My dad and I are enthusiasts. We are two punchy salespeople, and we would like to interest you in this book. It is Middlemarch, or All My Puny Sorrows, or A Brief History of Seven Killings, or the last thing we really liked. Please read it right now. You might as well, because we will not hush until you do. Just get it over with, and then come back and tell us that you loved it.
We are blind to the faults of the things that we love. My dad will not, for instance, hear a word against Bach. If you get into his car and start it after he has been driving around by himself, you will be immediately pinned to your seat by the wall of Bach coming out of the speakers. It’s Bach at levels far beyond what I presume was intended. Bach is for when you are at home, surely, and you are putting together your elegant supper, and your friend arrives and says Wow what’s this, and you say It’s the Goldberg Variations, man.
. . . .
He is similarly bewildered by slights against the books he adores. My dad is a great one for tirelessly recommending books about Shackleton, or Poor Old Captain Scott of the Antarctic, or Darwin, or Roger Casement. He is very persuasive, and, as a result, I have read fifteen more books about Captain Scott than I need to.
. . . .
For a long time, these books were non-fiction only. My dad studied English at university . . . and assures me that he read heaps of novels when he was younger. At some point, though, he just stopped. Maybe he got a few duds in a row, or he read a book that was too sad, but at some point before I was born, he hardened his heart against fiction and turned exclusively to non-.
This happens sometimes, I think. Mostly to men. They begin to feel that there is something vaguely unsound about fiction. That it is charming, but will ultimately let you down, in the manner of a guest who chatters effusively at dinner but who did not bring any wine, and who ignores all the unattractive people at the table. That it could not teach you anything that wouldn’t be more effectively learned via a book about the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
He ditched fiction altogether, for about twenty-five years, and he was happy with this arrangement. Then, he put his back out — classic dad move. He was immobilized for weeks, and all he could do while he recovered was lie there and read.
. . . .
It’s not that he loved Lolita, understand — he is a nice man, and a dad, and the whole exercise was ultimately too gross for him, but he could not deny its impact. Here is an excerpt from an email he sent me while he was reading it:
“I’m just taking a well deserved break from Lolita. It’s so intense that its making me agitated. I feel that I may not be able to carry on, even though I know I will.”
Lolita renewed his respect for fiction, but it did not make him fall in love. Middlemarch did that. I was visiting my parents for the weekend when he was about halfway through, and he walked around the house like a man in a trance. His eyes were all misty, and he kept raising his hands to his head. When I got back to Cape Town, there were emails waiting, with subject lines like “DOROTHEA”, and “Oh God, Lydgate”, and “I think Mary Garth is great.” It was all we spoke about for months.
He felt very strongly about Middlemarch, but he was not totally sure about Dorothea. He liked her fine, but he could not really commit. He thought that she had it too easy, overall. Dorothea knows little of suffering, or at least not the polar explorer kind of suffering that my dad reveres: cold, sad, starving to death, etc. Crying out for help and no one even notices, etc. The suffering of a friendless orphan, a trembling reed of a person.
Enter Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre the novel, but also Jane Eyre the character, who my dad speaks about as if she is a real woman — the best woman to ever exist. Jane Eyre blew my dad’s mind, and Jane Eyre broke his heart. Subject line: JANE EYRE IS THE BEST. Subject line: I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN BEST FRIENDS WITH CHARLOTTE BRONTË. Subject line: Didn’t you love the bit where she puts her foot down? Subject line: Didn’t you love the end?
The problem is, I didn’t. I didn’t really like any of it. Being the salesman that he is, it is hard for my dad to resign himself to the fact that I don’t love his favorite book ever. I just don’t. It’s too long, and too dense with stuff I can’t care about. I find Mr. Rochester creepy as the dickens. Most importantly, I have difficulties with Jane herself. I respect her, but I cannot warm to her. Something about her self-control, I think, her ability to make decisions and then turn them over in her mind, altering them if required. I like to make decisions and then shoot them out of a canon straight away, so it’s difficult for us to relate to each other.