Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sven Birkerts, Reading Life: Books for the Ages

Sven Birkerts, Reading Life: Books for the Ages, Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, 2007

I first read Madame Bovary in July of 1971 in a bunkhouse in Deer Lodge, Montana. I was nineteen years old and had gotten myself a summer job that gratified all of my fantasies about meeting the “authentic” face to face…Quite simply, I fell in. I transported myself in mind with astonishing ease to provincial France in the early decades of the 1800s, and lost all proper sense of awe before the classic as I felt—as millions had before me—the bitter clench of fate on the extravagantly foolish life of Emma Bovary. (Romancing the Self; Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, 73-75)

Reading the book now, as a man in my early fifties, I am closer to the spirit of my original encounter that I have been for decades. I don’t know if this level of immediacy would have been possible without those years of formal interpretation and pattern-seeking. / I was profoundly moved by the novel all through my most recent re-reading. I felt distinctly that my increased life-experience—having suffered jealousy, remorse, the loss of love, and lived the daily discipline of marriage and fatherhood—allowed me to move past my long-held view of Emma, exchanging a somewhat simple view for a far more conflicted and interesting one…I don’t mean to say that I stopped seeing this as Emma’s character—I didn’t—but now instead of resting in judgment, instead of concentrating my main response on the terror and pity that mark our encounters with the tragic, I also registered a tender protectiveness that felt like something new. The more we experience, I think, the more our tolerance for human weakness increases. (Flaubert, 81)

I marvel now at the interior distance these several readings seem to measure. How much of Flaubert’s wisdom did I recognize back in the bunkhouse in Deer Lodge, Montana, in the summer of 1971? I knew so little of love, what coiled springs of joy and despair are packed down inside that one all-purpose concept. I had so little inkling about the tolls we pay on our inescapably grandiose fantasies, or how cruelly the loss of love can strip us back to our most basic foundations. That was all to come. I was naïve about compulsion and mostly ignorant of the torments of jealousy. But even so I read and was moved. (Flaubert, 87)

Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite novel, I find myself putting on a ridiculous but revealing little performance. I pretend to a natural consternation—after all, who can narrow a lifetime’s evolving preferences down to a single title?—but I use that as a cover for the real calculation, which is whether I have the interest or energy to explain my choice. For in fact I do have a favorite novel—Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow… (The Mad Energies of Art; Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, 89)

…I read the novel first in October of 1975 in a single great gulp. And this I remember because it was the most desperate season in my life so far, and because for a long time after I credited Saul Bellow with helping to save me from a descent into utter hopelessness. (Bellow, 90)

I read as I’d never read anything before, with a lock-on fury that pushed the world and my extraordinary anxiety aside. At first it was to get away from my situation, but then at some point that shifted, and I was reading to get further and further in. I didn’t finish the whole book that night—it’s a long novel. (Bellow, 91)

I have read Humboldt’s Gift four or five times now… (Bellow, 94)

At some point after this first encounter, Humboldt’s Gift took on a somewhat different significance for me. It became a literary model, a work I nearly fetishized for its voice and narrative energy, for its human reach. Bellow, I thought, had cracked the code. Almost alone among contemporary novelists, he had found a way to show the complexity of our way of living without losing the contemplative register or sacrificing the full emotional spectrum. He could be, as the situation required, philosophical, comedic, descriptively evocative, elegiac, dramatic—and he could get in close to the endless psychological push-pull of relationship, the tenderness and leveraging manipulation of lovers, the odi et amo of embattled friendships. I was enraptured by Bellow’s scenes and, even more specifically, his prose. (Bellow, 98)

I wanted badly to write a novel of equal range and texture, alive down to its least bit character, a novel able to transmit the drama of the inner life even as it staged episodes from the human comedy and registered in its smallest inflection the tone of our times. (Bellow, 100)

In my earlier readings of the novel I missed the importance of the fact that Charlie was a middle-aged man not just living his life, but even more significantly, re-living it. But this is—I would say mercifully—the blindness of youth. Young, we cut the cloth of the world to our own feelings and understandings. To me, back then, Charlie was, as had been Emma Bovary before him, just an adult of indeterminate adult status. I had no way of grasping him otherwise. I hadn’t, certainly when I was first reading Humbodlt, experienced the wonderful and terrible ways in which as we get older the film of our own lives increasingly doubles over on itself, returning us to things we had thought safely buried… (Bellow, 101)

I was finally able to admit that it has never been the “scandalous” aspect of Lolita that interests me. What I’ve always been drawn to its complex presentation of romantic obsession, the wonderfully paradoxical fact that the comedy, scored throughout, does not undermine the ultimate pathos of the story, but even intensifies it. (The Murderer’s Fancy Prose Style; Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, 106)

…with Lolita the first of all things has to be Nabokov’s fabulous prose, which in a matter of a few all-but-immortal sentences ravishes us—a condition from which we never recover for the duration of the reading—even as we know our ravishment is but a pale version of what Humbert Humbert felt early in the book… (Nabokov, 108)

For this reason, Lolita functions as a kind of moral growth chart. Younger readers, like my Mt. Holyoke students, and like me in my early twenties, are more shocked—or titillated—by Humbert Humbert’s lusts and scheming transgressions, and the main tension seems to be between the depravity of the imagining and the beauty of the language that portrays it…When I read the novel most recently it was the flawed, heartbreaking, tragic Humbert Humbert who stood before me, and his situation seemed more pathetic and less morally deplorable. The second half of the book makes this understanding increasingly clear: it is possible to start feeling for the man, and in the process before aware of yourself growing as a reader. (Nabokov, 114)

Nabokov has written a lurid and overblown climactic scene, and I have never taken it seriously. It is, along with the deus ex machina death of Charlotte Haze, part of the other, artifice-laden Lolita, and has curiously little to do with my response to the novel, which is about love and the remorseless work of time. (Nabokov, 117)

Ford is so remorseless in his depictions, and so persuasive in his rhythmic forward thrust, that to turn the pages is almost to accede to a vision of absolute hopelessness. I did put on, of course, but it was with a dark, churning fascination, trying to recall, all these years since I first read it, whether there was finally any redemption offered for all the suffering. There wasn’t, and it’s this fact, more than what happens between the characters, that retroactively gives that opening sentence its ring of absolute rightness. (The Saddest Story, Indeed; Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, 133)

The split between appearances and underlying truths is the obvious point of The Good Soldier. It is the ancient and inexhaustible theme—societal codes versus the unsanctioned imperatives of need and desire. Reading the novel as a younger man, I missed much of the implicit tension. I think I believed that we had all marched on, liberated ourselves from hypocritical posturings—the social revolutions of our times had done away with antiquated expectations of behavior. It took a few years of adult exposure—to the academic world, to the cultures of child-rearing—to grasp that the tyranny of appearances and assumed moralities is a human constant and that only the codes of permission change over time. (Ford, 138)

I am more willing—now—to grant that there may be a method, or at least a point to these phrasings, that they create in the reader a sense of “almost” and make perceptible but ineffable what in fact is perceptible but ineffable: the inward fusion of thought and feeling that stays clear of exact articulation. / That “now” hints at a changed outlook. At last I can congratulate myself for having, on the fourth or fifth attempt, at age fifty-two, after decades of apprenticeship to “difficult” books, finally made it through. It was a victory of the will, to be sure. But not of will alone, for the will was always there, though maybe with less invested pride. This past year I finally hit a limit, telling myself, “If you can’t get the novel on this go-round, you might as well give it up.” / I recognized a difference this time. I felt, in the throes of my exertion, matching my concentration to the text’s resistance like a driver working clutch and gas, that it was not pressure alone that was pushing me through, but something else—a psychological readiness I had lacked before. And this came from changes in my life. I was older; I was a veteran of various obscure rites of passage that I could not have imagined in my thirties or early forties. These rites had less to do with specific experiences, and more with the shifts of vantage and relation, which in turn have everything to do with my evolving sense of time and the steady lengthening of the shadow-line of memory. Looking to bring some of these awarenesses into the light, I decided to write about my experience of The Ambassadors. (Live All You Can; Henry James’s The Ambassadors, 149-150)

As a reader, I can’t abide the irritation of partial comprehension. I can’t make myself go forward if I feel in arrears to what I am reading. And nothing trips me up more that abstractions. Through whatever bent of my psychological makeup… (James, 150)

I explain this by suggesting that there is a mysterious dynamic of accumulation in the prose, a delayed-reaction effect in which each new scene or disclosure brings forward some suggestion that had been left latent before, maybe deliberately…The retroactive firming up of things certainly helped me stay the course. (James, 151)

Indeed, for me the value of the novel lies mainly in its aftereffects, the residues it has left behind—residues that become subtle goads to new awareness. (James, 153)

…that The Ambassadors will stand as one of the private touchstones of this more relatively retrospective time of life… James managed to evoke in me the sharpest awareness of how we accommodate the passing of time. Reading, I recognized how we can inch forward day by day in what feels like one sustained state until, mysteriously, some critical mass is achieved… (James, 154)

…I am looking for a way to avoid the standard midlife clichés. But these feelings come to all of us who are lucky enough to live long. They accompany the ultimately unavoidable realization that our basic relation to time—which is to say to possibility, to memory—has changed. The former diminishes as the latter grows, and there is nothing to be done. At a certain point in adulthood the weights seem equally distributed, the balance is at rest. And then, a moment later, it begins to tip, imperceptibly at first, then more obviously. (James, 156)

I had been reading the novel for several weeks—pacing myself, but also being paced by the opaque-seeming density of it all—and had brought it along to Bennington, to the writing residency I attend every January (and June), determined to finish it there, away from work and family. (James, 157)

Immersing myself in the prose of To the Lighthouse, I have moments when I can’t believe my good fortune at being allowed, at my own pace and discretion, for my own entirely selfish ends, to just drink up these sentences, these little streams of electric sensation, trusting each one absolutely, knowing, as is so rarely true, that the writer is completely in control… (Into the Blue Paint; Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, 161)

Going back now, I see what a better reader I have become, at least in the sense of hearing the music of the prose, and feeling the time shifts and dilations of memory as revelations rather than as tests to be passed. I suppose I’ve gradually trained myself to this kind of prose. I’m certainly more aware of the flow of subjective Time in my own life—I think of it now as one of the core enigmas of living, and I’m avid to see how Woolf deal with it…I understand better how things—situations and relationships—are seldom, if ever, pushed to resolution, at least resolution in the sense I imagined when I was younger. Closure does not happen out there. It is—I can picture my father tapping his head with his finger—in here. (Woolf, 162)


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