Of course, in the last year of school, we had had an unofficial competition to judge the most miserable book on the curriculum. That year the education bureaucrats, in a final post-modern lurch towards literary desolation, thought it would be a good idea to make English Literature students plumb the depths of human misery on the written page. One prescribed book after another excavated the quarry of human melancholy. The buzzword of the time was 'alienation', a word as common then as today's 'diversity' or 'sustainability'. We took to the task with a morbid sense of purpose.
Across the year, I moved through the catalogue of misery slowly, like reading tombstones in a cold empty cemetery. Long Day's Journey Into Night was a day in the life of a dysfunctional, drugged, drunken family who verbally abuse each other as the light dies and the fog rolls in. The End.
Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill
Desolation score: 2.5 stars.
Summary: Sheer bloody-minded Irishness and mock bravado meets mind-bending substances coming down the stairs. As usual, it’s the children who suffer.
The ‘one-day’ series continued with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Ivan is a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp, such a humane place that if the temperature sinks below minus 41 degrees, outdoor work is excused. Nothing else happens. The End.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Misery score: 3 stars.
Summary: Work with Uncle Joe.
In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a juvenile British thief is bribed with freedom if he wins a running race. In a leading position, he throws the race as an act of defiance, figuratively cutting off his nose to spite his face. Had he done so literally, the book would have been no less gloomy. The End.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe
Melancholy score: 3.5 stars.
Summary: Juvenile races back to jail.
In the third successive book set behind bars, the 'hero' in The Stranger murders a man, is unrepentant, is sentenced to death and then has a pointless argument with the prison chaplain prior to his execution. The End. (I read this in French. It was just as miserable as in English.)
L'Etranger by Albert Camus
Anguish score: 4 stars.
Summary: Existentialism will get you nowhere.
Fleeing ravaged characters and incessantly depressing storylines in the USSR, the UK and Europe, we found ourselves late in the year in the subcontinent where, in A Passage To India, Adela and her prospective mother-in-law, hoping to see the 'real India', visit caves with a local. Strange echoing noises confuse the party, Adela's mother-in-law abandons her and bolts, and Adela gets lost in a cave. In an early literary case of dissociation, Adela accuses the local guide of abuse, her mother-in-law dies en route back to England and Adela's fiancé breaks off the engagement. The End.
A Passage To India by E. M. Forster
Despair score: 4.5 stars.
Summary: Never take your mother-in-law into a cave.
India having proven just as miserable as everywhere else, we concluded the year in an upper middle class New York household in Washington Square. Surely we had left the gloom behind in the Malabar Caves. But no. Catherine has not had a good start in life, her mother having died giving birth to her, and her only brother having died two years earlier. Motherless and brotherless, Catherine finds she is also a disappointment to her father, Dr Sloper. He later bars her marriage to the only man she has ever loved, justifying the decision after snooping into his affairs. Thanks, Dad! Telling her he will disinherit her if she marries, Dr Sloper takes Catherine to Europe for twelve months to make her forget. But just as she is compliantly walking through the Swiss Alps with him, he cruelly reminds her of her suitor again. (Why Catherine does not at this point push Dr Sloper off into a frozen ravine is a mystery of literature, but one can only assume it is because Washington Square is a short book, written as a serial. Sudden murders are death to the serial.) Catherine might have expected some relief when her father finally dies of old age, years later. But unfortunately not. Dr Sloper continues interfering from the grave, having sharply reduced her inheritance to discourage her suitor. The End.
Washington Square by Henry James
Wretchedness score: 5 stars.
Summary: Father knows best, even when he is dead.
And so, in gaining a perfect five star score, Henry James took out the 1974 St Bernard’s College English Literature class Misery Prize for a book so unrelentingly unhappy, even the author reputedly never wanted to read it again. Surely a great recommendation in itself!