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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Is the Most Depressing Novel You Have Ever Read?

One Northport friend said Anna Karenina was the most depressing book she’d ever read. Oh, surely not! My own candidates for that honor would be John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Richard Wright’s Native Son (both great American novels) or anything at all by Joyce Carol Oates. Another friend chose Kafka’s The Trial as the most depressing novel he’d ever read, and then one of the younger generation chimed in with Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. We will never have consensus, but it's fascinating to see the roster of candidates take shape.

How about you? What is the most depressing novel of your lifetime's reading so far, and are you glad you read it, despite the feeling you had during and after the experience? Do depressing novels seem more literary? Literary novels more depressing? What's the best novel you've ever read that had a happy ending? Can a novel be both depressing and happily ended?

I need to stop! My head is spinning, and the questions are proliferating like wire coat hangers in an empty closet!


Joe Borri said...

I read Recital of the Dog by David Rabe and found it to be terribly depressing and the prose clunky. The premise was intriguing enough, but the story went off into some very turbid places that to me anyway, did not serve the story very well. I certainly don't mind dark or depressing stories, but have found that the ones I enjoy tend to contain a certain balance of self-deprecation and humor in them. Then I read House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III which was incredibly written but absolutely depressing in so many ways. Right when you think it couldn't get more depressing, wow, it does.

Recently The Road was probably the most depressing book I've read, yet I truly enjoyed it. There's an economy of words in it and I suppose knowing McCarthy's own situation (he himself is an older father with a very young son) makes it more poignant. Funny, I would also mention No Country For Old Men as a depressing novel that I also loved. The best depressing novel I ever read that had a happy ending was probably Grapes of Wrath or Train by Pete Dexter. I think that darker or depressing work is taken more seriously by lovers of fiction and literary critics. There may or may not be a correlation, but it reminds me of how the Oscars rarely take a comedy into account for great tributes or multiple nominations, preferring dramas instead. And what's really depressing is how long it's been since I've been to Dog Ears! Miss you Pamela.

P. J. Grath said...

Joe, Dog Ears misses you! Thank you for this very thoughtful and complete response, too. You’ve added a lot to the discussion. Well, you actually offered a discussion; I had only posed questions.

New candidates not sent in as comments include: LES MISERABLES (Hugo), THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (Le Carre) and FATHERS AND SONS (Turgenev). A nomination for THE TRIAL was received in the “most boring” category.

Susan said...

Ditto Joyce Carol Oates. Off the top of my head, I recall "Ethan Fromm" (Edith Wharton) as not only depressing, but haunting, but I love it and re-read it.

Can't bring myself to read "The Road," Joe. Waiting for the right mood -- and not sure I'm ever IN such a mood!

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Susan. I agree about THE ROAD. I read it because I felt I had to read something by the author and this was a short book with lots of dialogue, so the pain didn't last long. Also, I have to say, there were some wonderfully lyrical and poetic lines.

These all might be called "Books Whose Last Page You Were Happy to Reach."

Dawn said...

I don't usually finish a depressing book...but I did finish THE ROAD. Mostly because it was for book club. And because it was a fast read. And because I actually liked it and the writing. But was depressing.

I think that literary critics look for deep themes which often are heavy...but for me...I need to have some sort of hope theme...or I just can't get through it.

Though I've read some pretty sad memoirs..I never thought those were depressing. Don't know why not.

Gerry said...

I was tempted to answer Silas Marner again. :)

I really liked The Road--just had a long conversation about it with Rob the Firefighter who did NOT, but I thought it was lyrical and, in an odd way, hopeful.

What really depresses me is that there are so many books I haven't read.

Dorene said...

Well, I have thought and thought on this and it scares me to think that I can not think of a book that depressed me (other than one I felt was a depressing waste of time, but that's another category). There are many "dark" books, like The Turn of the Screw, We Need to Talk about Kevin, or Cruddy, but I love the writing or the psychological exploration so much that I feel schooled or mentored or entertained. I'm depressed that I can't be depressed!

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I agree with your critical assessment that great literature must involve important human themes and that these are often difficult. Why would a sad memoir not be depressing? I know what you mean, though. Maybe because the memoir itself is proof that the author survived whatever pain or travail contained in the story. A biography, on the other hand, written by someone other than the person living the sad life—that could be depressing. (Well, maybe not to Dorene.)

THE ROAD was hopeful? Gerry, I need to hear more about that. Lyrical I can see; hopeful eludes me. Do not be depressed about all the books you haven’t read! Isn’t it wonderful that we will never run out of literary treasure as long as we live?

Dorene, I do not believe you. I do not believe that are depressed over an inability to be depressed. I do, however, envy you.

P. J. Grath said...

Via e-mail from Kathy in Australia:

"You were asking about depressing books on your blog. I would say Tess Of The d'Urbevilles; anything by Anita Brookner; The Maid of Buttermere, and I don't want to dredge up any more in case it gets too depressing remembering them!"

Via e-mail from Amy-Lynn in Canada:

"I found Anna Karenina very insightful but not depressing. My husband and I would probably agree that one of the saddest stories we've both
read is in 'The Snow Walker' collection of short stories by Farley Mowat. It is called 'The Two Who Were One' and is about an arctic fox and the Inuit man who tames him. The fox's name is Kipmik. I only realized years later that the story probably influenced our choice of the name Kip for our middle son."

Thanks, both of you, for sending these notes a different way. Another friend became very frustrated trying to leave a comment the other day and gave up in disgust. I'm sorry for the difficulty, but it does make me appreciate all the more when anyone perseveres.

TESS, yes! I vastly prefer FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

Farley Mowat's stories of the Far North are fraught with all the beauty and bleakness and horror and splendor of that part of the world. The worst parts concern man's inhumanity to man.

ali g said...

The 'Tribe that lost its Head' by Nicholas Monsarrat I read many years ago . I now can't remember the story except that the thought of it still brings a dark feeling over me even now.
As for 'The Road' didn't read the book but watched the movie with Kathy just a few weeks ago. It was enough to want to go out and slit your wrists as apart from being depressing it was also drawn out and soooo boring.
The latest book that I have found depressing is the 'Australian list Of Richest People' Mainly because I'm not in it. sigh >^..^<

P. J. Grath said...

Grahame, you have a kitty face! Very cute, even if you are not one of Australia's richest. Your reaction to the movie "The Road" reminds me of David's to a film about the life of Iris Murdoch (I forget the title): as we came out of the theatre, he groaned, "Just shoot me now!"