I seem to recall that I only reviewed half of the books I read on holiday. This is because the furniture made me too angry to think. But now it has gone, and I have room in my brain to get angry about books again.
Actually, neither of these books made me particularly angry. One did make me sad (you'll see why), and one just confused me, but both of them turned out to be not at all well-chosen holiday reads. Oops.
If this book was a person, and I met it on a singles website (go with me on this), we would immediately flag up high uncompatability and any date we were forced to go on would be a disaster. If it was a dog, it would be a short-haired chihuahua and I would be looking for one of those dogs that look like an enormous toilet brush. What I am saying is, this book was not the book for me.
If you want to find out whether or not you will enjoy The Riddle of the Sands more than I did, you need to ask yourself one important question. Do you like boats?
For me, boats are like horses: I find them pleasant from a distance, but quite puzzling close up. They have lots of bits to them, like jibs and booms and all manner of little clippy things (?) that need constant attention, and I am daunted by this. This is not to say that I am incapable of getting on board with aquatically-themed novels. I read the whole Swallows and Amazons series in my youth (although I did mentally look away during the more naval parts), and I think boats are excellent places to put a plot. But there are books featuring the sea and there are books where THE WHOLE STORY is people belaying the fore-top-poop-sail and then letting it out again. (Or is belaying letting it out? Answers below please). And the second is the case in The Riddle of the Sands.
Unfortunately, my duffer of a brain does not allow me to focus properly on seafaring terms, meaning that I was only able to take in approximately one-third of the words in The Riddle of the Sands. To me, a typical paragraph looked something like this:
"??? the ??? ???!" said Davies. I quickly ???? ???? and jumped into the ?????. "Quick!" cried the normally taciturn Davies, turning a violent shade of puce. "We only have three hours until the ??? fills up the ??? and we are left in the ????" "But what of the villainous Germans?" I asked. "Surely their ??? must ???? on the ???? at ????." "Nonsense," said Davies. "Remember the ??? ???? ????? ???? at eight ????. Also, canals."The narrator, Carruthers, is a twerp - he begins the story by complaining about how BORED he is of London because all his friends are away and both(!) of his clubs are being cleaned - but even though the real hero is sweet, silent Davies, he is still too nautical to make me feel like I had discovered a kindred spirit. Our intrepid heroes (?) have to foil some sort of plot to do with Germans and canals, which they are either in, or not in, or in the wrong ones, or something. Anyway, the important point is that they are VILLAINOUS, like all Germans in British novels at the beginning of the twentieth century.
If you want a good tonal comparison for The Riddle of the Sands, think The 39 Steps but with boats. It's got the same jolly-ho British gentlemen, casual racism, open-air chases and random but very dangerous danger. I think I would have found The Riddle of the Sands gently amusing in its own unintentionally offensive way had I not been so befuddled by all the boat words. If you do like boats, I think you'll find it charming but dated, but because I don't I have to give it
Isherwood. Even though I'm not sure Isherwood's someone I'd like to hang out in a pub with, I love his prose style, and both of the books I've previously read by him were pretty dark but unfailingly funny. In this novel, though, he has magnificently lost his sense of humour.
It's clear that Isherwood was going through a very, very bad time when he wrote A Single Man. Every page of it washes you with utter black despair of the kind I haven't experienced since the last time I read The Bell Jar (which I keep doing because I love it, even though I know that afterwards I will have to crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling for a while thinking about doom). Like The Bell Jar, it feels intensely personal in a way that makes you want to phone the Samaritans on the author's behalf.
Set in sixties America, it follows one day in the life of George, whose life-partner Jim has suddenly died. Because George is a man and Jim was one also, he can't acknowledge his grief, he can't properly mourn and he has no physical or legal claim on the person he loved. (Sounds familiar? Of course it does. And the worst thing is that it's not just ancient history. In the kind of life-mirroring-art that you wish would never happen, George's exact story played out again last year. That last link, by the way, is to a youtube video made by the surviving partner, and you should probably be in a strong mental state before you click play.)
Feel depressed yet? It gets worse. If that whole scenario wasn't awful enough on its own, A Single Man is set in Los Angeles, the most grim city in the universe, where the roads are neverending circles of hell, the sky is a permanent weird shade of yellow and everyone is starving hungry and hates each other. Everything is horrible, George hates everyone and his life is just A LITANY OF DESPAIR. And that is how this book goes.
I felt uncomfortable and upset while I was reading it, and disliked George intensely, which I'm sure is exactly what what Isherwood wanted to happen. The idea he's trying to get across- and it's an extremely powerful one - is that if you're subjected to hate all your life, you will become a hateful person. If you simply feel soggily sorry for George, you've missed the point. He's not a tragic martyr, he's a painfully angry, sad man, and that's the fault of all the people who have made sure that he can't be open about the life that he's lived. Isn't that a jolly holiday thought?
A Single Man was incredibly powerful, but also incredibly embittered. Rage and sorrow just shoot out of it in waves. I think it'll stay with me, and I know I agree with what it's got to say, but I didn't actually enjoy the experience of reading it.
I just wish it wasn't still so completely relevant.