March 29th, 2013

tree_face

Read my Solipsism

Looking back through this journal I see that over the years I have spent a lot of time shoving The Great Gatsby up against other texts, to see if they were a good fit. I'm really not sure why. I mean, I like Fitzgerald's book, and I've taught it several times, but it's not one of my "big" books, or not consciously. So yesterday, when I found myself musing, "Is Kurtz the man Gatsby would have become had he been born in Mitteleuropa instead of the Midwest?" I slapped myself down severely and made myself repeat "Conrad took a steamer up the Congo" twenty times until the fit had passed.

It's not just Gatsby, though. Last summer, I read - and was blown away by - Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. One of the things I liked best was the attenuated despair of the main narrative's final pages, as the protagonist stumbles toward suicide while desperately trying to keep alive his grandiose self-image. There was a certain flavour about the account that resonated - though I wasn't sure with what. This morning it came to me what it had reminded me of: the wonderful description of Nero's death in Suetonius. (I remember where I read that, too - in a cafe near the bus station in Cambridge, during my lunch break when I was a technical writer 25 years ago. I have an excellent memory for things like that, even though I can't name more than two or three of my colleagues from that unhappy time.)

No doubt one's past reading forms a rich humus in which the experience of new books can flower all the more vigorously. Still, it's a chicken-and-egg thing, or a hermeneutically circular one. Would I have enjoyed that bit of Hogg as much, or at all, had it not been for meeting Nero first? I'm not usually attracted to tales of suicidal despair - in fact, I prefer happy endings and find them more rewarding technically, spiritually, and aesthetically. My own depression and sense of futility perhaps contributed to that part of Suetonius sticking with me. What made it an important literary experience had as much to do with my own state of mind as anything I could have said about the text, even though I was consciously appreciating things about that too, and (since I was reading it in Graves's translation) thinking about it as source text for the Claudius books. That was consciously, ratiocinatively absorbing, but it took another reading of another text a quarter of a century later to hook out what had mattered to me most, and even since then it's been the best part of a year. And perhaps it wouldn't have occurred to me now if I hadn't dreamed about Nero last night - which was entirely the fault of Beric the Briton. Well, that's the kind of brain I've had the privilege of growing from a cutting, I suppose - but by God, it's a wonder we can make ourselves understood when we talk about books at all.