What the Swedes Read

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

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Camilo José Cela (Spain, 1989)
  • BOOK READ: The Hive, translated by J. M. Cohen in consultation with Arturo Barea

To get right into it, I loved reading this book. I read it in a sitting and a half and then shut it and felt myself grinning, there in a café. I sat for a little while afterward, sipping my cooling coffee, with the little mental Möbius strip that hits me at such moments, where I vaguely wish I hadn’t read it yet so I could read it again and be the guy reading it for the first time.

In other words, despite having assigned myself this book for this Nobel project, I basically read The Hive for pleasure, and pleasure is what it brought me, and are you smirking? Me, too. I can’t help it. There’s something suspect about the word pleasure. The phrase pleasure reading has a sleazy ring to it, and even when the word pleasure is used in highfalutin circumstances, it ends up coming off as a little dirty. When I was in college, for example, Roland Barthes’s classic structuralist volume The Pleasure of the Text was read by us pretentious lit folk like it was pornography, with similar masturbatory results. Try going up to an author, without an ounce of flirtation, and telling him his book brought you pleasure. You’ll smirk. You won’t be able to help it.

But the smirkiness isn’t limited to sex jokes. There’s just something a little cheap about saying a book brings you pleasure, as it implies a superficial relationship, or at least a surface one, between the text and the reader. A good book is supposed to move you. It’s supposed to make you think. It’s supposed to—and I’ve never liked this phrase—change your life. These things bring you pleasure, to be sure, but the pleasure shouldn’t be what’s on your mind.

This is the orthodox view of the experience of literature, and then there’s of course the opposing view, that such lofty views have dragged literature into an ivory tower that denies its primary appeal, that a visceral response to a book not only isn’t cheap but is the reason literature has endured. Me, I swing back and forth on this. There are books that have moved me profoundly while demanding a lot. I trek through them but finish them with a level of shivery satisfaction that I can’t get from, say, the easy pleasures of P. G. Wodehouse. But I also feel that Wodehouse is vastly underrated—that his ability to produce, over and over, books that snap is often dismissed in favor of the ability to mull over important things and produce books that make you mull, too, for too long.

The Hive faces this dilemma sharply and ingeniously. It’s an ambitious book, but it seems to mock its own ambition, if not ambition itself, from the start. I’d read that The Hive was a vast undertaking, presenting a portrait of Madrid following the Spanish Civil War, which is true enough on its face. It has a huge cast of characters, for instance—critics have put the number at around three hundred, but I’m certainly not going to go back and count. What’s easier to count are the novel’s 250 pages, and if you do a little math, you’ll realize that none of these characters has room to move around much.

But if The Hive is crowded, it’s not cramped. The novel is told in tiny incidents, almost fragments, of dialogue or quickly sketched circumstances. The action hovers around a café, with customers and employees walking in and out of frame, bickering, scheming, and/or lost in thought, and at first it’s off-putting to watch so many people step into the book only to step out.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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

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