Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

27 thoughts on “Monsters

  1. Of the above, I’ve only read The Alexandria Quarter and I liked that a lot. I’ve read Robert Pinsky’s Inferno but not the whole Divine Comedy. One time when I participated in an all-night reading of the Inferno on Maundy Thursday at St John the Divine in New York, I chose the Sayers version for the final canto. The most monstrous books I’ve read are Finnegan’s Wake and Heidegger’s Being and Time. I can’t imagine reading Finnegan’s Wake again, only dipping in to read parts. I made copious notes on the Heidegger so I could see dipping into that again or a reread at some point. One big one that I do have to read is Buddenbrooks. I stare at it every now and again with some longing and wish I had the time to just sink into it. Next book up though is Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom and Metaphor. I finally relented and bought a copy. I’ve been reading a lot of her poetry recently and it eases my soul in a clear and sharp way, nothing mushy about it. So good luck with your monsters, Anthony. Speaking of which Nicholas Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters springs to mind. That’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t already. Best wishes.

    • Buddenbrooks is also on my list but I am very keen to read Joseph and His Brothers first. I’ve been dipping into Sayer’s Dante notes, which are splendid, so it seems right I read her translation. Zwicky’s Wisdom and Metaphor is extraordinary. I’ve never thought to read Moseley; interesting suggestion. Thanks, Des.

      • I’m chiming in here to say that you must make time for Buddenbrooks! It is marvelous. I think I like it better than The Magic Mountain, which is the other Mann I’ve read though I own Faustus (which I put down) and the Joseph trilogy. Buddenbrooks is much more accessible than most of his other works. I highly recommend it!

  2. Oddly enough that comment by H James came to mind (and I used a bit of its near neighbour) when I posted recently about another such monster, Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. Not as architecturally tight as Middlemarch, but not too loose, either. There were tediously over-detailed passages of arcane political chicanery, some of which I confess I skimmed by vol.2, and there were too many characters – not, as in Dickens, in an entertaining sense; just extras. William Gaddis, The Recognitions is another whopper I recall struggling with years ago, with its later-Joycean non-linearity and unconventionality – but he’s damn good. Dos Passos, USA, I never finished – earlier style modernist, collagist, something to dip into perhaps. Like the previous commenter, I’ve not read any on your list, though I did read Durrell’s Avignon Quintet, also a long time ago, and found extremely good in parts, but patchy, if I recall. I’m taking it easy with shorter books for a while after the Transylvanian exertions.

    • I’ve made it quite a way through The Recognitions but don’t think it’s for me. Often been tempted by Dos Passos because Sartre and Beauvoir admired his work so much.

  3. Great list. I only got to page 200 of Daniel Deronda. Then I dropped it. (As an aside, Middlemarch is one of my all-time favorite novels so I will get back to Daniel Deronda at some point.)

    A few others: The Raj Quartet (a favorite of Eva Brann’s); The Betrothed by Manzoni (a classic of Italian literature); The Doll by Boleslaw Prus; and The Maias which is the only one on this list I have read–and really enjoyed it.

    I’m currently starting Fortunata and Jacinta (I almost chose La Regenta, but that one will have to wait). Although I love some of the Victorians, I’m just not a fan of Thackeray or Dickens. Most of Trollope’s work seems too pedestrian for me (he was that kind of writer), but I did enjoy The Way We Live Now. I used to love Wilkie Collins but he seems more of a writer for the young person (and I’m no longer so young).

    The other one I toy with reading along with Parellel Stories is The Kindly Ones, which I have downloaded to my kindle. The reviews on that one were all over the board.

  4. Couple Monsters I’ve Read
    – I liked The Family Mashber by Der Nister, but it’s unfinished (although Book II leaves off with a relatively satisfying ending.)
    – I reviewed Władysław Stanisław Reymont’s 1899 novel The Promised Land (a 600-pager), and want to tackle The Peasants (which is twice as long, and for which he won the Nobel Prize.)
    -Loved Buddenbrooks; You take all of the greatness and descriptive power of Flaubert, but give it to an author who actually likes people and finds family history interesting, you get Buddenbrooks.

    Monsters I’ve started:
    -I’m up to volume 3 (of 12) in Giacomo Casanova’s History of My Life, which is not a novel but is easily as entertaining as any novel, and is more beastly, more girthful (:D) than any novel (4,000 pages!) Really one of the most astonishing feats of writing ever.
    -Histories also technically don’t count, but I’ve started in on Jules Michelet’s History of France, The Turkish History by Richard Knolles, and The Rise of the Dutch Republic by John Lathrop Motley

    Monsters that Interest Me / That I’ve Just Heard About

    -Of traditional novels:
    1. Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman
    2. Oblomov by Goncharov
    3. Kristin Lavransdotter by Sigrid Undsen
    4. Trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz (eh, I don’t know; this sounds like a melodramatic blood-and-gore fest; it does get compared to Tolstoy a lot, though, and he did win a Nobel . . .)
    5. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (same)
    6. Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal (I think @TheUntranslated might have reviewed this)
    7. Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes (Wikipedia: “Terra Nostra, perhaps Fuentes’ most ambitious novel, is a ‘massive, Byzantine work’ that tells the story of all Hispanic civilization. Modeled on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Terra Nostra shifts unpredictably between the sixteenth century and the twentieth.”)

    -Madame de Sevigne’s Letters form a corpus of about 8 volumes; there is a lot of wit and pathos in what little I’ve read of them.

    -In the Casanova vein of Really Long Memoirs, I want to read Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts (translated in the 20s and 30s by Constance Garnett), and I’m also intrigued by Henrik Steffens who knew Goethe and all of the other German Romantics and apparently wrote a really long autobiography of which only a 234 page extract has been translated. (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001067087) I also have a (very) partial translation out from the library of Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne’s autobiography, Monsieur Nicolas or, The Human Heart Laid Bare. (Choice blurb from Britannica: “Restif de la Bretonne undoubtedly holds a remarkable place in French literature. He was inordinately vain, of extremely relaxed morals, and perhaps not entirely sane.”)

    -Of course there are the periodicals and periodical writers, although those are by multiple hands and don’t count as a single work. But among these, I want to read all of the essays of Hazlitt, Lamb’s Essays of Elia and Last Essays (which are basically like a novel), the Tatler and the Spectator, and the later prose poems of Thomas de Quincey.

    -Did you know that Anna Laetitia Barbauld was a serious essayist and edited a gargantuan edition of The British Novelists? Me neither, I didn’t know that until recently. I thought she just wrote some poetry and had snooty men call her a spinster.

    I’ve wanted to tackle Samuel Pepys’ Diary (1660-1669) for the longest while, but in the meantime I’ve learned of four other diaries/journals that could be considered “monsters”:

    The Journal of Jules Renard (1887 – 1910) (partially translated)
    The Journals of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (1851 – 1870) (partially translated)
    Diary of Constantijn Huygens Jr. Per Wikipedia: “Between 1649 and 1697, Huygens filled 1,599 pages. In this diary, he recorded all aspects of early-modern court life in Holland and England.” (untranslated)
    Diary of William Charles Macready (1833 – 1851), last of the great actors, wrote a little-remembered 1,000 pager that can be read here: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001362928

    • Thanks for commenting, such a terrific response.

      The Family Mashber looks very intriguing, a Leonard Woolf translation too. I don’t think it’s my sort of thing (surrealist/symbolist) but I’m glad it exists.

      I’ve never heard of Władysław Stanisław Reymont, and it looks like his work isn’t in print in English translation.

      Lots of love for Buddenbrooks: I’ll have to push it to the forefront of my reading list.

      I’ve pondered over Casanova’s History of My Life many times. Everyman have a condensed version of 1500 pages, so I admire that you are working your way through the full edition.

      Pretty much everything else you’ve mentioned is on one list or another of things I want to read, but I am grateful for the introduction of some new names for me to look up and consider.

      I should have had And Quiet Flows the Don on my list, which read without finishing and need to start again.

  5. I do love a big book and I guess a lot of the Russians I read would qualify as monsters – in fact, The Devils will hopefully be cracked open soon and that’s pretty long. Seconding mention of The Magic Mountain which I absolutely loved.

  6. I second, third and fourth the recommendation to read Buddenbrooks. A truly great reading experience on all levels.
    Other monsters:
    Sleepwalkers by Broch
    Women and Men by McElroy
    Demons by Von Doderer

    If you want to get a taste of Dos Passos, I highly recommend Manhattan Transfer.

    Also, I’m just going to throw in a recommendation for Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.

    Great blog. Thanks for your exciting and compelling work.

  7. A few monsters I liked:
    1. Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
    2. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki
    3. Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman
    4. Green Henry by Gottfried Keller
    5. Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima
    6. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

    • I’d like to read Berlin Alexanderplatz but await a reliable translation. The Eugene Jolas translation has not aged well, and I cannot abide Michael Hofmann’s approach to translation.

      • I read the Jolas translation some time ago. I don’t know the Hofmann but I enjoyed the Jolas a lot. Something always missing with any translation perhaps but better to have read Döblin than not, I think. (BTW#1 the Fassbinder movie in 17 parts is extraordinary and pretty harrowing, too.) I did enjoy Swann’s Way but I prefer gritty to bourgeois so I’d go for Berlin Alexanderplatz. (Was that an unabashed swipe at Proust? Could be.) (BTW#2 Terra Nostra was great read way back when. I did try a second reading recently but didn’t feel up to it.) Happy reading, Bookfriends!

        • That’s a good way of looking at translation, Des. I should read the Jolas rather than wait something “better”. I’ve held off on the film as I prefer reading the book first. As for Proust, the best experience is full immersion for several months, not to read in parts or interrupted by other texts, at least on the first reading.

  8. You force me to re-examine my aversion to loose baggy monsters. I am such a fan of the 200 page novel (or the 150-page novella) – but never for plot! I also have an aversion to plot. And I often think that only shorter work can get away with being profoundly experimental or extremely quiet without losing the reader. But I like your idea that the looseness of a sprawling work opens up space to breathe; I will be thinking about this. I do have a soft spot for a small number of monsters – Pilgrimage being one at the moment. And The Tale of Genji, which might be, for me, the loosest, baggiest, simultaneously ridiculous and beautiful monster of them all. Flaubert would be the other door-stopper I really enjoy – L’Education Sentimentale more than Bovary. The monster I’d like to read this year is James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head.

    • There are many shorter novels and some novellas that have tremendous restraint, and I agree it is somewhat easier to achieve with a shorter novel, to find that stillness. Monsters offers a different experience but can also find stillness in their pace. They have little need to be conclusive in the same way. But it isn’t a preference for one or the other. It still comes down to the quality of thought and the access to a way of looking at the world. I’d like to read The Tale of Genji one day.

  9. What a trove of great recommendations – your list and those in the comments.I define “loose baggy monster” by the degree to which I have to struggle to get the thing in and out of my loose baggy book bag, and am struggling to haul about two of these big works simultaneously at the moment. The first is a re-read of Miklòs Bànffy’s “The Transylvanian Trilogy,” and the second is Olivia Manning’s “The Balkan Trilogy.”

    I’m happy to see so much enthusiasm for “Buddenbrooks,” and add mine. I’m also grateful to see Grossman’s “Life and Fate” mentioned, a book I cannot imagine not reading. And Reymont’s “The Peasants”! I have an old 4-volume copy of that sitting on the shelf – one with the pages still un-cut, which is one reason I have not attempted to tackle it yet. And I loved “La Regenta” and “The Maias.”

    A few others not yet mentioned::

    “The Devil to Pay in the Backlands” (Grande Sertaõ Veredas) – Joaõ Guimaraes Rosa
    “Your Face Tomorrow” – Javier Mariàs
    “Les Cavaliers” – Joseph Kessel
    “Beyond the Bedroom Wall” – Larry Woiwode
    “Belle du Seigneur” – Albert Cohen (still only partially read!)

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