Letter Number One

Dearest of Dears, friendstress, you.

I hope this letter finds you well (such a marvelous notion, isn’t it, of a letter somehow finding a person? As you have no doubt noticed, I only commit these kind of pathetic fallacies when it comes to artefacts and artificial contraptions, never when it comes to nature). I’m in writing and reading mode, and make no mistake. This often happens to me when the beginning of term approaches. I suddenly want to read everything.

On your recommendation I purchased a copy of Parade’s End the other day, despite having to enlist the services of a transporting firm to haul it all away. I could, off course, only afford a mad ox for the purpose (see what I did there? You did? Yet I hear no cheering? Hrmpf), but I got it home, eventually. Such a towering tomb of a book, isn’t it? Seriously, though: It’s a good thing I make it my business to carry these enormous and enormously out-of-style purses around.

Possibly you want us to go all out and devour all the stylish pre- and betwix-war serial novels, Waughs Sword of Honor trilogy and Powells -what’s it called when there’s twelve of them – Dance to the music of time (I must inform you that I’m already half through the latter. I really want to make it to volume 10, Books do furnish a room, because they do, and for some reason I just wont skip ahead. Now, what’s that all about? Discuss).

But you must remember that though we are seriously devoted to the pose of being devoted to this period and style of writing (In a very real way we are two tipsy old ladies passing amusing judgment and moving on in something by dear Evelyn, aren’t we? Of course we are.), it’s only one of our many poses, and the others needs nourishment as well if they shan’t expire like some poor cat left carelessly behind as the owner makes holiday. So, first for something slightly more modern, I feel. As I mentioned in that text I sent you the other day (isn’t it wonderful that my nephew, Stephen, taught me how to do it before he left for America? He’s so very sweet and clever, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m already quite fluent and what I really need help with is enabling text messages as comments on my blogs. Sometimes, I think he believes I’m a Waugh-era person to. Now where was I? I’m still in a paranthesis, right? How do I get out? Oh: ”as I mentioned in that text ) I’ve recently read an awful lot about Nabokov, due to the release of the fragments of his Laura. Brian Boyd has a lovely piece in American Scholar about his part in it, and his reasons for thinking it a good idea to publish it, contrary to the authors intentions. And one thing in particular struck me. Nabokov writes somewhere that the only real reading is re-reading. Now, I presume he means that the only reading that’s good or proper or serious is re-reading (how else would you get to the second reading?) and there’s a point there, isn’t there?

It’s hard to look at the literature the first time around, you’re usually so busy keeping up with what’s happening and what’s being said by whom. (Unless it really pops out. While I loved Wolf Hall – and we should discuss that later as well, I often found myself unclear about who said what. She has a very original way of assigning statements, and I’m sure she has some longwinded Gertrude Steinean justification like ”If you care enough, you really should be able to keep track of these things without me telling you”. There’s also a Heideggerian point here, but I’d better not. What is it with me and these parantheses? Discuss).

So, re-reading: Good. If you’re a serious reader who cares about literature. Occasionally priding myself as such, I thought I’d better re-read something by Nabokov, see if he knew what he set himself up for, and on further thought, it was clear that it’s time to get re-aquainted with old Pnin. I’m a complete and utter sucker for university fiction, you know that. It’s a way of coping, I guess, with the fact that university life turned out to be a lot less well written than expected. Pnin, installments of which appeared in the New Yorker so this should come as no surprise, is without doubt Nabokov’s funniest book, and it is partly in a university setting, so, you know, Score. This is what he writes about ”modern scientific linguistics”: ”..that ascetic fraternity of phonemes, that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method; which method, like a waterfall splashing from rock to rock, ceases to be a medium of rational navigation but perhaps in some fabolous future may become instrumental in evolving esoteric dialects – Basic Basque and so forth – spoken only by certain wlaborate machines”. Isn’t the funniest thing you ever read? Isn’t it. I like my Nabokov funny. Somehow, I don’t care much for Lolita. Not enough chess in it, probably. Or butterflies. I realise that if I wanted to write like Nabokov (and writer-people often say that the do), I shouldn’t have written the words ”Chess” or ”Butterflies” but somehow should have hidden them, implied them (Indeed: The Implied Buttefly, there you have the perfect title for a dissertation on the man) and make the text more of a treasure hunt so the succesfull spotter may gratulate herself, and the neurotic one be forced to, here we go, re-read in case she missed something.

I remember that Anthony Burgess used to complain that the novel as an art form is at a disadvantage to music, because music has depth and dimensions and things that happens simultanously and the novel, after all, has to create these effects in a roundabout way. He was wrong, of course, and I think he realised that he was wrong even before cognitive science showed that we don’t read words left to right as they appear on the page. The dimensions are given by implied and presupposed knowledge, by everything that goes before and expectations about what will happen after. By double meanings, structural similarities and all the things that I’ve forgotten the fancy names for but you know what I mean.

One should probably re-read a lot more than one does, just like one listens to symphonies, even the same recording, again and again. Not just for the comfort of the familiar, but for the opportunity to find, or invent, things missed the first time around. I’m so sorry, I will try to keep these things shorter in the future. Only I had such fun, and it’s so good to have you to write to. I kiss you on the cheeks in a very civilized manner, then hug you like I’d thought you’ve been lost at sea.

Debbie

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