Everybody hurts

19 November 2007

I realise that with this blog post following on from my last one (not to mention the one that was slightly about poker) I'm risking getting myself a reputation as the person who blogs about tacky lowbrow things at Picador. Hang in there though, because in the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to be saying something interesting about Philip Roth.

So I couldn't help but wonder, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, why people cry so much more easily at songs or in films than they do when reading books. I suspect that this is true of men particularly, but it's also true of me and I think of most women. And I have a few theories. The first is that songs are the background music to our lives. As the MSN thread above indicates, songs often make us cry because they remind us of sad things that happened to us. For this reason music is capable of conjuring up nostalgia and pain in a way that books just never will be. How often have you thought 'ah yes, I remember I was reading that paragraph when I was in love with X'? And with films, something about the medium (dark room, big screen, rest of the world blocked out and so on) makes identification and absorption more complete. You can also cry in the cinema without being easily seen and your hands are unoccupied. There's just something awkward about reading and crying - you either have to put the book down somewhere (and let's face it, you'd have to be crying quite severely to make this worthwhile) and if you don't put the book down, your hands are occupied, so how would you wipe your eyes or get a tissue? Also you just feel a bit stupid. And if you're reading in public you feel even more stupid. 

Novels have actually made me cry so infrequently that I'm pretty sure I can remember all the books that I have ever cried at. (List coming up, but of course you knew that already.) And in case you think I'm just incredibly tough, I should add in the interests of full disclosure that I cry not only at songs and in films but have also been known to cry watching The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, House, and even I'm very ashamed to admit on one occasion each at both Ally McBeal and Eastenders. 

But I can only now think of 5 novels that have ever made me cry. And this is obviously despite being a very cultured person who is far more moved by great novels than by House. Spoilers to follow, so if you haven't read these novels and want the chance to consider crying for yourself, you might want to look away now. 

1. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. One of my favourite books, and one of the best love stories ever written. It's a rare example of a great love story that ends neither with the happy couple getting together, nor with all-out tragedy and suicide. They're deeply in love, but they can't be together because he's engaged to be married, and she's tarnished with some kind of 19th-century style disgrace or dishonour - can't quite remember what this is. The majority of the book consists of fraught meetings in which they declare their feelings but conclude that they can never be together. They accept this, he spends the rest of his life in his happyish but slightly unsatisfying marriage and then when his wife dies, he goes and stands outside the apartment of the woman he loves but never goes in. And it's heartbreaking but also real. I mean how often can you really lie down in front of a train when you're miserable? You just have to get on with things.

2. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The only book that has ever made me cry in public and on a train. The person sat opposite looked at me like I was a bit odd but I think I got away with it. 

3. The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett. Congo-set love story and political thriller for those who haven't read. There is one particular line of dialogue in this book that made me cry a lot. I don't have the book to hand but if I can find it tonight, I'll locate said line and post it in the comments. 

4. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is an interesting counter-argument to my point above because I actually didn't cry in the film version. It's not dissimilar in general theme to The Age of Innocence but in this case they're so repressed that they don't even get round to declaring their feelings properly - and I think they're both single as well so there's really no reason why they couldn't be together if they just sorted it out. Someone I know describes the Merchant Ivory film of this book as 'Two and a half hours of Emma Thompson not shagging the butler'. I feel this misses the point somewhat. 

5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Obviously I'm a little bit ashamed to mention Cormac McCarthy in the same blog post as Ally McBeal but we're all about diversity here at Picador. 

So, discussion points are: 1. Is it true that we find it easier to cry at films, TV programmes and songs than at novels, and if so why is this? and 2. Please tell us the books that have made you cry in order to make me feel like less of a sentimental fool.

In the meantime, I read Scott Pack's post yesterday about songs that make them cry. In it, he links to a long comments thread on MSN Music in which men are asked to name songs that make them cry. This thread is a fascinating insight into the male psyche, with its mixture of genuinely sad but somehow also quite manly songs (Atmosphere by Joy Division anyone?), a bit of cheese (Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith) and reluctant admissions by men that they do occasionally shed a tear, but only at sporting events - one man names two songs that make him cry but then feels the need to add 'and the Welsh National Anthem sung at full belt by 80,000 Welshmen at the Millennium Stadium'. But of course.