On Reading 'On Rereading'
A new book reflects on what happens when we revisit familiar works of fiction. Scott McLemee takes a first look.
In an often-cited passage from Allegories of Reading (1979), Paul de Man referred to “the metaphorical model of literature as a kind of box that separates an inside from an outside, and the reader or critic as the person who opens the lid in order to release into the open what was secreted but inaccessible inside.”
Once upon a time, the implications of this model, and of de Man’s painstaking deconstruction of it, were discussed in such depth, and at such length, as to test the limits of human endurance. But literary scholars have somehow neglected to draw the obvious connection to Sidney Kugelmass, a professor of humanities at the City College of New York, who, during the 1970s, transformed the experience of reading Flaubert. (See “The Kugelmass Episode,” in Woody Allen, Side Effects , also available here.)
Unhappily married for the second time, Kugelmass yearned for romance, but dreaded the financial ruin of taking on a second alimony. Traditional psychoanalysis proving no help, he enlisted the services of a magician in Brooklyn who had built a special cabinet that allowed a reader to enter the world within a book. Customer and book went in together, and then … well, magic is inexplicable. But whatever the thaumaturgical hydraulics, the magician’s device gave Kugelmass direct access to (as de Man put it) “what was secreted but inaccessible inside” a paperback copy of Madame Bovary.
Which is to say, access to Emma herself -- as miserable in her marriage as the professor was in his. Soon they were doing what came naturally, just as often as Kugelmass could sneak away to use the cabinet in Brooklyn.
Complications followed; they always do. Daphne Kugelmass began to wonder why her husband kept disappearing for hours at a stretch. Undergraduates doing their assigned reading tried to understand how a bald, middle-aged New Yorker in a leisure suit could be part of a novel set in provincial France during the 19th century. And Emma herself, yearning to escape the boredom of small-town life, managed to flee the book and went on a spending spree in Manhattan. In the words of a professor at Stanford University, at the time: "I cannot get my mind around this. First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she's gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new."
Yes, quite. To sum up this allegory of reading without giving away too much, let’s just note that Kugelmass himself came to a very bad end. But then, so did Emma in Flaubert’s novel. Each was led astray by desire and by fiction, tangled up with one another in ways both comic and tragic.
In On Rereading, published by Harvard University Press, Patricia Meyer Spacks is not content to play variations on the unnamed Stanford professor’s chestnut about the infinite richness of a classic. That’s truism enough. But more interesting (and much closer to the real reason why people reread, most of the time) is the desire, not for new interpretations, but for pleasure. Clearly that was what drove Kugelmass, although his years of rereading Madame Bovary to teach it yielded more blindness than insight into the novel.
Spacks, a professor emerita of English at the University of Virginia, spent a year revisiting novels she had read at different stages of her life, whether for pleasure or from obligation. Most had been enjoyable the first time through; a few of them were things she’d reread often over the years. Her report on this experiment might be called a critical memoir, or memoiristic criticism perhaps. The volume is too informal to be called scholarly, but too much the work of someone with decades of experience in careful reading for it to be just impressionistic.
“Reading a book, or rereading it,” she says, “we enter into relation not only with the text but with an imagined author. Rereading it, we relate also to one or more versions of our past selves. Examining the textures of those relationships, we learn both about ourselves and about complicated connections informing the mysterious process of reading.”
Not that this is necessarily a matter of deliberate assessment. If anything, it tends to be off-the-cuff: you start rereading a novel, and this sets off a chain reaction of memories and evaluations, regarding both the text and whatever the circumstances were in which you previously engaged with it. Most of On Rereading presents an orderly and argued version of processes that otherwise flow spontaneously within the stream of consciousness.
At another point, Spacks writes: “To be sure, it’s possible to reread because you remain puzzled by a text and obliged to tackle it again in order to figure it out. Most rereading, though, is undertaken for reasons other than exegesis, and it doesn’t involve conscious, purposeful work.”
Here she means the rereading of fiction, or of imaginative literature more generally. Something like it can also apply to nonfiction, certainly, but rereading it is more often task-driven. Even on first reading a novel, the reader “engages in constant judgment and interpretation,” says Spacks, “involved in a sequence of challenge and response” to what the author has put on the page. But this changes upon return:
“Willingness to yield oneself to the text in a way impossible the first time through is, I think, the crucial element in rereading.… The rereader customarily feels less pressure. She can allow herself a state of suspended attention comparable to Keats’s ‘negative capability,’ a condition of receptivity devoid, as the poet says, of irritable reaching after fact and reason — of irritable reaching after anything at all.”
A book remains the same through time, but the context and personality of the reader don’t. Whether the consequence is nostalgia or embarrassment can be the luck of the draw. Some of the most interesting material in On Rereading concerns the bewilderment that can occur upon revisiting a once-beloved work and finding that the thrill is gone. Spacks describes rereading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and trying to understand the changes in the world and in herself that made them disappointing, or worse, after the passage of decades.
“Rereading oneself is especially dangerous,” she also notes. “I’m thinking in particular of the experience of coming upon old notes in works read long ago for the first time. ’Symbol!’ I find in the margin of a novel read in college, and cringe.”
One lesson of On Rereading is that the metaphor of the reader of literature as someone “open[ing] the lid in order to release into the open what was secreted but inaccessible inside” also applies to rereading – except vice versa, with the text prying open the self.
With frequent rereading, Spacks says, a work “comes to inhabit the deep reaches of the brain.” This seems allied to something that the late John Leonard said: “The books we love, love us back.” But as we learn from the example of Sidney Kugelmass, you really have to be careful about that.
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