Reading Easy, Reading Hard

As a teenager in the 1960s I remember visiting record stores and the various music genres, most of which I avoided. In particular, the popular ‘easy listening’ category was considered as nauseous drivel. Jazz was a foreign country that made no sense at all. Classical music was no-no, and opera was a horrible noise suitable only for upper class nobs who pretended to like it.

The music I loved was the Beatles, of course, the Stones, Pink Floyd and what was known as prog rock. The latter started introducing symphony orchestras, synthesisers, and – through bands like the folk-rock Incredible String Band – world music. Blues and soul intertwined, lyrics from the likes of Dylan and Leonard Cohen were prized as poetry. In fact, looking back, it’s easy to see that the explosion of genre-mixing music was laying a foundation for my broader musical tastes. By the end of the decade I was even listening to Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and developing a taste for jazz via Cream.

Then came a period of the ‘light classics’ such as Tchaikovsky, soon to be followed by the existential darkness of Wagner and Mahler. Today I remain fairly restricted in my classical experience, and more to the point I find some music too ‘hard’ to listen to. It’s the same with literature.

Although I was always top of the class in English and have a degree in English Literature, I am still very much learning to read – and write. Some of my reading is ‘highbrow’ which gives me a very different pleasure than that which I obtain from my ‘lighter reading’. I love crime fiction, police procedurals preferably, and welcome the astonishing growth of excellent authors in recent decades. My all-time favourite is Agatha Christie whose work has all the hallmarks of genius. And it’s ‘easy reading’. So too is P.D.James whom I am currently reading, though her work is a little ‘harder’, a little more ‘literary’.

Like romance, the detective genre is extremely popular. At it’s best, the crime stories are vehicles for the examination of social, cultural and political problems. At the same time they reveal our psychological condition beneath our civilised veneers.

I imagine that there may still be a few ‘high culture’ critics who look down their noses at such culture for the masses. My response is that, clever as they may be, they lack the cultural competences to engage in these works. The phrase ‘cultural competence’ was emphasised by Charlotte Brunsden in 1981 to show how ‘reading’ and interpreting soap opera was essentially linked to cultural matrices which involved learned reading of significatory ‘texts’. Thus, while it may be true that many lack the competences to relate with James Joyce, many highbrow readers lack the skills necessary to read popular texts.

When James Kelman, the workingclass Glaswegian writer, won the Booker prize for his novel How Late It Was, How Late some judges resigned in protest. One critic in a broadsheet described the novel as ‘literary vandalism’. There remains to this day – on all sides – fierce, often virulent, condemnation of many cultural products (reflecting my close-minded tastes in music as a teenager).

We’d do very well to remember that Shakespeare, Dickens and most nineteenth century writers were very popular across all sectors of society. Shakespeare, in particular, wrote into many of his plays opportunities for the ‘lower class’ groundlings in his audiences to join in with banter against their social superiors in the galleries. I’m pretty sure, though I have done no research, that crime fiction – and romance – similarly appeal to all segments of society. But reading whatever you enjoy requires no justification, none whatsoever. Incidentally, I’d add that as a writer I do not have the skills and competences to write in the crime genre I love reading. They’re different skills than those of Kafka or Beckett but they are as rare and valuable. To some extent they can be taught, formulae followed, but only the best writers will find their unique voice. Unless you’re Ian Rankin you’d be daft to try and write like Ian Rankin. Of course, in ways we cannot map, all that we read will influence our writing – influence but not determine.

Hard Reading

As I said, I’m still learning to read and write. I like to finish the evening immersed in the pleasure of an ‘easy read’. Prior to that (and I’m not always in the mood, or have the energy) I’ll read something ‘hard’. No way am I as developed a reader to tackle something like Finnegan’s Wake: I’m having trouble even to wade through Infinite Jest which at least has a familiar basic naturalistic narrative. Let me tell you a little of what I’m facing at the moment reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

It’s the ‘hardest’ fiction I have read, or at least the hardest I’ve continued to read after the first pages. Mann’s The Magic Mountain I found ‘easy’. The book I’m currently reading is very difficult – and long, alas. I’m used to being a fast reader but here it may take me five minutes to work through a page. The narrator is infuriating: very clever, highly educated and cultured, musical, psychologically sinister, and is clearly unreliable in telling the story of his friend Adrian Leverkühn, the brilliant composer who was pulled into a Faustian pact, a story which – as I reach the halfway mark – has barely begun. Thus far have been backstories. Yet the promised-to-come heart of the tale is set in Nazi Germany which receives but intellectualised occasional comments to do with the fate of Germanic culture. The narrator teases, often apologising for ‘going on’, fully aware that ‘the reader’ may be having difficulty following. The style is convoluted to say the least, frequent fifteen-line sentences with lacunae and subject and predicate losing each other (for this reader anyway). For reasons I have yet to digest, though, a few chapters are ‘easy’, crystal clear and even beautifully evocative.

The main characters are musicians. Subsidiary groups chatter about philosophy, culture and politics. Throughout is the theme of music, music as art, and the technicalities of music are for me difficult, but not impossible, to follow. Here’s Leverkühn:

In art…the subjective and the objective intertwine to the point of being indistinguishable, one proceeds from the other and takes the character of the other, the subjective precipitates as objective and by genius is again awaked to spontaneity, ‘dynamized,’ as we say; it speaks all at once the language of the subjective. The musical conventions today destroyed were not always so objective, so objectively imposed. They were crystallizations of living experiences and as such long performed an office of vital importance: the task of organization. Organization is everything. Without it there is nothing, least of all art. And it was aesthetic subjectivity that took on the task, it undertook to organize the work out of itself, in freedom… Old or new, I will tell you what I understand by ‘strict style.’ I mean the complete integration of all musical dimensions, their neutrality towards each other due to complete organization.

So it goes. Am I enjoying it? Yes, I am. Much of it is falling on deaf ears. Slowly, cumulatively, the text is developing like a symphony. Hints of the main theme to come, repeated motifs, contrapuntal harmonies, discords, recognised traditional compositions, a drive for new forms. Dark as the frequently evoked mediaeval theologies of Germany (Leverkühn chose to study theology for two years before committing to his prodigious musical talent), this is reading unique to my experience. Very hard, very difficult, enormously worthwhile.


Oh Joy! An hour after writing the above I returned to my Faustian toil. At last that wretched narrator has removed his prune-souled gibberish from proceedings and Leverkühn’s secret documentary account of his journey to perdition begins. And I have to say, may the Devil take me, that upon the entrance of the Mephistophelean Angel of Death, I had tears of laughter rolling down my face. Tears of relief and revenge against that spiteful bourgeois gossip who besmirched the first part of the novel with his pusillanimous drivel. Doubtless a few passing chords of parody and glee. I anticipate much darkness to come, much dread, much cold.

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