I've been away in Oxfordshire, visiting an old friend, and wondering, incidentally, how so many people can afford to live in such beautiful houses. The train journey (Glasgow, Birmingham, Oxford) was tiresome as only such journeys can be - every time I travel any distance by train in Britain, it occurs to me that we will never be persuaded out of our cars and onto public transport until the powers that be find some way of improving the various overpriced and uncomfortable alternatives. Whoever, for instance, thought of situating the public lavatories in Glasgow Central (Station of the Year!) well below ground level, so that a visit involves hauling your case down two flights of stairs, struggling to get it through the narrow turnstile, and then into a cubicle the size of a dog kennel. The main problem, mind you, still tends to be anti social fellow travellers. And there's not a lot that can be done about them.
Perhaps it was this perception that resulted in what followed. All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. To while away the journey, I had bought myself two paperback novels . For the purposes of this blog, they had better remain nameless. I'm not in the business of slagging off fellow writers. But I'll just say that they were widely publicised and prize winning books, by widely publicised and prize winning authors. I had heard them praised to the skies. They were obviously walking off the shelves in their millions.
And I found both of them virtually unreadable.
I managed some fifty pages of the first, finding it more and more objectionable - a whinging confection of unrealities, - until it occurred to me that I wasn't obliged to waste time on this drivel, so I gave up. It did occur to me to leave the thing on the train, but I had a horrible suspicion that somebody would run after me shouting that I had left it behind, and besides, I didn't want to inflict it on anybody else. This is a book that has been so widely promoted (and no, I'm not talking about the Da Vinci Code, which I rather enjoyed, as a readable, fast moving adventure story) that I could hardly believe the turgid prose I found myself wading through. Fortunately my friend told me that she felt exactly the same. She had read it for a local book group, and loathed it. I turned to my second choice, quite a different book, one would have thought, to find that equally unreadable. Fifty or sixty pages into it, I ground to a halt again. I think it was around the second time a character surveyed him or herself in the mirror. This is the prose equivalent of characters in plays telling each other things they already know, for the sake of the audience, and it always sets my teeth on edge. I persevered for a bit, but it was the cliches that finally got to me: so many, that I was smitten with what I have come to think of as Book Rage. Had there been a bonfire handy, both books would certainly have gone in. As it was, I left them, sneakily, in my friend's spare bedroom, for the next victim. Maybe they will have more luck than me.
But like Wogan, I have begun to wonder 'Is it me?' And is this why, increasingly, I find myself turning to old favourites. I'm rereading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, but every single reading brings some new appreciation of the text and the sure intelligence that informs it. And yet this is by no means a 'difficult' book - it is a love story, told with acid wit and close attention to detail, (Jane's take on her fellow travellers) in the most lucid prose imaginable. When I take stock, I find that I have been faintly, or sometimes hugely disappointed by almost everything contemporary I have read this year so far. It must be me. Age and grumpiness must finally have overtaken me. That must be the explanation. It couldn't possibly be that the books are carelessly written and barely edited, in response to current publishing fashion, could it?