In 1982, Andrew bought three copies of Cerebus the Aardvark from Forbidden Planet. Andrew couldn’t understand them. Andrew liked the idea of a comic with such a ridiculous title, possibly because Andrew had seen the John Cleese /Marty Feldman bookshop sketch. Andrew had bought Howard the Duck from the import spinner at the Sugar and Spice sweetshop on East Barnet Road, along with the Human Fly and the Eternals: but Andrew didn’t really understand that either.
A bit later, Andrew tracked down copies of Swords of Cerebus (reprinting the earlier, funnier issues) and the High Society graphic novel. Andrew understood those and found them very funny indeed.
Andrew bought every monthly issue from #80 onwards.
At college, everyone Andrew knew read Cerebus. They wore t-shirts and had photocopies of their favourite pages on their walls; they referred to each other as Most Holy. Andrew’s flatmate Eddie made Andrew a life sized Cerebus stuffed toy for his birthday.
Andrew even took to referring to himself in the third person.
Some people feel that Cerebus the Aardvark was never as funny after it stopped being a parody of Conan the Barbarian and became a political satire.
Some people stopped reading during the two hundred page digression about the death of Oscar Wilde.
Very many people stopped reading after #186, when writer/artist Dave Sim explained his interesting theories about feminism. (SPOILER: He’s against it.)
Andrew’s own attention wavered during Cerebus’s extended journey back to his home town, during which he is distracted by thinly veiled caricatures of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway.
The final volumes of the three hundred issue graphic novel involve ex-barbarian-turned-messiah Cerebus explaining the true meaning of the Torah to Woody Allen, in very small print. Dave Sim once claimed that only seventeen people had read that volume right the way through. Andrew knows at least three of them personally.
When Cerebus came to an end in 2003, Andrew wrote a very detailed appreciation of the final issue. It really did seem, at that point, that Andrew was the only person who had stayed faithful to the Short Grey Fellow; and that Andrew was reading it in the same spirit that Andrew might visit a once-beloved uncle who had been jailed for sex-offences.
Andrew always intended to re-read the entire three hundred issue, six thousand page novel to see how it stood up, but Andrew never quite got around to it.
During lockdown, Andrew re-read the entire three hundred issue, six thousand page novel.
This is Andrew telling you how well Andrew thinks it stands up.
It is not a commentary or an exegesis. It is just Andrew’s thoughts. It is long, rambling, unstructured, and frequently wanders from the point. And so does Andrew’s essay.
Cerebus is not a comic book.
Cerebus is not a graphic novel.
I am not even sure if Cerebus is a novel.
Cerebus is a montage.
Cerebus is a mixed media work of art.
Cerebus is a multi-media narrative
Cerebus is a vast, audacious, formal experiment.
Reading Cerebus is like being assaulted from different directions by different kinds of text.
Found objects. Literary pastiche. Diagetic text. Film and play scripts. Essays. Prose novellas. Biblical exposition. Comic strips. Traditional American comic books. Manga style cinematic decompression.
There are pages of text with illustrations on the facing page. There are surreal wordless dream sequences. Decades may shoot past in a single page; or it may take Cerebus several issues to get out of bed. One issue demands to be cut up and pasted together so it forms a single huge figure. There are realistic characters who talk like cartoons and cartoon characters who talk like real people. The central figure is a funny animal who is treated as a fully rounded character with a complicated interior life. Movie actors and pop stars and political figures and famous writers and friends of the author keep appearing in pastiche. The fourth wall is frequently smashed into tiny little pieces. But there are maps and floor-plans and a very detailed pseudo-history.
The comic never settles down into a single style. In the final volume, Woody Allen appears (presumably because he is a well known Jewish celebrity) to discuss the Old Testament with the central figure. Of course he does. When he first appears, he is a photo-realistic representation of the film actor: but as the story (or, as we are compelled to say, the “story”) proceeds, he morphs into a Hunt Emerson style caricature of himself. He ends up wearing a mask; transforming himself into one of the Jews from Maus.
If you are incredibly irritated by this kind of thing, you will find that this is the kind of thing which irritates you incredibly.
You meet people who think that John Steinbeck intended to write a melodrama about the Joad family’s ill-fated journey to California; and due to a catastrophic editorial blunder, accidentally put a series of essays about the dust-bowl migrants in alternate chapters. You meet people who think that Moby-Dick is a collection of witty and informative essays about the whaling trade which got hijacked by an irrelevant melodrama about a crazy sea captain and a verbose harpooner.
On a first reading of Les Miserables it is easy to be shocked at how little of the novel is about Jean Valjean and how much of it is about the Battle of Waterloo, or the slang used by Paris thieves, or the philosophical idea of a nunnery. It is tempting to imagine that Victor really wanted to get to the last reprise of Do You Hear The People Sing and due to a terrible fault as a writer kept wandering off the point to talk about Fontain’s daughter’s foster brother. But the text of Les Miserables exists and the digressions are part of it. A Les Miserables which stuck to the point would be a different book.
For all I know, a better book. But it is always better to read a flawed book which exists than a flawless one that doesn’t.
You are entitled to be puzzled when a romantic comedy about a barbarian mercenary and a princess-turned-dancer is interrupted by a memoir of a hunting expedition in Africa. Particularly if the story is taking place in a fantasy world where Africa doesn’t exist. But you are not entitled to say that if you ignore or skip the embedded narratives you will arrive at some truer or better or preferred version of the text.
We have to read the book Dave wrote: not the one we wish he had written.
Books are not “what happened”. They are a set of choices the author has made about how he wants to tell us what happened. What matters, in the end, if the cumulative emotional effect those choices have on the reader.
Books sometimes have irrelevant passages. My copy of Don Quixote has an introduction which very sensibly advises me to skip all the sentimental shepherds in the first half.
Cerebus is very long. It ran to three hundred issues all but three of which are gathered together in a series of seventeen graphic novels. Back in the eighties we used to call them Phone Books. The idea of publishing a collection of back-issues in a single volume was rather a whacky innovation. It may not literally be the longest sustained narrative in human history (as Dave Sim likes to claim) but it does have an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most consecutive issues of a comic book created by the same writer/artist. (Dave Sim wrote and pencilled all three hundred issues: Gerhard supplied phenomenally detailed backgrounds for every issue after #65.) The record was previously held by two little known superhero creators named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It is believed that Eric Larsen may usurp the crown some time in 2023.
Sometimes, a long book is the same as a short book, only with more chapters added on. If fifty pages of D’Artagnan getting into sword fights and preserving the Queen’s honour is fun, then five hundred pages are ten times as fun. If you like that kind of thing, you would be happy for the story to carry on more or less indefinitely. But if you found the first fifty pages a drag, then there is very little point in persevering.
But some very long books have to be very long because they have a complex structure that can’t be done in less than a trillion words. You can’t possibly know what kind of a book you are reading until you get to the end of it, any more than you can possibly know what kind of a painting you are looking at if only the bottom left hand corner is poking out of the brown paper wrapper.
And thus everything gets terribly polarised.
Those of us who got to the end of Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Don Quixote or The Silmarillion are by definition, the kinds of people who can be bothered to get to the end of those kinds of books. If you aren’t disposed to like them you won’t read them and therefore won’t be able to find out if they are the kinds of books you would have liked if you had finished them.
The world is not divided into people who have read the Lord of the Rings and people who are going to read it some day. The world is divided into people who have read it and think it is the bee’s knees, and people who are offended by its very existence without having got past Tom Bombadil.
Not reading things you don’t think you’d like is a perfectly valid choice.
The Guardian does a little feature called “Books that made me” in which people who deal in words respond to a questionnaire about their reading. What’s the first book you remember reading? What was the last book which made you laugh? What book couldn’t you finish?
You could probably form a support group for the famous writers who say they have never got to the end of Moby Dick. On the whole, they are defiant, even proud of not having done so. “Life is too short! Four hundred pages in and we are still nowhere near the bloody whale!” People who haven’t read Middlemarch are much more apologetic and really want to get around to it one of these days. Ulysses is more like a mountain to be conquered. Knausgaard seems to elicit anger and resentment from people outside the cult. They are especially angry about his ethnicity. (“Why should I want to hear about the life of a straight white guy?”)
I have read Moby Dick: several times: I understand it more each time. I have read Middlemarch—only once, but it blew my mind, in an appropriately provincial way. I raced through Knausgaard in one go, knowing within ten pages that I had discovered my new favourite book. I even got right to the end of Proust. I didn’t love it but I didn’t feel I had wasted my time.
But I don’t love Jane Austen quite enough to have quite got around to the three I haven’t read. (Persuasion and Sensibility, I think? I started Emma once. But the Mr Darcy one made me laugh out loud in a cafe.) I will probably go to my grave without having done the full Dickens canon. I got right through Malory (while I was still at school) and Spencer (on my own time, in the days when Borders bookshops still had Starbucks in them) so I really ought to give Walter Scott another go. I don’t feel guilty that I have never got passed page 50 of Tristan Shandy, but it does make me feel a bit sad, because everything I know about the book makes me think it is the kind of thing I ought to like. I am within fifty pages of having read Ulysses. Indeed, this afternoon, it is a toss-up between Molly’s soliloquy and the last couple of volumes of 1980s Teen Titans.
When I said during lockdown that I was going to try and tackle James Joyce at the rate of, say, five pages a day, one of my Fanbase asked if I was actually enjoying it. “It’s a great work of literature”, I said: “You aren’t supposed to enjoy it.” I was only half joking. When it comes to Herman and Karl Ove and Marcel you just have to throw yourself at them and let them take you wherever they are going: today it might be fifty pages of bloody French landscape, Catholics talking about being Catholics in a brothel, or another trip to the supermarket to buy prawns: but tomorrow it might be an aphorism or a piece of description or a conversation that you will carry around with you for the rest of your life.
Perhaps it comes down to whether you are a book-addict or a story-addict. If what you want is story, narrative, fiction, stuff happening, then you obviously aren’t going to survive Proust. Or Moby Dick. If you read Cerebus to find out what happens next, you would go insane with frustration. These massive huge books have a gradual, cumulative, impact: they need five hundred or a thousand pages to do what they are trying to do you.
The designs of My Struggle on us—with Boyhood Island as its most vivid example so far—are much less rhetorical than they are cognitive. The question that ensues, and that readers of Knausgaard in English will have to wait for subsequent volumes to fully answer for themselves, is whether hypnotic immersion on such undiluted terms is as genuinely nourishing as it sometimes can feel.
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