Saturday, 16 August 2014

LITERA SCRIPTA MANET*: THE PLEASURES OF RE-READING



For those of us for whom literature has long ceased to be a relaxing pastime and has become instead the greater part of our lives, re-reading books from the past is what we have in place of the sacred. Repeated outings for a favourite book illuminate not just the text, but its reader. It is one of the undoubted pleasures of ageing that it becomes possible to read again books last closed a quarter of a century or more previously.

I read Allan Blooms’ The Closing of the American Mind for the first time much more recently, but it is becoming more essential and prophetic by the year and, in a Panglossian best of all possible worlds, would now have a companion volume dealing with what’s left of the European mens cogitans. What has become of American higher education – and not just at the hands of liberalism – is both salutary and happening here. Bloom is equally at home charting the importation of European existentialism into America as he is describing the caving in of American campuses to ludicrous ‘Black Power’ groups and their hangers-on in the 1960s. The American academic atmosphere is summed up beautifully as ‘nihilism without the abyss’. The book – with a foreword by Saul Bellow, of whom more later – is a modern lament over the post-modern and its idiocies. And you don’t have to travel to America to witness the destruction of higher education; it has long since reached the UK and mainland Europe. Media Studies, anyone?

Next in the back catalogue was Malcolm Lowry’s 1941 novel Under the Volcano. This haunting book describes the final day of alcoholic British consul to Mexico Geoffrey Firmin, and is a nightmare of alienation, despair and mescal. Lowry combines Joycean stylisation with the narrative control of Conrad. I first read it over 20 years ago and I wasn’t ready for its studied experimentalism. It’s a frightening book.

Underworld, by contemporary American master Don DeLillo, vies for contention as the Great American Novel. Spanning half a century, and threaded by that most American of symbols, a simple baseball, the book combines the broad sweep of narrated Americana with DeLillo’s usual prose economy and accretional character developments. I shouldn’t really, but I’m sure I will re-read the chilling The Names before long.

Another American master at the height of his creative powers was the Saul Bellow of Humboldt’s Gift. Charlie Citrine is another in a long line of the loveable pawns of hubris in which Bellow specialises. You could make a strong argument for DeLillo accepting the baton from Bellow, the authentic narration of a haunted Americana is the stock-in-trade of both men. Martin Amis, a personal friend of Bellow, must have spent many hours in silent rage that he will never match the effortless and erudite style of the Chicago man. There is an infamous story of Amis taking the late Christopher Hitchens to dinner chez Bellow, although it is a story which ought to be read from both sides, both in Amis’s autiobiography Experience ­and Hitchens’ reminiscences Hitch-22.

With all these masters of their art about the place, it seemed only natural to dip again into Shakespeare’s beautiful island pastoral, The Tempest. The Bard of Avon weaves the occult into several of his plays: the fairy magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the witchcraft of Macbeth, the deep Hermetic undercurrents of A Winter’s Tale. But nowhere is it more pleasing than in the figures of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. Shakespeare may have had John Dee – court astrologer to Elizabeth I – as his model for Prospero, and his invention of the name ‘Miranda’ is widely taken to be an allusion to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Renaissance hermeticist and the author of the wonderful and proto-existentialist Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Having mislaid my rat-eared copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I was forced into plan B; Doctor Faustus. Posing as the biography of fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, the Second World War and the dark destiny of Germany provide the canvas for Mann’s treatment of the Faust myth, running through the blood of Germany as it does. Mann is simply a colossus among novelists, and Doctor Faustus treats the porous border between genius and insanity without the clumping truisms of other writers’ efforts to do the same. Borrowing heavily from the life of Nietzsche for the circumstances of Leverkühn’s tumbling down, the book also features the famous conversation with the devil, a vignette to rival that of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. Also, Mann achieves what, after Wilde’s caustic comments on the funeral of Dickens’s Little Nell, might have been thought unachievable; the death of a child without the schmaltzier type of pathos. It is very difficult to read Mann’s account of the death of little Nepomuk Schneidewein and remain the proprietor of a dry eye.

These, then, are excursions so pleasurable the first time round that we cannot resist another spin. I am currently engaged in re-reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a book I definitely didn’t do justice to three years ago. This will lead inevitably to another outing for the strange and enticing 2066, the author’s magnum opus.

One of life’s great concerns, as I watch 50 recede like a tide and look forward to 60 rolling around, is that I will not get to read even 10% of the books I need to read. This is why I used to fear re-reading as self-indulgent. Now, however, a second (or more) reading of a sacred book is like discovering a loved one from the past has moved in next door and would like nothing more than to chat across the garden fence. And even if the act of reading again is self-indulgent, literature itself is full of examples of the advantages of mixing the sinful with the sacred.

 

* From memory, I came across this phrase in an essay by John Dewey on neurobiology. Litera scripta manet means, roughly, ‘that which is written down remains/endures’.

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