t. There should be something in Woody Allen about a truth so deep (there is, in fact, a very good one-liner on War and Peace). Having spent the better part of my final high school year with one of seven thick tomes precariously perched on my knees during class, I might be partial, but the least I can say about the Recherche is that it opened up a world of possibilities. Ridiculously long books have fascinated me ever since. The very notion of a work in more than one volume has a thrilling ring of promise and excitement.
One’s motives needn’t be pure. A touch of snobbishness, vanity and the anticipation of pride over a brilliant sporting feat may enter into the mixture of pleasure and pain, but then again, there are worse and certainly easier ways of indulging one’s ego. Are there uninterested reasons for handling books anyway? Of course one would be hard pressed to explain why labouring through thousands of pages at one stretch ought to make one a better person than a reader of haikus or short stories (it won’t), but it could be argued that sometimes sheer quantity does turn into quality, at least as far as the individual and his assumptions are concerned.
Current theories of fiction-writing emphasize comfort. They have a way of anticipating the needs of the public and attending to them pretty much like the staff of a spa farm would take care of the wishes of a customer. Sign in, kick back and leave the rest to qualified professionals. Successful novels are described as literary devices calculated to “hook” the reader from the very start, make him “care” for what is going on, sustain his interest through a reasonable number of pages and then blow him away with a brilliant finale. The nemesis of Hollywood-trained writing and streamlined editing are “sagging middles”, those puzzling stretches of material that seem to lead nowhere in particular and run counter to long-established expectations. To be sure, writing is a craft, and it would be foolish to dismiss its conventional wisdom and carefully-rehearsed rules of thumb. As it happens, however, novels exist that appear to consist almost exclusively of “sagging middles” and anodyne characters, but still strike one as perfectly accomplished in their own peculiar way.
Take a lesser known example like Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume extravaganza, A Dance to the Music of Time, the closer British literature has ever come to concocting a Recherche of its own. Barely fifteen pages into this ambitious chronicle of the London upper middle-class from World War I to the 1970s, the reader is evicted from his literary comfort zone, and by the end of the first novel he’s looking back at an unsettling experience. Who are these people anyway? Why should I care? What are their motives, supposing that motives can be ascribed to Eton undergraduates? Was there a beginning, a middle or an end to speak of? What happened to “action”? Was this a sort of far-fetched prologue? A Question of Upbringing meets none of the specifications of a “novel”, with an appalling disregard for the bare bones of narration on which even fictionalized memoirs rely. Guy wants to get somewhere. Guy struggles. Guy changes and possibly succeeds. Still, the dance leaves you thirsting for more.
It was not a prologue, as it turns out: it was an omen of things to come (none of the subsequent instalments is really a novel). One rather confronts it like the oversized toe of a colossal ancient statue, formally coherent but hardly suggestive of a whole that wouldn’t be so huge as to defy our power to grasp it as a unity. People have been known to leave it at that, but quite a few have braved it out and succumbed to the infectious attraction of this kaleidoscope of characters that hardly behave as characters and situations that tend to be repetitive and preposterously flimsy (dinners and soirées for the most part), while the real “action” (the growth and social advancement of people) always takes place somewhere else. The writing is good, not mind-boggling, the Proustisms are glaring, the barrage fire of names can be exasperating. Still, once set in motion, Powell’s titanic machinery works and crushes all resistance.
This might be one of the reasons why oceanic novels, when they are accomplished enough, can be so fascinating. They lure the reader into enemy territory, cut him from the rear, hypnotize him, make him powerless and gradually divest him of whatever assumptions and expectations he was carrying to the work. The deep-seated automatisms that allow us to slip into a novel like we slip into a pair of old shoes, letting conventions and habits take care of navigation, are disrupted. Our sense of proportion no longer works. We’re alone with the damn thing itself, with the primordial fact of narration. We are forced to relearn the virtues of delayed gratification, to take responsibility for what we are doing, to develop a heightened awareness that by no means prevents or contradicts a childlike engrossment. Disoriented but unable (or unwilling) to break the spell, we stumble along in awe.
It might be an acquired taste, or a perverse proclivity, but such experiences are quaintly refreshing. What is more, they by no means diminish one’s taste for short, concentrated and painstakingly crafted art prose, as rewarding as it can be taxing, but possibly enhance it. There is a whole palette of reading attitudes, from sipping to wolfing, and occasionally running the whole gamut, from the piercing trebles of a lapidary sentence to the muddy basses of 100-page chapters, is good for the fingers and the ear.
Reading huge books is a challenge that puts us in touch with our limits and strains our perception of form, while at the same time allowing us to rediscover the unmingled, half-forgotten pleasure of plunging headfirst into a narrative world in three dimensions that will stay with us for weeks, emancipating us from more immediate and transient urges such as “who did it?” and “will the bad guy bite the dust?”. In a time when the attention span of the public and the average length of movie scenes are shrinking like cheap sweaters, the occasional detour through the landscape of impossibly huge works – let it Gibbon or the brothers Goncourt if you like – might be the secular equivalent of the purgative, once-in-a-lifetime month of retreat Ignatius of Loyola was recommending.
The next time you feel sorry for a good book that ended too soon, you might want to take the advice.