What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?


What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.

I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-DickUlyssesInfinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).

Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.

I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).

 Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).

By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…

I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).

I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.

Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.

My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.

I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.

I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.

By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.

And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).


Three Books


Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault. English translation by Richard Howard. Second edition Pantheon hardback, 1965. Cover design by Pan Visual, featuring a detail from Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross.


Correction by Thomas Bernhard. English translation by Sophie Wilkins. 1983 first edition trade paperback by Aventura. Cover design by Keith Sheridan featuring an illustration by Marshall Arisman. I wrote about Correction here.


The Tanners by Robert Walser. English translation by Susan Bernofsky. Irregular-sized trade paperback by New Directions, 2009. Cover design by Erik Rieselbach.

Read a 1970 microfiction by Thomas Bernhard, new in English translation by Douglas Robertson

Thomas Bernhard’s (short) short story “The Woman from the Foundry and the Man with the Rucksack” (“Die Frau aus dem Gusswerk und der Mann mit dem Rucksack”) is new in translation from Douglas Robertson.The story was first published (in Bernhard’s German, of course) in 1970. Robertson’s ongoing project to bring untranslated Bernhard into English is marvelous. Here are the first four (of fourteen) sentences—read the whole thing here.


The woman, who is employed at the foundry, found her eye caught by a fairly old man who, with a fully-packed rucksack was pacing up and down the riverbank, a man who was wearing buckskin lederhosen tied up at the ankles, a pair of high-topped lace-up boots, a coat made of milled cloth, and a sturdy felt hat on his head.  She thought there was something terrifying about the face of the man, who seemed, like her, to be impatiently awaiting the arrival of the train, this man who now and then would quite unwarrantably shove another person out of the way in order to keep his own path clear.  She had already observed the man on her way to the stop and begun forming thoughts about him.  The man was a complete stranger to her.

“Giant” — Thomas Bernhard


One gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc. (W.G. Sebald)

Michael Silverblatt: It seems to me that this book is truly the first to pay extended stylistic respects to the writer who, it’s been said, has been your mentor and model, Thomas Bernhard. I wondered, was it after three books that one felt comfortable in creating a work that could be compared to the writing of a master and a mentor?

W.G. Sebald: Yes, I was always, as it were, tempted to declare openly from quite early on my great debt of gratitude to Thomas Bernhard. But I was also conscious of the fact that one oughtn’t to do that too openly, because then immediately one gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc., and these labels never go away. Once one has them they stay with one. But nevertheless, it was necessary for me eventually to acknowledge his constant presence, as it were, by my side. What Thomas Bernhard did to postwar fiction writing in the German language was to bring to it a new radicality which didn’t exist before, which wasn’t compromised in any sense. Much of German prose fiction writing, of the fifties certainly, but of the sixties and seventies also, is severely compromised, morally compromised, and because of that, aesthetically frequently insufficient. And Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others. So he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative. You’re always sure that what he tells you is related, at one remove, at two removes, at two or three. That appealed to me very much, because this notion of the omniscient narrator who pushes around the flats on the stage of the novel, you know, cranks things up on page three and moves them along on page four and one sees him constantly working behind the scenes, is something that I think one can’t do very easily any longer. So Bernhard, single-handedly I think, invented a new form of narrating which appealed to me from the start.

From W.G. Sebald’s December 2001 interview with Michael Silverblatt; republished in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Lynne Sharon Schwartz ed.).

Extinction — Anton Kannemeyer

Extinction(More/about; via).

Three Books


Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard. English translation by Martin Chalmers. Illustration and design by Sunandini Banerjee. First edition oversized hardback from Seagull Books. On thick, heavy paper, Banerjee’s rich full-color digital collages illustrate what is essentially a microfiction by Thomas Bernhard. I bought this a few years ago at Faulkner House, a tiny bookstore in New Orleans.


Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner. 1973 Vintage mass-market paperback edition. Cover photo by Robert Wenkham; no designer credited. My favorite Faulkner, although I’ve not read them all. I bought this for grad school, which explains the cheap used mass-market edition, but I love the cover. IMG_8402 Fractured Karma by Tom Clark. First edition trade paperback from Black Sparrow Press. Design by Barbara Martin. The cover painting, Waiting Room for the Beyond, is by John Register. This is the first Tom Clark book I read. Amazing.

Three Books


I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Hardback. A Doubleday “Book Club Edition.” No clear date of publication, but the jacket design is by Johannes Regn. This book was my father’s. I’ve only kept it because of the cover. I keep it facing out, covering the broken spines of other Asimov novels I’ll never read again.image

Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-1945 by Gertrude Stein (edited by Patricia Meyerowitz. A Penguin Modern Classics trade paperback edition, printed in 1984 (I think) in Great Britain (I think–the colophon is confusing as hell). The cover features a detail from Picasso’s Woman in an Armchair. I spent 10 minutes flicking through Phil Baines’s Penguin by Design but couldn’t determine the designer. The first page bears two bookstore stamps, one from Russakoff’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, and one from the bookstore where I bought it. This is a book one can just pick up and read and random and be rewarded. I’m always reading bits of it so it’s never shelved.image

The Lime Works by Thomas Bernhard. A 2010 first edition trade paperback by Vintage International. The cover design is by Eva Brandstotter, who designed all of these Bernhard editions for Vintage. I was lucky enough to scoop up five TB’s all at once at my favorite used bookstore. I’ve had the urge to read Thomas Bernhard but it’s still too damn hot here in swampy muggy humid Florida to read Thomas Bernhard which I think only makes sense, this sentiment I’ve just expressed, if you’ve actually read Thomas Bernhard.

Read a 1967 Thomas Bernhard story, new in English translation

Douglas Robertson continues his project of translating Thomas Bernhard into English and sharing it at his blog, The Philosophical Worldview Artist, with his latest offering, a 1967 short story called “The Weatherproof Cape.” The tale was originally published in Midland in Stilfs in 1971; its composition and publication put it roughly contemporary with Bernhard’s second novel GargoylesNotice the typically Bernhardian opening (pre-elliptical) clause, with its parenthetical (and suspicious) “verbatim.” Here’s the first sentence of the story (I’m counting “sentence” as ending in a period).


“The Weatherproof Cape”


Thomas Bernhard

English translation by Douglas Robertson

From the Innsbruck lawyer Enderer, our guardian, we received  the following (verbatim) account…for twenty years, mainly in the Saggengasse and mainly at around midday, I have been crossing paths with this person without knowing who this person is; complementarily, for twenty years, mainly in the Saggengasse and mainly at around midday, this man has been crossing paths with me, without knowing who I am…moreover, the man hails from the Saggengasse, albeit from the upper Saggengasse, whereas I hail from the lower Saggengasse; both of us grew up in the Saggengasse and in point of fact, I think, I have always seen this person without knowing that he hails from the Saggengasse and without knowing who he is; complementarily this person has known nothing about me…now it occurs to me that there is something I should have noticed about this person, that I should have noticed his weatherproof cape…we cross paths with a person for years, decades, without knowing who this person is and if we ought to notice anything about the person, we notice nothing about the person, and we could cross paths with such a person over the course of an entire life without noticing anything about the person… suddenly we notice something about this person with whom we have been crossing paths for two decades, we notice something, be it his weatherproof cape, be it something else entirely; suddenly I noticed this person’s weatherproof cape and in connection with this I noticed that the man lived in the Saggengasse and was partial to taking walks along the Sill…a week ago this person accosted me in the Herrengasse and this man went up with me into my office; as we were climbing the stairs it became clear to me that “you have been seeing this person for two full decades, always the same person, always the same aging individual in the Saggengasse, at around midday in this weatherproof cape, in this quite ordinary but quite definitely worn-out weatherproof cape”; still, as we were climbing the stairs it was not yet clear to me why the weatherproof cape in particular was arousing my attention; suddenly, at close proximity, the weatherproof cape was arousing my undivided attention…but it really is quite an ordinary weatherproof cape, I thought; there are tens of thousands of such weatherproof capes in these mountains, there are tens of thousands of such weatherproof capes; tens of thousands of such weatherproof capes are worn by the Tyrolians…no matter who these people are, no matter what they do, when they come here they wear all these weatherproof capes, some of them gray, some of them green; because they wear all these weatherproof capes, the numerous loden factories in the valleys keep flourishing; these weatherproof capes are exported to every corner of the world, but there is something quite distinctive about the weatherproof cape of my new client: its buttonholes are trimmed in kidskin!  I have seen these kidskin-trimmed buttonholes only once before in my life, namely on the weatherproof cape of my uncle, who drowned eight years ago in the lower Sill…this man is wearing exactly the same weatherproof cape as my drowned uncle: that is what I am thinking as I walk up to my office with the man…suddenly I recall that when they pulled my Uncle Worringer out of the Sill, opinion had been divided whether his drowning had been an act of desperation or an accident, but I am certain that it was with so-called suicidal intent that Worringer threw himself into the Sill; for me there can be no doubt about it; Worringer killed himself; everything in his life and ultimately everything in his business life pointed to suicide…by the time they were looking for the drowned man upstream of the glass factory he had already been washed up on to the riverbank downstream of Pradl; the newspapers devoted entire pages to the incident; our entire family was hauled into public view by the press; the phrases a ruined business, ruined timber, a defunct saw-works, and finally economic and corporate ruin haunted the journalists’ sensation-mongering minds…the funeral in Wilten was one of the biggest there has ever been; I remember thousands of people in attendance, writes Enderer…it’s remarkable, I say to the man with whom I am climbing the stairs leading to my office, that I can’t get your weatherproof cape out of my head; several times the thought of your weatherproof cape has popped into my head…your weatherproof cape, believe it or not…I could not help thinking but did not say, there is the most intimate connection between your weatherproof cape and my uncle’s; who knows whether the man knows what I am talking about, I thought and I invite the man to step into the office, step inside! I say, because the man is hesitating, next I am inside the office and taking off my coat and the man is coming in…it looks as though the man was waiting for me in the front doorway of the building; today I am twenty minutes behind schedule, I think, and then: what does this man want?  I am irritated by his taciturnity and his weatherproof cape in alternation; as soon as we were both inside the office, I was more clearly able to see, better able to see, after I had turned the light on, that the buttonholes of the man’s weatherproof cape were trimmed with kidskin, with black kidskin, and I discerned that my new client’s weatherproof cape had been tailored exactly like the weatherproof cape of my Uncle Worringer, tailored in the simplest manner.

Read the rest of “The Weatherproof Cape.”

“Supplemental Income” — Thomas Bernhard


Valentine’s Day Wishes from Thomas Bernhard







Reading/Have Read/Should Write About



Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Tried to write about it for a few hours—did write something, mostly complaining about how hard it is to write, etc. etc. etc. Deleted it. Slim Bernhard—not the best starting place for anyone interested in Tommy B, but not a particularly bad one either. (Correction, which also features a Wittgenstein (in disguise) is probably the best I’ve read by Bernhard so far).

Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners

These books are essential. 


Anyone who wants to write fiction must read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s lectures and essays on her craft. The Habit of Being, which collects her letters, is fascinating–of particular interest are her letters to A., a younger woman who liked O’Connor’s stories and wrote to her until the end of her life.

I sort of graze on these books.

Kafka’s Diaries

More grazing.

More essential.

Emmanuelle Guattari’s memoir I, Little Asylum

Did you know that Felix Guattari had a pet monkey? Boubou was her name. She died in a tree. Full review forthcoming.

Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets

Don’t know if I’ll ever work up the courage to write about this one, but what I’ve read so far—the first four essays in the collection—is really compelling. Badiou tackles Plato’s rejection of the poets from his ideal state—Badiou reckons that “no truth can ever deliver the meaning of meaning, or the sense of sense”:

Plato banned the poem because he suspected that poetic thought could not be the thought of thought. We once again welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought.

By which I take this to mean: The spirit of the spirit.

Dmitry Samarov’s Where To? A Hack Memoir

Been enjoying the vignettes here—Samarov has a direct and descriptive but wry style. His stories spill over into rants, comic asides, lovely ugly grotesque anecdotes, and tales of warmth and friendship. Love the illustrations too. Great stuff.

William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories

I like Vollmann, but this one is hard to get into. Wonderful dark moments, great little fragments of stories, but 150 pages in and I feel like I’m reading the scraps left out of some other, better, tighter novel.

I hate nature, because it is killing me (Thomas Bernhard)

I do not care for walks either, and have been a reluctant walker all my life. I have always disliked walking, but I am prepared to go for walks with friends, and this makes them think I am a keen walker, for there is an amazing theatricality about the way I walk. I am certainly not a keen walker, nor am I a nature lover or a nature expert. But when I am with friends I walk in such a way as to convince them I am a keen walker, a nature lover, and a nature expert. I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive—for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my own body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can. The truth is that I am a city dweller who can at best tolerate nature. It is only with reluctance that I live in the country, which on the whole I find hostile.

From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew.

An Excerpt from Thomas Bernhard’s “Concrete”

At last we found ourselves standing in front of one of the thousands of square marble plaques enclosed in concrete. On it was to be read, freshly incised, the name Isabella Fernandez. Anna Härdtl, with tears in her eyes, tried to fasten her husband’s photograph to the marble plaque, but was at first unable to do so. By chance I had in my pocket the end of a roll of adhesive tape and used this to stick the photograph to the marble. Anna had previous written the name of her husband, Hans Peter Härdtl, in pencil under that of Isabella Fernandez, and though partly obliterated by the rain, it could still be clearly read. Poor people, she said, or those who suddenly became victims of a misfortune such as she had suffered and could make themselves understood, were buried, when they died, the very same day in an above-ground concrete block like this, which is often meant not just for two, but for three bodies.

I have never written a novel (Thomas Bernhard)

JEAN-LOUIS DE RAMBURES: Why since 1975 have you set aside novel-writing in favor of autobiography?

THOMAS BERNHARD: I have never written a novel, but merely prose texts of greater or lesser length, and I’m going to take care not to describe them as novels; I don’t know what the word means.  I haven’t ever wanted to write an autobiographical work either; I have a genuine aversion to all things autobiographical.  The fact is that at a certain moment in my life I got curious about my childhood.  I said to myself, “I haven’t much longer to live.  Why not try to record my life up to the age of nineteen?  Not as it was in reality—there’s no such thing as objectivity—but as I see it today.”

When I was planning the book I envisaged it as a single slim volume.  A second one emerged.  Then yet another one…until the point when I started to get bored.  In the end childhood is always just childhood.  After the fifth volume I decided to call it a day. In the case of each my books I’m always torn this way and that between a passion and a loathing for my chosen subject.

Every time my second thoughts get the upper hand, I resolve to give up intellectual pursuits for good and dedicate myself instead to purely material tasks, for example to chopping wood or plastering a wall, in the hope of recovering my good cheer.  My dream is of a never-ending wall and never-ending good cheer.  But after a stretch of time of greater or lesser length, I once again start to loathe myself for being unproductive, and despair about this drives me to seek refuge in my brain.  Sometimes I tell myself my instability is something I’ve inherited from my ancestors, who were a very heterogeneous bunch.  This bunch included farmers, philosophers, laborers, writers, geniuses, and morons, mediocre petit-bourgeois types, and even criminals.  All these people exist within me, and they never leave off fighting each other.  Sometimes I feel like committing myself into the custody of the goose-keeper, at other times into the custody of the thief or the murderer.  Because you’ve got to make choices, and every choice means precluding other choices; this round-dance ultimately drives me to the brink of madness.  Such that if I make it to the end of my matutinal shaving routine without killing myself in front of the mirror, I have only my cowardice to thank for it.

Cowardice, vanity, and curiosity are the three basic and essential impetuses to life, the things that keep it moving along, even though every conceivable rational argument gainsays this movement.  At any rate, that’s the way it seems to me today.  Because it may very well happen that tomorrow I’ll think something completely different.

From an interview with Thomas Bernhard originally published in Le Monde. The English translation is by Douglas Robertson. You can read the entire translated interview at his blog.

We never escape from what is horrible and what is untrue (Thomas Bernhard)

If we hear something, says Oehler, on Wednesday we check what we have heard and we check what we have heard until we have to say that what we have heard is not true, what we have heard is a lie. If we see something, we check what we see until we are forced to say that what we are looking at is horrible. Thus throughout our lives we never escape from what is horrible and what is untrue, the lie, says Oehler. If we do something, we think about what we are doing until we are forced to say that it is something nasty, something low, something outrageous, what we are doing is something terribly hopeless and that what we are doing is in the nature of things obviously false. Thus every day becomes hell for us whether we like it or not, and what we think will, if we think about it, if we have the requisite coolness of intellect and acuity of intellect, always become something nasty, something low and superfluous which will depress us in the most shattering manner for the whole of our lives. For, everything that is thought is superfluous. Nature does not need thought, says Oehler, only human pride incessantly thinks into nature its thinking. What must thoroughly depress us is the fact that through this outrageous thinking into a nature which is, in the nature of things, fully immunized against this thinking, we enter into an even greater depression than that in which we already are. In the nature of things conditions become ever more unbearable through our thinking, says Oehler. If we think that we are turning unbearable conditions into bearable ones, we have to realize quickly that we have not made (have not been able to make) unbearable circumstances bearable or even less bearable but only still more unbearable. And circumstances are the same as conditions, says Oehler, and it’s the same with facts. The whole process of life is a process of deterioration in which everything–and this is the most cruel law–continually gets worse. If we look at a person, we are bound in a short space of time to say what a horrible, what an unbearable person. If we look at Nature, we are bound to say, what a horrible what an unbearable Nature. If we look at something artificial–it doesn’t matter what the artificiality is–we are bound to say in a short space of time what an unbearable artificiality. If we are out walking, we even say after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable walk, just as when we are running we say what an unbearable run, just as when we are standing still, what an unbearable standing still, just as when we are thinking what an unbearable process of thinking. If we meet someone, we think within the shortest space of time, what an unbearable meeting. If we go on a journey, we say to ourselves, after the shortest space of time, what an unbearable journey, what unbearable weather, we say, says Oehler, no matter what the weather is like, if we think about any sort of weather at all. If our intellect is keen, if our thinking is the most ruthless and the most lucid, says Oehler, we are bound after the shortest space of time to say ofeverything that it is unbearable and horrible. There is no doubt that the art lies in bearing what is unbearable and in not feeling that what is horrible is something horrible. Of course we have to label this art the most difficult of all. The art of existing against the facts, says Oehler, is the most difficult, the art that is the most difficult.

From Thomas Bernhard’s Walking. Translated by Kenneth Northcott and excerpted at length in Conjunctions 31.

“A Famous Dancer” — Thomas Bernhard