Saturday, April 02, 2005


This book once made me cry.

I have been reading a novel called The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. It's a strange book, it starts off quiet and sparse, a simple account of a young German lad who gets involved with an older woman. But then it slowly, and quite brilliantly unfolds into a seriously moving analysis of the woman's wartime guilt (she was an SS guard in Auschwitz), and her pathetic but poignant efforts to atone. The emotional pitch of the book, heightened somehow by its austere style, gradually mounts up until, by the last chapters, I was actually sobbing. Yes, sobbing. Real tears, with that kind of heaving sound.

A bit gay, I know. And rather unusual for a cynic like me. Indeed only two other books have made me properly weep, as an adult. Bitter Fame, the fine biography of Sylvia Plath, by Anne Stevenson, was one. I remember I was almost unable to finish this book I was crying so much; it was something to do with the inevitability of it all, of Plath's suicide, plus the horrible bit where she puts bread and milk out for her sleeping kids, then folds a tea-towel to protect her silly face from the rusty inside of the gas oven door. As with all suicide stories, true or false, I wanted to rush in and stop her, yet had to stand by helplessly and somehow guiltily. Indeed, as I was reading the book (and it is very well written) I had an overwhelming urge to go back in time and say, Sylvia, come on, chill out, life's not so bad, go get drunk, watch an episode of Fawlty Towers, take a rock of crack, anything. But of course you can't. Also I'm not so sure Sylvia would have liked crack.

The other book that made me cry was the Lonely Planet Guide to Russia. Unlikely, you might say. But there is an explanation. First it was the account of the Stalingrad Battle - and the huge statue the post-war Stalingraders put up to Mother Russia. Second I was on the Trans-Siberian railway at the time, passing through Novosibirsk, and I was coming off a two year heroin jag. Rather badly.

When you come off heroin the weirdest things happen to your emotions. Because they have been deadened or muffled for so long, your emotions return with extra vigour, your nerves are scraped raw, you can get upset or randy or angry or exultant or weepy at the slightest thing. Like a frigging guidebook.

The moral of the story? If you really want to get into a book, take heroin for two years, then begin to wean yourself off, and then read the book. Works every time!

(Oh yes, and do try The Reader. It's truly great.) Posted by Hello

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