Sunday, 6 January 2008

Through a glass darkly?

Books It’s an interesting experience when you revisit anything that you formed an attachment to many years previously---places, people, music, films---but haven’t been in touch with since. Books are no different. My summer reading has been swamped by texts I need to read for work, which isn’t a complaint because it’s an aspect of my job I particularly enjoy, even though I’ve had to relegate a number of other books to the bottom of the pile until I’ve finished. However, with some of these titles, it’s very much a matter of visiting old friends after a long absence and learning to see them in a different light. Unlike people, who have a tendency to change views, affiliations, tastes and the like, I know these old friends haven’t changed at all (not by one dot or comma), although their jacket designs may have been altered once or twice in the interim, and so, if my reading of them is significantly different, what’s really highlighted is the degree to which I’ve changed since I originally met and read them twenty or thirty years previously.

One of the courses I’m preparing for comprises:

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger,

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell,

  • Bombshells by Joanna Murray-Smith,

  • Look Both Ways, written and directed by Sarah Watt.

Whilst the other course comprises:

  • The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day,

  • Radiance by Louis Nowra,

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë,

  • Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov,

  • The Fox/The Captain’s Doll/The Ladybird by D.H.Lawrence,

  • John Donne poems.

I’ve commented on some of these texts in earlier posts and won’t repeat anything here, but five of the above are very old friends and, developing a reading of them now, after a break of a couple of decades or so is illuminating to say the least.

When I first read Catcher as a teenager, for instance, I seem to remember unconditionally admiring the character of Holden Caulfield for what I saw as his willingness to challenge all that was phoney in life regardless of the consequences, whereas now he seems remarkably vulnerable to me. In part, it was the uniqueness of the voice Salinger had given him that enamoured me and short-circuited a broader critical consideration on my part, whereas now I find myself questioning and analysing his strident repetition and assertion of facts, views, opinions, as he seeks to define who is (and why he is) against his abiding grief and sense of ennui and depression. I've become more sympathetic to the experiences that shape his character and explain his outbursts, but less empathetic. If anything, I like him more for being able to recognise the nature of his flaws, and I find him a more likeable flawed narrator than, say, Nick Carraway in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Found this interesting response to The Catcher in the Rye on YouTube, with captivating soundtrack:

As for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I can’t remember finding the structure quite so awkward or the style quite so plodding when I originally read it and thought it a tremendous gothic mystery, and yet neither can I remember it challenging quite so deliberately and powerfully the dominant views of its era on gender roles and the nature of relationships and marriage and the notion of eternity. I still like the book, but for very different reasons. I recognise and admire the risks Anne Brontë took in writing it far more now than I did first time round.

Sometimes, when walking through a shopping precinct, it’s possible to be caught unawares by the reflection in the plate glass windows of a person who seems to be taking a parallel path. There is something disorientating in the familiarity of their stride and their ability to mimic your movements, but their hair may be greyer or shorter or longer than you thought yours to be, and they may seem older than you thought yourself to be, and in a moment you realise it’s the image of you. In some senses, revisiting a book (or a place, or a film, or a long-unheard album) creates the same impression: it obliges us to admit to ourselves that, against a fixed measure, we have indeed changed, which can be confronting but is often illuminating.

No wonder I’m steaming through this pile of books and am keen to start something brand, spanking new!

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