I have now been a member of a book club for a few months. Not just the one I set up on my own, which has floundered slightly as we are all so busy, but one run by a Sheikha here in Abu Dhabi. We meet every month or so to discuss books at her palace. We sit in an elaborately decorated room while uniformed women bring us tea and chocolates.
The latest book is by AS Byatt and is called The Children’s Book. I am on page 110 and cannot really face going any further. The only reason I have got this far is that a great friend, whose opinion I respect, told me she loved it and I just had to be patient and I would get into it.
I know as the writer of frivolous books (my husband doesn’t call me Helena Froth Powell for nothing) I am bound to say this, but what is the point of a book that you have to struggle to get into? Some might argue that the reward is a deeper novel, one with more insight. Does anyone struggle to get into The Great Gatsby? Or Jane Eyre? I don’t think so.
At the same time as the Byatt book I have been reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. The difference could not be more obvious. While Byatt’s prose is turgid, faux-brow and laborious, Chatwin excells in the art of the simple, incisive sentence.
I can see what Byatt is trying to achieve with her convoluted layered sentences, evoking the mines beneath the core of the story and the dank atmosphere of Edwardian England, but do they make for good reading? No. Here is the opening line: “The boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery and looked down on a third. It was June 19th 1895. The Prince had died in 1861, and had seen only the beginnings of his ambitious project for a gathering of museums in which British craftsmen could study the best examples of design.” Make you want to read on? Me neither.
Chatwin on the other hand begins In Patagonia like this: “In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair.” Immediately we want to know what this rather disgusting object is, and why it is interesting enough to open a book with. My favourite sentence so far is this one, which I think is one of the most perfect things I have ever read:
“The day before I had met the nuns of the Santa Maria Auxiliadora Convent on their Saturday coach outing to the penguin colony on Cabo Virgenes. A bus-load of virgins. Eleven thousand virgins. About a million penguins. Black and white. Black and white. Black and white.”
Sublime. In other news, my father has been awarded a literary prize for a play he wrote. I have not been able to speak to him yet, but am sure the news has cheered him up immensely. And I assume, knowing him as I do, that the writing was more like Chatwin than Byatt. At least I hope it was, or I may not be able to read it…In fact as it’s in Italian, I may not be able to read it anyway.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011