Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

As promised, a sec­ond chap­ter on reread­ing great books. I’m go­ing to start with the peo­ple who think I still look youngish. Why not? An­gela Mende, the pen-to-pa­per correspondent I men­tioned a few weeks ago, opens her let­ter, “As you have an al­most 11-year-old and your pho­to­graph shows a rel­a­tively young man, I hope you are yet of a gen­er­a­tion still able to read run­ning writ­ing.” I am, and the pho­to­graph of me here is a bit his­toric. An­gela sin­gles out two books she read in her late teens and reread some decades later: Leo Tol­stoy’s War and Peace and Ge­orge Eliot’s Mid­dle­march, “that great­est of English nov­els”. Both writ­ers re­veal “the ab­so­lute range of hu­man­ity”. David Clark also opens with a vin­tage-com­par­ing ob­ser­va­tion: “There are valid rea­sons to reread sig­nif­i­cant books now that I have a few years of ma­tu­rity on me.” He de­voured English lit­er­a­ture at school but now outs the well-known writ­ers who sleep on his shelves: Shake­speare, Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx. Plough­ing through such works “does not en­thral me … even though a read­ing would re­fresh and deepen my knowl­edge”.

When it comes to up­lift­ing com­par­isons, David Hawkes does even bet­ter. He en­joys th­ese pages — “I am al­ways sur­prised at how many fine scrib­blers de­light and chal­lenge me each week” — de­spite the fact that “I bar­rack for the other side”. As a Syd­neysider, I’m go­ing to as­sume he means a Mel­bourne AFL club. David says Ernest Hem­ing­way’s The Old Man and the Sea, the short novel that won Papa a No­bel Prize, is the book that sur­faces when he thinks of reread­ing. Hem­ing­way takes us to the Aus­tralian World War I novel I hinted at last week: Fred­eric Man­ning’s The Mid­dle Parts of For­tune. It’s one of my favourites, but why lis­ten to me when we can tap Hem­ing­way, who called it “the finest and no­blest book of men in war”. Peter Gifford drily notes, “Even bull­shit artists like Hem­ing­way can get it right oc­ca­sion­ally …” Peter first read the book in his 20s, has reread it often and likes it “more and more each time”. “The fact Man­ning was a gen­tle­man and an Aus­tralian is prob­a­bly sig­nif­i­cant. It is hard to see how an equiv­a­lent English­man could have writ­ten sim­i­larly, given the stric­tures of class …” John Cole­man salutes another war novel, CS Forester’s Brown on Res­o­lu­tion, but won­ders, “Was the read­ing bet­ter the sec­ond time around? Only marginally. It’s like good wine: how can you im­prove on it?”

Speak­ing of Aus­tralian au­thors, Tony Lon­don adds Ran­dolph Stow’s The Merry-GoR­ound in the Sea to his list, along with James Joyce’s A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penny Suther­land also names Mick Stow, as he was known. “I couldn’t go past the po­etry of Ran­dolph Stow, from the first to the last. He gave us per­mis­sion to love our coun­try and ex­plore its com­plex­i­ties, all done with ex­tra­or­di­nary choice of words, ideas and as­so­ci­a­tions. Often with hu­mour. Al­ways with in­tense feel­ing. And, yes, his nov­els all re­ward reread­ing too.” Iain Raphael con­sid­ers Geral­dine Brooks’s Peo­ple of the Book a “must” for reread­ing, along with El­liot Perl­man’s The Street Sweeper. And, “for some per­verse rea­son”, he is reread­ing Bill Bryson’s A Short His­tory of Nearly Ev­ery­thing.

Lorne Kuehn made con­tact from Christchurch (so I’ll avoid sport­ing analo­gies). He reread fic­tion clas­sics un­til a ca­reer in sci­ence put that on hold, “ex­cept for all ti­tles by gem au­thors such as Eve­lyn Waugh, Wil­liam Gold­ing, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan”. His favourite novel is McEwan’s So­lar, “which skew­ers the mod­ern sci­en­tific ca­reer”. In the way we all like sto­ries that poke fun at our pro­fes­sions, I am a fan of Waugh’s Scoop, which Eric Marsh names as one of six nov­els he re­calls reread­ing. First, though, Eric notes he doesn’t often reread nov­els, ex­cept those of PG Wode­house, “which is like re­lax­ing in a hot bath”. The five oth­ers to make the cut are JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Kings­ley Amis’s Lucky Jim, John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Fowles’s The Ma­gus and Ge­orge V. Hig­gins’s The Friends of Ed­die Coyle. I haven’t read the Hig­gins, and Brian Eas­ton picks two more that have eluded me: The Glass of Time and The Mean­ing of Night by English writer Michael Cox. Ed­die Tikoft is in my cor­ner on Moby-Dick, us­ing the con­tra­dic­tory swing­ing lamp from chap­ter nine to il­lu­mi­nate what makes a good novel: “The metaphor seems to work not only for the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the con­science and the eter­nal soul, but be­tween a good book and the tem­po­ral soul.” Carolyn Lang holds up The Catcher in the Rye as one that goes back­wards on reread­ing. As a teenager she found it in­spir­ing; years later she thought it ir­ri­tat­ing. “I was the mother of teenagers at the time and this was just one more teenage voice too many.” But Tol­stoy’s Anna Karen­ina “never ceases to feel fresh and al­ways seems to res­onate with a dif­fer­ent part of me as I go through life’s changes”. Geral­dine Wooller’s re­cent reac­quain­tance with Doris Less­ing and Edna O’Brien had an in­ter­est­ing re­sult: “Less­ing’s tone now some­times strikes me as prig­gish while O’Brien still (in her 80s) de­liv­ers beau­ti­ful prose, au­then­tic sex and aban­don­ment.” Lisa Roche se­lects a dark novel, John McGa­h­ern’s The Pornog­ra­pher, which she’s reread from her 20s to her 50s and “it gets bet­ter with each read”. She also sug­gests Frank O’Con­nor’s An Only Child, which she has reread since the age of 10.

When it comes to funny books, Diane Beck­ing­ham — “I love to be made to laugh aloud” — reck­ons Stella Gib­bons’s Cold Com­fort Farm never fails. She also goes for Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves and — “I won’t part with my copy” — Rus­sell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. Val My­ers makes a sim­i­lar claim on The Gad­fly, by Ir­ish writer Ethel Voyn­ich: “I read it in 1963 and have kept it ever since as it left me with a feel­ing that if I got rid of this book I would re­gret it.” Bar­bara Bunting is another Lucky Jim fan — “If I want a real belly laugh” — and also picks, less for the jokes, John Stein­beck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Alan Pa­ton’s Cry, the Beloved Coun­try and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Ge­off Long de­clares Ken Ke­sey’s Some­times a Great No­tion his all-time favourite, “much bet­ter than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Dianna Steven­son out­does Aus­tralian vot­ers by promptly elect­ing one book, Gus­tave Flaubert’s Madame Bo­vary. She quotes a pas­sage that starts “Whereas the truth is that full­ness of soul can some­times …” and con­cludes: “Each time I read this, it al­most makes me weak in the knees.” Merv Bon­nell is another de­ci­sive voter, though he’s af­fected else­where. Ann Patch­ett’s Bel Canto “is a fan­tas­tic book … the end­ing is so un­ex­pected it cuts your heart out”. El­iz­a­beth Blanche says that at 70 she hasn’t read fic­tion for years (“non­fic­tion has all the in­gre­di­ents a reader could wish for”) but does in­clude Madame Bo­vary among her favourite nov­els, along with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Kazuo Ishig­uro’s The Re­mains of the Day. Paul Meal­ing prefers non­fic­tion too, but re­mem­bers two nov­els he read “cover to cover” while at school, Al­bert Ca­mus’s The Plague, which he has reread since, and Mark Twain’s Huck­le­berry Finn. Al­wyn Gi­d­ley also re­mem­bers a school book, Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein, be­ing reread now to help a high school grand­daugh­ter. “Reread­ing it, I am fas­ci­nated by the in­flu­ence of her mother, Mary Woll­stonecraft … the birth of the gothic hor­ror genre seems even more re­mark­able.” Asa Smith is in sim­i­lar ter­rain, reread­ing SE Hin­ton’s The Out­siders, which her daugh­ter is study­ing. She plans to read all the books her chil­dren read at school, not to help with home­work “but so that I can talk to them about their read­ing highs and lows”. That’s a beau­ti­ful plan.

I’ll fin­ish with two read­ers who name the novel that most days is my favourite, Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment. Brian Tuana took a long time to read it, not be­cause he didn’t want to but due to other com­mit­ments. To­day he thinks of the copy that waited pa­tiently on the shelf as “like a friend who has never let me down”. Chris Bond says Crime and Pun­ish­ment is “the one book that in my en­tire life may have been equalled, but has never been sur­passed”. It is “such a mighty work of lit­er­a­ture, so beau­ti­fully strange and strangely beau­ti­ful”. Thanks to ev­ery­one for the in­tel­li­gence and fun of the past two weeks.

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