Saturday, 22 February 2014

Something I Heard

As a reader, I am a coward and a cheat. That is, if I'm reading a novel and a character I like is under threat or the whodunnit element becomes too dominant, I skip madly, either to make sure things turn out all right, (and, if they appear not to do so, I abandon the book), or to find out which of the suspects is the culprit. To overcome this bad habit of mine, I have taken out a subscription to Audible and now I listen to recordings of certain kinds of books.

My reasoning is that it is pretty well impossible to skip forward in a book, and anyway the desire to do so is less overpowering than it is when you're reading it yourself. After all, the effort of listening is virtually non-existent, compared to the effort of reading; listening can be done while making the bed, weeding the garden or hanging out the washing. Rather than eating up valuable time, which you might be spending doing something dull but pressing, listening allows you to do the dull but pressing things and hardly notice how dull they actually are.

Thus far, I've only listened to unabridged books, and usually the ones I've chosen have been detective stories. I started quite respectably with The Moonstone and The Woman in White and progressed through Edmund Crispin and Margery Allingham, (both of whom are so good I really prefer reading them, whereas Wilkie Collins is enough of a windbag that I might well have lost patience had it been me turning the actual pages), to Inspector Wexford et al.

From time to time though I've departed from my life of crime to try out things I know I would never stick with, if I encountered them on the printed page. Robert Bolano's 2666 was the last of this sort that I had a go at, and I'm ashamed to admit that even on audio I couldn't actually listen to every word of that long, briliant, but not terribly involving book. In fact, for some time Bolano deterred me from further experimentation. Crossing Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace off my list of future listens, I turned back for some months to unmitigated frivolity. Then a week or two ago I pulled myself together and decided to make another attempt to listen to something I was fairly certain I would never have the patience to get through, if I were reading it with my eyes rather than my ears.

The book I chose was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I've finished it now, and I am full of admiration. While the book has been described as Dickensian, presumably because of its size, its array of characters, its occasionally barely believable plot developments, as well as the many twists of fortune the main character is forced to submit to, it is Dostoevsky's The Idiot that is referred to regularly in the text. Since the vision of the world offered by The Goldfinch tends less towards a Dickensian sense of the comedy of human endeavour and more towards a Dostoevskian apocalyptic bleakness, this may be a better parallel to make.

Stretches of the book also read, (if that's the word to use, in the context), like Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, (which is possibly not entirely at odds with being Dostoevskian). Others have the nightmarish quality of some sort of amalgam of Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouac, (the latter mainly comes to mind because of the vast quantities of drugs that are from time to time consumed). Tartt also plays with Walter Benjamin's concept of 'aura' regarding works of art, in amongst numerous other themes.

What particularly endeared the book to me was the character of Boris, a Ukrainian who befriends the narrator when the two of them are in their teens. Perhaps it was merely the talent of the reader on the mp3 I listened to, but Boris was so vivid to me that, two days after finishing the last chunk of the book's audio, I am still missing his company.

In conclusion, I salute Donna Tartt's ambition in creating this wonderful, vivid entertainment. As the late Pete Seeger said, 'Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple'. While The Goldfinch is admirably complex in its plotting and the richness of its cast, (and I suspect Tartt thinks it's pretty complex in its conclusions about existence and reality, although I'm not convinced the whole thing is quite as deep as she hopes - there is a slightly soppy romanticism to some of the character's final pronouncements, and I suppose in this Dickens once again comes to mind), the book is simple in its old-fashioned form. As anyone who has ever tried to write fiction will know, writing in a form like that of The Goldfinch - essentially that of a sprawling Victorian novel, a modern David Copperfield - which strikes the modern eye as simple and unsophisticated, because apparently unknowing, is actually a great deal more difficult than writing something that deploys all the tricks of the post-modern novel.

There is no such thing as the perfect novel. A novel has to be messy and baggy, if it is to qualify as a novel.  It goes without saying, therefore, that The Goldfinch isn't a perfect novel. However, it is bold and fun and clever and vivid. Despite the odd inevitable flaw in the narrative, as a whole it is rewarding and really, really good.

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