I’ve just read Susan Hill’s HOWARD’S END IS ON THE LANDING about the year she spent reading from her own collection of books. I enjoyed it and agreed with her about a lot. Like her I think that THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER is a masterpiece. Like her I have a high regard for Trollope and Dickens and admire the diaries of James Lees-Milne for the writer’s absolute frankness about his own short-comings. She made me want to go back and read some old favourites and gave me some new books to add to my reading list. But perhaps the most fascinating section was on books she HADN’T read. One of them was ULYSSES.
In my last blog I wrote that doing a degree in English can deter one from writing oneself. But it is also a wonderful foundation for a reading life. Would I otherwise have read all of PARADISE LOST or all Shakespeares’s plays or BEOWOLF in Anglo-Saxon. Highly unlikely especially in the case of BEOWOLF. It was a struggle at the time, but I am glad these things are part of my mental furniture. Of course not everything took, and something that didn’t was ULYSSES. Fifty pages in was the furthest I ever got, and I don’t intend to go back, so I am with Susan Hill there. But I didn’t know whether to feel amazement or envy when I learned that though she has read a truly vast amount and is far more familiar with for example the novels of Hardy and Virginia Woolf among than I am, she has never read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY or THE GREAT GATSBY. To my mind THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY isn’t just Henry James’s best novel, it is one of the best novels ever written. On the whole I am sorry. True, she can now have the pleasure of reading it for the first time, but she has fewer years left for rereading it. THE GREAT GATSBY, too, I am glad that I read as an undergraduate, though for a different reason. Certainly it can certainly stand rereading, but I think it is best encountered first as a young person.
Some books when read in youth become companions for life. For me another of those is ANNA KARENINA. My reading group has chosen it as an optional extra and, as I suggested it, I certainly have to reread it. But in any case it has for a while been calling me to take it down from the shelf and I am looking forward to plunging back into it. Rereading: what a great pleasure that is.