"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rereading Old Books–Discovering the Present

Charles Dickens was born on Feb. 7, 1812, and died June 9, 1870. His obituary in The New York Times began, “The death of Mr. Charles Dickens creates a greater gap in English literature than the loss of any other one man could have occasioned. He was incomparably the greatest novelist of his time.”

A recent article in the Washington Post wondered whether readers felt that Dickens was out-of-date, and whether the stories from the crowded, ragged streets of London in the 19th Century resonated at all with today’s readers.  Few young people, he lamented, have ever read Dickens; and few adults have reread him. For most of us he has passed into distant history. 

A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite Dickens novel. It is melodrama – a story of love, courage, adventure, and honor.  Set before and during the French Revolution, it has intrigue and danger.  It has a Hollywood/Bollywood ending where the formerly scurrilous Sidney Carton impersonates Charles Darnay, the book’s hero, and goes to the guillotine in his place, thus redeeming a misspent and immoral life.  They don’t write ‘em like that anymore; when I want a page-turning, impossible-to-put down ride, I reread it. 

Not too many years ago I read most of Dickens’ work along with that of Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy – writers who, typical of the 19th Century, followed characters from beginning to end.  In An American Tragedy, Dreiser tells the story of the rise and fall of Clyde Griffiths – the poor boy who is forced to sing hymns on street corners with his itinerant evangelist parents, but who is consumed with the American dream of success and wealthy.  Clyde gets distorted by this desire, and the moral, ethical, and religious codes according to which he was brought up are discarded one by one.  He lies, creates a persona which has nothing to do with himself or his beginnings, and is eventually destroyed by his immoral and duplicitous life. 

An American Tragedy is an American Crime and Punishment.  Clyde desires, overreaches, and murders.  Like Raskolnikov he is consumed with guilt – not a moral guilt which torments because of an awareness of an evil deed, made more so by the innocence of the victim and pure venality of the crime; but because of the fear of getting caught and having his life’s grandiose design ruined.  I reread An American Tragedy not because it is great literature – Dostoyevsky wrote a more compelling, psychologically astute, and complex novel – but because it is a great story, compelling because I know the ending, and love to watch the inevitable tragedy develop page by page and chapter by chapter. Rereading here is not for new discoveries, new insights that come from age and experience, but for taking a familiar, melodramatic journey again.

Following the adventures and misadventures of Pip, Dickens’ hero in Great Expectations, or David Copperfield from start to finish, from difficult beginnings to happy endings can only happen in a 19th Century novel, written before the stream of consciousness, time-cutting, flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies of modern literature.  Make no doubt, I am a fan of today’s fiction.  I want to know more about what makes people tick – how the world around them determines who they are.  Nothing ‘happens’ in the fiction of Richard Ford, for example (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land), but the saga of Frank Bascombe, living and working in a beach town of New Jersey, is compelling nonetheless.  ‘Why doesn’t he do something?’, we impatiently wonder, but his deterministic shell, constructed to shield him from the pain of his losses and his uninteresting future, remains intact.  We keep reading.

Nothing ‘happens’ either in the theatre of Tennessee Williams, but in each of his plays, because of allusion, memory, reminiscence, and reflection we move through each character’s history.  The action is internal or dynamic between two people.  We know where Amanda (Glass Menagerie) came from, and why because of her origins she acts the way she does.  Blanche (Streetcar Named Desire) is the same.

Which is why I like to reread Dickens, Dreiser, or Thomas Hardy.  They are not only sagas which develop slowly but progressively, ending either in tragedy or good fortune; but they are world views of late 1800s, where only heroes escaped the confines of poverty.  It is good to read about this kind of heroism, success against all odds, but with the danger of the snakebite, the pit, the murderer always around the corner. 

The real reason I reread books, however, is to discover how I have changed – how the experiences of my life have given me new insights into the literature I read many years before.

I am currently rereading Faulkner, an author whose prose was so impenetrable twenty-five or more years ago, that I quickly gave up.  I had no patience.  Now, much older and with infinitely more patience, I have once again begun the stories of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. I have just finished Absalom, Absalom, perhaps his best book and perhaps one of the greatest novels written in English.  It is a story of the fictional Thomas Sutpen who came to Mississippi from the hills of West Virginia by way of Haiti to build Sutpen’s Hundred – 100 square miles of formerly virgin land, cut, dredged, and plowed into the biggest plantation in the territory.  I have written before in this blog about Sutpen the Unbermensch, the Nietzschean Superman who was determined to achieve his grand design – to overcome the poverty and class distinctions of the past and to be a man of wealth and power regardless of the morality or ethics of his actions.

Absalom, Absalom is as unlike Dreiser or Dickens as any writer.  Faulkner does not begin and end, but weaves the story from the perspective of many tellers.  He goes back and forth in time, in and out of narratives, in and out of speculation and conjecture.  The pictures of Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, and the other characters of the book are carefully and deliberately drawn, but only bits and pieces at a time.  With patience – reading slowly, rereading passages, returning to earlier chapters – the full panorama of completely developed characters becomes clear.  It is a masterpiece.  I wish now that I had had the patience those many years ago to have been able to begin Faulkner’s journey, but I was simply too young.

When I first read Faulkner in college or shortly afterwards, I had no idea about or interest in the South.  I grew up and was educated in New England, and shortly afterwards began a life in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  My experiences gave me a perspective on America.  Solitary journeys do that – they not so much illuminate the cultures seen, but the country left behind.  I saw America and Americans in relief – we stood out, and our uniqueness and our special difference was often painfully obvious.

It was not until I left the international life and began to travel in the United States did I begin to understand my own country.  I had always been fascinated with the South.  In many ways it was as foreign to me as many of the places I had visited abroad.  My first thoughts when I was 10 and we took our first trip to Florida was that it was a magic place.  How could I have left the brutal cold of Connecticut and after an overnight train trip end up in the warm sun of Miami?  It was magic.  The earth smelled of dirt.  The orange blossoms were sweet and the fragrance everywhere.  The sawgrass was tough but green and thick. 

Of course Florida was not the South, and only when I was in college a few years later did I become aware of Alabama and Mississippi.  From a Northerner’s perspective, these were dark and dangerous places.  They were frightening; enclaves of injustice and hatred.  I dismissed them as places never to visit.

Yet, as I got older, I knew that I could never understand American history if I didn’t understand Southern history and the South itself.  Reconstruction was my entrée to this history.  Not being a historian, I needed a personal enticement to read history.  It had to make sense to me, to elucidate something about my own life.  The story of Reconstruction has, unfortunately, been replayed many times since 1865.  The political arrogance, misjudgment, and ignorance of the period extended de facto slavery for another hundred years, continued the divisions between North and South, and extended its reach and legacy far into the North.

My interest in Southern history and my rediscovery of Faulkner happened at the same time, certainly not by coincidence; but my years of study, and my yearly visits to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina prepared me for his work.  Faulkner’s books may be about humanity, human nature, and the drama of families; but they are also about the South.  In fact, the genius of Absalom, Absalom is not the interwoven stories of the rise and fall of the Sutpen family, but about how Thomas Sutpen thought he could negotiate the swamps of race and class and failed.

I could never have appreciated Faulkner, never reread his books at all or with any kind of insight if I had not spent time in his country and his world.

In a simpler way, rereading Huckleberry Finn after my journeys to Mississippi and Louisiana had new depth.  I had seen the Mississippi River. Coming from New England where our rivers are small and background to a larger landscape, the Mississippi was another river altogether.  I would stand on the high outlooks in Vicksburg or Helena, Arkansas and watch the tankers and barges on what seemed to me an impossibly wide expanse of water.  I walked along the levees on the River Road in Louisiana down to New Orleans.  I ogled the flood markers in the Delta in Mississippi:

Flooding overtook the levees causing the Mounds Landing to break with more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls. The Mississippi River broke out of its levee system in 145 places and flooded 27,000 square miles (70,000 km2). This water flooded an area 80 km (50 mi) wide and more than 160 km (99 mi) long. The area was inundated up to a depth of 30 feet (10 m).

The Mississippi wasn’t just a river nor a background to anything.  It was the principal feature of the Delta and much of the South.

So when I reread Mark Twain, I could now envisage the river, its power, its dangerous potential, and its importance.

Perhaps the greatest reread of the past two years has been Shakespeare.  I was an English major in college, and read all the plays during my four years there.  It never took.  I read them, took notes for the exams, and boxed up Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and their friends.  Now, almost fifty years later, I realize what all the fuss was about.  I have reread all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and have been in awe at his range and scope, his poetry, his insights into history and human nature.  There never has and perhaps never be anyone like him.

What changed in me?  As in my rediscovery of Faulkner, patience – the patience to read Elizabethan iambic pentameter, to master the events of English history, and to let the Comedies which I had hated in college unfold at their own pace. 

I started my rereading with the Histories, because I had just finished reading about Elizabethan history; and like with most history was bored with the details which always seemed to underpin the very same events – wars, palace plots and coups, treachery, and butchery.  Shakespeare, I thought, might give me the real insight I needed to cut through this tangle.  He did, and then some.  One of my favorite critics, Jan Kott, wrote about what he saw as the Grand Mechanism of Shakespeare’s Histories – that inexorable cycle of history in which the same events got played out again and again.  What was behind the machinery?  Human nature – greed, avarice, ambition, power, family rivalries – was, not unexpectedly working the levers.  Of course; but it takes a Shakespeare to play out these brutalities of human nature again and again in so many different ways for us to really understand that we are stuck with what we’ve got.

Every time I pick up an old book, it is a new book.  I have a small repertory to which I always return: Faulkner, Shakespeare, Updike’s Rabbit trilogy, Roald Dahl’s mischievous children’s stories, Huckleberry Finn, Tennessee Williams and a few others.  There is always something new that I find.  Not new, of course, to the book, but in me. 

Rereading old books?  What a question!!

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