Last week a friend said to me, “Have you read Robert Harris’s Conclave? I couldn’t put it down.” It’s an irresistible recommendation. I got a copy (Hutchinson, London, 2016) and read it. My friend was quite right. The book exercises a compulsive grip upon the reader. The action takes place behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel over the course of 72 hours, and concerns the election of a new pope. 118 cardinals are present, and there are a series of ballots during which the field is narrowed down until a leader emerges. “Habemus papam.” It is not so much a whodunit as a who’s gonna do it. I didn’t think that I could get particularly exercised about a papal election, but the various candidates, as seen through the eyes of an individual who himself turns out to be a contender, are drawn with humanity, and I found myself taking sides. In its attention to detail, the book had clearly been meticulously researched. Was I surprised at the outcome? Without introducing a spoiler, I can say the denouement had a sting in the tail that I didn’t see coming.
I fell to wondering about books like Conclave that grip us. To say of a book, “I couldn’t put it down”, suggests a compulsion to read bordering on addiction. Now that I have completely run out of shelf space at home, I’m clearly a book addict. A bibliomane. Is there such a word? My bijou cottage resembles not so much the local village library as an asylum for a sufferer of Diogenes Syndrome. So in the management of my book repository I have introduced a rule; if I acquire a new tome, I must pass on an old one. (Having read Conclave I did try to fob it off on somebody who, on hearing my blurb, said, “Not much sex, then?”) You think of the remark “I couldn’t put it down” as a recommendation but the strange thing is that it is precisely this sort of book which, once laid aside, you don’t pick up again. Such books are read linearly, and once. You wouldn’t dream of skipping to the last page because foreknowledge of the outcome would remove the motivation to read. By contrast, the books that you keep on your shelves are the ones you want to pick up and reread over and over again. They may not need to be read chronologically, even first time round. There is joy to be had in picking up such books and reading a chapter at random. The books we revisit are written in beautiful language over which we wish to linger. In addition, their individual chapters often have a stand-alone quality; the mastery of the whole work of art resides in the fact that it is made up of a series of entities that simultaneously work autonomously and contribute to the whole.
I’m conscious of these issues as I find myself this week nearing the completion of my draft of the next troubled instalment in the life of Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange. It has 27 chapters and is a little longer than its predecessors. I’ve striven to give each chapter an autonomous life, to avoid writing a chapter which merely moves character A towards a destination without pausing to admire the view. I guess I’m less beguiled by the notion of a reader compelled to rush to the end, and more intrigued by the thought of the reader content to read one chapter a night, and sleep on it.
At any rate, I’m nearly there. Time to stop setting alight the rough drafts and creating all that black smoke. Time to send some white smoke up the chimney. Habemus librum.