Last year I had a look at a few of those lists you find on the internet talking about ‘books to read before you die’ and the like, and picked a few to add to my Christmas wish list on Amazon. Having already whizzed through three of the slimmer ones I received as presents, the next three (funnily enough all Penguin books) took significantly longer to read. These were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, and The Castle by Franz Kafka.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is the paperback equivalent of the type of true crime Netflix documentary that I really got into at the start of this year. Published in 1965, it is a deeply detailed reconstruction of the events and profiles of the people surrounding the brutal murder of a wealthy farmer Mr Herb Clutter and his family at their home in the small Kansas town of Holcomb.
All the material in the book Capote says that is not derived from his own observations is either taken from official records or from interviews with the people directly concerned. However, it reads like a well-written novel, without being too sensationalist for the modern reader. Less so than Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry for instance which had a rather unsavoury edge to it.
Capote isn’t trying to make excuses for the perpetrators of such a mindless crime, who ended upon death row, but he is trying to understand the minds of the two people concerned, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, and their strange relationship. It makes for a good read, but not everything is as it seems. Recent research has cast a some criticism of Capote’s account of events alleging that the author was biased towards painting lead investigator Agent Al Dewey in far too flattering light and glossing over certain gaps in the investigation.
It is certainly seems to this reader that Smith and Hickock were guilty as charged but whether they received a fair trial is another matter. In Cold Blood is certainly a good read for fans of the true crime genre and there’s plenty of further reading available on the internet for those possessing a critical mind and like a Tiger King Season 1 viewer aware of writers possibly picking facts and bending truths to create an entertaining narrative.
The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith was first published in book form in 1892 having been previously serialized in Punch magazine. The book contains extra chapters of Charles Pooter’s fictional diary and so contains a false ending marking where the serialised version finished it’s run in Punch. There’s also an entry where Pooter is shocked to find someone has stolen several pages of his diary and he goes on to make some unfounded accusations. This is a joke that would go unregistered were it not for the excellent introduction and notes provided by Ed Glinert in this edition. Glinert points out that this marks the return of the diary to Punch after two months of not being featured.
Evelyn Waugh described the diary as ‘the funniest book in the world’. I wouldn’t go that far but it was certainly entertaining with it’s slapstick moments, comedies of errors and snooty criticisms of anything Pooter identified as not fitting how he though the world should run. This was in an age where families had servants helping with their households and deliverymen brought orders from places like the local butcher’s to the door. The level of humour reminded me a little of the TV comedy Fawlty Towers with Pooter tripping over his shoe scraper and blaming the man who fitted it, or turning red because he used the wrong paint on his bath tub being a couple of examples of the level of humour.
Much like In Cold Blood it’s easy (possibly reductive?) to view The Diary of a Nobody as the origin of a whole genre with recent entries being Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones both of which I read before either became truly popular due to the strength of the characters. All three diary’s capture the spirit of the times in which they were written but also provide a window into the soul of the character. The format allows the author to play with all the flaws of their character’s psyche for comedic value in a much deeper way than most humorous writers are able if writing in a non-diary format.
The Diary of a Nobody was an obvious joy to read after the darkness of Capote’s book and I especially liked the fact that the writing style was very straight forward and that the minutiae of everyday life in that historic period in Britain is spread throughout the pages. It’s the same kind of satisfaction I get from reading translated Japanese fiction – learning about all the unusual and curious things about a different culture. Glinert’s contribution also helped shed light on the Grossmiths and some of the more obscure cultural references within the text.
The Castle by Franz Kafka (first published in 1926) is perhaps the best known of the three books mentioned in this post, but for me also the least enjoyable. Kafka’s long-winded sentences are not to my liking and the reading experience is not helped by the layout of the text which has not new paragraphs for each new speaker in the many sections of dialogue (in fact very few paragraph indents at all) and by the . after the principal characters abbreviated name K. So every time K. is mentioned it looks to me like the end of a sentence. It’s a pain in the ass. Kafka died before he finished writing to story and it was posthumously published against his wishes. Maybe whoever decided to publish it should’ve listened.
Putting the fact that the story is unfinished aside, it is very much a rambling and organic affair with no discernible character arc or indeed satisfactory message. The reader, perhaps by design, gets just as frustrated by the act of reading about K’s troubles with the bureaucracy of the administrative system of the Castle (which he in fact never sets foot in) as K does with his increasingly complicated and undesirable situation. Having worked in a large global organisation for some time and (more so in my previous role I have to admit) having been exposed to some ludicrous red-tape and waded through managerial syrup K’s story was more irritating than it was novel. I understand it is a dark comedy or satire if you will, but it wasn’t for me.
I am sure that I have read other stories by Kafka and not experienced the feeling of wanting it to be over as soon as possible, and perhaps The Castle triggered some obscure psychological hurt from my past, but I really can’t recommend this as an essential bucket list book. It’s just too damn dreary, claustrophobic, with pointless circular arguments and unsympathetic characters. Yes there are some interesting moments of the surreal but it’s dreamlike quality felt more like a nightmare to me. Instead give me the story of a man who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect – I’m all in on that one.