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Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering

A Conversation with Wendy Lesser

Q) How did you get interested in the idea of rereading?

A) Well, I have a lot of books sitting around my house that I haven't read for a long time, and a few that I reread a lot. I used to be in the habit of rereading Henry James's The Wings of the Dove every four or five years, but then they made that horrible movie with Helena Bonham-Carter (at least I think it was probably a horrible movie: I refused to go see it) and that sort of spoiled the book for me for a few years. So the next time I needed a James fix, I picked The Portrait of a Lady off the shelf instead. And because I hadn't read it in twenty years, it had turned into a completely different novel for me. And that made me think: hey, I bet this works for a lot of other books too. So I started rereading my old, long-abandoned favorites.

Q) Did you make a list of what to reread and then just go through it, or did the list change as you wrote the book?

A) It definitely changed. Sometimes I reread the book and I couldn't remember it well enough to write about it in retrospect; sometimes I reread it and disliked it so much that I couldn't think of a chapter's worth to say about it. I have a whole series of trial "Table of Contents" pages extending over the years I wrote the book, and it's kind of funny to see what fell off and what came on. Sometimes I just dropped things out of laziness: for instance, Moby-Dick and the essays of David Hume. I am sure those would be great books to reread, but by the time I got to the end of my project, I just didn't have the energy left to undertake them. At this point.

Q) So have you stopped rereading now?

A) By no means. I am doing as much of it as I did while I was writing the book — I just don't take notes anymore. Right after I finished Nothing Remains the Same, which has a chapter on Anna Karenina, I reread War and Peace and I absolutely Loved it — more than I had the first time I read it, and much more than I liked Anna K. this time. So the chapter that included Tolstoy would have been very different if I had happened to use War and Peace for it instead of Anna Karenina. But I didn't, and those are the breaks; there is a certain arbitrariness to the rereading experience, and that is part of its charm. The next book I am planning to reread is Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, which I haven't read since I was in college. A rather grumpy friend happened to mention recently that it was his favorite book, and then I read a William Maxwell essay about Samuel Butler's letters, and those two things were enough to get me to take it off the shelf.

Q) Nothing Remains the Same focuses on a bunch of written materials — poems, novels, short stories, essays, autobiographies — and then, at the end, one movie, Hitchcock's Vertigo. Don't you think this is a strange divergence?

A) Not really. For me, the process of reseeing movies is not all that different from rereading books, if they have been very important movies for me — and Vertigo is one of the most important. That is, if I let enough time pass between viewings of the movie, I get the same triangulation effect (who I was then, who I am now, how the world and I have changed in that time) that I get from books. And since I am an essentially verbal, narrative-loving person, movies are mainly a narrative art form to me; I like their visual qualities, but I am never swept away by a movie for purely visual reasons, the way other people seem to be. Plot and character are always essential. I guess I tend to read a lot of things in this way, even poems and pictures. It makes me a rather limited kind of reader, but also a very intense, opinionated one.

Q) Is opinionated a good thing?

A) In my case, it's an unavoidable one, so I don't have a chance to think about it as good or bad. But I do notice that the other critics and autobiographers I like to read tend to be very opinionated. As opposed to novelists, who have to veil their opinions — or have none, or have so many that they contradict each other — if the novel is to be any good.

Q) Are there any sorts of books, whole categories of books, that you left out of Nothing Remains the Same and that you now wish you had included?

A) It might have been interesting to include childhood books — I mean real children's books, like Edward Eager's Half Magic, or E. Nesbit's The Five Children and It and its sequels, or C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, or James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks or The Wonderful O. These were all books that meant a tremendous amount to me as a child, and it might have been interesting to talk about them, instead of just focusing on relatively grownup books that I happened to read at a young age. But I was afraid, frankly, that I wouldn't be able to remember clearly enough how I had felt about these childhood books. Or maybe I was just afraid to look back that far.

Q) The question of faulty memory is one that you don't really take account of in Nothing Remains the Same. That is, you present your earlier readings — with or without marginal notes to support them — as if you are sure of them. How can you be so sure?

A) Well, I do have a very good memory, in general, and I am used to relying on it as if it were telling me the truth. And I did some selection before writing, so that the books I didn't remember well didn't turn into chapters. But I agree that there is no proof that this is what I thought when I was thirteen, or nineteen, or twenty-three. I guess my answer would be to say that there was already an element of discrepancy-of-memory built into the book (as in "I thought this old book was like this but now it turns out to be like that"), and if I added in the possibility that the original memory was false, the whole triangulation process would become impossible. But I would also want to question the whole idea of a "false memory" of reading. It's kind of like saying I might have had a false memory of a dream. The point about the dream, in analysis, is not what it Really was but what I think it was when I wake up. And the same with rereading: the reference point is what I believed I read in the first place—my own initial dream of the book, if you will.

Q) Doesn't this viewpoint lead to an overly solipsistic or narcissistic form of criticism?

A) That's a fair accusation, but I think it's balanced, in this case, by my desire to be having a conversation with other readers and writers. I don't care just about what's happening in my own mind; I want to sense an overlap between my reactions and those of other readers. In a way, rereading helps me to do that, because I get to have access to at least two readers (Wendy at nineteen and Wendy at forty-nine), and that helps me to imagine lots of other readers as well. Also, I have a sense of allegiance to the authors of these books I cared so much about — I write, that is, as if Henry James were alive to see what I was saying about him — and I think that helps keep me from being too self-enclosed. But I do see what you mean, and I think it's a danger of this kind of autobiographical criticism. On the other hand, the kind of criticism that tries to exclude the self entirely and be totally objective tends to be very boring when not entirely worthless. So the risk is worth taking, I think.

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