Unfinished Great Books

I’ve left plenty of books behind. Trying to do it less than before, a matter of concentration, but there are books you realize you don’t have the time for (books, unlike one’s hours, are infinite). One shouldn’t feel an obligation to finish everything cracked open.

There are books that bear fruit but seem so awash in… something… that the idea of finishing makes me miserable. Well, the big example is Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. In the winter I got mired in the interminable middle section, one first hand account of two aging poets coursing over the globe after another, put it aside, picked it up again two months ago, made this second section less interminable, and put it down again. The damn thing is 656 pages, this middle part something like half that number and… I think I get the point: these once energetic Wunderkinder were just blowhards and nothing came of them. I got this as soon as I met them.

So I don’t count that in the below.

There are three novels so far that I felt were completed before the end. I got to a certain point in each one and felt, “Welp, there’s the novel: there’s no need to go on.” This is a minor risk, it seems — that your tremendous novel may reach a point of emotional or intellectual closure such that continuing on requires revving up a new set of engines. Or, indeed, feel like a new novel is beginning. Or such.

Anyway. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Pynchon’s V. Stephan Zweig’s Post Office Girl.

The Woman in White is great fun. Funny, headlong, suspenseful in that harmless way; when Count Fosco, et al, make their circle complete around our heroes, it feels they have done such a villainous job that they’ve won. When it was clear they would gain their comeuppance by way of that olde Victorian-era coincidence I couldn’t move on. To me the bad guys won, full stop.

V. This novel troubles me – so oblique, so pleaselessly chaotic, its central symbol (the woman V.) obscured by structure, it is nevertheless self-evidently great. But once we move through nose jobs and sewer-priests to the rats and to the German atrocities in Southwestern Africa, the whole enterprise stops cold. It’s such an absorbing, brutal portion that… well, there’s the old term ‘show stopper’. Normally that meant an aria or dance sequence so good it stopped the show’s pacing with applause, but here, I just couldn’t imagine going back to the random counterculture Whole Sick Crew rigamarole. I get it: the 20th Century was filled with atrocity. You did a great job.

The Post Office Girl. Have I read anything this delightful, this absorbant with detail, so infected with burgeoning life, so well- and closely-observed? This novel, the first half of it at least, is immensely impressive. Quiet and domestic, it examines the point of view of a young woman plucked by gentle fate from a thankless bureaucratic job to spend time with a very wealthy aunt and uncle in an expensive hotel in Switzerland, dateline between the wars. Can I say how remarkably described this is, from shuffing her frumpy dress to the attentions of an old English general? And then she hasn’t seen the jealousy of the other young women and it ends for her and in the dead of predawn she mounts a train home, head a whirl. I haven’t started the second half and may never: this is the novel, isn’t it? A perfect capsule of a life lead, of rustic petit-poverty raised for a moment to effervescent greatness, that effervescent greatness shown momentarily for the lie it is, and then snuff the whole thing out in her return? By accounts the second half is quite different, but I should trust in Zweig’s powers, shouldn’t I? But do I need to?


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