I hardly ever reread a book these days, but I have just finished Anne Tyler’s brilliant novel, Ladder of Years and frankly I could turn around and start it all over again. I first read the novel in 1995, on holiday in Brittany with Mr Litlove and our six-month old baby. Mr Litlove’s favourite game then was to put one of his dinky socks on top of his head and see how long it took him to a) realise and b) remove it (answer: not long, but with just enough hesitation for comedy). Oh how times have changed. I started the book in some trepidation, afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but it was even better. Now I wonder whether the lure of rereading isn’t actually quite dangerous – why wouldn’t I spend all my time choosing guaranteed pleasure over the potential disappointments and pitfalls of all those unread novels? Well, in part at least because I do possess a lot of unread novels and they represent the triumph of hope. But still, I see I’m reaching a stage where rereading holds a seductive promise.
I thought I’d dig out my old research notes on rereading to see if they could help me gain a bit more insight into its pleasures. Matei Calinescu in his book Rereading, says ‘there are texts that haunt us, that cannot or will not be forgotten, and there are texts that haunt other texts, in the sense that they appear in them as expected or unexpected visitors, and even, some might say, as phantoms or spectres.’ Whilst I was interested in the front end of that sentence, Calinescu is more concerned with the back end. He is mostly talking about what happens when we read experimental or innovative novels, particularly those based on crime fiction. When we read crime fiction, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our expectations met. It’s one of the more ‘rule-driven’ genres, with, for example, the detective as the master reader of clues and suspect’s stories, and the formulaic surprise denouement. Several postmodern authors had a lot of fun with parodies and pastiches of such formulas, and Calinescu is thinking about the sort of ‘rereading’ that goes on as the reader progresses through such a ‘rewrite’, using familiar expectations to both note the places where the narrative goes awry but also recognising what is at stake in such playful distortions.
You could probably apply this concept of rereading to all innovative fiction, which asks the reader to bear an orthodox narrative in mind in order to make sense of the unconventional one by understanding how far, and in what ways, it departs from the original. He’s suggesting that a different kind of attention is required from the reader. Rather than be strapped into the boxcar of your standard story which whisks you off as a pure passenger on a ride, the more experimental fiction requires a kind of textual orienteering, as you study maps of other novels in your head while figuring out where the one in your hands is taking you. It explains, if nothing else, why those innovative novels are a much slower, more careful reading experience: you need to read the ghost of the underlying original as well as the actual story in the present.
Such an activity is not so far removed from the rereading that critics and researchers do, when you study a story over and over. Just reading a novel asks you to succumb to it, to stop thinking about its artificial construction and simply lose yourself in a fictional fantasy. When you read for a second time in a more reflective, analytical way, you’re lifting the lid off the text to see how it works underneath. You want to have a good look at the structure and see why it does one thing and not another, how it makes one argument at the expense of a range of others. I think this is perhaps why for some readers, critical reading is anathema, as much the same thing happens when a story fails to enchant and you are just left staring at cardboard sets and 2-d characters. Disliking a book and analysing a book may fall just too close together for comfort for some people.
But what about those books that haunt us and refuse to be forgotten? The closest I could come to anything that struck home was in the distinction made by another critic, Josephine Hilgard between involvement and absorbtion. Now, you may not agree with these particular terms and definitions, but the idea is that ‘emotional involvement’ means pleasure and enjoyment and a vividly engrossing experience, but the reader is aware that they are reading a made-up story. ‘Absorbtion’ takes the immersion that one step further so that the reader ‘partakes in a reading that is equivalent in grace and creative effortlessness to artistic inspiration.’ Hilgard says this means we can speak of ‘inspired readers’ just as we might talk about inspired writers. I wonder whether this kind of rereading, when you love a story so much you can read it again and again until it is a part of your own world, is such an inspired act. The reader can almost live the story, as if dreaming a particularly splendid dream; they take possession of it in some ways.
Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years is a book I could read repeatedly because it is sort of perfect for me in every sentence. The story of a middle-aged wife and mother who just walks away from her family while they are on the beach and keeps going, eventually locating in a different town and starting her life afresh, has no places where I wish things were different, no dull parts or implausible bits. It feels perfectly whole and necessary and I can sense my own desire to be up close to that. The sheer rightness of it all is part of the thrill. Even though it is in many ways an ordinary story, not one with many layers of implicit meaning that I wouldn’t pick up on the first time through. No, the enchantment is for me about a vicarious sharing of the artistic inspiration that went into it, the sense of watching the story unfold without a mishap, so confident in it that I can lose myself to it. The door is open for me to experience this because the novel corresponds so well to my purely personal and subjective feelings about what’s right and real in fiction; it absorbs me completely. Which of course means that my classic reread would not necessarily be anyone else’s. I’m thinking now about which books I really could read over and over again – surely a short list?