As MS suggests, what we find consoling tends to be highly individualized, and I'm not sure that it isn't somewhat arbitrary, too: the state of mind we bring to a work determines what we find in it, and if you come to a book in need of consolation, it's likely enough that you'll find it (along with lots of other things, which you may then feel free to disregard).
At any rate, the books that I read semi-regularly aren't consoling in any ordinary or expected fashion. These include:
Evelyn Waugh, Vile BodiesWhat do these works have in common? Failure more than success; the discovery of ugly things about other people or oneself; good times that prove to be fleeting and a past that can't be returned to. Those things would not, one would think, make for agreeable reading when one is feeling low--but if there's something more than aesthetic consolation that I find in these works, it's the reminder that, fuck it: life goes on.
John Cheever, The Stories (I flip through the volume at random, but "Goodbye, My Brother" and "The Swimmer" always get read)
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Consolation, for me, resides in narrative (something that Sfrajett wrote about beautifully several months ago). Other people's stories remind us that we all heal and change and grow, and that there's usually something good lurking around the corner that we can't now imagine.
But as the books I've chosen suggest, it's not the happily-ever-after part that I fixate on, but the attempt to get there. Happy endings aren't magic, something that God or the universe gives us or doesn't--we make them, to a degree, for ourselves. We may not be able to change the past or be fully in control of what happens in the present, but we are in control of the meaning we assign those events, and we rewrite our scripts continually, making something new and comprehensible out of what seem, in the moment, to be narrative dead ends.
I'd been writing this post in my head for a day or two when Guy and I happened to go see Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad as part of an Alain Resnais retrospective. Both movies deal with the problems of memory, and both have a narrator who is trying to force the past and present into some kind of relationship. But Hiroshima (which I loved) shows life fucking going on--even with the past lurking behind every corner--while Marienbad depicts the suffocating inability to let go of the past or to incorporate it into a comprehensible narrative. I actually found the paranoid-obsessional tape loop of the movie's consciousness pleasurable, at least at times, but for very different reasons than Hiroshima or the books I've listed above.
This brings me, somehow, to the fact that yesterday was my three-year blogiversary: two years in this space and one in my previous one. I started blogging as I was finishing my dissertation and preparing to start my first full-time teaching job, and I've continued it through a second job search, a move, and adjustment to life on the tenure track. Sometimes I think that the five or six hundred posts I've written in that time are just a tape loop, continually revisiting the same issues with tiresome repetition--but although my archives do demonstrate my own paranoid-obsessional patterns, I think there's narrative there, too. Thanks for sticking around and helping me find it.