Tim Parks on not finishing

Tim Parks has an article on the NYRblog with an interesting take on the virtues or otherwise of not reading books to the end, including books one likes. I do usually finish books I like, but I found his discussion of plot interesting, including this:

Yet even in these novels where plot is the central pleasure on offer, the end rarely gratifies, and if we like the book and recommend it to others, it is rarely for the end. What matters is the conundrum of the plot, the forces put in play and the tensions between them. The Italians have a nice word here. They call plot trama, a word whose primary meaning is weft, woof or weave. It is the pattern of the weave that we most savor in a plot — Hamlet’s dilemma, perhaps, or the awesome unsustainability of Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon — but not its solution. Indeed, the best we can hope from the end of a good plot is that it not ruin what came before. I would not mind a Hamlet that stopped before the carnival of carnage in the last scene, leaving us instead to mull over all the intriguing possibilities posed by the young prince’s return to Elsinore.

Hat tip to 3quarksdaily.

11 responses to “Tim Parks on not finishing

  1. Not having to find an ending would certainly make a book easier to write, Jonathan.


    • Yes indeed, Richard. Tim Parks talks about that as an attractive idea as well – and cites Kafka as an example of someone who managed it quite well, in a couple of his books


  2. Trama…trauma…that’s interesting. Perhaps we could think about the familientrauma rather than the familienroman as a genre.

    I often fail to finish books but I usually sit through films, even at home, till the end, regardless of whether or not I like them, how successfully they engage me. Don’t know what that is: a classroom mentality of paying attention as an audience out of politeness?

    I’ve heard that the three central ingredients of a novel are character, situation and promise…perhaps one feels less inclined to stay round till the bitter end of a novel if the promise doesn’t look as though it’s going to be kept, however much interesting ‘trauma’ there was in the interesting. (There is a saying in filmscriptwriting that if you don’t set up the first act well, it will all fall apart in the third.)


  3. Hi Eleanor. Familientrauma has quite a ring to it! Trama di famiglia says something to me too. What you say about the difference between films and novels is interesting. More than once my companions have walked out of films but I’ve doggedly stayed to the end, and to tell the truth I’ve mostly been glad I did. But it’s a lot easier to just stop reading a book – though Tim Park’s experience of stopping reading a book he’s enjoying because he feels it’s enough is completely foreign to me.


  4. Pingback: Why Finish Books? by Tim Parks | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books | rushedreader

  5. WHAT?!?
    If books didn’t have endings then why would we bother turning away from real life to read them? The weave is all well and good, but without a hem the weave holds nothing and ultimately unravels. Even if the ending doesn’t stay with you, an incomplete story will dissipate even more quickly.
    “The detective observed the crime scene, gathered the grisly evidence and began searching for the murderer …
    Oops, no more pages. Thanks for your $24.95!”

    No, I crave completion. Even when I don’t fully understand what the hell has happened and have to re-read it. The story stays in my head when I can respect its completeness. A story which deliberately doesn’t end seems like a limp-wristed exercise in philosophical frustration because the architecture wasn’t bold enough to tie the bow and push it out the door.

    Dun dun DUNNNN!!!
    I have spoken!


  6. And look what pops up in the reader on the day after …



  7. EM Forster in ‘Aspects of the Novel’ said that ‘nearly all novels are feeble in the end’ because the plot requires to be wound up. I always find very plotty books the most disappointing, and feel cheated (I don’t read books like that v often). Often the plot in those books is all it has going for it. It’s nice to pick up a book and simply read parts of it, in any order, esp if you’ve read it before.


    • Hi Joanne. It looks as if this conversation is breaking along age lines. The young WANT endings and the greyhairs can take them or – sometimes preferably – leave them.


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