The novelist Tessa Hadley on the strange thrill of reading about boredom.
How does a writer convey tedium without boring the reader? Paradoxically it seems to thrill us to read about the agony of boredom. I thought at first that men were better at writing it than women, then I changed my mind; the first of my five favourite tediums is Jane Eyre (1847) pacing up and down the third storey at Thornfield Hall, longing for a bigger life and “a power of vision which might overpass that limit”. “The restlessness was in my nature,” Jane says. “It agitated me to pain sometimes.”
In Chekhov’s A Boring Story (1889) tedium is a dreadful hotel room in Kharkov: the bed eternally covered in a grey blanket, a clock eternally striking in the corridor.
Borges’s Pedro Salvadores (1969) hides from the dictator Rosas in Buenos Aires, by climbing into a secret cellar under his dining room – and stays there for 10 long years; at first he dreams at night of violent death, or of the open streets, but after a few years he dreams only of the cellar.
All the good war writers describe war’s tedium: Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), about the Vietnam War, skewers the horrible juxtaposition of extreme danger with petty pointlessness; American soldiers seemed “in the grip of unshakable petulance… it was in the slump of their shoulders”. And Agnes Owens’s Gentlemen of the West (1984) makes the tedium of work both terrible and funny; men in damp clothes in a hut on a building site, waiting all day for the rain to stop “in order to get on with the vocation of laying the brick”.