Monday, April 02, 2007

A book of beginnings

Against all inclination, I began to read a thriller. The book just happened to be there, offering itself. The packaging is classic: a compact paperback with the starkly-worded title raised in gold lettering against a foreboding image. I had no expectations at all and it began well. The main character was introduced in crisp prose with a wonderful pulse. I learned of his mundanely pleasant life, his mysterious girlfriend and the suggestion of a dark cloud waiting to float over and block out the sunlight. No trouble. I've read many infinitely worse “literary” novels. Yet it was here that I put the book down. Now that a world had opened up, I wanted more. I wanted the whole book to be like this; a book of beginnings, sunlight ahead, and I knew that was not going to happen. That dark cloud scuttled over soon enough. That's why, I think, to take a recent example, I love to re-read Peter Handke's Repetition (seventh time in progress) and have been enjoying his No-man's Bay marathon. These books are full of beginnings, full of fresh air and sunlight. By contrast, the thriller felt like a noose tightening around the neck. Death is also escapism I suppose.


  1. Stephen, can I ask what translation of Repetitions you're reading?

  2. There is only one - Ralph Manheim's. (It's singular - Repetition).

  3. I think there has to be some balance between these poles that you are talking about, beginnings and endings. Maybe escapism is in that balance.

    The Hood Company

  4. I've had that identical feeling so many times. Although I've yet to make it through Repetition, perhaps it's time.

  5. Anonymous10:20 pm

    To write in exciting manner, or to do it well at least, rather than just excitably, is I think as difficult as writing profoundly. Certainly the stakes are more dangerous; fail to write profoundly and some people will carry on regardless believing that the profundity is perhaps of a difficult sort; fail to excite in a thriller and the person will put your book down and never return.

    The same applies to humour.

    They can't be faked*.

    Actually I think all that comments above should have come after this one as they are to a certain extent self-justification:

    I love thrillers, even crap ones.

    Nevertheless, I think a well-written thriller is as good as a well written book of more conventionally 'literary' status.

    And there is nothing wrong with escapism, it hardly needs be said.

    However, there are of course books that are not thrillers that use the thriller's tempo and precipitous action, which may appeal even to those who don't like thrillers - The Man Who Was Thursday by Chesterton for example.

    Sorry for the rather long comment. If brevity isn't necessarily the soul of wit, it certainly renders lack of it more bearable.

    Fitz Psyche

    *(I originally wrote 'unfakable' but that looked bad, as if its rearrangement should result in 'can't be facked')

  6. Thanks Fitzroy:

    "a well-written thriller is as good as a well written book of more conventionally 'literary' status."

    Can you define "good" here? It's certainly true if well-written is the criterion. But what if Mein Kampf was well-written, would that make it "good"?

    "And there is nothing wrong with escapism"

    Yes there is! I read to escape escapism.

  7. From Michael Roloff "I would say that THE REPETITION and NO-MANS-BAY are incomparable... The enumeration of matters that make/ our man angry [as a young man] in Essay on Tiredness,for those who care to know, is a symptomatology..."



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