Lee Rourke’s debut collection of short stories Everyday is published by London’s Social Disease Publishing. He is the editor of the literary magazine Scarecrow and is reviews/contributing editor at 3AM Magazine.
“Boredom has always fascinated me. I suppose it is the Heideggerian sense of ‘profound boredom’ that intrigues me the most. What he called a ‘muffling fog’ that swathes everything – including boredom itself – in apathy. Revealing ‘being as a whole’: that moment when we realise everything is truly meaningless, when everything is pared down and all we are confronted with is a prolonged, agonising nothingness. Obviously, we cannot handle this conclusion; it suspends us in constant dread. In my fictions I am concerned with two archetypes only, both of them suspended in this same dread: those who embrace boredom and those who try to fight it. The quotidian tension, the violence that this suspension and friction creates naturally filters itself into my work.”
1. William Lovell by Ludwig Tieck
From the German Romantic literary cannon sprang this extraordinary yet – these days – relatively unread novel. Within its pages existence and being are seen as a perpetual spiral of boredom. William Lovell, the novel’s eponymous anti-hero, stands on the peripheries of society waiting for a world to satisfy him completely. Of course, it doesn’t and nor can it, creating a wonderful tension throughout. This is one of our first novels solely about boredom – a novel that was possibly too modern for its own time and a perfect starting point for this list.
2. Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett
Beckett’s boredom was an ugly boredom. Endlessly repeated. And through this ugliness, this grotesque repetition a strange, eerie comedy was born. Anything written by Beckett is wholly spellbinding to read and this lesser read masterpiece perfectly sums up the continuing theme of boredom throughout his oeuvre. Mercier and Camier is a short novel of chance meetings and missings – a theme repeated by Beckett almost mercilessly. The banal that he unearths and reuses in his fictions gives it a sense of post-history, a sense that his voice is appearing from elsewhere, something other.
3. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
For me this simply has to be the definitive book on boredom. I sometimes forget I am breathing when I find myself lost in passages from it, so engrossingly beautiful are they to read. Pessoa realised that beauty can be found in the everyday, the non-spaces of work and the naked moments we spend sitting in cafés looking out onto the street at passers-by. Those perfectly empty moments when we find ourselves waiting for absolutely nothing, until it’s time to walk back to work or back to our homes for the evening. Pessoa’s entire philosophical study of boredom is possibly the greatest poem ever written.
4. Whatever by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq’s debut – originally published as Extension du domaine de la lutte in 1994 – is a bitterly sarcastic tale of boredom in the technological and information generation. Houellebecq’s thirty-year-old narrator is content in his boredom, allowing the quagmire of everyday working life to wash over him, writing strange tales about cows in his spare time. His life changes when he joins a colleague to train provincial civil servants to use a new computer program. Drifting from day to day, from encounter to encounter he slowly drowns in the meaninglessness of the information that surrounds him.
5. Melancholy by Jon Fosse
The first of two Norwegian writers in this list. Melancholy is a confounding portrayal of the mind of the artist lost in a senseless world. Fosse’s prose is as hypnotising as anything written by Thomas Bernhard yet manages to instil within in it more humour and richness. It is a novel of crisis, of relentless meaninglessness. An incredibly intense novel in three sections its protagonist Lars Hertervig (a real-life impressionist painter) manages to cut through the oppressive boredom that has drifted into his life, forcing his mental breakdown in the process, to reveal the beauty and light that lies behind it.
6. Boredom by Alberto Moravia
If boredom in its purest form is immanence, its antidote must be one of transcendence. But with immanence comes nothingness. How can we transcend from nothing? All we have is impulse to fall back on and such impulses are invariably of a sexual nature. Most people who seek some kind of meaning through sexual encounter often become quickly disillusioned, it being an ephemeral solution, and they hastily return to their own initial immanent state of boredom. Alberto Moravia’s terse novel expertly outlines this re-circulation of boredom and transcendence via the exploits of a protagonist who fails to connect with the impossibilities of his life.
7. Blue of Noon by Georges Bataille
A classic of twentieth century eroticism and set against the backdrop of Europe’s slide into Fascism it is also one of Bataille’s most overtly political works that explores how voids, the gaping holes left behind by a stagnating civilisation, are filled by individuals lost within a generation of moral and spiritual stasis. Troppmann, the novel’s pivotal protagonist, spends most of his time drunkenly flitting between two women (Lazare and Dorothea) and his own nihilistic dreams. It all ends in a mesmerising scene of copulation in a graveyard and a disjointed observation of a Nazi Youth band playing marching songs.
8. Homo Faber by Max Frisch
Another modern slave to technology Homo Faber follows Engineer Walter Faber, a man for whom only the empirical exists. Faber is completely devoted to a world ruled by the very technologies it, and he, has helped to create. Suddenly, and seemingly for no reason, during a flight to South America, Faber falls into a dense miasma of depression, a horrible weariness that completely enshrouds him. Through this blindness he begins to see that everything up until that point in his life has been meaningless, pointless and governed by the technologies he has shallowly revered. Faber realises he needs rest, that he needs to accept this meaninglessness in his life. We follow him through Europe as he encounters a clarifying randomness that culminates in an ironic twist of classic tragedy.
9. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Hunger was first published in 1890 yet it could have been written yesterday so fresh and seductive is its voice. It is the story of a haughty, misanthropic writer who spends his days wandering the streets of his city looking for food, avoiding policemen and stalking women, or up in his decrepit room writing by candlelight in the vain hope that what he writes will one day make him rich and famous convinced as he is by his own genius. Contained within the pages of this intense first-person narrative are not only – arguably – the first germinations of Modernism, but some of the most startling passages on boredom I have ever read too.
10. Perfect Tense by Michael Bracewell
The mindnumbingly boring routine of office life is examined in this perceptive novel of alienation. Much darker and philosophically damning than Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, Michael Bracewell points us towards the futile accessories of the modern office: spider plants, polystyrene cups, suspension files, print outs and trips to sandwich shops between 1 – 2 in the afternoon. Bored people trying to find their foothold, their superior position, within the meaningless politics of the office. It is a novel that offers the proof we need that most of us are bored without even realising it.