A case of reader's block

There are two questions on the lips of every London reviewer at the moment. One is "Have you read Ish?"; the other is "How far did you get?". Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel The Unconsoled, his first since the Booker-winning The Remains of the Day, is causing the literary world a little heartburn. Its length (535 pages); its subject (famous musician in unnamed European city is caught up in Kafka dreamscape); its idiom (flat, undifferentiated, Eurotranslator-speak) and its utter different- ness from its predecessor have thrown the reading classes into a loop.

A curious by-product of the readers' irritation is that they have started to brag how little of Ishiguro's book they could manage. "I gave up on page 113 . . ."; "It took me four goes to get past page 90 . . ."; "On page 375, in the middle of this long rap, I realised there were more than 100 pages still to go . . .". Whatever the alternative titles Ishiguro considered for The Unconsoled, it's rapidly turning out to be The Uncompleted.

Is boasting about one's failure to engage with a book a specifically British vice or just a modern one? Salman Rushdie has suffered in the past from similar sneers: shortly after publication of The Satanic Verses (and before the fatwa wiped the smile off people's faces), there was talk of a Page Fifteen Club, formed by people who could get no further than that in Rushdie's troublesome chef d'oeuvre. Bernard Levin once wrote a whole article about his failure to make any headway with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

Can we imagine the enlightened readers of the past being so effete? Can we see Macaulay or Coleridge saying, "Well I dipped into Herodotus, but couldn't get beyond Chapter Five?" Can we see Edmund Wilson, who managed to provide a brilliant first-sighting critique of Finnegans Wake with no more than taste and fascination to guide him, complaining that he found a 500-page novel heavy going?

No, it's a modern habit, I'm sure. No other generation would bottle out of the simple process of reading a book to the end, then try to turn their mental flaccidity into a virtue. But I blush to say this, as I recall the time I wrestled with a novel before taking part in a panel discussion. It was a work of inexpressible tedium, reading which left me in attitudes of sleep all over the house, stairs and garden. Finally, the only way I could finish it was by standing in the kitchen with the sharp end of a wooden shelf pressing painfully into a kidney. Ah the joys of the literary life . . .

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