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Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering

The Favorite Rereads of Some Other Writers and Artists . . .

We polled a number of Wendy Lesser's fellow writers and artists, asking them what works they've most enjoyed rereading, or which books, stories, or poems they would most like to reread if given the time. Here are their responses, any of which you may feel free to reprint in your publication or recite on your program in reference to Nothing Remains the Same.

André Aciman, author of Out of Egypt and False Papers
There are two books I'd like to reread: one, naturally, is Proust—because I've been rereading ever since reading it—but it is Oblomov where my heart turns.

Joan Acocella, book and dance critic for The New Yorker
My most interesting rereading experience was with The Portrait of a Lady. I remembered the book well. It had been assigned to us in freshman comp. I think I even wrote a paper on it. Thirty years later, I pulled the book off the shelf, the same paperback I had used in college. "I'll have a rereading experience," I thought. As I started, I winced at my undergraduate marginalia. Then I found that the marginalia stopped abruptly in Chapter 19. The rest of the book was pristine. I had never finished The Portrait of a Lady. I hadn't even gotten halfway through. Now I read the book, and it was marvelous. During the chapter where Isabel looks into the fire, my hair stood on end. So I strongly recommend rereading.

Paul Berman, author of A Tale of Two Utopias
The author whose works I would like to reread someday is Karl Marx. I figure that, with the passage of time, it will be possible to look at Marx as one more writer from the Victorian age, and not as anything more — someone whose pages one could turn without wanting to jump up every fifteen minutes and join a political party. What will Marx be like, read at a moment when Marxism has mostly retreated into the tropical jungles and into the past? Will he seem a misunderstood genius? A fraud, a stylist, a wit, a bore? The suspense mounts...

W. S. Di Piero, poet, author of Skirts and Slacks
About rereading. The books I go back to regularly because of some mysterious writerly tropism are the Homeric poems, certain of Shakespeare's plays (Coriolanus among them, so it's not always a great play I return to), and The Charterhouse of Parma.

But those are pretty much gimmes. Other books have — I don't know exactly what to call it — functions, I suppose. I've been reading Thomas Hardy's poems for a long time, and the more I go back to them, the better the good ones get. Same words in the same orders, but different strains of boldness and grace come out on different readings, and his poems are adult in that you mature into them and they into you. (I couldn't say the same of Crane, for instance, or Whitman, or even Auden.)

And this. In 1971, in Moe's in Berkeley, I picked up John Russell's abridged 1961 translation of Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques. I had just been through a big change in my life, and though the book has nothing to do with anything in my own experience (it's about Levi-Strauss's beginnings as an anthropologist and his early field work in Brazil) it seemed a kind of metaphoric graph of my experience. It fortified me and clarified things. Ever since, at major turns in my life — times of chaos, change of health or place or spirit — I've gone back to read (or read in) it. Since the mid-1970s I've preferred the unabridged translation of Jon and Doreen Weightman. Somewhere along the way I gave away my old turquoise pocket edition of the Russell. Who knows where it ended up?

Margaret Drabble, novelist, editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature
One of my favorite books when I was about ten or eleven was Charles Reade's historical novel The Cloister and the Hearth, which I read again and again. I reread it a few years ago and was completely baffled by why I'd enjoyed this turgid historical melodrama so much when so young. I have read D. H. Lawrence at many periods, and have come through a decade or two of finding him sexist to regarding him as a writer of great though uneven genius. When I first read Anna Karenina, I identified with young Kitty, next time I moved on to the adulterous Anna, and the time after that I was rather taken with the stoical Dolly. Time to read again, perhaps.

Daisy Fried, poet, author of She Didn't Mean to Do It
I must have read Pride and Prejudice at least six times in the last ten years. I'm terrified each time that Eliza and Darcy won't get together. Which is to say I tend to continue to read Pride and Prejudice as a romance novel—it is the novel on which all subsequent romance novels are based, I think—with this difference: it's brilliant, not silly, like all the rest. In the last five readings, however, I've realized that 1) Darcy is something of a himbo (sexy though), and 2) Austen is, no revelation here, a terrific snob. But less so here than in the rest of her novels. Here the bourgeois class gets to penetrate society's upper ranks (though of course that's only because Elizabeth is truly an aristocrat at heart, right?) instead of everyone being put thoroughly in their place, as in Emma, which I've only reread twice. Pride and Prejudice is the only Austen novel where I really do believe that people are going to live happily every after —minstead of saying, as with Emma, "Good grief, does Emma really want to spend her life with that priggish old fart Knightley?"

Michael Holroyd, biographer of George Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey
In my adolescence I was excited by H. G. Wells's science fiction, especially The Island of Dr. Moreau. Today its grim philosophy of progress made on the grindstone of pain and necessity chills me. But I admire the book's prophetic power — especially about the need (which we are debating today) artificially to remake human beings.

I loved the charm and adventure of Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica when I was young. This still enchants me, but I have become aware of the dark shadow of social injustice and sexual terror in the novel, and my opinion has risen.

I hated Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at school — all those pompous soldiers and politicians mouthing away at one another (and I was obliged to memorize their mouthings). I thought it a cold play — and it is: a brilliant insight into the coldness of dictators which, I now believe, owes something to Shakespeare's views on Queen Elizabeth — which makes it all the more fascinating.

Maureen Howard, novelist and memoirist
Drawing up a reading list for a course rather grandly titled "The Writer in the World," I recalled Mr. Gradgrind's dreadful schoolroom lessons: "In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!" I took Dickens's Hard Times off the shelf. All the issues were there for my plucking—the soulless system of Victorian education, the industrial blight of Coketown, political corruption, oppression of working men and women, foolish pretensions to rank and class, but how skillfully the novelist balanced his scolding and instruction with bold acts of the imagination as antidote to facts. The endearing circus folk of Sleary's "horse-riding," the outrageous caricature of Mr. Bounderby, the melodramatic death of the maligned coal miner were all as I remembered. I was moved, as always, by the grand casting, though I had never noted how language took center stage in this short (for Dickens) novel written in serial form. Bombast, lies, riffs of self-adulation and self-denigration, the lisp of Mr. Sleary which makes it difficult to construe his wise words, the dialect of Stephen Blackpool's muddled eloquence. On this reading I was aware of silence, the breaking off of speech between false friends and true, the silence which evokes a dreamscape of words for Louisa Gradgrind and Stephen, words in a phantasmagoric spill. And wondering how my students would take the writer's asides, little taps on the shoulder as well as the master's flourishes of instruction to counter the deadly schoolroom, I took a cab up Broadway. It was September 11, our first class. So the next week we gave ourselves to the writer in whatever world, to the problems of imagining this story of a distant time, in almost another language, noting that the title of Dickens's novel is, in full, Hard Times for These Times. And as we read and reread the last paragraph, it seemed entirely appropriate that we should be included in Dickens's despairing peroration: Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn grey and cold.

David Lehman, editor of annual Best American Poetry anthologies
As it happens I'm an ardent advocate of rereading, and have written several times about that particular pleasure. My list would include the following:

Homer, The Odyssey
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
John Milton, Paradise Lost
William Wordsworth, The Prelude
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Edgar Allan Poe, assorted tales (e.g. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue")
Henry James, assorted tales of writers and artists (e.g. "The Lesson of the Master")
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
George Orwell, 1984
Graham Greene, stories (e.g. "Under the Garden") and novels (e.g. Brighton Rock)
plus one video, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective

Norman Mailer, novelist and journalist
I did a review for the New York Times Book Review once on Huckleberry Finn — it was the 100th anniversary. [An excerpt follows, courtesy of Norman Mailer.]

May I say it helps to have read Huckleberry Finn so long ago that it feels brand-new on picking it up again. Perhaps I was eleven when I saw it last, maybe thirteen, but now I only remember that I came to it after Tom Sawyer and was disappointed. I couldn't really follow The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The character of Tom Sawyer, whom I had liked so much in the first book, was altered, and did not seem nice anymore. Huckleberry Finn was altogether beyond me. Later, I recollect being surprised by the high regard nearly everyone who taught American lit lavished upon the text, but that didn't bring me back to it. Obviously, I was waiting for an assignment from the New York Times.

Let me offer assurances. It may have been worth the wait. I suppose I am the ten millionth reader to say that Huckleberry Finn is an extraordinary work. Indeed, for all I know, it is a great novel. Flawed, quirky, uneven, not above taking cheap shots and cashing far too many checks (it is rarely above milking its humor) — all the same, what a book we have here! I had the most curious sense of excitement. After a while, I understood my peculiar frame of attention. The book was so up-to-date! I was not reading a classic author so much as looking at a new work sent to me in galleys by a publisher. It was as if it had arrived with one of those rare letters that says, "We won't make this claim often, but do think we have an extraordinary first novel to send out." So it was like reading From Here to Eternity in galleys, back in 1950, or Lie Down in Darkness, Catch-22, or The World According to Garp (which reads like a fabulous first novel). You kept being alternately delighted, surprised, annoyed, competitive, critical, and, finally, excited. A new writer had moved onto the block. He could be a potential friend or enemy, but he most certainly was talented.

That was how it felt to read Huckleberry Finn a second time.

Greil Marcus, author of Lipstick Traces and Mystery Train
On a trip to Barcelona the day we began bombing in Afghanistan, I grabbed Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye at the last minute. I also took books on the Cathars and Herman Melville.

I had read The Long Goodbye any number of times before, but not for at least fifteen years. This was an old, beat-up UK edition with a milky film still on the cover. I found myself reading the book — or the book speaking to me, or the book reading me, reading my mood and state of mind, perhaps — in a manner completely different from any previous encounter with it. In the first hundred pages or so, all that came across, really, was the absolutely terrible state of mind of the author, or Philip Marlowe — his malevolence, his bile, his loathing for nearly all of mankind. There's a scene early in the book where Marlowe is in a fancy hotel cocktail lounge waiting for someone, and he kills time by looking around for someone to hate. He finds someone who, from across the room, he can see but not hear — can see what must be, just must be, a cackling, obnoxious, self-important laugh, and he all but luxuriates in his contempt and disgust. I mean, I could say it was like reading Celine, if I'd ever read Celine.

Sometimes you reread to get exactly the same thing from a book, and you do. Sometimes you have no idea what you're letting yourself in for.

Javier Marías, author of A Heart So White and Dark Back of Time
Two books I do not only reread, but I have also rewritten in my own language, Spanish: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia and Religio Medici. Three long poems: T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"; Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies"; and Jorge Manrique's "Coplas a la muerte de mi padre." Four classic works: Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quiote; Michel de Montaigne's Essais; William Shakespeare's Macbeth; and Sallust's Jugurtha and Catilina. Four modern novels: Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu; Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita; and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Five short poems: John Milton's "When I consider how my light is spent"; John Milton's "Methought I saw my late espoused Saint"; Friedrich Holderlin's "Wie wenn am Feiertage" (not so short indeed, sorry not to know its English first line); Francisco de Quevedo's "Cerrar podra mis ojos la postrera"; and Seamus Heaney's "Postscript." Four films: Jean Renoir's The River; John Ford's The Quiet Man; Joseph L. Mankeiwicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight.

Sigrid Nunez, winner of the American Academy's Rome Prize in Literature
One literary work I most want to reread is Kafka's Diaries. I read them for the first time when I was going through a particularly unhappy period, and they brought me the most profound and unexpected solace. I have meant to reread them several times since then but I haven't yet; perhaps I am waiting for a darker moment.

Two books that greatly disappointed me on rereading were F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Graham Greene's The Quiet American. I reread both novels just recently and found them both much weaker than I had remembered. It is perhaps because of this that I think of myself as a wary rereader: I don't suffer this kind of disappointment well.

One writer whom I particularly enjoy rereading is John Cheever. Oddly enough, when I read him for the first time, many years ago, I did not like him at all. I have no explanation for this, except perhaps that I was too young.

Another kind of rereading that interests me is reading books in the original that I've read before only in translation. (In some cases, of course, this can be more like reading a work for the first time than like rereading.) I do this kind of rereading all the time, with books originally written in French and Italian. Right now, I am in the middle of Primo Levi's enthralling Il sistema periodico.

Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst, author of On Flirtation and Houdini's Box
One book I enjoyed rereading was D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. I reread it to find out whether it was as inspiring now in middle age as it was in adolescence, and whether I could read the sexual relations without irony. The book I think I would most like to reread is Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, simply to find out whether it's possible to dramatize innocence.

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate
I have reread William Faulkner's The Hamlet a dozen times or more. As with Joyce's Ulysses, I also dip into the book and read sections as I do with collections of poetry. In an interview, Marquez once said that the best book ever written about Latin America was Faulkner's The Hamlet. That delighted me, because I think that the best book ever written about the New Jersey shore, where I grew up, is The Hamlet.

Luc Sante, author of Low Life and Evidence
The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo
The Death Ship by B. Traven
Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
V. by Thomas Pynchon
In the Jungle of Cities by Bertolt Brecht
Three Lives by Gertrude Stein
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
The Nun by Denis Diderot
Rivers and Mountains by John Ashbery

As it happens, I've been engaged in my own rereading program. Above is my list, which is composed of books that were very important to me before the age of twenty, and which — with one or two exceptions — I hadn't reread since then. I haven't reread all of them yet, and so don't know which ones might prove inappropriate to the purpose, but I can already sense a trend. In my teens I was seriously interested in disorienting myself — I wanted a drug experience every time around, and I succeeded in getting one even when the text didn't seem to warrant such a thing. I approached each book (and I could easily include a host of movies in this list) as if it were a work of Dada poetry, as if the elements had been thrown together by aleatory means, or through synesthesia: strictly for color or texture. I didn't have a clue about plot, and I was sufficiently naive about adult experience that the lived emotional weight of these books sailed right over my head. I could have included Nadja, by André Breton, for example, although I've not only reread it but taught it in recent years. I was oblivious to what may be its most important aspect, its mischievously artful editing of nonfictional reality into the shape of a novel. I approached it — and loved it that way — as if Breton had made it by collaging bits and pieces of case studies and romance novels. At length I shucked this insistently formalistic reading of everything that came into view (I could read history and reportage this way, too), but now I often wish I could put it on at will like another pair of glasses. Alas, I've not only done a great deal of reading since, but more importantly, experienced nearly three decades of life.

Alan Sillitoe, author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
Books I go back to — apart from the Jewish Bible and Shakespeare — are by Herman Melville, especially Moby Dick, and Joseph Conrad (Nostromo). The older I get (in other words, the more I have read), the more I go back to those works that say most to me. I recently reread The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; also Arrian's Life of Alexander the Great as well as Plutarch's Lives (the lot!), Herodotus and Thucidides. All great stuff. Plutarch was in the Dryden translation. They're all marvelous to read again, much more appreciated now than in my youth, though they had a great enough effect then to draw me back more than once.

Gary Soto, poet, youth advocate for United Farm Workers
In 1976 I was living Knut Hamsun's Hunger, but instead of the icebergs of Norway I faced ice cubes in a glass of tapwater in Fresno, California. I was twenty-four, just married, and, like the figure in Hunger, refused to work. I was living for literature, mine and others, and consequently was getting skinnier and skinnier by the day. I was also getting darker in the hellish Fresno sun that finds you even in the shade. I was walking around in search of poetic fodder, unaware really that it was already inside me. When I re-read Hunger recently, I recognized my youth in its pages, a young man ready to sell the buttons right off his shirt for a good poem the sweaty muse of a hot valley might send his way.

Wayne Thiebaud, painter
The two books I have recently reread are Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and Sister Carrie by Theodore Drieser. As a painter, rereading is akin to relooking. Rereading a good book or relooking at a good painting seems to be a way to continually reinvent oneself. During the first early reading of Don Quixote I kept wondering what was going to happen to that crazy old knight. When I reread it recently I couldn't help wondering what had happened to me.

P.S. I could apply the following words to both books: re-acquainted, readjusted, rejected, reaffirmed, relocated, reevaluated, renewed, rearoused, reclassified, reanimated, returned, released, redeemed, etc. etc. etc.

C. K. Williams, Pulitzer prize–winning poet
About 90 percent, I'd say, of my reading of poetry — which is for me, as one would expect, my essential reading — is rereading. So if I'm going to tell what I've been rereading, I would probably have to limit myself, in order not to go on more or less interminably, to a brief period, a week, say. So, this week (it's Friday as I write), I've reread Montale, especially "The Magnolia's Shadow," and "Hitler Spring," in Jonathan Galassi's always illuminating translations; Dickinson, particularly Poem 520 (in Johnson) "I started Early — Took my Dog — /And visited the Sea," which I still, after I don't dare say how many perusals of it, don't entirely understand; some of Frost's later poems, most of which I still can't quite connect to but which I go to once in a while, in case there might be something I hadn't been yet ready for; Whitman, because I realized a few mornings ago that too long a time had passed since I'd checked in with him, been tuned by him, I suppose I'd say, as a piano has to be regularly brought into accord with a standard of harmonics; a little Baudelaire, during an hour when I was struggling with the line of a poem I was writing and thought I'd find the jolt of awareness in him that I needed (I didn't); and finally, the first section, of new poems, in the galley of "Without End," my friend Adam Zagajewski's forthcoming selected poems, which I first read last week, and read again yesterday with an even greater sense of astonishment at his unique gift, no, genius. And that's it, at least mostly, or at least mostly since Monday.

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