A lot of contemporary novels seem to follow a distressing pattern: They captivate from the very first line with dazzling prose and a “voice” that seems new and fresh, but then the cleverness turns out to be preciousness, and reading becomes a chore; I wish they would end about a hundred pages before they actually do. (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) In a sense, the modern novel is the opposite of the nineteenth century British novel, which often require wading through a couple hundred pages of tedium before opening the gates of heaven and leaving you a quivering mass. (A Tale of Two Cities)
In the past few years I’ve come across a different sort of contemporary novel that doesn’t follow either pattern. It starts off a bit inauspiciously; I sometimes wonder during the first few pages whether it’s worth continuing. But then I start seeing signs that things are going to be all right — that I am, in fact, encountering what in another person might be called a kindred spirit. When that happens, I know I can sit back and enjoy the ride: I will enjoy pretty everything along the way.
Sometimes it’s a function of the plot and the other elements of the story. For example, I knew I’d found a winner when the first few chapters of Shadow of the Wind took me from a bookstore to a library, past a shopfront with a fountain pen on display, and into a world chock full of gothic tropes. Other times it’s a function of what’s being said. For example, early on in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the line about the importance of remembering our own nothingness beyond our immediate circle felt a little like revelation.
I recently picked up a copy of Kafka sur le Rivage by Haruki Murakami (recommended to me by Quynh-Nhu last summer; I think the English translation must be titled Kafka on the Bank), and I’ve been delighted to discover both the rightness of the plot elements and the trueness of the thoughts. I’ve only just begun, but already we have a well-read teenager who runs away from home to hang out in a famous library, and an old man who talks to a cat named Mimi (as in La Bohème). And tonight I encountered these two statements, both of which were uttered by an elegant, hemophiliac librarian who likes to listen to Schubert piano sonatas while driving his sportscar:
« Si j’écoute l’interprétation parfaite d’un morceau parfait en conduisant, je risque de fermer les yeux et d’avoir envie de mourir dans l’instant. Mais quand j’écoute attentivement cette sonate, je peux entendre les limite de ce que les humains sont capables de créer, je sense qu’un certain type de perfection peut être atteint avec humilité, à travers une accumulation d’imperfections. Et personnellement, je trouve ça plutôt encourageant. »
« On se lasse très vite de ce qui n’est pas ennuyeux, alors que les choses dont on ne se lasse pas sont généralement ennuyeuses. »
Made me feel like a kid on Christmas.