Saturday, April 28, 2007

The prose of the world

Hermione Lee has a very appealing essay in the latest NYRB on a nice handful of books about novel-reading (Kundera, Smiley, Mullan, Sutherland, Mendelson, Moretti, Parrinder--no subscription required). It's full of good things:

In our Man Booker Prize judging for 2006, however carefully we analyzed our books, however good we agreed our preferred choices were (and we could easily have had a long list of thirty rather than nineteen novels), in the end our arguments came down to matters of taste. The most hotly debated novels on our list (for instance by Nadine Gordimer, Barry Unsworth, Howard Jacobson, Andrew O'Hagan, and Edward St. Aubyn) divided us, finally, not because of objective aesthetic judgements, but because some of us disliked the moral atmosphere of the books, or found them claustrophobic or overinsistent, or were unable to enjoy a particular style of historical recreation, or were irritated by the narrative voice. And there is no accounting for boredom. The critic Jonathan Zwicker writes, in Moretti's collection, of a marginal note scribbled by an anonymous Japanese reader in a 1908 library copy of Tolstoy's newly translated Kreutzer Sonata, whose title in translation was "Chôkon," meaning "long resentment." The marginal note read: "A boring book. Where is the long resentment? The resentment is in having read the book. There is no value in its being translated."

The resentment is in having read the book! I am going to start penciling that in the margins of books that make me angry...


  1. What's interesting is the light this throws on the editing and publication of books. Editors are, of course, every bit as idiosyncratic as the judges for literary prizes -- so an author would very much like to have as much information as possible about their literary preferences, something neither agents nor editors are willing to provide. When editors talk about editing frequent reference is made to the reader ("the"). My 70-year-old mother is a reader, as is my British-Jewish-Latinist-Wagnerite-Faulknerist ex-husband, as is an 18-year-old sniper in the Israeli army, first female to train Bedouin foot trackers... "The" reader does not exist, so one would like the book to be edited by a reader who resents the same books one resents oneself. Strenglich verboten.

  2. Helen, what a very sensible comment. I often wish I could read the unedited versions of an author's work, so-called flaws and all.

  3. I would like to write a history of the books I resent, except that I feel it would be bad for the soul to work on it--I had a really funny and scathingly savage post sort of in my head this fall when I read "House of Leaves" for a review assignment & absolutely loathed it in almost every particular & thought I would write a devastating & amusing list of everything that's bad about it, only in the end I always had something better to do...

    I find that few things build trust and liking more effectively than meeting another reader who resents some of the same books I do.

  4. What does this say about the nominees, that they make the judges resent having to read them! And, for that matter, what does that say about current literature?

  5. Japan, I remember Murakami saying, routs Russia round 1900, so we have to forgive Anon. Sorry!

    The Hood Company