Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dinner: so far, yet another 4-loaf batch of bread. My boys eat a ridiculous amount of bread. On the horizon, haddock chowder and roasted green bean salad, if I can manage to pick beans before it starts pouring again.

I'm working on a series of essays about my relationship to my favorite books. Following is an excerpt from one of those essays, "Self-Portrait, with War and Peace." You can find the rest of the piece in the current (summer 08) issue of the Threepenny Review.

I’m forty-three years old, and to date I’ve read War and Peace eight or ten times. I’ve worn out one cheap paperback copy and am now working on wearing out an elderly Modern Library hardback I unearthed at a yard sale. My guess is that I’ll reread the novel a few more times before I die, though how many more times is impossible to calculate. As Arlo Guthrie says, “I’ll wait till it comes round on the gui-tar”—till I’m browsing along my bookshelves and am suddenly smitten with longing for the sight of Natasha dancing in Uncle’s hut, for fat Pierre innocently disrupting a fancy tea party, for Petya shyly asking a Cossack to sharpen his sword, for Nikolay stomping in to rescue Princess Marya from her confused serfs. One doesn’t plan ahead for infatuation; though after thirty years spent with the novel, I’m no longer surprised that it keeps appearing in my lineup.

On its simplest level, rereading books is a childish habit, like biting my nails or agreeing to play Monopoly only if I can be the dog. But children understand there’s satisfaction in familiarity. When I reread a book, I already know the characters and what they will do. I’m prepared for all sudden deaths and thwarted romances. The “shock of the new” is not, to me, a literary recommendation. It’s not that I dislike discovering unknown books. I just like reading them again better. Sometimes my desire to reread a well-loved book erupts twice in one year, sometimes once in a decade. Often I reread books I only sort of enjoyed the first time through, and fairly often I reread books that actively annoy me but that I hope will have a medicinal effect on my character or my brain. I’ve been known to reread books that have no good qualities whatsoever, just for old times’ sake.

Yet this clingy, childish attachment to books—this cozy insularity, this familiar pacifier—constructs its own lived history. That is particularly true of my inner circle of favored works, primarily novels, which have come to constitute an alternate lineage of near-equal reality. Among backward-looking literary types, it’s a common-enough list, including, among other works, most of the novels of Dickens, Eliot, Austen, and the elder Brontë sisters; several Gaskell, Bowen, Woolf, and Murdoch novels; and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Probably the only unusual factor is that I’ve reread each of these books ten or fifteen separate times without any intention of teaching them in an English class.

Lately I’ve learned that a new translation of War and Peace has been published, and by all accounts it’s a far better effort than the old Constance Garnett standby: more accurate to the rhythm of Tolstoy’s sentences, so the experts report, more attuned to the nuance of class-inflected language. The reviewers’ explications make good bedtime reading; and flipping languorously through the pages of the New York Review of Books, I’ve enjoyed various compare-and-contrast-the-translation extracts, easily convinced that the new edition would be a shiny addition to a bookshelf.

I’m relieved, however, that no one thought to give it to me for Christmas. For when it comes to my inner circle of books, I’m not all that interested in accuracy, or readability, or accessible notes, or pertinent introductions, or any of the typical reasons that drive a serious reader to purchase a new edition of a classic work. I do prefer to read a book that doesn’t fall apart in the bathtub; and since I’ve read many of my favored books to rags, I’ll occasionally acquire sturdier copies if I run across them at the Goodwill. But the idea of reading a new translation of a book I know intimately makes me anxious. I haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that Anna’s last name now translates as “Karenin,” not “Karenina,” or that the English title for Proust’s linked novels is no longer Remembrance of Things Past but In Search of Lost Time. What if a new translation of War and Peace spells Prince Andrey’s name in a new way? The thought is distressing in the way that any rupture in a comforting routine is upsetting. It opens a scary door. If Prince Andrey’s name has changed, will he be different from the man I love?

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