In recent years, I have found myself almost unable to read fiction. When I was a child, I read a great deal of fiction, but I think I read it because I never thought of reading anything else. And some novels moved me deeply. I read Lord of the Rings before I was ten years old, although I don't think I took very much of it in; a little later, I enjoyed browsing through The Fellowship of the Ring, which was the only volume in the house. I loved the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis and I acquired them one by one (except for The Last Battle, which I could never find; when I did get to read it, I was appalled, like a lot of readers, by some of the unpleasant surprises in it.) Today, even though I am a huge C.S. Lewis fan, Narnia seems like a pasteboard world to me, and I can't see what I once saw in it. (One of the very few novels I have enjoyed in recent years has been Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, which I actually read twice, and which I think has one of the funniest last lines of any book whatsoever; but I didn't much like the other two novels of the Space Trilogy.)
In my teens and twenties, I enjoyed Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (which I read again and again and which seemed like the most brilliant observation of everyday life imaginable). I became a fan of Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster books. The comic novels of Flann O'Brien appealed to me, though not as much as his Cruiskeen Lawn columns. At my father's recommendation, I read Diary of a Nobody when I was eighteen and ever since then I have considered it the funniest book ever written.
Perhaps my most singular and idiosyncratic enthusiasm, when it comes to fiction, was the Irish author J.P. Donleavy. Somehow or other-- I never could trace where exactly it came from-- I picked up a copy of his very odd account of a (sort of) fictional sport and its genesis, De Alfonce Tennis. (This book is so obscure that there isn't even one review of it on Amazon.) Soon I was fascinated by it and went in search of more Donleavy. His novella, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, excited me so much that I remember-- when I was sixteen-- pacing up and down my bedroom in excitement, and writing a pastiche of it for one of my English assignments. I also gorged myself on his famous first work The Ginger Man (there are rumours of a film version to star Johnny Depp) and perhaps his best work, A Fairytale of New York (if the title sounds familiar it's because Shane McGowan nicked it for his excellent but infuriatingly overplayed Christmas song.)
I don't think I really loved Donleavy as a fiction writer, though-- I loved him as a prose poet, a lyricist. He could put the most exquisite topspin on familiar words and phrases. He made the English language dance. I was completely intoxicated-- so much so that I actually went to interview him in 1998, and found him a most charming (if rather odd) host.
But I don't read him anymore. I think my very excess of enthusiasm, back in the day, makes his strangely inaccessible to me now.
I had other favourites; a rather obscure novel by Compton Mackenzie (author of Whiskey Galore) called Carnival, which featured the story of a feisty Cockney ballerina, determinedly independent of men, whose heart is broken by a self-described dilettante and who then marries a wealthy Puritan farmer in Cornwall, for the sake of her beloved and disfigured sister. (For all its lack of fame today, it was filmed several times.) I liked Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of science-fiction novels, and several of Somerset Maugham's works, especially The Razor's Edge. In my teens I was an admirer of the twentieth century Irish novelist Walter Macken (his Brown Lord of the Mountain, which was not amongst my favourites, was one of the three books I borrowed the first time I borrowed books from a library.) The still-living English comic novelist Tom Sharpe, whose books combine a rather scholarly style with bawdy and slapstick subject matter, became a favourite in my college years. I started reading him simply because I liked the title of his most famous novel, Porterhouse Blue.
The first time I read David Copperfield is very vivid in my memory; not only because it was on the first night of Operation Desert Storm, but because its scenes and characters seemed so real to me, so distinctive. David Copperfield seems like the ultimate protagonist, both in his virtues and his faults, the Decent Young Man, red-blooded and earnest and pleasure-loving and loyal. But for every novel I read and enjoyed I think I must have read at least five I didn't, including many classics such as Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein and Crime and Punishment
In the past five years or so I have only ever really read fiction as a task. Even when I discovered Chesterton, I trudged my way through his novels and short stories. I have no desire to read The Man Who Was Thursday or The Napoleon of Notting Hill again. Chesterton wrote, somewhere or other, that he preferred to see ideas wrestling naked rather than veiled behind characters and plots. I feel the same way-- especially when it comes to a writer like Chesterton, who (I feel) is always writing an essay or a polemic even when he is writing a story.
I like to be addressed directly by an author. I like to go straight to the ideas, to the theme, to the substance. If I have five minutes to spend reading a book, I would rather read a couple of pages (I'm a slow reader) in which a few complete ideas are adumbrated than a leisurely description of the layout of Squire Masterson's grounds.
And yet, and yet....I don't really feel satisfied at that. Even if I feel no appetite for fiction, I have a hunch that it is a necessary part of any literary diet, that it reaches places in the soul (and in the intellect) that nothing else can reach. I feel, in short, that I am being a philistine.
So today I started reading The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. And so far I am enthralled. (Yes, I've read Middlemarch, and several other Eliot novels. No, I didn't like any of them. I've never enjoyed Jane Austen, either.)
I am very amused by a passage in the introduction, written by a Laurence Lerner (I love books with introductions):
"Trollope's reputation was already declining, and the Autobiography gave it a firm push downwards. It showed an author so different from the conventional Romantic picture of the artist, that it would be embarrassing to admire him....a hunting, whist-playing clubman with a huge gusto for living; a solid citizen and wealthy paterfamilias, who wrote 2,500 words before breakfast every morning, and attributed his success 'altogether to the virtue of early rising':
'All those who have lived as literary men-- working daily as literary labourers-- will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should have so trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours-- so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom-- and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself-- to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been as forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.'
"The serious reader [Lerner goes on], now as then, can only feel repelled by this. Wanting to learn of les affres du style, of the pain of creation and the deep levels of the personality where art is born, he finds that Trollope sees art as merely craft, as a way of keeping the reader entertained; and sees the novelist as an industrious craftsman who does not fritter away his time. Even the hearty tone-- 'as much as a man ought to write'-- adds to the embarrassment."
I must not be a "serious reader", because I feel none of these sensations of repugnance when I read Trollope's reflections of writing. In fact, he seems like a refreshingly sensible and unpretentious fellow to me. I am naive enough to think that a man lacking in intellectual morbidity might actually make a rather good guide to human nature.
Maybe I am too shallow for fiction after all?