Imagine writing a thousand page novel which everybody hates.
Having a long-standing interest in German art and literature, I decided to see what had been going on in the German novel lately. There are a number of lists around so I cruised through a few looking for something that piqued my interest. I chose and ordered a few from Book Depository which has a great European language selection. Being hasty and lazy, I based my choice on review comments and catalogue descriptions without looking carefully into details. I can read in German, but slowly. I came across one which was highly praised – by the publishers, as it turned out. It won the German Book Prize in 2008. Der Turm (The Tower) by Uwe Tellkamp offers a “monumental panorama” of the former DDR (East Germany) across three generations in decaying Dresden. Sounded good to me, if a bit intense. I put it with the order, which will arrive in a week or so. I discovered that there is an English translation, published by Penguin in 2014, but I wanted to do the German thing. Why not?
Well, one reason might be that the book is around 1000 pages long, and that’s in paperback. I hadn’t realized that when I bought it. Since I read mostly in bed, this is exactly the kind of book I vowed and declared I would never buy again, once the miracle of Kindle turned up. (German books aren’t available on Kindle, or if they are I can’t work out how to buy them). I can’t even imagine how to physically manage reading a book of this size in bed. I realized I had made a stupid and expensive mistake, but by then it was too late.
A day or so later I realized this simple purchasing episode seemed to clarify all the things about myself which make me so annoying as a contemporary human being, the things that pile up in my auto-critique basket. Lack of careful attention to what I am doing. Impulsiveness. Ordering things online at midnight. Ignoring my own resolutions. And because I have been reading obsessively in the genre of subjective non- or semi-fiction (Knausgaard and now Carrère) I kept finding myself composing paragraphs about how everything which had happened around this book was actually a kind of signal to me about myself, something I really should pay attention to, like a message from the Great Beyond or maybe it’s the Deep Inside, the Unconscious which Carrère is constantly forcing himself to become conscious of. Even when he does, he turns round and ignores what he’s just discovered. Yes, partner, I know how it is.
Finally, though, I realized that my biggest mistake was not reading any actual reviews before I bought the damn thing. Cripes! It seems to be the most incredibly boring book that anyone has ever come across. Although the publisher’s blurb and remarks by a few London-based literati suggested it was an “epic” exploration, on the English-language Goodreads site there were 56 reviews and all of them were one star, which is the lowest you can give. And several of these were in German. I have never before seen such revulsion and disdain. Here’s what some said: “I just can’t get past the ridiculous writing style and overblown descriptions in this book … spurious, convoluted and self-congratulatory”. “A thousand-page cringe fest, arid scenes from the lives of the lifeless”. “Absolutely terrible!” Lots of people left no comment, only their voluble single star. One reviewer on Amazon gave it four stars, but the comments were pretty tepid.
How would you feel, writing a book so unbelievably long, which all your readers seemingly hate? I mean it’s hard enough to get people to review your books in the first place, but what if they’re all totally negative? Is it better to be ignored or condemned? Then again, how does such a book even get published? There are thousands of writers all over the world, struggling along day after day, approaching agents and publishers with panting enthusiasm, only to be rejected time and again, consigned to the slush pile and thence to the Kindle quagmire, if they can even get that far. And here is someone who writes and writes and writes in a turgid prose with achingly dull detail and not only is he published in both English and German but he wins a prize. Go figure!