A lot of the time I can’t deal with stressful novels. It took me several run-ups before I was able to career and carom through Kafka’s The Trial: several-less-one false starts followed by a particularly relaxed few weekends. More generally my nerves are often sufficiently frazzled that reading an intentionally frustrating work just feels like I’m repeatedly trapping those nerves over and over again.
When I find my preferred options for novel-reading too stressful, I’ll often turn to biography instead; or occasionally to fictionalized biographies like Wolf Hall. As long as they’re not your actual misery-lit, nor obviously about e.g. holocaust survivors (or, worse, about non-survivors), I’m reassured that the experience ahead will be in a sense letterboxed: not too exciting, but then not too enervating either. Fiction on mood stabilizers.
The format of (auto-)biographies varies from the conversational or social (Stuart Maconie, Peter Cook), through the anecdotal and fabulous (Anthony Kiedis, Stephen Fry), sometimes as far as a kind of teleological story-telling, the end written before the beginning (Joe Orton, William Blake). The story of a life must almost always slow down to the point where they can establish a chronology: rarely are the victims of serial killers suddenly discovered horribly dismembered in cellars; rarely must timebombs somehow be defused seconds before they explode; and almost never do labyrinthine bureaucracies conspire to thwart every desire of the protagonist, unless they’re a French civil servant.
Only at certain points in my reading do I find biographies too upsetting, and those are usually towards the end of a given book. Whereas the death of an author can sometimes encourage leafing through their corpus, the death of a subject can instead engender a kind of horror of stumbling across their corpse. Almost inevitably, a complete biography of a life must also include the death.
If I’ve made some small attachment to the individual while reading the book, then this event can be especially harrowing. While Samuel Johnson’s inevitable death (and, thanks to Boswell, his much obscured decline) merely made me very sad indeed, I was made positively weepy when Peter Ackroyd orchestrated William Blake’s unsurprisingly transcendent passing-on. Indeed, the better written the biography, the more we break out of that letterbox, and share the glorious highs and crushing lows of its subject’s life. But when we finally feel the vacuum of a kind of literary grief; at the heart of us; at the end of the novel: then can we fill it unashamedly with their work.