Friday, March 18, 2016

The Titanic? Or the Iceberg?

Rereading a novel after eight or ten years is much like encountering an old friend with whom you were once close, but are no longer certain if you have anything in common. This has happened to you more than once, sometimes with impressive, Hail, Fellow, well met positiveness, other times with dreary results.

Do you try to recall as much of the novel as you can, resisting the temptation to reread it? Do you assume your old friend will not have evolved, and the best strategy is to recall the arc of the past closeness with affection, then break away?

And what about the vital factor in this conundrum, the you who was in place when you last read the book. Do you assume your frown lines have not deepened, the crinkle lines of amusement at the corners of your eyes unchanged? Do you have more to laugh about or more awareness of the halt in your gait, your slower times for a ten kilometer race, your ability to swim a mile now regardless of the time involved?

Is there a possibility for a book, any book, not necessarily one of the Russian novels which critics are eternally citing as the most exquisite example of transformational potential, having the ability to change a reader's outlook on life? 

Is there the emphatic certainty that the old friend will emerge as boring or trapped back at the time when you were close? Perhaps you might even decide that the reason why your friendship with the old friend has gone on divergent paths is because you were aware of something even then, a speed bump or black hole in the cosmos. Worst fear come true, perhaps the fact of disparate paths in the friendship was because your friend saw you as the uncomfortable variant.

Improvise two scenes, the first in which you and this old friend bore one another, the second in which you realize you've talked all the way through lunch, had several drinks, and now, the waiter wishes to know if you want to look at the dinner menu. Compare them to see which seems the most likely, the most authentic. 

Or have you reached the stage where the word "authentic" has become dulled from overuse, like some of those knives in your kitchen drawer, where the blades want the honing you are too lazy to supply?

Your favorite Russian novel is one you first read not all that long ago, at about the time your appointment began at UCSB. You'd heard of the majesty and psychological wonder of the Tolstoy novels, the need to have spent time with Dostoevsky, but were unable to discern this wonder. 

You began Pasternak because someone had given it to you for a Christmas present. Whatever the reasons for becoming disengaged, you did not finish it. The one Russian you trusted was Chekhov, for his short stories and plays, that is, until you came upon what you considered the prequel to Catch-22, that being Nikolai Gogol's deadpan romp--or the translator's deadpan translation--Dead Souls.

 You had occasion to reread it, which caused you to appreciate the deadpan tone and your sense of how that was the only appropriate tone. This awareness was coming to you at about the time you began wondering how many of the books you'd read and reread were, in addition to being their more apparent genre, also mischievous, deadpan tricksters, providing the format you most admire, the covert satire, which is to say a story that is either the Titanic or the iceberg.

The answer is more complex than it seems: You are the factor who must be revisited with great regularity. If you'd not revisited yourself, you'd have gone on, making conversation with aspects of yourself you've become used to, bored with. Rereading novels, particularly in the way and purpose with which you've been reading them for the current project you've been occupied with for the past several months--The One Hundred Novels You Need to Read before You write your Own--is your litmus for seeing how much you've learned over a lifetime of reading and attempting to draw substance and sustenance from doing so.

You know this much at least, you are the Titanic, but you are also the ice berg.

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