Tuesday, March 06, 2007

on literature.

A faithful reader (that would be you, Juanita) left a comment on an earlier post about Tolstoy and how she was afraid to try because she might give up. I have already confessed that I tried to read Anna Karenina once before, over a decade ago, and had given up in despair because I found myself mired in the weight of the language, with the intertwining characters and stories, with the constant tangle of Russian names that are sometimes given in diminutive form, other times in formal address (given name and patronymic), and occasionally by surname. You need a flow chart to keep track of everyone. Tolstoy is difficult. Henry James (himself a notoriously difficult old bugger) referred to War and Peace as a "loose, baggy monster," and I must say Anna Karenina is not much better. (I am sorry if I have made things worse by putting you all off Tolstoy completely).

But if I were to be completely truthful, there are very few novels, or writers, whom I have loved immediately, that I did not find difficult at first, that I did not give up on in the beginning. Some of the books which I now love more than anything took years to read, years to fall in love with. Part of the pleasure is untangling the thread of the story with your mind, no matter how slowly, no matter if you have to put it aside and go read some trashy romance novels or Agatha Christie mysteries to rest your brain for a little while. I have piles and piles of books I haven't gotten around to yet, and even more that I have begun reading but haven't quite managed to finish (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which began so promisingly, is lying abandoned somewhere). To make matters worse, Barnes and Noble had a terrific post-Christmas sale that lead to the acquisition of so many $2 books that I had to buy a new bookcase. And that was back in January. I will probably catch up on all my reading when I catch up on this blog, which at the moment seems to be some distant horizon that recedes farther with every step I take closer.

After all, a great novel will always be waiting for you to come back to it. I have said this before; love is all a matter of timing (so says Chow Mo-Wan in the film 2046, as he moves from woman to woman, unable to forget the one woman he loved and lost). But the beauty of literature is that you can put it aside if you aren't ready for it, and return to it when you are. It isn't like real life, where you're lucky to get a second chance; literature is about an infinity of chances. Manuscripts don't burn, wrote Bulgakov. Literature is eternal, and the desire to read, at least for me, far outweighs the fear that I will give up, and I know that I will never give up, because that desire is always there. I will finish Tristram Shandy, I will reread Dostoevsky and Gogol and the great classics that huddle on my shelves gathering dust. Someday.

(This started out as a little reply to a comment. Obviously, I got rather carried away).

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

I'm so glad I saw this...(like you, I'm behind, behind on my blog reading & writing!) I'm going to come clean and confess that it took me two solid years to read "Truman" by David McCollough. And yet, it's one of my favorite books! I can't imagine how you manage to get so much reading done, it's truly impressive and inspiring. I think I'll buy a copy of "Anna K" and/or "Crime & Punishment", two books that I WILL read before I die, which hopefully gives me at least 50 years to get it done.