February 2012

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler

  • LAUREATE: Harold Pinter (2005, Britain)
  • BOOK READ: Ashes to Ashes

If I had to choose, I'd read five bad novels instead of attending one bad night of theater. Scratch that: ten bad novels. Actually, there's no reason to even concoct some hypothetical choice, because it happens in real life all the time. Not so long ago, I went to see some bad theater, and during intermission, my companion and I were debating whether or not to leave. She mentioned a novel she'd read recently. I said that I didn't like it, and that's when we decided to go get a drink and talk about it. Not only do I prefer a bad novel to a bad show, I prefer talking about a bad novel to a bad show.

Why? Well, when I come across a clumsy piece of prose, I can lay the book down for a moment until my mortification passes. But when I'm staring at an actor working himself into a frenzy of epiphany or breakdown that feels flat and ridiculous, I'm trapped. I get the same urge I have when a friend gets too drunk at a party: Please, please, quiet down and come with me. I'll take you home, you poor, foolish thing. Stop telling me that there's something loud and unstageable—a battle, say, or a fire—off in the wings. Stop concocting weird excuses to leave—"I think I'll take a little walk"—at the conclusion of a big scene, so you can leave the other actor onstage to confront somebody else. Stop staring out the window when we all know you're just looking at some ropes and a burly stagehand. Just stop the whole thing.

That bad show I walked out of? I'm sorry to say it was a play by Harold Pinter. This wasn't the first Pinter I'd seen on the stage, and each production had been lunkier than the next, not to mention a handful of televised Pinter performances I'd dozed through in high-school English. I never liked it.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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