Monday, 11 August 2014

Revived parrot sketch

For years, I never reread books. Partly it was a reaction of years of studying, when I had to slog my way through set texts several times in preparation for exams. There was also the persistent feeling that there were too many exciting new books to read, leaving no time for going back over old ground.

Finally, a few years ago, I grudgingly accepted that I was never going to get around to reading all the novels on the Booker prize (or whatever it’s called these days) shortlist, all the ‘recommended reads’, the complete works of every author I liked. That being the case, why not occasionally revisit novels that had made a great impression on me when I was younger and see what I made of them now?

I’m not one of those readers with a photographic memory for plots, characters and incidents. For the most part, what stays with me after reading a novel is a single overriding impression; of the book’s tone or atmosphere, of an aspect of the plot or its narrative style. And what I’ve generally found from my rereading to date is that these impressions are more akin to false memories.

Take The Great Gatsby. I studied Fitzgerald’s classic for my A levels, and I’ve seen two different film versions, so I ought to be fairly familiar with the text. But the thing that had stuck with me through the years was a sense of mystery: I ‘remembered’ that the story hinged on the question of who Gatsby was and where he’d come from.

On rereading it, I discovered that this question is answered, comprehensively and unambiguously, about two-thirds of the way through. That doesn’t necessarily diminish the power of the novel, but it changes the nature of that power.

Another example is Graham Swift’s Waterland, which I read during the summer before my final year at college, and instantly elevated into my all-time top 10. For those who don’t know it, it’s one of those stories that flashes back and forth between the present and the past – in this case, the Fens in the 1940s, when the narrator was growing up.

It was this aspect of the novel that remained in my memory long after I’d read it, so that I assumed it made up the bulk of the narrative. Not a bit of it: when I reread Waterland, I found myself ploughing through lengthy (and comparatively tedious) sections set in the present day, when the narrator is a history teacher in a London comprehensive school, and getting increasingly irritated because I wanted to get back to the Fens.

The latest novel I’ve revisited is Flaubert’s Parrot, which I was surprised to find I own a signed copy of. (I have a feeling Julian Barnes came to the literary society I occasionally attended at Cambridge, and it must have happened then.) I certainly admired the novel, which I remembered as a frothy, playful confection, a post-modern literary game of the type that was fashionable in the 1980s.

Well, I wasn’t completely wrong. Flaubert’s Parrot is certainly playful in places – I particularly like the chapter framed as a mock exam (“Marks will be deducted for facetious or conceitedly brief answers.”) But it’s also a weighty work of disguised literary criticism which poses serious questions about writers and writing, and about life and living. 

I’m still not sure that the central conceit works; that the novel’s ruminations on the life and works of Gustave Flaubert are the work of an amateur scholar who is trying to avoid dwelling on the suicide of his wife. There’s so little space devoted to this aspect of the ‘plot’ that it risks the reader forgetting about it altogether. But even here, there is poignancy, given that Barnes’ most recent book is a memoir describing his grief at the loss of his wife. (Another one for the reading list.) Of all the books I’ve reread in recent years, this is the one I’m certain I’ll come back to again in another 20 years or so.