Well, I’ve finally called it a day on Anna Karenina. It has been sitting by my bed for over a week, unopened and radiating guilt. I have had every intention of finishing it, but starting my new job has rather impacted on my ability to read for pleasure or take anything particularly complex in after a long day at work. When I finally got some free time to pick it back up again, I found it unbearably dry and boring, and every page was a struggle. Rather than turning something that should be pleasurable into a chore, I decided it was probably best just to admit defeat and put it back on the shelf. I haven’t regretted attempting to re-read it, though; this time around I’ve gained new perspectives on the characters and been able to bring ten more years’ of life experience to my understanding of the psychological, political and philosophical questions Tolstoy raises. It’s also been interesting to see how differently reading the same book can be when you read it at a new phase in your life. When I first read Anna Karenina, I was a relatively poorly read 16 year old with a long summer of absolutely nothing to do ahead of her. I lay in my garden and devoured the novel, swept up in the romance and strangeness of it all. I’d never read a Russian novel before, nor many novels set in places other than Britain; it was my first taste of the exotic and of the decadent world of pre-revolutionary Russia. It opened my eyes to the boredom and restriction of many women’s lives in previous centuries, and Anna’s actions made me think about my expectations of the future and whether I too would find myself trapped in a life I didn’t want when I got to adulthood and had to start making decisions about relationships and children and careers.
It was fascinating, frightening, passionate, dark, complex and filled with characters who did and said whatever they felt like, regardless of the consequences. In short, it was perfect for a teenage mind, railing against authority, afraid of the future, highly strung and endlessly curious. Now I’m older and far more sensible, have seen more of the world and have become more widely read, Anna Karenina simply doesn’t pack the same punch. Anna, rather than being the romantic heroine I once saw her as, simply comes across as a silly, selfish woman who lives in a fantasy world that she is far too old to believe in. I don’t like her and I’m not remotely sad at the prospect of what will happen to her. I find Levin’s antics on the farm more thrilling than her and Vronsky’s trysts, which says it all! I’ve got plenty of fantastic books waiting to be read, and for me to waste any more time on 500 further pages of a novel that is not bringing me much enjoyment is ridiculous; I refuse to be made to feel guilty by an inanimate object! Maybe in a few years I’ll try again. I am interested to watch the film this week, though; by all accounts it’s a rather interesting piece of cinema so I’m excited to see what I make of it.
Unfortunately Anna Karenina hasn’t been the only novel I’ve been forced to give up on in the past week. The lovely Lija at Penguin sent me a copy of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, and as I’ve never read any Zadie Smith before, I was intrigued to see what I would make of it. Set in and around a North West London council estate, and exploring the lives of four people who grew up there and went in very different directions as adults, it promised to be an interesting and thought provoking read that I could really relate to. Unfortunately, I found it to be a rather tedious, pretentious exercise that read like something a student at a creative writing class would produce in order to show off. Rather than focusing on character and plot, Smith focuses on trying to be clever and inventive, experimenting with style and form and language to the point where it becomes nothing more than blocks of lifeless and bland words on a page. The characters weren’t real, the settings weren’t real, nothing was alive or vital or involving. It had ‘PLEASE GIVE ME A PRIZE!!!” written across every page. I got bored of struggling through it after reaching the half way mark and decided that really my time was too precious to me to waste any more of it on slogging through a load of waffly self indulgence. Is it just me, or is Zadie Smith terribly overrated? She seems to gets so much acclaim, but really, I could see nothing to impress at all on the pages of NW. Surely the whole point of a novel is to create a world within which the reader can become absorbed, with characters that come alive, with a plot that intrigues, with writing that impresses but doesn’t exclude, weaving beauty with readability to form a reading experience that excites and inspires and leaves an impression that lingers long after the closing of its pages. If we wanted to read word games, we’d play Scrabble!! As NW is more a game of Scrabble than a novel, it has been unceremoniously dumped into a carrier bag and will be off to the charity shop, where hopefully it will find a more appreciative owner!
So, it’s all been a bit disappointing on the reading front here lately. However, I have just started Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and I am absolutely loving it. I am surprised by this as I hated his previous novel, The Line of Beauty, and actually gave up on that too, but his latest is proving to be an entirely different reading experience and I am absolutely absorbed by it. Unlike Zadie Smith, Hollinghurst manages to maintain a strong plot with well developed characters while also writing beautifully crafted sentences. It’s very much a work of literature without trying to smack anyone over the head with how clever and different it is. I absolutely can’t bear pretentiousness in novels, and I do find an awful lot of it in what is produced by the big names these days, which is why I tend to shy away from reading off the bestseller lists. However, I am going to have to make a concerted effort to read more modern novels, as my role as an English teacher now means I am required as part of my job description (really!) to have a good grasp of the latest developments on the literary scene. Sadly, I don’t think that an in depth knowledge of midcentury women’s writing quite fits into that category, but if I can find more novels published recently that are of the same standard as The Stranger’s Child, I think I’ll manage quite well. Does anyone have any recommendations?
(ps. the photo is of the top of my desk – I have an old bureau – which has things sitting on it that are supposed to be motivational and inspire me NOT to give up – look at all the Shakespeare I have to read!! It’s where I’m spending all of my time these days. The life of a teacher! More on which will come…once I’ve got some time to sit and reflect upon my experiences so far!)