16 February 2009

Can't go on; can't stop reading

David Sexton has long been a writer/reviewer I've admired and by whose name my eye is always flagged.

In Jan 26th's Evening Standard he reviews Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl, which is neither here nor there because what caused me to sit back in awe was his writing about Simon Gray's reaction to Zweig's Beware of Pity:

"Gray begins reading the novel and finds it so compelling that it makes him forget "the cancer and the prognosis" for hours at a time.

'The great thing is that if I turn to Stefan Zweig's 'Beware of Pity' I can escape for as long as I'm reading it, which is why I've been going so slowly.

Also, it's too good to read except with the closest attention, and so painful that I have to put it down constantly.'

"It's a telling description of what it feels like for anybody to read this great book, about a young Austrian cavalry officer who, at his first grand party, mistakenly asks the host's daughter to dance, not realising she is crippled. He is overcome with guilt and shame — and these feelings lead him into a relationship with her and ultimately disaster. Zweig presents every moment of feeling and sensation so vividly that, just as Gray describes, you can hardly bear to go on at the same time that you can't stop for a moment."

Not just a telling description of reading this great book, but any book that moves us, and Sexton absolutely nails it in one.

With so many of today's mediocre books being assessed by equally mediocre and tongue-tied reviewers, it's a real pleasure to hitch one's books-page reading to a thoughtful, articulate judge.

Alas, Fleet Street being in the throes of self-destruction and the arts pages the first to be pruned, I'm not fooling myself that talent like Sexton's will be around much longer.

With oligarch gazillionaire Александр Евгеньевич Лебедев having just bought Sexton's Standard, I expect Lebedev will be out to Tempest Isle in his floating vodka palace, in which case I shall cadge my usual invite to rub hip bones with those unsmiling leggy Natashas and test Alexi out on his artistic sensibilities.

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