The unbearable sadness of reading

Image of Robert Shrimsley

After careful consideration, I’ve decided that, actually, we really don’t need to talk about Kevin. And thanks, but I won’t be dipping into The Lovely Bones either. I’m sure both books are every bit as good as people say but, on balance, I’ve decided that I don’t want to spend the next few days in the company of a psychotic killer, his traumatised mother or a raped, murdered and dismembered child watching over her grief-stricken family from some personal heaven. It isn’t the death and dismemberment that troubles me – after all, I’ve read most of Ian McEwan’s work. But I no longer spend my moments of relaxation sitting in some nice spot thinking: “This is lovely. Now if only I had a harrowing novel about child murder to round off the day.”

I blame the book clubs for this; all those earnest members who feel the need to choose challenging titles that are good for them or show their emotional depths. Whatever the reason, I have had the epiphany that says I do not need to read or watch things that will make me miserable. I did not need to sit through Angela’s Ashes, Monster’s Ball or a Todd Solondz film about incest – and frankly I’m OK with the idea of not truly comprehending the crushing grief that accompanies the loss of a partner or child. In fact, I consider not fully understanding it something of a life’s ambition.

I would, for instance, give anything not to have read Siri Hustvedt’s profound and brilliant What I Loved, which half way through delivers a terrible and unexpected tragedy and which, along with everything that follows, still upsets me when I think about it. The father/son narrative at the core of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was similarly unbearable.

An aversion to accounts of child death, I understand. This is a dark place no parent wants to visit. But increasingly I find little reason to read or watch anything which I know will deeply upset me. It is not sadness or unhappy endings that put me off so much as work which, often with great skill, puts misery at its core. There is a reason why the publicity material rarely states: “I cannot recall a book which left me more desolate.”

So I have compiled a handy list of warning signs. Even allowing for 1984 and Brave New World, the presence of the phrase “dystopian vision” on the back cover is a useful clue; as are the words “brutal husband”, “unsparing account of the human condition” and “against the backdrop of the Rwandan massacres”. Perhaps it is a function of ageing, of losing people you love, or struggling with the stresses of real life which, even in an existence as overwhelmingly fortunate as my own, seem only to increase. Grasping that, in the vernacular of the anti-drugs campaign, I can “just say no”, has been a liberating experience, rather like realising that you don’t actually have to sit through a play you are not enjoying. There’s no need to make a scene; you just wait till the interval, slip off to the bar and don’t come back.

This approach could, I recognise, look rather pathetic. How, for example, does my certainty that I do not want to read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas gel with my conviction that people need to know about the Holocaust? More importantly, the sadness often makes the story. To avoid any more spoilers, I won’t name the recent bestseller which seemed terribly slight until the sudden death of its leading character. At a stroke a slight but pleasant entertainment was transformed into a story of pathos and loss. It made the book; yet it also ensured I had no desire to see the film.

It is also a dangerous path towards intellectual decrepitude. I can see this opens me up to intellectual scorn. Unhappiness, as Tolstoy recognised, makes for far greater art. Am I condemning myself to a life of musicals, puerile comedy and vampire novels? Still, I’ll trade your scorn for my happiness. You enjoy your psychos and child molesters. And in the event that I feel my world becoming too saccharine and need to experience some human anguish, I can always ban the kids from using the computer.

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