I always used to hate starting a book and then giving up on it – it actually pains me. No matter how many chapters I've done, whether it's one or twenty, it feels like wasted time. And if I was reading major literary works and hating them surely there must be something wrong with me? But some years ago I finally found it in me to leave this obsessive compulsive disorder behind.

The epiphany was Elias Canetti's Auto Da Fe. I thought I'd lost this when on holiday and felt such elation! But then I found it again at the bottom of my bag and was plunged into the slough of despond. Was I really going to have to trudge through the rest of this shaggy dog story, with its loathesome characters, supposedly wittily realised but actually literary torture? Only then did I realise, with the violent see saw of emotion, that I was causing myself psychological harm. Since then I’ve felt liberated, reclaiming my time and merrily rejecting numerous canonical books.

I had waded my way through most of Jean Genet's Thief's Journal. Championed by seemingly everyone I was only twenty pages from the end but I could take no more of Genet's nihilistic self-indulgence, and how it made me wish for the rebirth of a repressive society, and I threw it joyfully aside.

The most recent casualty has been Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas. I loved the idea, a novel wrought through encyclopaedia entries, but each mini-biography seemed clichéd and refused to develop a relation to the others. So despite the praise heaped on Bolano of late I had to put it down.

Readers Comments

  1. I think Nazi Literature in the Americas is best read in small doses over several weeks; it's a side table book. Coming to it relatively fresh, again and again, allows the real inventiveness behind Bolano's titles and concepts in each essay to stand out, while minimizing the frustration you might feel about the lack of an overall architecture for the book.

  2. You're not the only one who wasn't taken by Nazi Literature in the Americas. I thought it was pleasant, though not really worthy of the hyperbolic praise it was getting – certainly it's a minor work compared to the novellas that some of the entries were expanded into. One gets the impression that Bolaño thought his poetry was much more significant than his fiction, which paid the bills, though there's been precious little attention given to his poetry in the English-language world . . .

    I do remember liking Auto da Fe, but that was a long time ago, not sure what I'd think about Canetti on re-reading.

  3. How can the Mark Thwaite I know and love so much get it so wrong? Have you been kidnapped and replaced by a middlebrow alter-ego? Thief's Journal is one of the most brilliant novels of the twentieth century, and Genet's prose is some of the richest and most incisive I can think of. If using images to cut through the surface of things, places and people is self-indulgent then give us more self-indulgence I say. Anyhoo, I always suspect that people use that term to attack fiction that doesn't lead on plot and character-based commonplaces. Good literature is never 'self-indulgent' because in good literature there is no self to indulge: only language and image-chains, the displacements of the symbolic order. Get with the programme sister. I'll still buy you a drink next time you come to London, but can't promise I won't spit in it first. Genet used to jerk off into the sacristy cups when he was an altar-boy by the way. Class right from the off.

  4. Cheers for the comments - maybe I should go back to the Bolano. I've just remembered another of my guilty un-pleasures: USA by John Dos Passos. Actually, this one's nagging at me and I will go back to it!

  5. @Tom -- hey Tom! Rowan wrote that post -- not me! -- so blame him!

    Next time you buy me a drink, sister, I want it un-spat in -- but I'll drag Rowan with me and we can both spit in his!

  6. Ooooh! Calumny upon calumny! My brow has never been higher!

    Hi Tom - my diatribe was not at all about the need for plot or character (nothing frustrates me more than the contemporary focus on the endless playing out of the 19th century novel) but because his book was entirely about his self - an endless stream of his feelings, his desires, and his needs to transgress, which seems far too emblematic of the contemporary therapy/business speak on 'realising oneself through experiences' to me.

    But Mark can protest all he likes - I am actually his middlebrow Mr Hyde!

  7. Will Schofield Friday 22 August 2008

    My dad has a compulsion to finish books which I luckily did not inherit. When I was an idiot college freshman, I gave him one of my assigned texts, "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathaniel West. My dad is a detective in the ghetto and I thought he would like the pessimism (ignoring that he reads "only" civil war history, westerns, science fiction, and crime novels). He loathed the book, but he's such a reading masochist he forced himself through "Day of the Locust" too (admitting that, "it wasn't as awful"), which is paired together with "Miss Lonleyhearts" in the New Directions edition. He's still groaning about it 13 years later.

    Having said all that, I loves me some Genet!

  8. Marie Cloutier Monday 25 August 2008

    Oh, it's a wonderful personal milestone indeed to reach the point where it's okay to put down a bad book, even a bad book that "everyone else" loves. Have strength! Life is too short for bad reads.

  9. Darran McLaughlin Sunday 02 November 2008

    Looks like we have similar taste Rowan. I did make it to the end of Auto Da Fe, but I thought it was like a weak Kafka imitation and I didn't enjoy it. I have just decided to put down Thief's Journal after 100 pages because it was so tedious, and I loved Our Lady Of The Flowers. Much of the French literary Avant Garde and contemporary Brit Art share the same juvenile desire to offend bourgeois sensibilities. It reminds me of rebellious teenagers trying to piss of their parents, and I can't take it seriously.

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