Monday, December 14, 2009

dear jane

I gobbled down a book yesterday, in two big gulps, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Really, is there anything better than finding a book that so ensorcells you that you can barely tear yourself away, and when you do manage to put it down, it pulls at you like a talisman from a Grimm tale, or something out of Poe, or Bluebeard’s closet, distracting and enticing you until you can stand it no longer.

The book in question was The Man in the Wooden Hat, Jane Gardam’s follow-up to her earlier Old Filth (which I also wolfed down). It’s lying now on the bed, its spell over me quite gone, looking very innocent and calm, with nary an echo of its earlier bewitching power. It’s a brilliant book—intricate, smart, and entertaining—so someday I’ll pick it up for a re-read, and it will hypnotize me all over again.

Which answers my earlier question, about whether there’s anything better than finding an irresistible book. The answer is, yes: picking up a book that you’ve already read and already loved, and flipping out all over again.

In a recent post on the joys of re-watching favorite movies, Self-Styled Siren referenced a New York Times column by Verlyn Klinkenborg about re-reading beloved books. “The point of reading outward, widely, has always been to find the books I want to re-read and then to re-read them,” he writes, and you know, I couldn’t agree more. When I was young, I could have made it through all of Shakespeare and most of Proust and a good chunk of Gibbons in the hours that I devoted to re-reading Narnia, and Anne of Green Gables, and the gothic trifecta of Rebecca and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and Where the Red Fern Grows (crying every single time), and Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and all of Madeline L’Engle but especially A Wrinkle in Time. Those books of my childhood: I can picture the words on the page, clearly see the illustrations, remember lines intact, recall the then-unappreciated sense of hours stretching ahead of me, an afternoon spent blissfully isolated thanks to my book and the always accepted excuse of “I’m reading.”

In his Times column, Mr. Klinkenborg writes, “Part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens.” Again, nail on the head: knowing what happens means I don’t have to race to the finish line and can instead savor each delicious phrase. I can experience the joy of the page in front of me, rather than reading as fast as I can in an effort to find out what happens on the next page, and the next, and the one after that.

Still, even with a book that I’ve read umpteen times, I can find myself just as nervous as ever on behalf of my favorite characters, perhaps even more so, since I know what’s coming down the line for them, while they remain unaware of their fate. At times it’s almost unbearable to watch them make the same mistakes, suffer the same blows. When I saw Streetcar Named Desire the other night (with Cate Blanchett breaking the audience’s collective heart), I wished the play could come to an end when Blanche and Mitch are alone in the apartment, after their date, and Blanche tells him about her brief and tragic marriage. Mitch says to her, “You need somebody. And I need somebody, too.” They kiss, and Blanche says, “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!”

Curtain, please. Thank you for coming, ladies and gentlemen, we hope you enjoyed our condensed happily-ever-after version of Streetcar. Exit to the rear.

When it comes to authors that I read over and over and over again, no one holds a candle to Jane Austen. I cycle through her novels every couple of years, spacing them out only enough so that I don’t accidentally memorize them word for word. You’d think these books would be wrung dry for me at this point, and yet every time I return, I get caught up all over again. Those books pull me in so deeply that, when I’m forced to put them down for a bit, I feel only half present in the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to return to Austen’s world.

I am far, far too close to the Austen books to have any sort of critical perception of them. I can’t even explain why I love them. They’re like family, I suppose. Which may be why I was so unexpectedly bowled over the other day, when I went to see the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library: to see an actual letter written by Jane—her thoughts of the moment, her handwriting, her paper, her ink—was so surprisingly moving and intimate that I could barely take it all in. Looking at her letters, I had the strangest and most vivid sense of her as a real person. It was as if she’d walked into the room and said hello—the most thrilling star sighting ever.

Rather like the narrator of The Little Prince, who shows his Drawing Number One (of a boa constrictor that has eaten an elephant) to any new acquaintance to find out if he or she is “a person of true understanding,” I use Austen as a litmus test of sorts. I confess to feeling slightly suspicious of those who do not truly and deeply appreciate Austen, so when someone tells me that he doesn’t love Austen, or that she hasn’t gotten around to reading at least the big ones, I make a barely conscious note that this is probably not a kindred spirit situation.

Unfortunately, these days Austen’s books—perhaps because of the slew of Masterpiece Theatre adaptations and ripped-bodice movies—seem now to be slotted as the original chick lit, not “serious” literature, but barely one step up from a beach read. Austen often seems to be considered a lacy, dainty, missish story-teller, best suited for lightweight book clubs, rather than the sharp, witty, clear-eyed, tough-minded, unflinching writer that she was, and she’s rarely given her due as the precursor to Dickens, Chekhov, Flaubert, even Fitzgerald.

The short documentary that accompanies the Morgan exhibit includes a quote from Virginia Woolf on Austen: “Of all the great writers, she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” Perhaps this helps explain both why so many seem to take her for granted (or even dismiss her, as Emerson did—but then, he had no sense of humor), and why it’s so tough for me to put my finger on what I love so much about the novels. Their seeming effortlessness, their no-nonsense pacing, and the utter naturalness of the language, the situations, and the characters—it all combines to make the books a pure pleasure to read, and to effectively hide the sophisticated and utterly rare craft behind them.

Several writers (most amusingly the always-entertaining Fran Lebowitz) are interviewed in the Morgan documentary, including Colm Tóibín, who has this to say:

If you said you were going off for the weekend and you were doing nothing except re-reading Emma, or taking Mansfield Park to bed—that image for me would be one of pure happiness. I mean, you could bring maybe a person to bed and that would be nicer in some way, but it wouldn’t be as fully satisfying.

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I take his point, and love him for it.

In a never-visited storage unit in the Bronx are nearly all my belongings (at least, I hope they’re there; I send the check every month with the idea that someday I will see my stuff again). Among the furniture and pots-and-pans and tchotkes are boxes and boxes of books, and in one of these boxes are my Austen novels, agonizingly out of reach for the time being. When I do finally retrieve and unpack that box, I may just take Tóibín's advice and hole up for a few days to reacquaint myself with Austen’s worlds—the perfect way to inhabit that next apartment, when I find it, which will hopefully be soon.

Or maybe Santa will bring me these gorgeous new editions....

Top image: detail of a Jane Austen letter; second image: example of one of Austen's "crossed" letter, in which the writer, after filling the page, turned the paper 90 degrees and continued writing, thereby getting as much as possible out of each valuable piece of paper, and saving on postal charges to boot; bottom images: new Penguin editions of two of Austen's novels, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.