September 2022 – and already, with another few days still to go, the month has been turbulent and unexpected.
Only the weather has been peaceful and pleasantly calm. But no doubt some autumnal brisk winds and gusty showers are only hours or so away, planning to catch us out.
So, September – we’ve had to say farewell to one revered monarch and adjust to the idea of a King – Charles 111 and the Queen Consort – a phrase unfamiliar in our vocabulary until now.
And then the sudden and unexpected loss of Hilary Mantel – twice Booker prize winner and a writer of extraordinary achievement and repute – an event of great sadness and loss in the literary world and beyond.
(And, on a considerably lighter note, don’t even get me started on the loss of Roger Federer as he retires from the world tennis stage …it’s been an emotional couple of weeks!)
One of the obvious realities resulting in the death of an author is knowing that an anticipation for the next novel has been removed forever.
It’s their backlist that has to sustain us for the barren years ahead.
I remember feeling such loss when Carol Shields died prematurely, and I have certainly read all her novels at least twice – and I dip into Unless and Larry’s Party frequently, simply turning to any page and reading on, immediately held by the story and mastery of the storyteller.
I have re-read all of Anita Brookner, knowing that no more new novels about solitary spinsters or widows living in Kensington or Chelsea mansion blocks, frequenting galleries and museums to fill their days will appear on book shop shelves. Or of young men, probably spending time in Europe, who then make unfortunate marriages and grow prematurely old and disaffected with their lot in life.
I have loved them all – time and time again. And no-one is publishing novels like hers anymore.
Which brings me to wonder what other novels deserve endless re-reads?
With so many books in the world, reading anything twice might seem surplus to requirements and an entire waste of time.
But we do go back to our favourites.
Because reading a novel at the age of 20, at 26 or 38, at 54 or 68 or more, will all be entirely different experiences.
The novel might not have changed. But we will have altered immeasurably.
Our worlds will have shifted to include love and loss, life events will have shaped us and affected our perspectives and judgements. And thus, we might find our attitudes and sympathies for certain characters or situations alter or change – along with the years we have accrued.
Mr Rochester might seem romantically, attractively gothic when you are 16. By the time you are 40 he is far more likely to appear just affected and very annoying. Even whole novels that captured our profound love and affection when read at a tender age can seem preposterously overwrought and profoundly irritating when read at a more mature stage in life. I’m think of my student reading of Women in Love when I deemed D.H. Lawrence’s novel a masterpiece – whereas later, three decades or so on, I found it intolerably self-indulgent and, quite frankly, just plain silly!
But sometimes I re-read a novel simply for the delight of the prose – the mastery of the author.
And in this category, I would put Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break, anything and everything by William Trevor, Ian McEwan’s Atonement and, of course, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s powerful novel, has to be on this list.
Actually, once I get started, there are so very many more I want to mention …. but another time.
For the story is one thing – one element of a novel.
But for me, re-reading is not about that. It’s about the language, the rhythm, the precision of words in creating image and mood that are truly only fully realised when the plot is known and I am reading simply for the quality of the writing.
And in a month when so much has dramatically and so swiftly changed what could be better than to sit down with a novel that is a familiar and much-loved friend?
Try it – it can be very consoling!