The Books We Don’t Understand

Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos

Aherontas River, Epirus, Greece, 1989

What is going on when a book simply makes no sense to you? Perhaps a classic that everyone praises. Or something new you’re being asked to review, something a publisher has warmly recommended.

I don’t mean that you find the style tiresome, or the going slow; simply that the characters, their reflections, their priorities, the way they interact, do not really add up. You feel you’re missing them in the dark. And your inevitable reaction, especially if you are an experienced reader, is that this must be the author’s fault. He or she is not a good observer of life.

The most dramatic example of this in my reading career is, or was, Ulysses. Leopold Bloom knows that his wife is planning to betray him with the vulgar braggart Blazes Boylan. It’s something he deeply cares about. It is distressing and humiliating. Yet he spends page after page reflecting on all kinds of other things, thinking of puzzles and puns, marvelling over shop window displays, sounds, and smells.

I first read the book in my teens, then again at university in my twenties. I could appreciate that Bloom might not feel able to confront his wife, but I could not imagine that the distressing situation, with all its implications for his future life, would not be hammering in his head through the day. Surely a betrayal like this would occupy his entire mind in the most urgent and obsessive fashion. Hence it seemed to me that the book’s plot had been set up in the most casual manner merely as a vehicle for Joyce’s “stream of consciousness,” an opportunity to write page after lyrical page about the ordinary world. Had the book only just been published and had I had been asked to write one of the first appraisals, my review would have been, to say the least, mixed. But then if we look at early reviews of many novels now considered masterpieces, we find, perhaps among the many positive responses, frequent examples of experienced readers who, in the best of faith, simply missed the point.

Here is the great critic John Middleton Murry writing about D. H. Lawrence:

Women in Love is five hundred pages of passionate vehemence, wave after wave of turgid, exasperated writing impelled towards some distant and invisible end; the persistent underground beating of some dark and inaccessible sea in an underworld whose inhabitants are known by this alone, that they writhe continually, like the damned, in a frenzy of sexual awareness of one another. Their creator believes that he can distinguish the writhing of one from the writhing of another…. To him they are utterly and profoundly different; to us they are all the same.

Murry cannot see what differentiates Lawrence’s characters; as a result the melodrama makes no sense to him and the plot becomes tedious. His failure is all the more curious in that he and Lawrence were actually friends; one would have supposed that Murry was all too aware of Lawrence’s obsessions. After teaching Women in Love for many years, I find the characters to be almost over-defined, close to schematic. As a couple, Gudrun and Gerald cannot escape from a logic of conflict; one must dominate the other. They live in fear of being overcome by the other. That is what a relationship is for them: war. In contrast, Birkin and Ursula are aware of the dangers of conflict. They live in fear that they will fall into the trap the other couple has fallen into. It’s all painfully clear. Fear is everywhere and always related to conflict, in one way or another. But Murry, though he was a fine critic and in many ways describes the book well, can’t see it. It hasn’t occurred to him that there are people who live in this way.

The same is true of this anonymous contemporary of Thomas Hardy’s, reviewing his great novel The Return of the Native in The Spectator in 1879:

Mr. Hardy’s tragedy seems carefully limited to gloom. It gives us the measure of human miserableness, rather than of human grief—of the incapacity of man to be great in suffering, or anything else, rather than of his greatness in suffering…. The hero’s agony is pure, unalloyed misery, not grief of the deepest and noblest type, which can see a hope in the future and repent the errors of the past. 

In particular, the reviewer has problems with the character who in many ways is the soul of the book:

[The] coldly passionate heroine, Eustacia Vye, never reproaches herself for a moment with the inconstancy and poverty of her own affections. On the contrary, she has no feeling that anything which happens within her has relation to right and wrong at all, or that such a thing as responsibility exists.

“Coldly passionate” is an excellent summing up of Eustacia’s character. The critic has read carefully and receptively. But he can’t accept that such people exist, or that if they do they should be put forward to us in novels as deserving of our attention and sympathy. Various hints—“repent,” “responsibility”—suggest that he thinks of life in moral terms, good and evil, and expects to see it represented in this way. He can’t get over the fact that Hardy appears to move in a different world of feeling, a world in which Eustacia’s desire for intense living at all costs is natural and even endearing, entirely overriding moral concerns. Unable to respond positively to this, the reviewer becomes prescriptive, appealing to traditional notions of what “tragedy” should be and complaining that Hardy has got his formula wrong.


Can anything useful or enlightening be said about such misunderstandings or blind spots? Certainly, in the case of Thomas Hardy, one can say it was fairly common to misunderstand him in this way, demanding a morality that wasn’t there. “Has the common feeling of humanity against seduction, adultery and murder no basis in the heart of things?” protested the reviewer Mowbray Morris against Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “Jude the Obscene,” thundered another reviewer. Could it be then that we have an indication here that a writer is out of line with the zeitgeist. Or in other cases, where everyone else gets a book—Ulysses—and you don’t, that you’re out of line. You live in a different world.

Some years ago, reading a book of systemic psychology, I came across the idea of “the enigmatic episode.” The idea is simple enough. Two people from quite different backgrounds meet and become involved in a relationship. Attracted erotically perhaps, each fascinated by the other, they become good friends. Then something occurs—meeting the other’s parents perhaps, participating in a political movement, contemplating some particular sexual activity—that reveals to them that they have quite different outlooks on life. Not just that they don’t agree, but that they don’t, as we say, understand where the other is coming from; the other person’s position is inexplicable, perhaps threatening.

In her book Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family, the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio draws on two characters in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to explain the idea:

[Franz and Sabina’s] relationship is marked from the very beginning by enigmatic episodes: Kundera calls them “words misunderstood” and develops a short glossary of them…

Sabina asked Franz at a certain point: “Why don’t you sometimes use your strength on me?” Franz replied: “Because love means relinquishing strength.” And Sabina realized two things: firstly, that Franz’s words were noble and just; second, that with these words Franz disqualified himself in her eyes as a sexual partner.

Franz often told Sabina about his mother, perhaps with a sort of unconscious calculation. He imagined that Sabina would be attracted by his capacity for faithfulness and thus would have been won over by him. Franz did not know that Sabina was attracted by betrayal, and not by faithfulness.

When Sabina told him once about her walks in cemeteries, Franz shuddered with disgust. For him, cemeteries were “bone and stone dumps,” but for her they provided the only nostalgic memory of her country of birth, Bohemia.

Franz admired Sabina’s homeland. When she told him about herself and her Czech friends, Franz heard the words prison, persecution, tanks in the streets, emigration, posters and banned literature, and Sabina appeared even more beautiful because behind her he could glimpse the painful drama of her country…. Sabina felt no love for that drama. Prison, persecution, banned books, occupation and tanks were ugly words to her, devoid of the slightest romantic intrigue.

For Franz and Sabina to go on being a couple beyond the first phase of intense erotic attraction, each will have to open up and change, learn to see the world differently. But since, as Ugazio, points out, not everyone is eager to step outside the positions they have grown up with, many relationships will founder on the hazards of “words misunderstood.” So Franz and Sabina eventually break up. Yet that is not quite the end of the matter. After they have parted, Sabina begins to miss Franz. In the Montparnasse Cemetery she suddenly finds herself able to see, perhaps even to feel, cemeteries the way Franz did. To understand where he was coming from. Then she wishes she hadn’t been so impatient with him. The enigmatic episode has prompted a moment of growth.


Is there an analogy with the way we read? Could the book that initially seems plain wrong to us be precisely the one that allows us to understand something new about other people? Let’s suppose that when we begin a novel, the invitation to share a story, to get close to a group of characters, works as an erotic charge. We are drawn in. The opening pages of novels can be wonderfully seductive. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina. I’m not sure I really agree with either side of this aphorism, but who could resist such a promising proposition? “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen,” Orwell announces, introducing us to the world of 1984. How can we not read on? “All children, except one, grow up,” opens Peter Pan. We want to know who that one is. Giovanni Verga’s great story “Black Bread” has one of the most immediately engaging first sentences I know: “No sooner did neighbour Nanni close his eyes, and the priest still there in his stole, than war broke out between the children over who should pay the costs of the funeral, so that the priest was sent off with his aspersorium under his arm.”

Once we have been hooked, then so long as the narrative moves along and intrigues us we won’t have too much trouble dealing with things that don’t make sense to us. On the contrary, any early perplexities will come across as exotic, part of the fascination. But eventually, with some novels at least, we will balk. After a hundred or two hundred pages, we will start to feel that this just doesn’t add up. Early reviews of, but also many more recent responses to, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers offer an excellent example. As long as the novel dwelled on Paul Morel’s fearful infancy, his growing up in the shadow of his parents’ violent conflict, readers were sympathetic. But as the timid boy moves into adulthood many bailed out, as indeed I remember my mother bailed out when I encouraged her to read the book.

“To our grief and our amazement,” wrote a reviewer in The Nation “the book suffers a sea-change, and not into something rich and strange, but into something—the terms must, paradoxically, be used for all this stretch of startling verbal frankness—thin and commonplace. As we feel this more and more decidedly, as we revolt in weariness from the incessant scenes of sexual passion…”

One wonders if sometime later this reader grasped that Paul has identified the fear that characterized his childhood, a fear that inhibits him in every way, above all sexually, as his primary enemy. He is determined to overcome fear, determined to open up to life’s impulses rather than shrinking from them. So the second half of Sons and Lovers is in a very obvious, even optimistic relation to the first.

So much is said about the “uses of literature,” which almost always have to do with our becoming more liberal and compassionate in response to reading about injustice. I very much doubt whether our behavior changes for the good in this way. All the same, by drawing us into visions that are quite different from and alien to our own, novels may, even if we initially throw them down in disgust, open our eyes to different worlds of feeling from our own. Many years later, on a third or fourth reading of Ulysses, since studying and then teaching English literature kept forcing me back to it, I did eventually begin to sympathize with Leopold Bloom. Where Stephen Dedalus simply “will not serve” and is eternally resentful of anyone who has claims on him, always determined to come out on top, Bloom is more than happy to serve his wife, to cook her breakfast and to pick up the books she drops on the floor, perhaps because he has an inner, intellectual life to retreat to where he feels comfortable and at home. His is the pathos of the generous loser, the man determined not to be resentful, and in this regard he is Stephen’s opposite. In the end it is precisely this generosity of Bloom’s that keeps Molly saying yes to him even when attracted to others. And although this would never be my mode of operation, long mulling on the book got me to feel his was an authentic position—that there really are people like this, and the character is not just an excuse for endless pages of poetic cerebration.

I remember similarly changing position on Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata (1994). When I initially reviewed this story of a man who uses his magical ability to stop everyone else’s lives while he remains active merely to undress pretty women and masturbate at the sight, it had seemed to me a rather embarrassing exercise in literary erotica. But after being unkind to Baker in print, I gradually realized that what his novel was about was the conflicting desires of wanting to live life to the full, to be utterly transgressive, yet at the same time never to damage anyone, never to leave the slightest trace of oneself on others—to remain, that is, if not quite pure, at least utterly innocuous. And this suddenly seemed interesting to me as a way of seeing fiction in general, a vicarious, sometimes transgressive experience that does no damage.

Not that every novel we dislike will eventually prove instructive. Far from it. But where we find ourselves confronted with complete enigma—Peter Stamm’s Seven Years (2010) was another novel whose characters initially seemed to be behaving in ways that made no sense to me—it is perhaps worth giving the author the benefit of the doubt, or coming back to the book after putting it down for a while. Certainly it was worth going back to Stamm. For unlike the people we make our lives with, novels need not be threatening. They will not bitch about our slowness to appreciate that they have quite other values than ours. And though we may never be able to accept those values, it is fascinating, and useful, to appreciate that there are people who move in quite different worlds of feeling from our own.

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