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?


18 comments:

liz fenwick said...

Yes, frequently though don't ask me which ones at the moment. It's one reason that I hold onto some books which I think might just be me at the moment...
lx

Charles Gramlich said...

Once or twice, but usually with a lot of years in between the two readings.

Jane said...

This is not a character that I hated but I really didn't care for her in the first reading.

I ended up re-reading all the Sebastian St. Cyr books from the beginning in the past couple of weeks. I did like Kat's character much better on the second go round. I still think that her's and Sebastian's relationship was doomed and I think Kat hit the nail on the head when she said that he couldn't raise her up to his level, but that she would only bring him down to hers.

I also became very curious about Jarvis's secret that could destroy his life in politics and perhaps have even more repercussions. I have a theory about what it might be. If I'm correct, you've seeded a few clues in the books. I hope that you explore that in more detail in future books.

A.M. Swan said...

The English Patient is I think the only book that, when I came to the last page, I simply turned back to the first to read it again. I disagree with the many adjective applied to both this book and its movie. I LOVED them both. I turned back to the first page, not because I was confused, but because I was mystified and in love with its poetry.

Steve Malley said...

Quite a few times. I've also had the reverse: books I've absolutely LOVED that when revisited prove as awkward, or painful, as bumping into an ex on the street...

paz said...

Steve made me laugh out loud! "Naked Lunch" by Borroughs comes to mind. So amazing 15 years ago while in college, not so much now...

I love Michael Ondaatje fiction and poetry. But then again perhaps I am a sucker for the "artsy" ;-) Maybe you should try "Anil's Ghost" next, if you haven't already.

cs harris said...

Liz, I tend to hold on to books I didn't like, either, although I suspect it's more because I'm so cheap I hate to throw away a book I bought but haven't read!

Charles, I've never had it happen with less than a few years in between, either.

Jane, that's interesting! Writing Kat was tricky, since I wanted people to feel Sebastian's pain but not hate me when it became obvious the relationship was star crossed. I didn't entirely succeed, since many didn't like her, and others didn't like ME when Shadows came out.

cs harris said...

A.M., the imagery is wonderful.

Steve, LOL! How true, how true.

Paz, I haven't read it, and blush to say I didn't realize he was also a poet, although I should have. I'm going to have to look for it.

Susan/DC said...

I've not read "The English Patient" although I did see the movie. Ralph Fiennes could probably read the phone book and I'd be mesmerized.

As for books I've hated then loved, the one I remember most clearly is Hawthorne's "A Scarlet Letter". It was assigned when I was in 8th grade and, much as I loved my English teacher, we were far too young. I thought it was OTT, and I could not understand or empathize with any of the characters, and sometimes I wasn't even sure exactly what was happening. The Pilgrims seemed like aliens from another planet and the opening section on the Customs House was the most boring thing I'd ever read. Years later I reread it and completely changed my opinion. It helped that I'd moved from Arizona to Massachusetts so that I'd seen the actual Customs House, knew what the world Hawthorne described looked like, and had lived through a harsh New England winter. I was also now an adult, and the concepts of religion, guilt, sin, sex, and redemption were no longer foreign concepts written in a language I did not speak. Hawthorne was still OTT at times, but I could now appreciate the book in ways I could not when I was 14.

cs harris said...

Susan, I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and hated it. Perhaps I should revisit. Although this may prompt another blog musing: how much does being familiar with a setting influence our appreciation of a book?

helenq said...

I'm afraid the adjective that most springs to mind for The English Patient is 'boring!' I just couldn't get into it at all. I finished it all and can't ever see me reading it again. There's been other books that I've started and know I not in the mood for yet, so will leave until a later date when I will enjoy them (Tristram Shady, On The Road, Jekyll and Hyde)But I don't ever think I'd be in the mood for the English Patient!

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