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Returning to the Unfinished Read
The Wrong Time for Jude the Obscure
When my wife was in high school, she was assigned Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. She did not like it. Okay, that is less than true. The truth was that she hated it, and still does, without ever picking it up again. I, too, have read Jude the Obscure, but not in high school and not because I was told that I must read it. During summer vacation my sophomore year in college, I read a few novels by Thomas Hardy, filling out my knowledge of the Victorian novel in preparation for a class on the subject. I liked Hardy, finding him to be different enough from his contemporaries to be interesting, and so along with Tess of the d'Ubervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge I read Jude. When my wife responded to a mention of the novel and of Hardy with the hostility born of her high school introduction to the man and his works, I could only respond, but I like him. Really, it is a fine novel, not perfect by any measure, but worth reading, and certainly unworthy of the type of volatile hatred I reserve for the much beloved, pushed upon me with unrelenting civility, Jane Austen. My uncle did his dissertation on Jane Austen, and I hold it proof of his endurance and masochism that he completed it.
My wife's problem with Thomas Hardy has nothing to do with the quality of Jude the Obscure, or Hardy's faults and virtues as a novelist. Her problem with it, and with him, is that she was forced to read it far too young, when it was bound to be of the wrong tone and, to a great extent, incomprehensible. Dickens is better for the high school student. Dickens is in the design of his novels, in his simple morality and even simpler characters, comfortingly optimistic, in keeping with the submerged requirements of young readers and young people. Darkness and introspection are a good pose for adolescents, but merely getting through those years whole requires a full reserve of optimism, egoism, and faith in the future. Thomas Hardy does not fit with these. He is an altogether different animal.
The most boring of the canon is...
Which of the following do you think should be ejected from the canon for being dull and irrelevant?
An Unchanging Mind
This does not mean that if my wife were to pick up Jude today that she would like it. She might still think it a bad novel, but her decision today would have more of a solid basis given her maturity as a human being and a reader than her opinion had at the age of sixteen. For example, I hated Pilgrim's Progress when I read it in college the first time, and I hate it now, almost twenty years later, having tried it again. The book doesn't speak to me, and so it was not written for me. Perhaps Jude was not written for my wife.
Beyond the books we finish and do not like, there are many others we thought so little of that we abandoned them unfinished. I am frequently guilty of this. I do not feel compelled to finish every novel that I start. I refuse to be bored, and as I no longer read to fulfill assignments, I do not have to suffer through a book. I have only to enjoy it, or find it interesting. I will put up with many flaws, only do not be dull. Bad grammar I have suffered through for a good story or strong characters. Bad grammar with nothing rising above it I will not endure. Our house is littered with books that held promise until they were half or more gone, and then whatever promise they tricked me into believing they would fulfill fled, and I fled the book. One day I may, perhaps, finish them. I probably will not.
The strangest category of unfinished books in my life are those that in some way enchanted me and yet remain unfinished. They enchant, but the spell does not last through the length of the novel and I always find that something else, some other task, novel, or endeavor, prevents me from completing them. Among these is Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, and the rest of his Remembrance of Times Past, famous for its memory-inducing madeleine.
Proust is a wonderful writer. His concerns with memory as a factor of the kinetic and the sensory, as a thing that permeates the present, rendering all contacts with the world inherently subjective and the past eternally available for objective analysis, allow him to render a closed world as an expansive emotional universe. The prose itself is superb, moving smoothly through time and place along links formed of memory, desire, and emotional tonality. And yet, although I loved the prose, the movement, the density of Proust, I have never finished even the first book in his opus. I failed him, and I don't know why, only there seems to have been a point at which I was full of Proust, rather like one is too full of a rich chocolate cake to force in another crumb, and rather than have that extra crumb swear off all chocolate for a while.
Here I am, ready to try again. Again, at the beginning, I am enjoying the density and flow, the musical resonance and emotional tones, of the novel. But will I finish this time? I don't know.