Tuesday, January 20, 2015

`Delicious Twin Certainties'

Clive James turns his entry on Eugenio Montale in Cultural Amnesia (2007) into a meditation on memory and reading. The former, James stresses, is always unreliable. When I say, “Yes, I’ve read The Golden Bowl. Several times, in fact,” what am I saying?  What do I remember of a novel so light on plot in the conventional sense and so densely packed with nuance and indirection? I remember the four main characters, their overt relationships and the gradual unfolding of the true nature of their relationships. Also, the crack in the bowl, the allusion to Ecclesiastes, and the small but crucial role played by the amusingly named Fanny Assingham. What I retain of the novel itself – one I’ve read three times – is like a handful of close-ups taken of a vast and various landscape, coupled with a general impression of the story mediated by time and thought. In detail, I recall very little. Yet were I to begin rereading the book today, I would sense a homecoming, not entry into to an alien residence. And this is precisely Clive James’ point: 

“Without the capacity to forget, we would not be able to go back to something we love with the delicious twin certainties that it will yield a familiar quality, and still be new all over again.” 

That’s a useful and attractive description of the best books, of the truest literature. If we read fiction strictly for plot, for the sole satisfaction of figuring out “who done it” – a quality that applies, incidentally, not exclusively to mysteries and thrillers but to novels as great as Janet Lewis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (1941) and Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children (1940) – lesser works are lost on us in subsequent readings. I’ve known many people appalled by the thought of returning to a book they’ve already read, whereas I’ve grown skeptical of reading anything for the first time. That leaves me in a happier position than some, given that I’ve been an ambitious reader since my youngest days, and thus I’ve unknowingly organized my life to maximize opportunities for rereading. James’ aside clarifies another made by Nabokov. His Lectures on Literature (1980) opens with “Good Readers and Good Writers,” an introductory lecture delivered to his students at Cornell University. Prof. Nabokov writes: 

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

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