I don’t want to read Catcher in the Rye again – or Salinger’s short stories – though I was impressed by them when I was around twenty. Nor am I tempted to reread Wuthering Heights (though Jane Eyre is another matter). I won’t be returning to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, all cult novels when I was a teenager (taking the Peake trilogy down from the shelf I see that they were given to me for my 21st birthday – and I haven’t opened it for, ooh, I’d rather not say how many years). Are there novels that it is best to read when you’re young as I did with all these? And conversely are there novels that one should keep for middle-age or old age?
The Great Gatsby strikes me as a young person’s novel, yet I could happily reread that. And it’s the same with To Kill a Mocking Bird. In fact I didn’t read that until I was middle-aged and loved it, but I think the optimum age for reading it is probably mid teens. On the other hand Proust is surely a writer for later life. You need to have been through the mill a bit yourself really to appreciate Swann in Love.
There are some writers who have something new to offer as you return to them through life. Tolstoy is one. As a young woman I thrilled to Anna Karenina’s tragic love story, but it wasn’t until I reread it as a mother that I understood Anna’s anguish at being parted from her son. Jane Austen I can always go back to, though it’s more often Mansfield Park or Persuasion now, rather than Pride and Prejudice. Dickens was often pushed onto the young reader when I was young, but I think that was a mistake. You should be an adult to read him. Trollope with his generous sympathies and his understanding of human relationships is evergreen. And Middlemarch is the perfect novel for any age. We have chosen that for our book group’s annual big read and I am looking forward to.
Are there books that you loved when you were young, but couldn’t bear to reread? Is there anything that you are saving for old age?
I’m returning to a lot of old favourites at the moment – I might explore the reasons for that in another blog – and as I planned another raid on the shelves of the London Library for Maigret novels I reflected not for the first time on the discrepancy between the man and the books. It is telling that I do think of Maigret novels rather than Simenon novels. Simenon was fantastically prolific: according to the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Murder he wrote 84 Maigrets, over 500 pulp novels under pseudonyms, and around 350 darker psychological thrillers, usually featuring people on the verge of moral and emotional collapse. I much prefer the Maigret novels. Simenon himself certainly had a dark side. He behaved badly to the women in his life, particularly his daughter, and was a compulsive womaniser, claiming to have had sex with hundreds of women. He may or may not have been a collaborator during the war, but he certainly did not cover himself in glory. In short he was not much like his most famous character, Maigret, who is devoted to Madame Maigret, lives a solid bourgeois existence, and provides the moral touchstone of the novels. Maigret is empathetic to a high degree, with a deep understanding of the hopes and fears of the people he moves, the petty criminals, the prostitutes, the working classes and the struggling lower middle classes trying to cling to gentility. So, have I stopped reading Maigret novels because I disapprove of Simenon? Of course not. And I haven’t stopped reading Dickens because he treated his wife appallingly, either. So where would I’d draw the line and is there even a line to be drawn? I think there is, that I can conceive of a writer whose character and behaviour was so repugnant that I wouldn’t want to read his or her novels.