Bitten by an Adder

Tim Parks

  • BuyThe Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, edited by Simon Avery
    Broadview, 512 pp, £9.50, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 55481 070 3

What a pleasure to return to Thomas Hardy. For about a hundred pages. Then the torment begins, and we’re not even halfway through. From now on each turn of the page will expose the reader to greater unhappiness. There’s a moment in The Return of the Native where the main character, Clym, already deeply troubled by his mother’s mysterious death, goes out of his way to find a little boy who may be able to tell him exactly what happened. When he asks the boy’s mother for permission to speak to the child, she looks at him ‘in a peculiar and criticising manner. To anybody but a half-blind man it would have said, “You want another of the knocks which have already laid you so low.”’ As the boy then tells his tale, stringing together facts that will destroy Clym’s life, the woman ‘looked as if she wondered how a man could want more of what had stung him so deeply’. At this point many readers may realise that the same question is on their minds: why am I persevering with a novel that is so painful to me? This will become the central issue in all Hardy’s mature fiction, above all Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure: why are these stories so much more painful than anything I have read, painful in the reading that is, the agonising unfolding of events? Why did Hardy insist on making them so? Why do people have an appetite for this?

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