Writers Reading

November 2011

I dip my nose into the giant pool of genre fiction at less frequent intervals than my closest friends do, the friends who are also writers. Most of them read crime. Nothing odd about this: most people who read, read crime and always have done. Two friends read what is described as ‘Good Crime’, which, I think, means Euro Crime, that is, continental crime novels, often characterised by first class writing and dense with discussions of metaphysics and ethics, as well as dead bodies. And one friend, who is a more balanced reader than I am, choosing both difficult writing and chocolate box books, cheerfully and freely admits to indulging herself in light, fluffy reads, women’s interest fiction and bestsellers. Which often also means crime. She is a firm believer in the function of fiction that is written purely to entertain: comfort zone reading, an activity that is at least more intellectually energetic than watching television. None of them read fantasy or horror, or at least I’ve never seen them do so.

I cannot read commercial fiction in any great quantity because of the way I read. I am an academic who teaches English and European literature. I read very slowly, with a pencil in my hand, and I think about each sentence. I cannot skim. This means that prose, written to be scanned and absorbed at speed, drops to bits in my hands as I begin to unpick each verb and conjunction, interrogate and weigh the significance of each phrase. The effect of this method renders the reader of lightweight prose (in this case, me) slightly insane. Four years ago I read a pink, and deeply fluffy, marriage novel because I had met the author and liked her very much. I took three weeks to read this book, which should have been consumed in the bath with a large glass of wine over a weekend. But I sat there, peering at each page, trying to make sense of situations and behaviour of such extreme and unlikely silliness as to suggest that the characters should be sectioned rather than married, so that the book gradually transformed itself into a volume written by Henry James on mescaline. However, I did emerge clutching one insight that more serious authors forget at their peril: never underestimate the power of a happy ending. There is no book, however appalling, out of whose wreckage I have crawled empty-handed. Even Dan Brown reminded me of the value of paragraphs. He doesn’t use them, so that his texts roll out like a tabloid newspaper. I admit to reading three pages of The Da Vinci Code, standing up in W.H. Smith’s, before giving up for ever.

The Fear Index

And so today’s thrilling foray into bestseller world proved to be a rare educational treat. Robert Harris’ The Fear Index (London: Hutchinson, 2011) is a book filled with echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). If you have not read Harris’ novel and intend to do so, stop here, because I will reveal certain crucial elements in the plot. I cannot discuss The Fear Index without doing this, because the book is all about the plot, and nothing but the plot.

The action takes place in Geneva over one single day during a rainy spring, and is a tale of technology turning into the Monster. The mad scientist is Alex Hoffmann, ex-computer genius of CERN, makers of the Hadron Collider. The friend who sacked him for his Promethean insanities is called Walton, as is the first mad explorer in Shelley’s novel, on his way to the North Pole, who learns from Frankenstein’s tale of hubris and nemesis, and comes to his senses. The shrink who treats Alex and has a cameo role is Dr Jeanne Polidori, a charming side-sweep at Byron’s doctor, Dr John Polidori, who was one of the party at the Villa Diodati, during that rainy summer in 1816, when Shelley first imagined her novel. The Hotel Diodati in The Fear Index is now a low dive, inhabited by pimps and prostitutes, where Hoffmann encounters the Internet Cannibal with whom his rogue computer creation has arranged a date.

In most contemporary fictions, film narratives as well as serious literary writing, technology is evil, animate and out of control. Hence the cylons in Battlestar Galactica, and the Terminator series, the best of which, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, contains many of the elements in Harris’ novel, including a denouement inside a corporation that fabricates electronic chips. Harris’ target is the electronic power of global finance, a system now manifestly dangerous and working against the fragile human values of love and friendship that Harris sets up as worth saving. The only important woman in the novel, Hoffmann’s wife Gabrielle, is an artist, (well, trying to be one), but all she really wants – wait for it, ladies - is a BABY. After a late miscarriage, she recreates the dead foetus in scratched glass, and at the end of the novel we see her singing a completely inappropriate and somewhat sick lullaby. I cannot say to whom, for even I cannot give away the novel’s ending.

Corporate global finance is the boys’ playground and here they are all present, clichéd and correct: computer nerds, charming, lying wheeler dealers, sinister investors, pious Risk Assessment managers, world-weary policemen nearing retirement. This is a thriller aimed at blokes of moderate brain. And I bet very few of them will ever have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Why should any thinking woman read this stuff?

Well, for one thing the plot is superb. Genre fiction and popular film narratives are the places where basic plots and characters are generated. And genre fiction will tell you far more about a culture’s anxieties and obsessions than high art ever will. Moreover, Harris has an extraordinary gift for presenting obscure, boring information in a manner that is utterly compelling. I have no interest in hedge funds or stock exchanges beyond noting the evidence for human greed on a scale requiring Biblical punishment, and the prevalence of male hysteria at every level. But this time I read all the technical data with great care, pencil in hand, fascinated, gripped. Harris is a master of pace, suspense, dark hints, cliff hangers, twists, clues, jump cuts, the whole damn box of thriller tricks. Even when you have guessed who the villain really is, and you cannot fail to suspect, fairly early on, that the Monster is Hoffmann’s own system, you keep on reading, anxious to see how it will unfold. Harris ensures that no one character becomes too sympathetic; the authorial voice remains cool, neutral, business-like. Here is a story, a moral tale for our times. Here is what could happen, might happen, is happening. The confessional passion of Frankenstein’s interlocking first-person narratives seems a long way off. We never hear from this Monster, the silent Monster of computer trading. It does not speak, it acts.

What does not stand up to scrutiny in Harris’ novel is the quality of the prose. Each sentence of this lightweight commercial realism has only one aim, one point, one function, and that is to make you read the next sentence. And never, never, never should you be tempted to re-read. Most novels are written to be read once. Even Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) contains a hidden secret that can only shock her first-time readers. I am a rare and odd reader in that I re-read many of my books. I own several copies of the books that I teach, the margins of which are coated in decades’ worth of pencil notes. Now I buy the new critical editions and begin a fresh batch of annotations. Very few readers, I suspect, are re-readers on quite this scale. I re-read several passages of Harris’ novel. Harris is wary of free indirect speech. The tag ‘he thought’ appears in unnecessary places. ‘Surely we can do better than this, he thought. This cannot be the end product. This must be merely a stage in evolution, and our human task is to prepare the way for whatever comes next, just as gas created organic matter’ (Harris, p.42). Note the repetition of ‘this’, which refers to Hoffmann’s human brain, revealed on the CAT scanner, and appears three times in consecutive sentences. Commercial realism repeats itself, generating redundancy.

Here is an example of bad writing:

Gabrielle had put his wallet inside his jacket pocket. He checked the contents. He had three thousand Swiss francs in new notes. He sat down and pulled on a pair of desert boots, and when he stood and looked at himself in the mirror again, he felt satisfactorily camouflaged. (Harris, p.47)

He checked, He had, He sat down, he stood, he felt. Subject verb, subject verb, subject verb in sentence after sentence. Bad writing is dull writing. The two most boring verbs in the English language are also the most useful: the auxiliaries, to have and to be. Most thrillers are littered with them. The pluperfect, also known as the past perfect (Gabrielle had put…) flourish like VIXAL-4, the rogue trader algorithm Alex Hoffmann and his Monster created together. But you only notice these flaws if you are reading slowly. If the prose is doing its work, most readers will be moving across the pages too rapidly to notice. They are reading for the plot, and nothing but the plot, and they will pay scant attention to the prose.

There is something of a struggle in progress for the soul of what used to be called Literature. Stella Rimmington’s 2011 Man Booker Panel was accused of going for the ‘readable’ rather than the ‘literary’; that is, easy comfort-zone reading, in preference to texts that are deeply engaged with form, language and the traditions of writing in English. This struggle is also going on in universities. There are plenty of courses in contemporary literature offering insights into the work of Andrea Levy and Sarah Waters, rather than unsettling, uncompromising writing by Ann Quin, or, for instance, Christine Brooke-Rose and Alice Oswald. The difference between Levy and Waters and the second group of writers is simple and non-negotiable. Levy and Waters are safe writers, crowd-pleasers. You will always do well if you reproduce the public’s fears and prejudices. I don’t think Ann Quin (1936-1973) ever compromised once in her short life. If you have never heard of her, or read her work, then visit the website annquin.com for further directions. A young scholar at the university of East Anglia is engaged in resurrecting her writing and the powerful reputation she once had. Writers who care more about language and form than the eyes of the world are not given to compromise, but I wouldn’t put any money on their chances of literary survival. Many readers shy away from difficulty; those rare readers who enjoy being challenged, unsettled, do not mind being asked to work at the act of reading.


In a moment of rebellion against middlebrow mediocrity, the most charitable phrase I can find for easy reading, I began to construct an alternative canon of contemporary literary women, one of whom is Elizabeth Cook. Her masterpiece, Achilles (London: Methuen, 2001), should be read by everyone who cares about English as a literary language. I re-read Cook this week, and found her work more startling, more daring in its modernity, than at my first reading. Achilles has reappeared on the horizon in three different versions: The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury) by Madeline Miller, a new translation of The Iliad (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) by Stephen Mitchell and a new work by the extraordinary Alice Oswald, Memorial (Faber). I will probably read all three in due course, but I will read Alice Oswald first, for the boldness of her imagination has never failed to astonish me.

Elizabeth Cook’s text is a modern re-telling of the story of Homer’s Achilles, beginning with the encounter between the living Odysseus and the shade of the warrior hero. Odysseus says, ‘We honoured you like a god while you were alive … Here too I see you’re a king.’ But Achilles rebukes his former comrade in arms: ‘What’s that to me? Don’t you know that it’s sweeter to be alive – in any shape or form- than lord of all these shadows?’ (p. 12, Cook’s italics) Cook’s text is neither poem nor novel, but stands arrestingly between the two, its lyricism and condensed ferocity as pitiless as the Greek, her grasp of the drama of this myth, so often told, unfolding afresh. I read this book with the concentration reserved for a story you are hearing for the first time. I read whole passages aloud: the initial erotic encounter between Peleus and Thetis, where the goddess transforms herself into ‘roped flame’, torrents of sea water, a lion, a snake, a cuttlefish, to escape her ravisher. I read aloud her description of the corrosive anger of Achilles at the miracle of Hector’s mutilated body, each day remade, perfect, glowing, beautiful, by the watching gods.

When he had finished killing Hector the Myrmidons had each had a go, killing him again and again. They took it in turns to shove in a spear. Some jabbed; others wiggled, getting the feel of the man, till Hector’s body, stripped of the armour he had stolen from Patroclus, was ugly squelching pulp. Now all those wounds are sealed. Achilles has never seen a body so perfect. It has only one mark: a stain like a kiss at Hector’s throat (p.42).

This kind of writing is disturbingly precise. Look at the verbs – jabbed, wiggled. But the two colloquial phrases: ‘the Myrmidons had each had a go’ and ‘getting the feel of the man’ are the moments that throw me utterly. This shift in register brings home, as nothing else does, the intimacy of killing someone else in hand-to-hand combat or the savagery of mutilating a corpse. Hector’s beautiful body is as closely watched as the body of a lover. Achilles ‘has eyes for one man only: that huge body, winched up by the heels each day at dawn, which will not rot, which will not stop being beautiful’ (p.42).

Most moving of all is the choice Thetis gives her warrior son: stay home in Phthia, live long, and become the honoured patriarch, revered and respected, but ultimately forgotten, when the generations who knew you pass onwards into futurity. Or sail with Agamemnon’s fleet for Troy. You will never return, ‘and your life will be as short as the beat of that wing’ (p.30), but your name and your deeds will be remembered forever.

John Keats

Achilles chooses glory. And his story is told again and again. Cook produced an edition of Keats’ poems in the 1990s and she ends her book with Keats, who was haunted by Achilles. Both men died young, and both men were obsessed with lasting fame. They longed for the certainty that their achievements, their reputations and their deeds would live on beyond their short lives. Does it matter if we are, or are not, remembered? Many writers feel that their books remain as their only afterlife. But what if they too vanish and leave no trace? This seems to bother the men more overtly than it does the women, who know that women’s writing always disappears. Male writers with their anxieties and vanities on display include Julian Barnes, Nothing To Be Frightened Of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008), and Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger’s Child (London: Picador, 2010). Their books are now much more likely to survive as an electronic memory, until The Machine Stops. But who reads Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton now? Or Hall Caine? Their contemporaries were convinced that these writers and their reputations would last forever, but they both vanished into the world of electronic reprints and second-hand bookstalls. Oddly enough, I suspect that I, and my reading descendents, will still be there when all else is gone, as readers rather than writers, still reading, pencils in hand, digging in libraries, archives, attics and warehouses.

Mesmerised by the relationship between Keats and Achilles, I began reading Keats with my first year students. None of them had encountered his poetry before. The Ode to a Nightingale proved somewhat startling; and the revelation that Scott Fitzgerald had in fact pinched the phrase ‘Tender is the night’ from someone else generated a certain amount of indignation. But they all recognised the disconcerting power of ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the fairy power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

This is a Shakespearian sonnet. The argument accumulates through the quatrains to the Volta, the turning point where the sonnet usually reverses its meanings, tips the reader into an unexpected place and inverts the previous movement in the argument of the poem. But Keats doesn’t do that. The reader is left in solitude, silence and darkness, like Frankenstein’s Monster, on the edge of the world.

‍    -then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Yes, this is a dark ending. Both love and fame, the traditional subjects for the sonnet, that closely argued form, the things most writers choose as worth living for, dwindle away into nothingness. As I believe they will, for all writers, and for everyone else. Whoever claimed that truth should be consoling? I contemplate Keats’ conclusions with immense satisfaction. And then I go on reading.


Text copyright Patricia Duncker. May not be reproduced without permission.

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