How many times have you put a book down because its content was too disturbing, or thrown it against a wall in anger? Just recently I started reading a novel by J M G Le Clezio, last year’s Nobel prize winner, entitled Étoile errante, or Wandering Star. The essence of a Nobel prize winner is, I think, to produce fiction that fearlessly addresses issues and ideas that most writers don’t wish to elaborate upon, probably for fear of being uncommercial or elitist or too damn depressing to please their editors. I tend to think of them as being the authors who deserve a prize for getting their work published despite its subject matter and who continue to grind their axes, regardless of the small circulation of their works, and the dismissive comments from reviewers who think things really can’t be that bad. (And this is why Americans, with their positivity and their tendency to eschew abstract ideas-driven novels don’t win so very often.)
Anyhow, Le Clezio fits right into this category. The story concerns Esther, initially known as Hélène, since she is living in the south of France in 1943 just before the Nazis invaded. The first section of the novel sees her fleeing over the mountains to Italy with her mother and the rest of the Jewish community who can make it, a physically demanding, emotionally traumatic exile that also finds her losing her father to resistance activities. The war ends, but there is no peace for Esther and her mother, who, penniless and grieving still, decide to make the trip to Palestine in the hope of finding a homeland. But the mentality of exile and abandonment has now seeped into the narrative, and the journey abroad is fraught with uncertainty and discomfort, Esther forced into a premature adulthood by her mother’s deteriorating mental condition.
Around about now, I started skipping ahead and found that two-thirds of the way through Esther was in another refugee camp, this one in the grip of a cholera outbreak and that she was being offered the possibility of escape, knowing that to do so would mean leaving friends behind her to die.
At this point, I put the book down and walked away from it. I felt the most terrific wimp, because I’ve always maintained that this kind of literature must exist. That we have to represent and read the stories of the marginalized, the dispossessed, the tormented, to save ourselves from complacency and easy self-righteousness, to open our minds to the plight of others and to remember the lessons of history in their bleak, uncompromising detail. And Le Clezio is a beautiful stylist. His writing is elegant and expressive, and he simply presents the story without sentimentality or sensationalism. I ought to have finished it but, even though I was reading in French, which helps with distance sometimes, I could not.
So I was intrigued to come across a recent post at The Reading Experience, in which this question of self-protection in reading is raised. Dan is arguing against another blogger, Rebecca Wells Jopling at OnFiction who suggests that ‘Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience.’ For Dan, this doesn’t compute, and he counters that ‘Unless the authors […] are confining themselves to the most naive and most unadventurous of readers, it’s very difficult to accept that the fear of alien thoughts, images, or beliefs motivates many readers’ responses to aesthetically credible novels, or any works of narrative art, for that matter. The very need to “distance ourselves” in the emotionally immediate way described in this post only really testifies to a flawed, unreflective way of reading fiction.’
I always want to weigh in on this kind of argument, which risks degenerating into two camps, one of which yells to the other ‘You can’t make me do what I don’t want to do,’ whilst the other yells back, ‘Sissies!’ I think that the question of what we let in and what we close down to, in the intimate and challenging business of reading is, in fact, a complex and delicate question, and one that goes to the heart of the reading process. I think that every single reader has a cherished ideology, a system of beliefs and preferences, that is opened up to challenge and risk through the act of reading. How we respond to the books we read tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the book we are reading, if we care to listen to the information. In my time I have read just about everything on the spectrum for my work, books that feature all kinds of violence, all forms of mental and emotional breakdown, all sorts of traumas and tragedies. But I read those books for work. I read them with all the tools of my trade at my disposal that made me pay as much attention to the style and the preoccupations of the author, as it did to the horrors of the page. And precisely because I was going to allow these books in to mess with my head, I needed protective strategies against them. It struck me forcibly that trying to read Le Clezio when I was not about to teach it made it a process that simply impinged in a distressing way on my tender heart. The ‘unreflective’ way of reading that Dan mentions here is the way most people read, if they have not had the benefit of a literary training; it is the way that I found myself reading, when I had no pressing need to reflect.
Challenging our own beliefs is perhaps one of the hardest but most necessary things we ever do. We underestimate how difficult it is to think beyond our comfort zones, to consider outside of our personal convictions. If we manage to let books in that shake up and rearrange our ideas, then we deserve credit for listening, and we must bow down before the extraordinary ability of reading to open us up and shine daylight into the locked down zones of our minds. It is the most important thing reading does, and the fundamental reason why we should read at all. But we might have to read a hundred books, two hundred, before we arrive at the right book, and the right context, to have that one experience of epiphany. The fact remains that however educated or not we are, however liberal and open we think ourselves to be, we still have frozen, blind areas. Dan’s post focused exclusively on reading fiction, but if we argue that reading is reading is reading, whatever the subject matter, then we might see that his statement ‘That I would try to actively resist the work’s effects–emotional, psychological, or formal–seems antithetical to my understanding of what a “reading experience” has to offer’ is itself quite a forceful act of protection over a cherished, but limited and entirely subjective, belief. We can attempt to dictate to people on many issues, but one thing we cannot tell each other is what an experience should feel like or what it must offer.
There is a quirky coda to my sorry tale of Le Clezio, in that shortly after putting this novel down, I agreed to work with a student on a literary dissertation for the first time in four years. I was thrilled by the idea of working with books again and the student in question is a delight. And the project? The Holocaust. I’m finding that even with the shield of work firmly in place, these are deeply distressing, uncomfortable, disquieting books, as indeed they would have to be. I can sympathise with any reader who would want to put them down, or throw them against the wall and it is only the ‘distancing’ search for meaning in them, the possibility of creating something true and real and perceptive about them that gets me through the reading at all.