Thursday, December 07, 2006

Reading and Rereading

I think it was Nabokov who said it first, only to be echoed through generations of readers and critics since: reading is re-reading.

Some interesting echoes recently from both Marly Youmans at The Palace at 2 a.m. and Dan Green at The Reading Experience.


I ought to do even more rereading, particularly of current books, because it is in rereading that a story or poem reveals itself—and tells us the extent of its merit. Most reviewers know only the first cursory passage through a work when they pen a review; a reader can know more. Though life is short and art long, we ought to reread often, because it is there that we “dive,” as Melville would say.

For Dan, the works of art we re-read call on us

... to immerse ourselves in the experience of reading them for reasons that go beyond the timely and the trendy. And I like to think that there is a kind of literary criticism that corresponds to this order of reading, that both reminds us what works these are and helps us to enhance the reading experience. Such criticism also attempts to "dive" in the Melvillean manner, providing "information" of a sort through patient description of the text's manifest (if not always immediately apparent) features (as experienced by the critic him/herself), but also drawing attention to the implications of the text's formal and stylistic qualities or putting the work in a relevant context, especially the context of literary history. "Interpretation" might be involved, but it is not the kind of interpretation that encloses the work in critical amber, telling us what it "means." It is interpretation meant to be supplemented, if not replaced, by additional informed interpretation.

For me, re-reading is what reading is, or should be, all about. The problem is that little of what we read, little of modern literature, really demands a second reading, although some does. This of course is nothing new, if we apply the old rule that 80 to 90 percent of everything is lousy. For books that are above average, or appear to be, a second reading is something of a test -- to see whether it yields more or less, whether or not upon a second reading it doesn't start showing its seams. I guess that's just some subjective matter that every reader judges in their own way, whether or not a book has a certain tug on the attention that makes you look at it closely, makes you look at it in part and then as a whole. That's often why I've found myself going through some books several times, because I'll want to look harder at the way the plot develops, or how a character is formed, and then maybe go through it again just to see if it has some lingering total effect, perhaps.

But let's be honest: I'm more likely to do this with short stories than novels, and I prefer doing it with novels that are relatively short: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, Doctor Glas, etc.

If a book is merely plot-oriented then chances are a second reading will be dull, unless it has a very exciting plot that you simply like experiencing over again -- like a fast ride at the fun-fair, to quote Billy Bragg on love, where as soon as you get on you want to get off and as soon as you get off you want to get on again.

Sometimes a book just bothers me in a way that requires a closer look, particularly if I have a review to write. That was the case with Monica Ali's Brick Lane, about which I was rather divided -- I loved her prose, I loved certain characters, I thought the book was often a genuine portrait of Indian life in England; it had all kinds of "felt life" going for it. Yet the story as a whole seemed somehow wrong, unsatisfying; the scope of it was just off, and I think my increasingly dim brain just had to sit through it again before I could really put my finger on what I found so bothersome, which was the creeping sentimentality in the correspondence between the protagonist and her sister.

That isn't the best kind of re-reading, because in the end it feels like more of a nerdy chore than anything else.

The best kind of re-reading is when you come upon a book or a story that has that rare quality of incandescence. The model I always think of is Shakespeare, whom I prefer to think of as a novelist, and whose work delivers far more as a reading experience than a theatrical one (which, given the fact that he is the world's greatest dramatist, should only be considered a measure of the greatest literary genius the world has ever known.) Shakespeare's poetry is so intense that it simply defies being processed in a single hearing in a given performance; in a great speech there might be a succession of ten or twenty compelling thoughts, and it takes a close reading to bring all that depth to the surface, or several, ideally, in which you can just sink into the play. This is the best kind of complexity: a work of art that is never less than fascinating and which at the same time can be looked upon in myriad ways.

The question plaguing me now: what kind of an anal-retentive idiot sits through Against the Day again?

I've been reading it forever, I don't really understand it, and I'm faced with writing a review that wrestles with the question as to whose fault that is, mine or the author's; have I read it wrong, or did he write it wrong? Some first-time writer once sent a manuscript to Norman Mailer and asked his advice. Mailer read it and replied: "Either you're too dense or I'm too dumb." That's what I'm facing with Pynchon; and while my own self-deprecating tendencies tend to fall on the side of dumbness, I have to wonder if Pyncon doesn't make excessive demands on my attention to detail and total recall of the countless incidents and incidental characters spanning over 1,000 pages.

For the first few hundred pages, Pynchon's information overload style of story-telling didn't bother me. I felt like I was once again in the company of the smartest and positively highest shaman alive as he told a hallucinogenic adventure tale; I liked sinking into the book for hours at a time, and it didn't bother me that my synapses were having to work overtime keeping up. Call it fatigue, call it whatever, I think I lost sight of the overall plot somewhere deep in Vienna (or was it Gottingen? The book takes place more or less all over the world) and I've pretty much been treading water ever since. There are aspects of this many-sided megalopolis that I'm just not seeing, that that maybe I'm not capable of seeing through a single reading. I guess you could say that of all of Pynchon, but usually they at least are satisfying on some level through the first go-round (although I freely admit here that Gravity's Rainbow has always kind of eluded me). Mason & Dixon at least had the benefit of a somewhat linear story as it followed the two main characters. This one by contrast goes everywhere and then some.

A further note about first go-rounds. I'm convinced more and more over the years that Nabokov really hit it right with Lolita, a novel that truly works at so many reading levels, which not all works of art do. That is an intricately complex novel that can be appreciated at a very basic level by anyone looking for a good story -- by the "general reader" Nabokov so contemned -- and even more so by anyone willing to dig deeper and pull it apart. That cannot be said of many great novels, or at least, it cannot be said of many great modern novels. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is another. These are books written by prose masters; books that work at the precision level, the sentence level, the le mot juste level.

Pynchon, whatever else may be said of him, is not that kind of a writer. He's the opposite of economical. He writes a generous prose, you might say, but it's not a Joycean richness.

Just a few cranky thoughts after a morning of cranky reading.

As mentioned earlier, by the way, I'm reading a little of Moby-Dick every morning. Man, he was on such a streak when he wrote all those early books.

Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger- lilies - what is the one charm wanting? - Water - there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

1 comment:

nnyhav said...

Haskell shares your pain. [via]

AtD poses a problem for any reviewer -- it's not as incandescent as GR but it is a return to that voice. GR rewards rereading, and I don't reread many, trying to reread the first time through, which for AtD, like M&D, is enough for the noncritic.