Tuesday, February 10, 2015

`Sheer Enjoyment of the Literature'

In 1983, The New York Times Book Review asked Muriel Spark to name the books she rereads and give her reasons why. Her response, sensibly titled “The Books I Re-Read and Why,” is collected in The Informed Air: Essays by Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2014), and is notably brief and unlikely to be emulated by many readers. She begins with an interesting distinction: “the books I go back to are not necessarily those I admire the most.” Spark says she keeps reference books handy – “a quantity of poetry, the classics—Plato, Machiavelli” -- and adds, “A great many books that have delighted me remain vividly in my memory; I don’t feel any desire to re-read them.” Then she proceeds to identify two works she re-reads “continually” -- À la recherche du temps perdu and The Bible, the Old Testament in particular. Spark elaborates on her unlikely book club fare. 

“When I want to relax and get into a thoughtful mood invariably I take down a volume of [Proust’s novel]. Any volume, any page: the magic works, sinuous as a snake.”  

I’m reminded of a letter Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War: A Narrative, wrote in 1984 to his friend Walker Percy, who is reading Proust for the first time (ed. Jay Tolson, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, 1996): 

“Despite the almost twenty-year gap when I was engaged almost exclusively with my War, 1954-74, I have read Things Past eight times from start to finish – six times before the War, twice afterward. In fact, whenever I feel I have earned it (completing a novel, say, or moving into a new house) I immediately reward myself by taking off six weeks and reading Proust again from start to finish, always with a heightened admiration and widened wonder at his talent and his skill in demonstrating it . . . . his primary skill, which is his unalterable concern with moving that story forward.” 

Foote writes a 10-point outline of “Budding Grove,” as he calls it, for Percy, and says Proust “depend[s] on his charm to hold the reader.” The only other writers about whom Foote gets comparably excited are Shakespeare and Chekhov. He gives Percy another Proust pep talk: 

“For these and other reasons it does what all great books do, and does it superbly: that is, enlarges life. Do for God’s sake stay with it to the finish. Dont [sic] be put off by any foolish notion that it seems `loose’ or undisciplined. It’s altogether the tightest, best-constructed and most disciplined novel I ever read. Youll [sic] think so too, if you stay with it, and most of all if youll [sic] reread it as soon as that first reading has had time to sink in.” 

Spark asks why readers would care about that “old degenerate” Charlus, or Swann “with his airs," and answers herself: “. . . Proust makes these people matter through the sheer force of his style, his extraordinary time-manipulations. It is his style that is the drug for the Proust-addict.” 

About The Bible, Spark says she rereads it with “unfailing pleasure”: “I don’t read it so much for religious consolation, as I was brought up to think proper, as for sheer enjoyment of the literature. So much poetry, so many literary forms, such wonderful stories. And, from a novelist’s point of view, what clearly delineated characters.” 

Spark was born in Scotland of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, and raised a Presbyterian. She was baptized in the Church of England in 1953, and the following year joined the Roman Catholic Church. Spark’s reading of the Bible, however, sounds distinctly secular or even literary. The author of Memento Mori (1959) writes: 

“Few works of world literature contain so many great, wild and precise characters as appear in both the Old and New Testament. Students of creative writing should study them.”

1 comment:

Don said...

In re-reading this post (ha ha), I found it interesting that you didn't seem to share your perspective on Proust or the Bible as works worthy of one-time or repeat reads -- and you are not usually shy about your views. Care to illuminate?