Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On rereading

One of the great comforts in life is rereading novels. In a comments thread on a blog I often read (I haven't been able to find the discussion again just now, but it was very interesting) it seemed to emerge recently that there's a relatively small canon of novels with a particularly high rereadability quotient--for me these would include young-adult fantasies (Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman), a certain kind of crime fiction (Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dick Francis, Lee Child), that rather sedate mid-20th-century British romantic suspense (Mary Stewart, Joan Aiken), Georgette Heyer of course, more recent discoveries like Eva Ibbotson--you name it. (Also Dickens and Austen and Trollope, those are three of my three great ritual rereads; also... but there's no point giving a huge long list.)

Books that are rereadable in this kind of way are not of course infinitely rereadable; each rereading leaches them of some of their meaning, and in the end there's a sickening familiarity that makes them altogether unreadable for some time. (If you're lucky, they then become rereadable again--I hit that point with Pride and Prejudice, a book I must have read between thirty and forty times between the age of eight or so and now; one year I was teaching it in two different classes during the same week, and also giving a lecture on it for the course instructors, and I really grew disgusted! However when I read it again the next year, as always I found things I could not remember ever having noticed before & was struck anew by its technical brilliance.)

What's striking, though, is that new books can strike you immediately with their rereadability before you've even finished reading them for the first time: it's a mark of a certain kind of favorite book. (Other kinds of favorite book do not prompt such avid rereading, especially if there is nothing comforting about them.)

Anyway this is the long way round of mentioning that the last few weeks have been an insane and distracted hodgepodge of light reading. First I reread Susan Howatch's The Wonder Worker (UK title: A Question of Integrity) and The High Flyer--I love these books, but I've already read them too many times, I want her to write a new one! (Brief quotation from the Amazon review of The Wonder Worker: "Though [Howatch] has often been compared to Anthony Trollope, one astute reviewer has termed her 'the love child of Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch.' Other writers might approach her talent, but few would dare follow up a scene in which Nicholas hypnotizes his wife into sex with an even more exciting one in which he is called to order by his spiritual adviser, a nun!" Irresistible, eh?!?)

(Somewhere in there I also read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, enjoyable YA vampire fiction.)

Then I read two books that were new to me but had the immediately appealing patina of rereadability about them: Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword. Quite delightful--there's something Georgette Heyerish about them (as there is about Sherwood Smith's novels also) and yet they are strikingly original too, especially in the narrative voice of the first one--Kushner does something jumping-about-ish with point-of-view that makes me slightly crazy and yet the books are absolutely great.

And through it all I was rereading in small chunks a favorite book by a favorite writer that I must also have read many many times before, Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine. I love this book, and I also love the way she weaves in these bits and pieces from Plato and Thucydides and stuff that made those guys seem totally familiar to me when I first read them as a Young Person (I don't think I've reread this since teaching the Literature Humanities course here, and it was very enjoyable to see more clearly where she'd borrowed the bits from).

This is a ludicrous but true admission. Poppy Z. Brite recently had an aside in her blog where she said the following: "I don't believe in reincarnation per se [. . .] but if I did, the East End of Victorian London is one of the three places I'd expect to have lived. As long as I can remember I've had a compelling image in my mind of a single cobblestoned streetcorner somewhere near Tower Bridge (though I didn't know where it was for a long time and don't think Tower Bridge would have been built yet), lit by a single gaslamp late at night, dreadful yet somehow alluring. The other lives I'd expect to find I'd had are in a temple in South India and in one of those villages with the round thatch-roofed huts in sub-Saharan Africa, landscapes that have always felt intensely familiar to me despite my never having laid eyes on them."

I don't believe in reincarnation either, and obviously it's totally sketchy to fantasize about having been, you know, an Egyptian princess or whatever (it has been often observed how infrequently people remember past lives as wretched peasants), but if I had a past life that I could choose for myself as suitable I would be a teenage boy from a good Athenian family in the time just before the Peloponnesian War, a student of Socrates and a contemporary of Plato....


  1. Oh yes, Mary Renault, must press her on my son. How nice that you feel so at home in her world!

    My secret reincarnation thingie is the profound homesickness I feel in Brideshead Revisited and other pre-war English public school books/films about guys. Or in listening to Stephen Fry. Which is odd, since I'm Dutch and female and very much post-war...

  2. My favorite re-read: Raffles the Amateur Cracksman. I have comforted myself with it before or during every major life event for the last twenty years. My husband even read it out loud to me in the delivery room -- the nurses were bemused at being subjected to the exploits of an insouciant cricket-playing cat burglar.