Archived Reading Room

Book challenges me to critique the critic

bookIn Why Read?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the practice of student reviews of a teacher, then writes: “As I read the reviews, I thought of a story I’d heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike? Part two: what flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least they compelled the students to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered.”

This exercise in self-criticism intrigued me, and I have several times brought the professor’s questions into my Advanced Placement Literature classes. At first, some students don’t understand the question. They — and most of us, I might add — are accustomed, in matters of taste regarding art, to be judges rather than the judged. (One young man absolutely refused the questions, describing in his essay what he considered wrong with both my test and the book he’d chosen to attack). 

To help the students, I offered my take on opera. I could have used any number of examples, rap music, abstract art, and any other “arts” that have failed to engage me. Why, I asked the students, did I dislike opera, which many regard as one of humankind’s great achievements? What did that dislike say about me? In part, I told them, my lack of operatic pleasure stemmed from ignorance. Incomprehension left me with the inability to love. Impatience and laziness, too, played a part; to understand opera required more work than I was willing to undertake. In other words, opera was not flawed; I was.

For this week’s review of Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon (Grove Press, 2004, 438 pages, translated by Barbara Harshav), this approach of looking not at the book’s flaws, but at my own failures as a reader and reviewer, might be the best approach. The novel contains four pages of compliments paid to Mercier’s magnum opus. Typical of these blurbs is the one from a German paper, Die Welt: “One reads this book almost breathlessly, can’t put it down ... A handbook for the soul, intellect, and heart.”

Night Train to Lisbon caught my attention not because of these compliments, but because the protagonist, Raimond Gregorius, is a classics teacher at a Swiss lycee, a man in his fifties who lives his life according to a strict routine. (The appeal was one of harmony; I teach Latin, though I am a ham-and-egger compared to any college professor, and am also a creature of routine). A chance encounter with a beautiful Portuguese woman leads Gregorius to a book written by Amadu de Pardo, a Portuguese physican and writer. Intrigued by Amadu’s philosophy, Gregorius impulsively abandons his university post and travels to Lisbon, seeking to discover more of this mysterious writer. The rest of the novel follows Gregorius throughout his explorations, revealing more and more of Amadu through his friends, family and writing, while simultaneously recounting how these revelations alter the life and thinking of Gregorius.

The first half of the novel I read avidly but then began skipping the italicized thoughts of Amadu. Soon I was skimming paragraphs, then jumping over entire sections. The last hundred pages or so I read as quickly as possible, looking only for the fate of Gregorius.

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Now, I could tell you that the book was turgid, slow in places, far too loaded with philosophical asides distracting from the plot. I could add that an editor might have chopped a hundred pages from the story without damage to the plot. And though I usually enjoy aphorisms, I could also tell you that Night Train to Lisbon has so many characters speaking aphoristically that one could publish a volume of these sayings. 

“This sucks,” some of my students might say were they to attempt the book, and though I dislike those words, I found myself thinking similar thoughts as I plugged away in the middle of Night Train. But as I neared the end, sprinting now simply to follow the plot, I thought of the compliments of so many authors and reviewers, and asked myself: What were my imperfections as a reader and a critic? What were the flaws in me that caused my dislike of a story so many other readers and critics found impressive?

For the first time in my life, I realized I lacked the ability to appreciate much of European literature. Russian and British authors have always appealed to me; over the course of my lifetime, I have read them with pleasure and interest. But with few exceptions, modern French, German, Spanish and Italian authors rarely find their way to my desk or bookshelves. Why this is so baffles me, and will doubtless lead me to some painful discernment. Some of it, I think, has to do with the ponderousness of European thought; with the exception of Nietzsche, I found the modern European philosophers I read long ago in college an uphill trudge. Part, too, stems from the European sense of humor, which seems to me to differ drastically from British, Russian and American humor. Europeans are, somehow, more icy in their humor, favoring an arched eyebrow to a belly laugh.

I am also aware that focused, prolonged reading, once a pleasure 30 years ago, has become nearly an impossibility. This circumstance derives not only from many hours in front of a computer screen, during which the attention jumps from site to site like a jackrabbit on speed, but from a life of work in which a long bout of reading became impossible, a pleasure denied by work. Even today, when life offers more leisure, I cannot sit very long with a book before the conscience begins its nagging, telling me to wash the dishes, write emails to students, call a friend. I still read a great many books, but the reading is done in snatched moments. Night Train requires focus and lengthy sessions lost to me along the way. 

Finally, I have to admit my sympathies are limited when reading novels burdened with ideas, particularly with long philosophical speculations offered by a character I find unsympathetic. This aversion I also regard as a weakness; I lack either the resolve or the intellectual capability of meeting the author halfway. Were I to meet Mr. Mercier and were we to discuss his book at all, I would feel a fool informing him he needed to write so that someone as dim as I might understand. 

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. Grove Press, 2004. 438 pages.

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