Friday, September 26, 2008

The saddest book in the world

What is it? It turns out to be a harder question to answer than I first thought. I'm not talking about horrific, or disturbing, or violent--such books (and I'm talking about fiction here, because otherwise the question becomes all too easy to answer) are a cinch for most of us to stomach, and are in fact popular. Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian may be shocking, but it isn't going to bum you out. Well--for a little while, it will. But it is alien, and you can characterize it, in your mind, as a fantasy, and detach yourself from its bloody charms.

The obvious choice is the collected works of Virginia Woolf, of course, with particular attention to Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To The Lighthouse. The latter's middle section, that brief but incredibly detailed description of the empty house, with ivy crawling in the windows and soldiers dying far away, is quite the heartbreaker. I'm about halfway through Out Stealing Horses, and it too is definitely in the running.

I'm tempted to say Carver, but nah. There is ironic distance there, and this is not a bad thing. That's where the art is, in Carver. This month, all of David Foster Wallace seems unbearably sad, but perhaps that's just his death imposing itself over the work. From the next room, Rhian has shouted "The Velveteen Rabbit!", and so as long as we're doing children's books, allow me to throw in Charlotte's Web and the shamefully obscure Miss Osborne-The-Mop, a copy of which, in the early days of the internet, I managed to find for Rhian after her years of fruitless searching, thus scoring some serious marriage cred. (Knowing me, I probably spent it inside of a week.)

Indeed, children's literature, historically, has been a haven for gentle misery; when a book for adults is sad, it's called a "tearjerker" and is thought to be manipulative and in poor taste. For some reason, though, it's OK to choke up the kids.

Help me out here. What's the saddest book in the world?


gcm said...

I'm going with Eugene Onegin. The final scene in that novel always puts me over the edge.

Think Madame Bovary takes a close second.

rmellis said...

Farewell to Arms is pretty damn sad, though I forget why, at the moment.

E. said...

For pure metaphorical, existential boo-hoo, I say "The House at Pooh Corner." That last chapter? When the kidz have said so long to Christopher Robin and he and Pooh have a last conversation in the Hundred Acre Wood? Christopher Robin asks Pooh if he'll still come to their special spot (i.e. remember him) after he's gone (to school/adulthood/heaven).

"Will you be here?" Pooh asks.

"Yes, Pooh, I really will," says Christopher Robin (paraphrasing).

I mean. I was a quivering, snotty mess reading it to my little girl a few weeks ago. I still can't talk about it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Pooh is thoroughly mournful, I think. I wish I could delete the past ten years of hideous Disneyfication from my memory, though. They have done everything they could to ruin it.

I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read Eugene Onegin. But hell yeah Madame Bovary!

But not, interestingly, Anna Karenina. Because you always have Kitty and Levin to feel happy about. They are "you," and you get to think of Anna and Vronsky as the "others." It does kill you when Vronsky's horse buys the farm, though.

Bovary, though, definitely.

Hugo Minor said...

Watership Down.

Also, two of Kundera's books - The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Life is Elsewhere.

Dana said...

I seem to remember One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as being particularly depressing. At the end the character realizes that even if he could get out of the labor camp, there probably wouldn't be anything left for him. It's pretty damn sad.

Katte said...

Serious weepers:
Charlette's Web
Flowers for Algernon
Bridge to Terebithia

Melancholy depressing afternoons:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Hours

Dusty said...

It's not a classic (yet), but I always tell people that Ware's Jimmy Corrigan is the saddest novel they'll ever read.

Even the "lift" at the end bums me out. And yet I keep going back to that book....

Anonymous said...

YES, Jimmy Corrigan!!

Anonymous said...

And all the rest of Chris Ware too, for that matter, esp. the one where the mouse's head gets cut off.

Mark said...

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell.

Anonymous said...

Agree about Eugene Onegin. But since that one's gone, how about Edith Wharton's 'House of Mirth'

Anonymous said...

I don't know about saddest in the world -- but Remains of the Day really got to me. There's something about the narrator's distance from the truth, and the way you, the reader, know all about the things he can't bear to see, which he then, finally, sort of does see, except it's too late to do anything about them, that's just very effective in the sad department.

My children were horrified when Charlotte died. I felt terrible about that.

rmellis said...

Charlotte's Web is the one children's book I refused to read my kids. I hate crying while reading aloud! HATE it!

grumpy said...

Cancer Ward.

How many other books are sad starting with the title? And it just gets more depressing the longer you read.

Leaving Las Vegas is a close second.

sam and sharma said...

sophie's choice! and god, definitely I agree with jimmy corrigan. all of the acme novelty library. sad and beautiful, studies in loneliness.

ben said...

Where the Red Fern Grows. Hands down.

Anonymous said...

I second the Watership Down nomination. And for anyone who would like to bestow a good dose of pre-emptive grief and creepy guilt, try "I'll Love You Forever"- I'll hate it forever.

GFS3 said...

Here are some very sad books:

"The Remains of the Day"
"The History of Love"
"The Road"
"The Age of Innocence"

Also agree with "Where the Red Fern Grows" and "Flower for Algeron."

I also wept reading the Bush biography "Ambling into History," but for much different reasons.

Anonymous said...

i am definatly going with freak the mighty. it is the most saddest book in the world. another wwhich comes in a tie for second is so. b. it. and mick hart was here. these make me sob. another is also marley and me. those all made me cry.

Anonymous said...

Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)

Summer (Edith Wharton)