Second reading

"The top of the bookmark juts out from the pages of my copy of The Woodlanders like a tombstone marking the mortal remains of any hope I ever held of finishing the thing."

The top of the bookmark juts out from the pages of my copy of The Woodlanders like a tombstone marking the mortal remains of any hope I ever held of finishing the thing. I’ve twice strode with relish into Thomas Hardy’s quiet Hampshire woods to spy on Giles Winterbourne and his hopes (doomed, one senses) of marrying childhood sweetheart Grace Melbury.  And twice I’ve come a cropper at exactly the same moment in the story.

I don’t know about you, but repeatedly abandoning a book at precisely the same point has happened to me at least twice.  I reveal my second example below, but let’s stick with Hardy for now.  He is a writer I adore, partly because I can trace my love of serious literature back to the day when, as a teenager, I borrowed Tess of the dUrbervilles and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row from Ballyphehane Library on the south side of Cork city.

Many years later, when I began my first attempt at reading The Woodlanders, I was enraptured by the sheer Hardy-ness of it: the setting, the characters, their lovelorn dilemmas, their worldly temptations. Indeed, I was beginning to wonder why it wasn’t routinely mentioned in the same breath as the top rank, alongside Tess, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

And then, about a third of the way in, a sequence of events occurs that seems to signal the undoing of all of Winterbourne’s dearest hopes. I won’t spoil the plot, but I could not find my way past the preposterous pile-up. Bellyaching about unfortunate coincidences in a Thomas Hardy novel may seem like complaining about the cold when in Lapland. But, here, I thought, Hardy had gone too far: too much the wanton novelist torturing these flies of his for our sport. So I sought my literary pleasures elsewhere.

The seven or eight years before my next foray at The Woodlanders was obviously long enough for me to forget exactly what had irked me. I had a vague intuition I had abandoned the book with good reason, but, I told myself, my decision had probably been hasty or unwise, the product of misreading or a bad mood. How wrong I was. Same initial delight. Same exasperation prompted at the same juncture.  Same outcome.

The other book I’ve flung down for a second time at the identical spot is Christopher Sykes’s biography of Evelyn Waugh. In this instance, I seemed to remember that my first reading years earlier had ground to a halt in a fit of moral revulsion.  Or was it merely prudishness?

Inspired by having read a Waugh novel, I thought to give it another try and slouched my way once again to the account of Waugh’s Christmas 1925 visit to Paris. He and a chum make their way to a brothel specialising in “petits enfants”.  They express their desire to have a sex act of staggering depravity performed for their pleasure and amusement, but then can’t cough up the necessary cash.  The next day, writes Sykes, “was spent in more serious pursuits”, with Waugh visiting the Louvre, finding himself a “little glutted” with Poussin, but working up an enthusiasm for Philippe de Champaigne. And there I left him.  Again.      

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