Saturday, 23 September 2006

Confessions of a bibliophile

I confess...

I'm finding English novels boring. Correction, contemporary English novels. I can delight in a C.S.Lewis (and do - I can go on about Till we have faces, Perelandra, The Great Divorce or Narnia for a considerable length of time). I started devouring Milton the other day and am eagerly awaiting when my copy of Paradise Lost will drop through the letterbox (admittedly poetry not novel). And I lost count of how many hours sleep I lost in teenagehood reading and re-reading Tolkien. But Shriver, who has won so many awards? And Coupland, who has had such insights into our culture? I couldn't get into them.

I'm not disparaging those who do: we have different characters (praise the Lord!) and find different things interesting!

With me? Well, I can be intrigued by a plot, and want to know what happens, but if the use of language isn't brilliant, the technique fascinating (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time), the characterisation so well done that you think you know them in real life (La Neige en deuil), the world so well-crafted that there isn't a hole in its whole history, culture or linguistics (The Lord of the Rings), or the ideas philosophically meaty (Perelandra; not the self-obsessed psychobabble that pop novels come out with), I'm bored. I'll vaguely want to know what happens, but I'll be bored while I find out.

I have laugh out loud with delight moments at a beautiful sentence or phrase, a brilliant philosophical idea, or a grace-ful character.

Generalising again, I love French novel style. I think it's because francophones care for their language. And not just in the particular Academie Française way, but they love it. They romance it. They enjoy it. The writing of a novel is not in the plot - it is the art and science of écriture. There's also an element of classical education. The French novelist commonly assumes the reader is familiar with Judeo-Christian, Greek, Roman and French philosophical & cultural references. Philosophy, politics & anthropology is often played with like the mention of the weather in an anglophone novel. Now obviously that can be dull, but in those I've read, it adds deep colours to the palate which make the painting dance with richness beyond the contemporary.

I'm not just francophilising. I know there are so many great English novels out there that I haven't read yet (this isn't difficult to fathom, as I've read relatively few of the classics). I never thought otherwise - I read very few novels at all. I enjoyed relaxing last year to reading Vanhoozer's 'Is there a meaning in this text?' (it's a delight to read). Only, I had thought to engage more with pop culture by reading a contemporary English novel every so often. And I'm now not sure I can do it: time is too short for boredom. So I'm on a hunt - tell me your favourite 'greats' (go on, surprise me with contemporary greats!), and why. You may think me a moron and have different taste, but tell me why I should enjoy your 'greats'.

8 comments:

mama said...

Depends what you mean by 'modern'. William Golding, E M Forster, Ernest Hemingway? No, maybe not quite 'contemporary' to you!

And do you mean 'in the English language' or English by nationality? Paul Gallico writes so Englishly, and adopted England so thoroughly, you could forgive him for being an American :) But okay, even he was a bit before your time. Hmmm...

DEFINITELY NOT STEINBECK!!

If you want to read without being bombarded with foul language and smut, I think it leaves you Alexander McCall Smith and Nick Butterworth :)

Alan Davey said...

OK. I've enjoyed Ian McEwan (except Amsterdam - which was too much like a tract). I do enjoy Coupland, but especially Microserfs, but I used to work in computing and it was like reading my own biography. They're not great literature, but Alexander McCall Smith and Jasper Fforde are huge fun. And Sebastian Faulks? I found Charlotte Gray very moving.

Alan Davey said...

p.s. you know about the librarything.com ?

étrangère said...

Cheers - I do love McCall Smith so that's a fair rebuke to me for attempting to write off all contemporary anglophone writers. I'd forgotten about him.

Hadn't heard of Jasper Fforde, Alan - looks good (on wiki!) D'you have a favourite of his for me to start with?

Someone did mention librarything to me before, but I think it'd be a timewaster for me. I'd put all my books onto it and then not use it... Thanks though.

And mama, yes I was thinking more contemporary, but those are some good ideas if I give up on the totally modern idea! Ta.

Caleb W said...

I can't think of very many contemporary English novels, that I enjoy, but I do really like Louis de Bernieres' books - I've been reading one of his novels as holiday reading each summer every year for a couple of years since reading "Captain Corelli's Mandolin". I just finished reading "Birds without wings" a week or two ago. From the things you say you like in a book, I think you'd enjoy them.

And I really hope that one day I'll manage to write some really good English novels. But I've got a lot of practice and hard work to do before I get there!

Caleb W said...

Here's a fun way of finding new authors - put in the name of an author you like, and it shows a floating map of which authors people who enjoy that author also like!

http://www.literature-map.com/

Alan Davey said...

Oh YES! Oh YES!

For those what know (even slightly) their EngLit classics, "the Eyre Affair" is laugh-out-loud wonderful.

Otherwise "The big over easy" about the nursery crimes division of Swindon CID is just great.

It helps to be a bit off the wall and to know Swindon a little, by the way...

Mike Blyth said...

Have you read the novels of Charles Williams? Not contemporary to us, but to C. S. Lewis. Given what you say you like in a novel, and that you like Till We Have Faces, I think you'd like Williams. They're books I've had to reread just to try to grasp them.