Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I don't know if you follow my reading list, but I've lately added two books to it without having posted a thing about them. I know I ought to dredge up a few words, and now I will.

William Trevor's Death in Summer is the only Trevor novel I've read; and though this isn't my first time through the book, I don't believe I've read it more than twice, and those rereadings have been neither recent nor intensive--by which I mean I didn't find myself drawn to read the novel again within a year or so of my previous reading.  As a result, when I took the book off the shelf this time, I found that I had a surface memory of the plot but not much more. I remembered almost nothing about the characters or their motivations; basically, I felt like I'd never opened the novel before. I did enjoy the book this time, and I did find myself considering the main character, Thaddeus Davenant, more deeply than I had done before. But I wonder how long he will cling in my memory, and how soon I will read the book again.

Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is a different story. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I read this book four or five times in fairly close succession. Yet for the following 10 years or so, I never took it off the shelf. And what I've found on this reading is that I've retained a very detailed and emotional memory of the characters but almost no memory of the plot. I feel as if Jake and Brett have been sitting next to me, invisibly, for all these years . . . that they have never become strangers; that their mysteries are the mysteries of longevity, like those of husbands and sisters and fathers.

I think these variations in reading memory are very interesting, partly because they are also rather disturbing (I mean, the Hemingway plot shouldn't be hard to remember since nothing much happens except drinking and hanging out and wanting what you can't have); partly because they reinforce my feeling that characterization, not plot, is the hallmark of great fiction. I doubt I would list Hemingway among my top-ten favorite novelists, yet I think he's a great novelist nonetheless, and for reasons that have nothing to do with personal attraction to his work. For he not only makes his characters live; he seems to make them live forever. And while the Trevor novel contains much to admire, I have less confidence in his characters, who feel more like temporary acquaintances.

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