These I rarely read a book in one sitting. Maybe sometimes on holiday, but otherwise it tends to be when I am not very well. Such a day came last week – just a cold, but I didn’t feel up to much. I retired to bed with Ellie Griffith’s The Outcast Dead, which I’d been saving for when I wanted a treat. There was no-one at home so I read it straight through without interruptions, including over lunch, and I enjoyed it hugely.
I used often to read like that – for hours on end. I remember as a teenager that a favourite place to read was sitting on the stairs, back against the wall, feet against the bannisters, while the sunlight through the stained glass of the front door of our between-the-wars semi sent shifting patterns moving across the hall carpet.
The great thing about a one-sitting reading is that you don’t forget who characters are or mislay bits of the plot. You get completely immersed in the book, sinking into it, leaving your ordinary life behind. Of course not everything can be read like this. Proust or Tolstoy demand a greater expenditure of time – the reading has to be spread over days, weeks, or maybe months – and that sense of living in a parallel universe is part of the experience of reading the book. But I like a crime novel to be short enough to read in one sitting – and if the writer has done their job, I should want to read it in one sitting, drawn on and on until at last the final page is reached, it’s over, and with a sigh of satisfaction, I close the book (and go online to download the next in the series).
A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Daniella, tagged me on Facebook. “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It is not about the ‘right’ book or great work of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Does not have to be in order.’
I should then have nominated 10 friends to be tagged in turn. I am hopeless at this. By the time I have got round to it, all my friends have already been tagged by someone and there is no-one left to choose. But I did write my list – pretty much off the top of my head and here it is:
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
Lawrence Block, Out on the Cutting Edge
Taichi Yamada, Strangers
Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did at School
Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon
Susan Varley, Badger’s Parting Gifts
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War
Note that I am not saying these are the best or even my favourite books, just a few that have stayed with me. This list is all fiction. Maybe I’ll do non-fiction another time.
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’d intended to spread reading this over several months, but in the event it took a lot less. I was just enjoying it so much that I wanted to keep on reading, though maybe at some points enjoyment isn’t the word, cathartic may be better.
One of the fascinating things about rereading a great work of literature is that it is in a sense revisiting one’s own past. At this point, look away now if you don’t want to know exactly what happens!
Some of the passages I was struck by then still seem to be as wonderful as I thought them, though of course I didn’t read them with the sense of surprise that I did first time round. Among these are Levin’s second proposal to Kitty and the early days of their marriage, particularly their first quarrel and Levin’s realisation that ‘he no longer knew where she ended and he began . . . in the first moment he felt like a man who, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns with vexation and a desire for revenge to find out who did it, and realises that he had accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with . . .’
Another part of the novel that amazed me and that I still think wonderful is the reaction of Karenin, Anna’s cuckolded husband, when his wife nearly dies giving birth to Vronsky’s baby, and he experiences an outpouring of tenderness for her and the baby.
And what still remains for me as a stroke of breath-taking brilliance is our last glimpse of Vronsky after the death of Anna, as he paces a railway platform, on his way to fight in Serbia, not caring whether he lives or dies. It’s not just that their first meeting and Anna’s death are recalled by the setting, but Vronsky also has toothache. ‘The nagging pain in the strong tooth, filling his mouth with saliva, prevented him from speaking . . . And suddenly a quite different feeling, not pain, but a general tormenting, inner discomfort, made him forget his toohache for a moment.’ He recalls running to the station after Anna’s suicide and the sight of her head body. ‘He tried to remember his best moments with her, but those moments were forever poisioned . . . he ceased to feel the toothache, sobs distorted his face.’ This seems to me to encapsulate what separates Tolstoy from other writers. The interplay between the physical and the emotional brings home the depth of Vronsky’s grief in a way that nothing else could and I can’t imagine any other writer doing it in quite this way.
This seems a good point at which to end today, but I’ll be blogging more about ANNA KARENINA.
‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’ This, the opening sentence of ANNA KARENINA, is one of the most famous in literature. But would it be better like this: ‘All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? I’ve decided that it would, which is why I am reading the recent highly acclaimed translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Penguin Classics instead of Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 translation in my old Penguin edition.
I read the novel when I was a very young woman and re-read it, too. I agreed with William Faulkner. When he was asked to name the three best novels ever, he replied, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA.’ Mind you, I hadn’t read Proust then.
I’ve been meaning to reread ANNA KARENINA for a while. But at well over 800 pages it is a commitment. I suggested it to my reading group and we decided to have it an optional extra which we could spread over a year.
When I picked it up a fortnight ago I put it down after a few pages. It seemed a bit stiff and old-fashioned. I wondered if the translation was to blame. This was a question that never occurred to me when I first read it. Maybe I am more sensitive to language and more detached than I was when I first read it, devouring it for the story, living almost every moment, not knowing what would happen next.
I ordered the new translation, and now I am completely gripped. What a daring writer Tolstoy is. What writer nowadays would delay the entrance of the main characte until page sixty? And yet how important those introductory chapters are, how well they establish the themes of the novel, how absorbing they are.
I am well over half way through and it is as brilliant as I remembered (though some of Levin’s thoughts and discussions on Russian politics and agricultural economy are as dull as I remembered, too).
That’s for now. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve finished it.