I don’t give up on books very often, although I do it more now than I would have done before I started blogging. I still feel a bit ungrateful towards the author, who has put months or years into writing a book, if I can’t be bothered to spend a week on it – but I’m coming round to the too-many-books-too-little-time argument. (Giving up is distinct from putting it to one side and forgetting about it – it has to be a decisive action.)
When I do give up, it’s usually because I think the writing is too bad, or (occasionally) too confusing. It’s rarely related to subject matter or character – although if I started a gory crime novel, I’m sure I’d stop reading that pretty smartish.
But I’ve never given up on a novel quite so quickly as I did on Tuesday morning. Because I now have a 40 minute walk into work, I tend to read a book whilst I’m walking. (Yes, I’m that guy. Surprised?) And I was a page and half – yes, 1.5pp. – into Mary Webb’s Gone To Earth before I concluded that I could not read any further.
I’ve read and re-read, and loved and re-loved, Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, but I’ve not read any of the authors she was parodying. Well, I’ve read some Lawrence and Hardy, and they’re on the peripheries of her satire, but I’ve steered clear of that peculiar vogue for rural novels which seized British literature in the early years of the 20th century. Here is the opening of Gone To Earth, with my thoughts interpolated:
Small, feckless [oh, wasn’t that one of the cows in Cold Comfort Farm?] clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky [always cross out the adjectives first when editing, love] – shepherdless, futile, imponderable [oh… never mind.] – and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears. [oh sweet mercy.]
[So, what have we established? It was a cloudy day. Right-o.]
It was cold in the Callow [oh, sorry, we’re not done with the weather – as you were] – a spinney of silver birches and larches that topped a round hill. A purple mist hinted of buds in the tree-tops, and a fainter purple haunted the vistas between the silver and brown boles. [Of course it did. Purple is a very haunting, hinting colour. Now, for the love of all that is pure, can we move on?]
Only the crudeness of youth was here as yet, and not its triumph [anyone else feel we’re wandering into heavy-handed metaphor territory?] – only the sharp calyx-point, the pricking tip of the bud, like spears, and not the paten of the leaf, the chalice of the flower.
[Is there an editor in the world who wouldn’t have rejected this novel by now?]
For as yet spring had no flight, no song, but went like a half-fledged bird, hopping tentatively through the undergrowth. [To summarise: it’s early March.] The bright springing mercury that carpeted the open spaces had only just hung out its pale flowers, and honeysuckle leaves were still tongues of fire. [I think you’ve made your point, Mary.] Between the larch boles [oh good, more boles] and under the thickets of honeysuckle and blackberry came a tawny silent form, wearing with the calm dignity of woodland creatures a beauty of eye and limb [can one wear a beautiful eye?], a brilliance of tint, that few women could have worn without self-consciousness. Clear-eyed, lithe, it stood for a moment in the full sunlight – a year-old fox, round-headed and velvet-footed. Then it slid into the shadows. [A sentence without adjectives or adverbs! Mary, my dear, are you feeling quite yourself?] A shrill whistle came from the interior of the wood, and the fox bounded towards it.
“Where you bin? [oh, Heaven preserve us.] You’m stray and lose yourself, certain sure!” [“certain sure?” REALLY?] said a girl’s voice [or, indeed, ‘said a girl‘], chidingly motherly. “And if you’m alost [oh no…], I’m alost; so come you whome. [no, ‘whome’ isn’t a typo. In case you were wondering. I wish it were.] The sun’s undering [I wonder if Mary Webb had ever spoken to someone from the countryside?], and there’s bones for supper!” [YUM.]
[I finished off the dialogue spoken by the girl’s voice, but – truth be told – it was at that ‘You’m’ that I made my decision not to read on. Isn’t this simply everything appalling you ever thought the rural novel might be? Perhaps it gets better, perhaps I am doing Ms. Webb an injustice. I, for one, certainly shan’t be finding out.]