Monday 23 October 2017

Turned off by the long novel

Epic: The Goldfinch author Donna Tartt
Epic: The Goldfinch author Donna Tartt

John Boland

At the moment I'm 75 pages into a 620-page American novel that I'll be reviewing in the next few weeks, and while I'm engrossed in what I'm reading I'm also aware that there are another 545 pages to go and am wondering what further character and plot developments dreamt up by the author will warrant my perseverance.

I'm basically of the same mind as critic Barton Swaim who, writing in last week's Times Literary Supplement, confessed that he'd lost patience with long books, "or anyhow for books that take too long to say what it is they've got to say". Indeed, he said, "If a book is more than 500 pages, I become suspicious".

So do I, and although I made it all the way through War and Peace (and brilliant it was, too), I retain more admiration and affection for such Tolstoy novellas as Hadji Murad, Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata, and I'd venture that the modest length of Turgenev's fiction may be one of the reasons why I find him more congenial than Dostoevsky.

Yet, the very long novel is back in fashion, evidenced by the huge sales of such recent blockbusters as Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton's Booker-winning The Luminaries. But while both of these books may well be masterpieces, their size means I won't be reading them.


By contrast, less was always more for Samuel Beckett, and his collection of books was sparse enough, too – a mere 700 volumes, according to the recently published Samuel Beckett's Library, written by Dirk van Hulle and Mark Nixon (Cambridge University Press).

Apparently, he had a few books by his mentor James Joyce, but nothing at all by such French literary contemporaries as Camus, Cocteau, Mauriac and Sartre, and only one book by Kafka. Yeats was well represented, even though he once told Aidan Higgins, "Never read much Yeats", adding: "Never read much anything".

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