Friday, July 22, 2011

Famous for the wrong book

An interesting blog piece over on the Guardian looks at authors famous for the wrong book.

I'm not sure I agree with many of his conclusions. I think, when he's talking about Captain Corelli's Mandolin, John Self may be thinking of the film adaptation, which is lousy. The novel is pretty good. I have a tremendous fondness for the early de Bernieres novels, especially Don Emmanuel, while Senor Vivo has the most outstanding (and upsetting) piece of writing I've ever read, but the Latin American trilogy are magic realist novels and at the moment magic realism is out of fashion because - well, anything is possible in it. It's an easy cop out for an author. Captain Corelli was de Bernieres' first straight novel and it stands up well. It's just a simple truth that Penelope Cruz will fuck up any film adaptation of a novel (All The Pretty Horses, anyone?). Mind you, de Bernieres' next novel, Birds Without Wings, is simply unreadable.

Vonnegut - yes Cat's Cradle is better than Slaughterhouse-5, but much better? I don't think so. Kurt's just Kurt, and let's be grateful for that.

Catch-22 is the only Joseph Heller I've read, so I can't comment on him. I suspect I may not be alone in that, either, which tells its own story.

Ishiguro - The Unconsoled genuinely is unreadable. It is simply awful. The idea is strong - narration so unreliable it embraces the impossible. Surrealism on the page. But the delivery is so laboured, the characters so tedious, the set-up so dull that I found it impossible to get further than half way. The best Ishiguro, by a country mile, is When We Were Orphans. That's the one where he learned from his mistakes in The Unconsoled and got the style right. The last fifty or so pages are just wonderful.

William Golding - I'd agree with virtually any of his novels over Lord of the Flies, though I may just be jaundiced by having studied it to death at school. But Pincher Martin and The Inheritors are both outstanding novels, in a different class from LOTF.

Who else? I have to mention Cormac McCarthy, I guess. Blood Meridian is not his greatest work, it's Suttree. John Updike - the Rabbit books are generally considered his best, but for sheer emotional pull I can't get The Poorhouse Fair, his first novel, out of my head. Toni Morrison? She hasn't written a good novel yet so it's impossible to say. Jean-Jacques Rousseau for The Social Contract or Confessions? Reveries of a Solitary Walker is one of the greatest pieces of autobiography ever written.

I expect there are others.


courtmerrigan said...

Hey Tom - agree that Cat's Cradle is better than Slaughterhouse-Five, but not THAT much better.

Something Happened is not a good book at all. At all. Catch-22 is a classic for a reason, in that it has an inimitable premise (which hasn't stopped lots of folks from trying to imitate it).

Have to disagree with you on BM vs. Suttree. I like Suttree, but it's pretty self-indulgent and hifalutin to the point of Miltonism (despite BM's more overtly biblical themes). Don't think it's much read, whereas BM will be being read a century or two from now, for what that's worth.

Jet Phantom said...

Thanks for pointing me to the Guardian article. It was fun reading it and more so skimming the comments.
I liked Something Happened but not so it equalled Catch 22. Portraying mundanity mundanely is a dangerous game.
The one I think most striking is Pale Fire, which I found far more satisfying, and funny, than Lolita.
I also think Journal of the Plague Year is Defoe's best. It always strikes me as profoundly modern.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Jet. I started Pale Fire but never finished. I must get back to it. Haven't read Journal of the Plague Year, but I guess it's pretty intriguing stuff.

Court, I'm becoming an evangelist for Suttree... It may be a bit self-indulgent at times, but even though it was his fourth novel to be published, much of it is effectively a first novel, so I think he can be excused that. And I think there is some true greatness in it. The more I read it, the more I'm amazed by it. The shifts in register from high comedy to tragedy shouldn't work and back again shouldn't work, but they do.

Whereas Blood Meridian is not a great book. It is a book that has some greatness in it, for sure. I'm re-reading it at this moment, in fact, and some of the writing is amazing. How about this:

They crossed a vast dry lake with rows of dead volcanoes ranged beyond it like the works of enormous insects. To the south lay broken shapes of scoria in a lava bed as far as the eye could see. Under the hooves of the horses the alabaster sand shaped itself in whorls strangely symmetric like iron filings in a field and these shapes flared and drew back again, resonating upon that harmonic ground and then turning to swirl away over the playa. As if the very sediment of things contained yet some residue of sentience. As if in the transit of those riders were a thing so profoundly terrible as to register even to the uttermost granulation of reality (247).

The last two sentences are sliding towards grandiosity, but it's an amazing description of landscape all the same. The novel is full of bits like that. But it's also full of carbon-copy scenes of carnage. It becomes too much. The reader becomes immune to it after a while, which is surely not the point.

I'm convinced that Suttree is his masterpiece (along with part one of The Crossing), and BM is the beginning of the end. Part two of The Crossing IS the end, the moment when McCarthy is swallowed whole by his preoccupations.

I think all three of us agree about Catch 22. But having said that, I don't think I'll ever risk re-reading it. I read it at the right age, when I was an impressionable kid. I'm worried I might not like it any more.