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17 September 2023

My latest ailment is Mild Exasperation With Everything

Is there a cure? Perhaps buying nine of the 12 volumes of the Scott Moncrieff translation of Proust will help.

By Nicholas Lezard

I very much enjoyed Anna Leszkiewicz’s takedown of Richard Osman in last week’s magazine. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I posted a link to it on a social media platform; and all hell broke loose. I was accused of snobbery, of envy, and even, by extension, of taking the bread from up-and-coming writers’ mouths (the reasoning: the millions made by Osman and other extremely popular writers means publishers can nurture new talent).

I let the arguments spool out. Osman’s only crime in my book, so to speak, is writing badly. I tried to give him a go once, I really did. I was feeling a bit under the weather, and thought a little cozy crime would fit the bill. But I felt I had read enough Agatha Christie (her output is wildly variable and there is always the risk of a racist remark) and I practically know all the Sherlock Holmes stories by heart. So why not a bestseller? There must be some merit to it. After all, Lee Child’s Reacher books sell by the skipload and they’re great.

So I picked up the first Osman novel. I lasted about ten pages before giving up. It was the style: the kind of writing a clever ten-year-old might produce. I’d quote from the book to back my point up but it’s buried in the piles somewhere and I don’t have the energy to look for it.

But never mind him. He can dry his tears with money and I am also reliably informed that he’s a lovely person and that’s nice. It’s the way the wider public don’t care about prose style that bothers me. But I mustn’t let that bother me. There really are more important things to worry about.

Or are there? I dimly remember a story about Karl Kraus saying in the 1930s that if the people whose job it was to put commas in the right place had done so, the world wouldn’t be burning. The pedant in me loves this while at the same time wondering whether it is somewhat over the top. And let’s not forget that here, in this magazine, we are in a protected enclave, where we all know how to spell and recognise a poorly constructed sentence when we see one. It’s really not like that in the real world.

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Anyway I have a bigger problem. It is reading-related but goes beyond that. It’s not depression, or if it is it’s a peculiar variant. I shall call it Mild Exasperation With Everything. Let’s start with the books. When I moved into the Hove-l, I had about five boxes of books: practically none at all. In three years this has grown to about a million. Not all of them are of my own choosing: publishers send me theirs from time to time in case I feel like reviewing them.

There are a few duds but quite a few decent ones. Also, my nearest Oxfam has a pretty good selection, and the best of these are often displayed on a table as if it were a trap to bait me. On one day alone I picked up a 1960 Penguin edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, a charming JM Dent edition of Three Men in a Boat and one of those little hardback Collector’s Library editions (gilt-blocked, fits in pocket) of The Moonstone, all for a fiver. Then a few days later – this was straight after my lunch sitting next to Business Knob of the Year, so I was feeling slightly tiddly and aggressively aesthetic – I snapped up nine of the 12 volumes of the Scott Moncrieff translation of Proust for 15 quid. I didn’t have a bag with me so had to carry them under one arm in Waitrose like… well, like the kind of person who goes to Waitrose with nine volumes of Proust under his arm. Which I suppose could be called Peak Waitrose.

The problem is, none of these are gripping me. Decline and Fall I’ve read too many times; Three Men… I am finding dated and a little facetious; The Moonstone somewhat heavy going although that’s not Wilkie Collins’s fault; and the Proust – well, we all know what the problem with Proust is. And it’s not his fault either.

No: something in me is making everything unsatisfactory for some reason or another. Take the weather. Too cold or too warm. If it’s just right, then all that does is remind me that summer will soon be over and that I have not taken advantage of it by going for walks on the South Downs, which are only a bus ride away. Solitude? Unbearable. Socialising? Something of a strain. Cooking? A chore that only leads to other chores. Takeaways? An extravagance. Having to go to the loo every morning? Don’t get me started. Living? A penance for a crime I did not commit. Not living? What, and miss out on the marvellous gift of life? And finding absolutely everything a mild pain in the bum is itself a pain in the bum. Never mind Richard Osman.

[See also: Developers are selling even the sky above our heads]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers