“What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action. Each character is created, and must only be so created, as to give his or her action (or rather, contributory part in the novel’s action) verisimilitude.” — Elizabeth Bowen, Notes on Writing a Novel
I would love to know the percentage of re-reading that serious readers do.
By ‘serious readers’ I mean those who would take their novels intravenously, if they could.
Those readers who will stand in a room lined with bulging bookshelves and feel their palms get sweaty, a begging thrum building up in their blood. A full-blown belting desire to somehow gulp down all the books and everything that’s in them.
Serious readers would chew through books, a gnashing of teeth and saliva, the way van Gogh is reported to have become frustrated and eaten his paint, right out of the tube.
He must have wanted an unmediated, more intimate relationship with art, needing to eliminate the brush, or all the fuss of making.
He must have wanted the pure stuff, uncut truth, pow to the heart. Vision. (There’s a theory that something in the white paint drove him mad (titanium?), and this may be a lesson, concerning the desire to know a whole story without allowing the proper passage of time to absorb it into the bloodstream. Narrative is linear. It must be absorbed methodically, one word after another. Linearity is narrative’s drug delivery system, linearity what burns off the rocket as it soars through the stratosphere, the sealskin coat we wear out on the white tundra to stop from freezing up.
But there’s also the panic — more acute as we all get older — that we will miss a good book. That we can’t get through them all. That they will yellow and get mouldy and the gilded edges of the pages will crumble away, turn to dust, and sink into the earth before we know what they said.
And so, considering this urgency, I want to know how many serious, ravenous readers re-read novels?
Does the act of re-reading make the novel new, no matter how many times we’ve read it? Does a good plot always deliver surprise, even when we know what’s coming?
And what is coming? Is it some crazy coupling of who we are when we read with the present moment, ever morphing (right now it is raining, the lilacs are reaching toward the window across a gravel path, the leaves are shiny and clean and very green, there’s a white plate smeared with ketchup near my elbow) and something stuck in time, the print on the page? The story. The past.
I would guess my own re-reading is perhaps fifty percent of all the reading I do. There are fiction writers whose voices I need to hear at least once a month.
The novels of the Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen are some I need to dip into at least once a month, even if it’s just a chapter. Or a line or two. But I have read them all more than once, some three times.
And about five years ago the writer Catherine Bush (whose new novel Accusation is coming out this fall, and I can’t wait!) told me about the essay Notes on Writing a Novel by Elizabeth Bowen.
It’s an essay I re-read and re-read. Take for instance an argument that Bowen poses very early in the essay: “The characters are there to provide action.”
Had I thought it was the other way around? What the hell does she mean? What is action? I answer these questions with different answers every time I read the essay.
Right now it seems to me that action is a kind of coming into being.
The work of a character is to drive herself through the novel, and to create a sense of unity and order out of the disorder of the cosmos.
Thinking is action. Emotion is action. Memory is action. Transformation is action. And to raise a hand to a forehead to brush away a strand of hair, or a difficult thought, that is also action.
Take this sentence from Bowen’s last novel, Eva Trout: “Iseult’s enjoyment of her oysters was at once methodical and voluptuous.”
And later this: “The very first she swallowed wrought a change in her. Greed softened and in a peculiar way spiritualized her abstruse beauty, with its touch of the schoolroom.”
Methodical, voluptuous, greedy, spiritualized, abstruse beauty with a touch of the schoolroom.
Maybe that’s how we read, and re-read, as well as how we eat oysters, one and then another one.