Culture Canvas: Rereading into the world
It’s a habit I’ve had ever since I was a little girl—rereading books when I’m feeling sad or lonely or hurting. I’ve always maintained that rereading a book is like going into the arms of familiar love: the fizzle and spark, the giddy anticipation of the unknown giving way to comfort, stability, and peace.
I’m not reading enough, a fact that distresses me. Yes, a lot is happening—in my life and the world. But when you’re a writer, that is no excuse. Reading, I’m firmly convinced, jogs those writing pathways, and seeps into the crevices of the mind where words and stories hibernate. But I’m struggling to concentrate. Part of it is because I am currently spread thin with multiple projects, juggling them around with the inadequate skills of a novice clown, always aware that his control over the hoops is a precarious one. But also, because—and I’m a little ashamed to admit it—I spend too much time on my mobile phone. (Whatsapp, Netflix, and Instagram have become black holes of productivity.)
This weekend, however, I managed to break the pattern. Admittedly, the circumstances that led up to it were rather unpleasant—my already weak back gave way on Saturday evening after too many kettle-bell swings—leaving me confined to my bed on Sunday. I was in too much pain to get up, charge my laptop, and watch people murder each other on the small screen (I’m addicted to serial killer series). And I was too grumpy to want to engage in WhatsApp small talk.
Or even start a new book. Instead, I wanted, and needed, the warmth of a familiar one. It’s a habit I’ve had ever since I was a little girl—rereading books when I’m feeling sad or lonely or hurting. I’ve always maintained that rereading a book is like going into the arms of familiar love: the fizzle and spark, the giddy anticipation of the unknown giving way to comfort, stability, and peace. You’re not rushing to the finish because you know where things will go, allowing you time to go slow, to linger, to discover something new you’ve never noticed before. After all, as author CS Lewis puts it, “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”
This time I went back to an old favourite: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. I’ve loved Lahiri for years: A Temporary Matter, the first story of her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, published in 1999 is one of my favourite short stories ever, occupying the same mind space as O’ Henry’s The Gift of the Magi and The Last Leaf; Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, and Guy de Maupassant’s The Diamond Necklace. I am also thrilled that she is now the Director of Princeton’s Creative Writing Program—the idea of a woman of colour obtaining this position in the still white-dominated realm of academia in the United States of America is hugely inspiring. Also, she writes the sort of stories I would like to, someday: beautifully-crafted narratives that explore love, identity, home, belonging, and relationships.
In a 2011 essay examining whether rereading makes for better reading, essayist Nathaniel Stein quotes from a literature professor, Patricia Meyer Spacks’ book, “On Rereading,” According to Stein, Spacks is very interested in examining how “our minds, hearts, experience, personal and cultural situation, or all of the above… have changed since the last time we read those words.” This fact hit me--and hard--when I read The Namesake this weekend. I’ve read it before, of course. But it has changed, and considerably so, since the last time I’ve read it. Mostly because I have changed, garnering new experiences, evolving in new ways, growing up a little since the last time I read it, I think.
What has altered the most is the way I now relate to Moushumi, Gogol’s ex-wife who cheats on him with this older professor of Comparative Literature, Dimitri Desjardins. The first time I read The Namesake, I detested her. “Why would anyone risk their marriage like that?” was my first thought, said with the firm conviction of an 18-year-old convinced that love and marriage were inextricably connected (Frank Sinatra thought so too in 1955 when he released a song along those lines while still embroiled in a bitter divorce from his second wife, Ava Gardner.). The next time I read it, I liked her better and even felt some sympathy. ‘People make mistakes,” I thought. This time, however, I related to her. I had been in a couple of relationships that had “the support of her parents from the very start, the inevitability of an unquestioned future, of marriage, drawing them along.” (The Namesake, Page 50). And, have felt that same resentment, the same dissatisfaction with the mundaneness of this sort of relationship, one that leaves you with “the sense of resignation, with the very life she had resisted, had struggled so mightily to leave behind.”
Another thing that worked for me was the idea of otherness that Lahiri so beautifully explores in her novel. I had to experience being an outsider myself to understand why Ashima, a central character in the book, refers to being a foreigner as a lifelong pregnancy, “an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.”
In a February 2020 article in the Paris Review, in an extract from her book Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Rereader, essayist and writer Vivian Gornick points out that “rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question.”
I get what she means. Some books I once loved are now repugnant to me. Gone with the Wind tops the list, but I’m also not a fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle Book. Some others—while I still like them and see the beauty of the prose—make me stop and rethink narrative—Dickens’ and Murakami’s insipid two-dimensional female characters, for instance. Or the description of Bertha Mason, the Creole first wife of Mr Rochester; referring to someone struggling with mental illness as the “clothed hyena” and “that purple face” does not speak well of Jane Eyre, I’m afraid.
On the other hand, I developed a new appreciation for books I had dismissed earlier as “not working for me”. Madame Bovary, for instance, and Coetzee’s Disgrace (so relevant in the light of #metoo). And there were ones I fell in love with all over again, backed by more profound knowledge of the worlds in which these stories are set: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Verse; Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and Philip Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
And, yes, The Namesake.
A book that even on this third reading did precisely what Vladimir Nabokov says a good book should. “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”
And, oh, I did—bad back et al.