Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Easy" reading is not always "good" reading, or even "interesting" reading

Here are two paragraphs from Easy Money, by Swedish novelist Jens Lapidus:

He kept a log with daily notes from every workout session at the reception desk. Mrado's goals were clear. To go from 270 to 290 of pure muscle before February. Then change up his strategy. Shred. Burn fat. By summertime: only muscle. Clean, without surface fat. Would look damn good.

He trained at another place, too, the fighting club, Pancrease Gym. Once or twice a week. Guilt got to him. Should go more often. Important to build muscle power. But the power had to be used for something. Mrado's work tool: fear. He went far on size alone. In the end, he went even further on what he learned at Pancrease: to break bones.

I had picked up Easy Money from the Just Books library, lured by the blurb on the cover: "An epic European thriller to rival Stieg Larsson". But after plodding through less than one-third of the book, with its frustratingly fragmentary sentences, I gave up.

That weekend I came across a review of Easy Money in DNA. And I was glad to note that there was at least one other person who shared my feelings about the book. "[There] isn’t much explanation for most of the ... things that ail this 470-page sorry excuse of a thriller," Krishnakumar Padmanabhan wrote in his review. He also made it clear that he, too, wasn't impressed by what he referred to as "clipped, telegraphic prose". Read his review in its entirety here.

Now, for a complete contrast, here's a passage from The Way by Swann's, the first volume of Marcel Proust's magnum opus, "In Search of Lost Time":

The air was saturated with the finest flour of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I could move through it only with a sort of greed, especially on those first mornings of Easter week, still cold, when I tasted it more keenly because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt, they made me wait for a moment, in the first room where the sun, still wintry, had come to warm itself before the fire, already lit between the two bricks and coating the whole room with an odour of soot, having the same effect as one of those great country 'front-of-the-ovens', or one of those chateau mantelpieces, beneath which one sits hoping that outdoors there will be an onset of rain, snow, even some catastrophic deluge so as to add, to the comfort of reclusion, the poetry of hibernation; I would take a few steps from the prayer stool to the armchairs of stamped velvet always covered with a crocheted antimacassar; and as the fire baked like a dough the appetizing smells with which the air of the room was all curdled and which had already been kneaded and made to 'rise' by the damp and sunny coolness of the morning, it flaked them, gilded them, puckered them, puffed them, making them into an invisible palpable country pastry, an immense 'turnover' in which, having barely tasted the crisper, more delicate, more highly regarded but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers, the floral wallpaper, I would always come back with an unavowed covetousness to snare myself in the central, sticky, stale, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered coverlet. 

That's one sentence, 284 words. Not "easy" reading, I agree, but what masterly descriptions in just one sentence! From the air "saturated with the finest flour of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I could move through it only with a sort of greed", and the sun, "still wintry", which had "come to warm itself before the fire", to "the poetry of hibernation", and, finally, the narrator's "unavowed covetousness to snare myself in the central, sticky, stale, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered coverlet". I began reading The Way by Swann's many, many months ago. Now you know why I am nowhere near the end. You don't just read Proust — you read and re-read and re-read. That is the only way to enjoy this phenomenal work of art, to learn how to construct those winding sentences, to lose yourself in a world long-vanished.

I may not read Proust every day. But I am never going to throw him aside as I did Jens Lapidus.
  • Want to know more about Proust and In Search of Lost Time? You can read the first chapter of Proust's Way: A Field Guide to 'In Search of Lost Time', by Roger Shattuck, here.
  • The famous writer Germaine Greer can't stand Proust. She explains why, in a well-argued feature she wrote for The Guardian, here.

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