Wednesday, 7 September 2011
I had a friend once who told this story about her Dad. Every Winter, she’d tell us, he read War and Peace. Year in, year out. They were a family without a telly so this was his quiet, studious evening pursuit when the nights drew in. He had an ancient hardback copy from one of those book clubs, and there’d been an error in the binding and printing which meant that the central 100 pages or so were upside down. So my friend – let’s call her Argyle for the purposes of this post – knew when the halfway point was reached because her Dad would calmly and without complaint spin the book around and continue reading. Argyle used to say that this rotating of War and Peace invariably meant Christmas was near.
Argyle could tell a good tale, so I one day expect to find that the War and Peace story was borrowed from elsewhere. But I like the idea of a reader for whom a single text can continue to satisfy again and again. No offence to Tolstoy intended, but I suspect Argyle’s dad had long since stopped reading for the novel’s ability to yield new and interesting meanings. No, I reckon this was about comfort. The chill of winter outside; the warmth of the fireside; the holidays a-comin’; War and Peace.
I mention all of this ‘cause I too have a book I keep comfort-reading. A few, actually – Gatsby, Remains of the Day – but with this particular one I’m on my fifth or sixth iteration; way ahead of the others. And, weirdly, I’m not sure I know why I keep doing it.
Nothing as lofty as a Russian or American heavyweight to brag about here, folks: it’s The Ghost by Robert Harris. That’s right. The political thriller that he briefly halted his Roman trilogy to dash off. The frothy, inconsequential bestseller you see in service stations and airports; the one that Polanski recently filmed. That one. What the hell am I playing at? There are new tales waiting to be told out there; time’s a-wastin’ – and here I am starting the same book again for the fifth time.
And yet. It’s so sparsely written; that artless narrator thing works so well. There’s only a handful of adjectives to clutter the prose in the opening chapters, for example. There’s only one location, one claustrophobic, wind-blown location for the majority of the narrative. There’s a genuinely colourless protagonist; a ghost, almost – the reader substitutes themselves for him. The pace is nigh-on perfect. The political insight is impressive.
I know it’s no War and Peace, but it continues to fascinate me. There’s something in its clarity, coherence, simplicity, that's compelling. Perhaps we’ve all got our comfort reads.
Comfort me by admitting yours!