Richard Gwyn’s second novel, Deep Hanging Out (Snowbooks), is set in Crete in 1981 against the backdrop of the cold war, and incorporates the myth of the Minotaur in his labyrinth. His first novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away (Parthian), was a surprise hit of 2005 and was described as the ‘best novel of the year’ by Waterstone’s head buyer, Scott Pack.
“I had already selected this topic for the column when I discovered that an earlier contributor, Elise Valmorbida, had chosen as her subject 10 books with a happy ending. She saw this as a challenge, and it is easy to see why: the unhappy ending is such a profoundly embedded feature of contemporary life and literature.
Our predilection for the sad ending can be traced to the stories of Greek mythology and (as I point out in my first choice, below) to the Bible, in which I read Christ’s torture and execution as an allegory of human suffering in general.
The piece was originally going to be called 10 books with a bad ending until it occurred to me that a ‘bad’ ending could either be one of catastrophe and malevolence, or else one that is ill-conceived or poorly-written. For the purposes of this list, of course, I meant the former, and consequently changed the title to avoid an (admittedly rather satisfying) ambiguity.”
1. The Bible by various authors
I am thinking specifically of the New Testament here, the gospels, where the protagonist, an illegitimate carpenter from Nazareth, is crucified. By an extraordinary twist of events, this act of crucifixion provided western culture with its predilection for unhappy endings as well as a template for suffering, and a philosophy of childcare and education based on the twin bastions of fear and guilt. The template of the crucifixion presupposes that we all have a personal cross to bear in order to traverse this vale of tears that constitutes our earthly existence. We are told “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I don’t get it at all. I realise that redemption and eternal life is the pay-off, but what kind of a father sacrifices his own child for an ideal when it is that same father who made up the rules in the first place? And what a horrid way to die, nailed to a cross while stinking legionnaires jibe and scoff. Having said that, it has to be added that the figure of Christ presents the archetype of the wounded healer: what makes you sick can also make you well.
2. Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
This one is straightforward enough. The presumed existence of his opposite number provides proof of God’s existence. God’s adversary, the Prince of Darkness, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub (he has more names than the names of God, which are numberless) will, for a fee, grant whatever you wish: the catch is that you must hand over your soul for ever and ever. A simple barter, it provides us with the second archetype: the notion of the antichrist. Scary. Because a) you never think the end will actually come, so busy are you in revelry and debauch, and b) once your time has come there is no turning back. Actually the story of Faust was an integral force within the alchemical tradition; let’s call it an allegory. Marlowe’s version is of mixed literary value, while the later version, by Goethe, is held to be the ultimate expression of poetic drama in the German language. I remember, as a child, reading an encyclopaedia in which the IQ’s of ‘Great Men of History’ had been calculated (but we were not told how). Goethe topped the chart with an estimated IQ of 210.
3. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
The heroine, Lucy Snowe, has found on her return to England from what is apparently Belgium, that the man she believed to be uninterested is in fact in love with her (as she with him), to the point that he sails to England to be with her. The ship is left in the reader’s command: does it arrive and romance ensue, or is it wrecked in a storm? It’s presumed Charlotte’s father, objecting to the original, uncharacteristically unhappy ending, made her alter the straightforward death to this ambiguous one. This new, revised version relied on the reader’s own interpretation of events: what happened to our heroine’s man? Was he shipwrecked, or was God kind to the quixotic pair? In all likelihood, God was not.
4. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
You would have thought it was bad enough to wake up and find oneself transformed into a huge bug, but for Gregor Samsa worse was to come. His first concern is that he has turned into woodlouse-man, but is rapidly overtaken by the fear that this might make him late for work. Because of his condition, he is forced to remain in his room, and his family has to take in lodgers to compensate for the loss of income. Thus abandoned, he dies a miserable death, alone and neglected.
5. The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
We know that Antoinette becomes Bertha in Jane Eyre. There could not be a greater difference than the one between her sun-filled life in Jamaica to the gloomy grey landscape of England, where she is locked away in her husband, Rochester’s home. But is she really mad or merely an inconvenience to her husband? Perhaps, too, typically of Victorian men, he is scared of women, or at least of their perceived psychic menace. The book carries an ominous sense of dread or foreboding, as though Antoinette/Bertha’s destiny is already set, and measured here in a beautiful, darkly poetic language. When I was a boy there was a TV adaptation of Jane Eyre, broadcast, I seem to remember, early on a Sunday evening, the most truly dire hour of day to be growing up in cold, damp Britain.
6. The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
In La Guerra Del Fin Del Mundo, allegedly based on the actual events of the Battle of Canudos at the turn of the 19th century in Brazil, and with themes reminiscent of the revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the European middle ages, Vargas Llosa shows us the lives, dreams and obsessions of an oddball gang of protagonists, loosely based on contemporary archives. Vargas Llosa, not generally my favourite Latin American author, steers a course skilfully through the political, religious and imaginative landscape of the newly-founded Brazilian Republic, marking out the tensions that existed then and continue to divide Brazil today. Never less than gripping, the description of the beleaguered rebels under siege by government forces is mesmerising as the novel moves inexorably towards a really unhappy ending.
7. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Things end badly simply by dint of the hero, Patrick Bateman, remaining alive at the end of this gruelling odyssey to nowhere, although he does make a phantasmagorical appearance in the writer’s latest, and most interesting novel, Lunar Park, when the character ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ believes he is being stalked by his own fictional creation. Yes, we are asked to believe, as his list of murderees grows, this is what a corporate culture allows us. No room for God here since the power of the killer has made redemption unthinkable and a devil’s bargain expedient.
8. Heaven’s Edge by Romesh Guneskera
In this unjustly neglected, beautifully nuanced novel, the narrator, Marc, visits a quasi-mythical island said to be near the edge of heaven. As his fantastical adventures ensue, reality is fragmented and we move through a dreamscape populated by eco-warriors, a subterranean city, freedom fighters and their pursuers, towards an improbable and tragic finale. In luscious, textured prose, the book shows us how important it is to stay faithful to the imagination when confronted by repressive forces. At one stage Marc remembers his grandfather: “The future,” he was fond of saying, “is not something you can imagine. You can only rearrange the past in your mind, you know, to look like it is still to come. We have to bathe in a pool of memory, and play little tricks with its surface, just to live another day. We think we are going forwards, but really we are always on a journey going back to find something that we might once almost have had.”
9. Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
My daughter Sioned suggested this one. As Thomas Peaceful lies awake in the first world war trenches the night before his brother is due to be executed for desertion, he thinks back over their childhood together. This book is a touching and sensitive account of their family life in the Devon countryside before their world is transformed by the war; of their adventures with ‘simple’ brother Big Joe and friend Molly, and of their coming of age together. The gentle and lucid writing make it accessible to children, but it is also an entrancing story for older readers.
10. Sheepshagger by Niall Griffiths
“Of mountains, mud and mire is this young Ianto made. Fern-fronds his hair, stream-spume his drool. Night-time anthracite the pupils of his eyes.” A slowly dawning revenge tragedy in which brutality and tenderness are seen to co-exist in the faltering mind of the beautifully drawn Ianto, a semi-feral boy who has lost his ancestral farmhouse to incomers in rural mid-Wales. A tale of patheism, animism and the God of Wild Things.