Marvellous Stuff

After enjoying Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity so much, I was interested to learn what the reviewers had to say about it. One critic described it as “fat, pretentious” and an “embarrassment.” Another described Perlman’s “talent for sharp satire,” and noted that portions of the book were “marvelous stuff.” Still another vacillated between “distinctly odd” and an “exciting gamble of a novel.”

What can a reader make of these differences, especially for someone who hasn’t read the novel? To read it or not to read it? There is only one way to answer this question. Forget about what the critics say and give the book a try. I did. And I thought it was a reading experience at its best.

As usual, I noticed the way the reviewers were silent about the effects the novel had on them personally. Instead they went about evaluating the text or Perlman’s writing skill or lack thereof. I suppose that is the customary practice. Critics don’t talk much about how a book affects them personally. I have never understood quite why.

What did they think about Simon? What kind of experience did they have in reading about him? Did his life and dilemmas reflect anything about their own life or contemporary life in general? Are these fair questions? They seem so to me. That should be clear from what I wrote yesterday.

Readers read so differently. The same text can mean something different for each reader and something different to them at another time in their life. One person's literary truth is another person's banal cliché. I think of books, a good book, at least, as a cornucopia of meanings that vary widely between readers. Perhaps that’s why reading is such a remarkable experience.

In reviewing Seven Types of Ambiguity, Keith Gessen wrote “I can’t believe this book was published.” Gessen is one of the reigning contemporary American novelists and a highly regarded literary critic. Who am I to question his appraisal? And yet, I thought the novel was “marvelous stuff” and while it was perhaps a bit lengthy, it nevertheless brought a lot of pleasure to me.

Am I to question my taste, consider it nothing but the mark of a mediocre reader? I read a great deal and I do write a bit about the books I enjoy, although it is true, I remain an amateur at this. Should I dismiss the pleasure Perlman’s novel gave me?

No, I think it is simply because we differ in our preferences. And there are many reasons for that, probably having far less to do with literary acumen than they do with experience and background. Phyllis Rose expresses a similar view in her recent book The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time,

…but what I looked forward to most in reading Proust were revelations about myself. The best moments had been those in which I descended most deeply into myself…so I achieved a sudden clarify of vision….Proust understood that every reader, in reading, reads himself. Far from minding this, he saw it as the writer’s task to facilitate it. Thus the writer’s word is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is proof of its veracity.

Here Rose suggests that the power of literature lies in confirming those truths of experience that are unique to each individual. These truths are not to be found in generalities but rather in the specific conditions of our own lives. Since no one’s life is the same as any other, we are bound to differ in the way the reading experience affects us.