I tried. I really tried. For the fourth time in my life, this week I gave up on Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s gigantic novel about – well, what, exactly? I’m not at all sure I could tell you. I got to almost page 200 in the Viking/Penguin edition this time, accompanied by a reader’s guide which itself used words I had never encountered before and seemed to detect wordplay across dozens of pages and names which, if it existed, could have been little more than a joke against the poor reader on the part of the clever novelist.
And that was the problem, I think. I just felt that there was humour being perpetrated, and I was the perpetratee. I am glad I am part of a species that includes someone with the intelligence, the reading and the sheer bloody stamina to have written Gravity’s Rainbow. But when you get to the end of a nine-page chapter and you realise you have no idea what just happened, it’s time to call it a day.
So, after this spicy dish with overwhelming flavours which inspire you and give you stomach ache at the same time, what is needed is something light, delicious and palate-cleansing. So, after a gap of twenty years, I picked up what I’ve always claimed to be my favourite book, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I read it three times between the ages of 17 and 24, and haven’t read it since. I’ve got the Folio edition, a present from my father, and it includes a preface by James which isn’t dated but was obviously written years if not decades after The Portrait of a Lady, at a time when James’s prose had become almost as impenetrable, mannered and infuriating as Pynchon’s. So the Preface is somewhat harder than the novel itself, but it did contain this beautiful phrase which I wrote down and which is the excuse for this rambling screed:
The living wage is the reader’s grant of the least possible quantity of attention required for consciousness of a ‘spell’.
Isn’t that wonderful? And can there be a more succinct way of describing the different grounds Pynchon and James inhabit? Pynchon demands every part of you: your intellect, your sympathy, your full, undisrupted attention. And yet you can still fail, and feel a failure. James, on the other hand, demands some of your time and a soupçon of your wit and, perhaps most of all, the bulk of your sympathy. As an antidote to Pynchon (if one is needed), he’s perfect.