I’ve been a bit crap the last couple of months with my 2008 Reading Challenge. It seemed like a really good idea when I started it: each month, read a book by a classic author I’d never read before. Sadly, it’s proving a bit of a chore. I gave up on Hemingway. Woolf was definitely not to my taste. Five months in, and the best I could say was, I’d like to read more of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.
And two months and two books later…
Well, June’s book was Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. I wanted to like this. I know a lot of people who think it’s very good indeed. But I found it hard-going. I took it with me on a business trip to Stuttgart in early June. Plenty of opportunity for uninterrupted reading, I thought. I also took John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman with me. I like Fowles’ writing a great deal, but I hadn’t expected to like The French Lieutenant’s Woman so much that I’d polish it off in three days.
And then I started Nostromo…
Nostromo is set in the invented Central American country of Costaguana, and chiefly in the town of Sulaco in that country. The book’s title is the name of the town’s capataz de los cargadores, the leader of its gang of stevedores. Believed by all to be incorruptible, he is asked to hide the San Tomé mine’s silver from bandits and warlords taking advantage of a struggle for the presidency. Naturally, Nostromo proves less reliable than people had thought…
I didn’t actually finish Nostromo. I got bogged down somewhere in the middle and, after one too many looks of longing at the unread books on my shelves, put it down and turned to something new. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what I’d read – Conrad clearly deserved his reputation. But after The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nostromo‘s old-fashioned, more discursive and less focused prose failed to capture and keep my attention.
However, I plan to give Conrad a second chance – if not Nostromo, then perhaps one of his shorter novels.
July’s challenge book was The Garden Party & Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield. This was a much easier read than Nostromo, but ultimately just as disappointing. Mansfield, according to Wikipedia, is “widely considered one of the best short story writers of her period”. To me, the contents of the collection I read were more vignettes than stories. Well-written vignettes, I have to admit, but entirely plot-less. Perhaps it’s my genre background, but I expect a story to be more than a description of an incident, or series of incidents. It has to go somewhere. It has a plot. It has a resolution – or, at the very least, implies a resolution. None of Mansfield’s stories do this.
In the title story, a well-to-do family are planning a large garden party. A young working-class man who lives in a nearby cottage is run over and dies on the day of the party. One of the daughters of the family throwing the party wonders if it they should cancel it in sympathy. In ‘The Voyage’, Fennella and her grandmother take the ferry across Cook Strait. And, er, that’s it. ‘Marriage à la Mode’ describes a man returning to his wife for the weekend, and his dislike of her sycophantic friends and how they have changed her.
Mansfield had a nice turn of phrase, although some of descriptive imagery she used is no longer as fresh as it once was. Her characterisation was also sharp. And, I suppose, the fact that she wrote chiefly about life in New Zealand (despite living in England at the time) adds an interesting patina of strangeness to her fiction. But. She’s neither comic (cf PG Wodehouse or EF Benson) nor plot-driven (cf Agatha Christie) and, no matter how crass this is, I can’t help thinking that fiction from the 1920s ought to be one or the other.
I’m not so daft I really believe this, and I’d like to read something that proves me wrong. Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing doesn’t count – it’s set in the 1920s but was published in 1951. But there are other writers I could try from the period. I might just do that.
For August, however, I’ve already picked out My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, brother of Lawrence Durrell, my favourite writer.