Reading Old Favourites – better second time round?

I spend a lot of my time reading, both for pleasure, for work and these days, mostly for study. I’ve read a heady mix of titles these last few years, being immured in the world of rock n roll biography – a desperate, exciting and somewhat incredible place to be. You do live in other worlds in books and you can find inspiration and new ideas to make all your own. I just love reading – it is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

I’ve re-read a great deal too – looking at style and writer’s craft as I struggle to shape my own novel, Ophelia, who seems ever the shape-shifter. So I’ve returned to Fay Weldon, John Irving, Fitzgerald, EM Forster, Flaubert, Hardy.

Like travelling, re-reading old books can feel like going home or returning to a foreign country. Many years ago I was compiling opinions about my team’s favourite books for our end of year publication. One of my dearest colleagues sited The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (pen name of Ethel Florence Richardson, Australian writer, 1870-1946) as her favourite novel and waxed lyrical about its impact on her as a young woman. When I asked about reading it again, she shook her head. No, she couldn’t go back: it might not stand up today and she didn’t want to be disappointed now and lose the love she had for the book from then.

I’ve generally not been like this. But then I’ve tended to re-read my favourite books at intervals over the years. I return to Fitzgerald often, mostly Gatsby. I re-read God of Small Things and Sophie’s Choice, not just for my current study but for the story and the heart ache. I re-read The English Patient for its utter beauty and sadness. I’ve never been disappointed like my friend Helen feared.

Until recently. I returned to EM Forster, a mainstay of senior school and university literature in my days. I’d read nearly all of his work at some time. My favourite was Howard’s End, and in the move from one side of the world to the other I had brought it with me. Reader, I re-read it. And I should not have. It was slow, ponderous, proselytizing and somewhat pompous. There was no remembered lightness of touch, profound insight into the human heart. It seemed to be the worst of tell it all and show nothing: no respect for the intelligence of the reader to connect anything. Although I read through to the end, I was deeply saddened by this experience.

Madame Bovary too, seems is not as I remember, which contrasts to Death in Venice, both read at the same time. Death in Venice (which I could not but help read when I was in Venice and stood outside Ashenbach’s hotel and paddled in the Adriatic where Tadzio caught the eye of the old man) stood the test of time. As densely written as remembered, as dark and oppressive in 2010 as it was in 1977. But Flaubert has not weathered well. I find Madame Bovary as insufferably self centred as before but the writing is not as taught or as crafted. It’s lost its feeling of despair, now Madame Bovary, herself seems superficial and not worthy of all these words, not worthy of such an epic death.

I wonder what the deal is? Is it in the writing: some books, some writers travel well – stand the test of time for all, for all time. Look to Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. These writers (and many others) are always with us – on school reading lists, being made into films or mini series, causing the public to rush back to the book keeping it in our hearts and minds.

Is there a difference to re-reading regularly as I do with Weldon, Irving and Fitzgerald and coming back to a novel after many years? Is my friend Helen right – leaving the book alone to be remembered as it was is the right thing to do, honour it that way – not lose its magic in the unkindness of today.

Is a much loved and fondly remembered book like an old lover then – better left in their prime, clear and beautiful in your memory, than re-met in their decline twenty to thirty years later? (Images courtesy Google-images)

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