Tuesday, August 23, 2011
The English Patient
Although I enjoyed the movie The English Patient when I saw it in a theatre in Adelaide some years ago, I did not read the book. It was described as being “dense” and “inaccessible,” and since I generally have a low tolerance for self-consciously “literary” books, I was never tempted to have anything to do with it.
Well, a few weeks ago my daughter was cleaning out her bookshelves and one of the books she set aside was a trade paperback edition of The English Patient. I picked it up and said, “Are you getting rid of this?” She said, Yes; she hadn’t enjoyed it and could never really “get into it.” My plan was simply to flip through it and then toss it in the pile for the library book sale. To my surprise, not only did I end up reading the entire book (remarkable in itself, since these days I give up on probably nine out of ten books I begin), but I actually enjoyed it. And now I’m left pondering all those adjectives that we hear so frequently applied to it.
Yes, it is nonlinear, but I did not find it difficult to follow. The characters were rich, the language wonderful, and the insights into the human condition thought provoking. (The heroine’s response to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, “If we can rationalize this, we can rationalize anything,” echoes within me still.) But dense? Inaccessible? I don’t think so. And the ending, while only slightly different from the film version, did not leave me with that wretched sense of sadness that characterized the movie.
The book does, however, require a slightly altered frame of mind. I suspect enjoyment hinges on the reader appreciating that the book is not an attempt to recreate a realistic slice of life but necessitates an approach vaguely similar to the way one would read a fable or a fairy tale. Perhaps it’s that shift in thought pattern that so many readers find themselves unable to make—or uninterested in making. Or perhaps one must simply be in a certain mood, and the book and I happened to meet at the right place and the right time. Perhaps if I’d tried it ten years or even ten months ago I’d have hated it, too. I did say I have a low tolerance for self-consciously literary books, didn’t I?
Have you ever had that experience? Pick up a book and hate it, and then try it again at a different time and enjoy it?