Do you ever have times when you keep starting books and then not getting on with them? I’ve had one of these spells since I finished The Return of Captain John Emmett. The first attempt was with A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, one of my 30p wonders from a local charity stall. It’s published as a Penguin Modern Classic and praised all round. The chief protagonist is a monster of a man, Ignatius Reilly: grotesquely fat, gluttonous, bone idle, bizarrely dressed, thirty years old and still parasitically dependent on his mother, whom he treats abominably. His intelligence is twisted so as to be out of kilter with the whole modern world; he believes it’s been all downhill since the middle ages. He’s also obsessed with the state of his gut and refers constantly to his troublesome ‘valve’. ‘Are you fooling with that valve again? Nobody else got him a valve but you. I ain’t got no valve.’ says his poor mother. What kept me reading for a while was the unusual style of the writing. Then the author made the fatal mistake of including in the novel pages of Ignatius’ own writings. These are necessarily ravings and extremely tedious. I don’t care who the author is, Angela Brazil or A S Byatt, it is in my opinion always a mistake to replicate a character’s own novel, poetry or whatever. I can see why some people regard Ignatius as a great comic character but he was too much for me. His mother is much funnier.
My second book failed me for almost the same reason. In The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West, the chief character is Laura Rowan, daughter of an English MP and a Russian mother. Soon after the story begins, in about 1900, Laura travels to Paris with her mother to stay with her grandparents. Preserve us from Russian exiles! Poor Laura has to listen for hours to her potty grandfather carrying on about the inferiority of everything in the western world compared with the glories of Mother Russia. Unfortunately the reader has to suffer with her as page after page is filled with the old man's rants. It is brilliant in its way as a depiction of character but there is just too much of it to be borne. I am still picking the book up every now and then and reading a few more pages, but it’s heavy going and I’m not hopeful of finishing it.
Anything you’ve given up on recently?