About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.

Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

  1. January 31, 2017 at 7:25 am

    Aha! V interested to read the review of Bernanos as I abandoned it last year for v similar reasons . I put it down to my lack of proficiency in the language ….kept thinking I must be missing something….reassured to see that was not the case !


    • January 31, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      His tone was unsufferable, wasn’t it?


      • January 31, 2017 at 2:39 pm

        Aha!!! I did understand then ….YES !!!


        • January 31, 2017 at 11:14 pm

          Your French is better than you think.


  2. January 31, 2017 at 8:22 am

    What annoys me the most when I’m reading a book that makes me feel that way is that it takes me ages to abandon it and during that time I read very little because I try not to read too many books in parallel. Too bad about these three, I’ve got other Bernanos here. I have no idea if he’s for me. I’m anti- clerical too. And anothe of de Beauvoir’s books. Luckily not this one.


    • January 31, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      I feel the same way, that’s why I eventually abandon books when I see that I have no pleasure in reading them. I don’t HAVE to read, so why bother with books I don’t enjoy?

      Which Bernanos do you have?

      I was disappointed by the Beauvoir. She could have said as much in a lot less pages.


      • January 31, 2017 at 2:49 pm

        Journal d’un cure (I have no accents on my iPad) de campagne and Sous le soleil de Satan.


        • January 31, 2017 at 11:16 pm

          Well, good luck with these ones. I’ll wait for your reviews to decide whether I should try them or not. (To be honest, the titles put me off)


  3. January 31, 2017 at 10:12 am

    J’en ai aussi quelques-uns qui monopolisent un marque-page et qui s’empoussièrent tristement. 😦 abandonné à leur sort.


    • January 31, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      Tout pareil. Je me tâte pour savoir si je referai une tentative plus tard (des fois, c’est une question de moment de lecture) mais quand je n’arrive pas m’imaginer avec le livre entre les mains, je laisse tomber.
      Je me sens toujours un peu coupable mais je n’ai pas de temps à consacrer à des livres qui ne me plaisent pas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 31, 2017 at 7:10 pm

        On va créer la bibliothèque des livres abandonnés alors …


        • January 31, 2017 at 11:24 pm

          Excellente idée. Une SPA des livres abandonnés par leur lecteur et qui cherchent une nouvelle maison.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. January 31, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    I have only read Cat’s Cradle. Though I really like it I thought that it would have been a better book had Vonnegut made it a little less absurd. I do not know if you got that far, but I thought that Ice – Nine was a brilliant, but terrifying idea.


    • January 31, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      Actually, I stopped when he introduced the Ice-Nine stuff. That was too much for me on top of the weird religion (I couldn’t understand the point of it in this plot) and the weird characters.


  5. January 31, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    No, I haven’t read any of them and am unlikely to do now! Thanks for doing the work for me 😁


    • January 31, 2017 at 11:15 pm

      That’s the other side of book blogging! 🙂 Not just raving about the books I loved but also writing about the ones I didn’t.


  6. January 31, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    Don’t feel guilty about it at all – there are too many good books in the world to receive your attention. Shame about the de Beauvoir, it’s one I haven’t read and now I won’t bother.


    • January 31, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      I know I shouldn’t feel guilty but I still do. (a little bit)


  7. January 31, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Bit surprised by the Beauvoir, but on reflection I don’t actually know much about it so I probably shouldn’t be.

    Cat’s Cradle is one of his more SF-y isn’t it? I’ve never read it.

    Do any of them remain for a possible future reading or are they all gone.


    • January 31, 2017 at 7:10 pm

      Right, Cat’s Cradle is 100% a science fiction apocalypse novel. A comic one. It has, among Vonnegut fans, a famous last page, which is 100% Vonnegut.


      • January 31, 2017 at 11:26 pm

        I’m going to read the last page, now. Have you read it? It’s not your usual century.


        • January 31, 2017 at 11:36 pm

          I read it long ago. If not the last page, very close. You’re looking for a gesture, an eternal gesture. For clever college students in the 1960s, that gesture, that ending was very rock and roll. Existentialism for smart alecks.


          • February 1, 2017 at 10:20 pm

            I read the last page. L
            Existentialism? It made me think of a huge statue of a dictator that fell out of power or of Le Dormeur du Val by Rimbaud.


          • February 1, 2017 at 11:33 pm

            Ah, not just the last page but last line – the narrator as a frozen statue, “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.” Following Camus’s idea of an attitude of defiance or revolt against the universe.


    • January 31, 2017 at 11:20 pm

      You’d probably like the Beauvoir better than me. I have the feeling you’d be more interested than me by Fosca’s adventures.

      Cat’s Cradle is SF, yes. I really think I should give up on SF now. It’s really not my thing. I keep trying because of the Max Barrys and Lauren Beukes out there.

      I don’t think I’ll try these books ever again. There are too many books that would suit me better.


  8. January 31, 2017 at 5:27 pm

    Life is too short to waste it on book’s that don’t draw you in.


  9. Jonathan
    February 1, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    I find that some authors I just can’t get into—Pynchon is one of those for me; I’ll probably try another in the future but by now I don’t hold out much hope that I’ll ever like his work.

    Vonnegut is, however, a favourite of mine. I notice that you’ve read more of his earlier sci-fi-ish work. It may be worth trying a later book such as Bluebeard, if you feel like giving him another go.


    • February 1, 2017 at 10:23 pm

      I’m glad to hear you couldn’t enter into Pynchon’s world either. I felt like the odd reader, among all this praise.

      Thanks for the recommendation of Bluebeard. I might give it a try. After all, I liked Sluaghterhouse 5.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Linda Stormonth
    February 13, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks for your honesty. I think life is too short to plough through books you do not enjoy just because someone else has rated them. I enjoy yours, and other book blogs, because of the general lack of pretension compared to newspaper book reviewers. Of course, we obviously will not all agree, but some of the bilge I see hyped makes me wonder… is it me?


    • February 13, 2017 at 11:31 pm

      Thanks for your message. My blog is my reading journal, so yes, sometimes I read books I don’t like and sometimes I don’t even finish them!


  11. February 18, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    I’m not a sci-fi person, but have dipped into a small selection of novels, to be rounded I guess! I’ve read one Vonnegut, and that was Cat’s cradle. I really enjoyed it, and found ice-nine an unforgettable idea but I don’t remember enough now to say why I enjoyed it. Sorry.


    • February 18, 2017 at 7:15 pm

      Maybe I didn’t read Cat’s Craddle at the right time. The problem was I couldn’t recall what I’d read previously when I picked up the book again.


      • February 19, 2017 at 12:08 am

        Timing is often all when reading, isn’t it. I have a bunch of partly read books I plan to go back to because I wasn’t hating them but for various reasons I got distracted and they didn’t PULL me back.


        • February 20, 2017 at 2:26 pm

          I’ve got a pile of those too. But I still wonder: if they don’t pull me back, will I ever start reading them again?


  1. October 22, 2017 at 11:21 am
  2. December 7, 2019 at 3:31 pm

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