Hard Reading

Some books are just hard to read. But perhaps it is possible to learn something from why they are such hard going.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

An American author, but never mind! I started, got part way through, flicked a few chapters forward and read a bit, glanced at the end, then gave up for a while. And when I wanted to pick up where I’d left off, my bookmark had fallen out. I tried to find where I’d got to, but it was like a stick of rock. It was the same all the way through. I honestly couldn’t tell if I’d read a particular bit or not!

It is an incredibly introspective book: mostly a series of deep meditations, by an old and dying priest, about his life, his family, his spiritual insights. There are other characters: his friend, his much younger wife, and, most importantly of all, his son. But his wife and son hover in the background, and never come into focus. They never walk into the room and speak. Such a pity – they seem interesting characters and I wanted to know directly about how his young wife and child related to him. The other problem was more serious. A complete absence of conflict – which is the driving force of any good novel.

So, what have I learnt? The importance of dialogue, face-to-face interactions and conflict.

Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell

A much older book, published in 1933. It is a dramatic account of the key events in the life of Peter Abelard, a thinker and philosopher in France, from 1116 onwards. People will have heard of the tragic love story of Abelard and Heloise – although perhaps not, I guess it depends on your background. I had: I knew that he was her tutor, that they had an affair and when her uncle found out, he had Abelard castrated. Forced to separate, Heloise became a nun and Abelard a monk, but they remained in contact to the end of their lives, writing frequently to each other. These letters survive.
Now, a little learning is a dangerous thing. I expected the book to focus on the love story and the traumatic ending to it. I have to confess that I was expecting it to move towards a dramatic and harrowing account of his castration and their bitter, hopeless parting. But it was more an account of the spiritual changes in Peter himself. The climactic events of their love story were not directly described, nor were his or her feelings or actions. Instead, the novel jumped from an indirect account of these events, by a third person, to Abelard’s life three years later and his reconciliation with God. So my reading of it was coloured, to its detriment, by my knowledge of the tragedy, and I did not appreciate exactly what type of novel it was.

The other problem I had was almost the opposite. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know that Abelard was famous as a song-writer and lecturer, I didn’t know enough Latin or French to appreciate some of the quotations, and I didn’t know enough historical background to easily understand the first few chapters.

So, what have I learnt about writing from this book? Probably be pessimistic about what you assume that your readers know and that too much explanation is probably better than too little. And if you write about famous events, know what your readers will expect.

However, this book is the one that I will read again. Now that I know its focus, I think that I will get more from it the second time around, because I will be reading about the change in Abelard’s character and belief, rather than the love story.

abelard and heloise

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