There is a sense of satisfaction in finishing a book. This has been on my mind for the last week or so, mainly because I'm in the process of reading a book that is going to take me quite a while to read.
Earlier this month, I read Wilbur Smith's River God, which is a long book but a fast read. (It's also filled with sex and violence, but I don't say that as if it's a bad thing. Mind you, I could perhaps have done without the intimate description of a full castration but, like most men, I'm rather sensitive that way.) Anyway, while I enjoyed River God, as I've enjoyed most of Smith's historical novels, the dodgy sex apart, I also felt a degree of satisfaction as I closed the book and put it to one side. There, I thought: another book read, and a lengthy one at that. For a moment, I was one step closer to reading every book in my house, albeit a step forwards that would soon be nullified. River God will probably go to my local Oxfam shop, and there is now a space where it once sat on my bookshelves, a space that can be occupied by a new book as soon as I find the time to amble into one of my native city's many bookstores.
And that, after all, is the blessing and the curse afflicting all those who love books and reading: we will die surrounded by books both read and yet to be read. There will always be one more book that we'd rather like to get through before our God takes us. I have visions of myself on my death bed, knowing that I have only days to live, and sizing up the books on my shelf in an effort to calculate which one I'm likely to be able to finish before I gasp my last breath, performing complex mathematical equations involving length of book, ease of reading, and potential literary value versus entertainment value.
As I am now more than halfway through my biblical allocation of three score years and ten, I suspect that I am going to start doing such calculations sooner rather than later. My awareness of my own mortality will make me reluctant to start long books that I may die before I finish, so I'll probably stick to short-to-medium length pieces of literature. With this in mind, I started reading Dickens's Our Mutual Friend last week. Our Mutual Friend is a very, very long book. It's also ripe, late-period Dickens; in fact, it's his last completed novel, and it's a dense, complex read. At a rough estimate, each chapter is about 5000 words long, and it has 66 chapters. That makes Our Mutual Friend the equivalent of almost four literary novels of average length.
It's also wonderful, of course, a reminder of just how thin and unambitious so much modern fiction really is, but I have resigned myself to the fact that I am likely to be reading it for a number of weeks to come. (To give myself the occasional break to draw breath, though, I am dipping into GUBU Nation, Damien Corless's collection of some of the stranger moments in recent Irish history, which I can heartily recommend to those who would like an insight into why, and precisely how, Irish people are very odd indeed.)
Our Mutual Friend also made me mull over, in passing, the major difference between crime fiction and great literary fiction that uses crime as a catalyst for the action of the novel. There is a suspicious death at the heart of Our Mutual Friend, but the death of Harmon is interesting to Dickens principally because of the ripples (both metaphorical and literal, as Harmon's body is fished from the Thames) it creates in the lives of a great many others. Similarly, Dickens's Bleak House could be regarded, on one level, as a precursor of the legal thriller, except, of course, that the issue of law involved in the case of Jarndyce & Jarndyce is largely irrelevant to the plot of the novel. I wonder, perhaps, if that is what distinguishes the crime novel from the literary novel: the literary novel may sometimes use elements of crime fiction, but it looks outwards from the crime and is under no obligation to return to it. Crime fiction, meanwhile, must always return ultimately to the scene of the crime, and provide some sort of solution to it, however partial that solution may be. It is at once both its principal strength - giving a sense of propulsion to the narrative, a direction that compels the reader towards its finish - and also, arguably, a possible source of weakness.
Ultimately, though, that depends upon our reasons for reading crime fiction to begin with, and to ask it to perform the same task as literary fiction is, perhaps, unfair. That said, I thought George Pelecanos's The Night Gardener was Dickensian in its aim, less interested in the series of murders that inspired it than the impact of those murders upon the lives of a number of individuals. It's interesting, too, that Pelecanos writes for HBO's The Wire, which is similarly Dickensian in its sweep.
Now it's time to return to Our Mutual Friend: rich, challenging, and 142 years old.
This week - and for weeks to come - John is reading
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
and listened to
My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go by Aerogramme
Late Night Tales compiled by Nouvelle Vague