“The final test for a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.” – E. M. Forster
I’m getting closer to the end of these recap posts, catching up to the books for which I wrote and posted more formal reviews, and it has me reflecting on these reflections. It helps that I find myself discussing with my friends these overlapping memories of the books’ content with the circumstances under which I read them. I have found, more than I ever would have guessed in the beginning, that so much of what I read that I enjoy comes as much from the mindset (and personal circumstances outside of reading) as it does from the novel’s actual content. There are more books that I remember enjoying, but I can’t quite remember the exact details regarding what you’d think are major aspects: characters, plot, the style in which it was written. Instead what I remember most are my reactions to it or to parts of it (even though I don’t remember what it was that caused those reactions).
I’ve been earmarking many of them for a second reading, hoping that in re-reading them the same reaction might be triggered and the connection between the specifics of the material and the emotion will strengthen – or it’ll inspire a completely different reaction. I know that there are so many aspects of stories I once loathed that speak to me very differently not that several years have passed (my eternal apologies to My Ántonia for all the horrible things I said about you in high school). There’s also the risk that I’ll have lost the tolerance I had for something I once loved… or maybe I’ll finally be able to see the layers of meaning I missed before… I’m torn. I want to read as much as possible that I haven’t read before but there’re so many things I can learn about myself through re-reading.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons
Most of my friends and roommates in college were big comic book and graphic novel fans (in part because so many of them were illustration majors). There was more than one occasion where I was dragged to the movies in order to watch superhero movies or other similar adaptations. They began planning for Watchmen a few months before the film actually came out and it gave me a chance to actually read the graphic novel first. I enjoyed it thought graphic novels are not something I actively seek out. I liked the film better if only because it “fixed” a number of the issues I had reading the graphic novel (the shipwreck subplot in the kid’s comic book and the whole reason behind why Ozymandias’ role). I could have gone either way on the artwork in the novel itself, but seeing how they managed to capture and adapt certain frames in the film made having read the graphic novel worth it.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I read Jane Eyre a year or two before I read Wuthering Heights, and while I appreciated Charlotte Brontë’s style and story, there were aspects of her plot that, to this day, bother me. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up her sister’s equally famous, Wuthering Heights, but it certainly wasn’t what I read – in a very good way. Though it took me a while to get used to the way the narratives are embedded (with second and third hand accounts of major characters and events), the central characters of Catherine and Heathcliff are a force of nature beyond the circumstances of the story. There’s so much going on with both of them psychologically that is compelling even as it proves self-destructive. They’re a couple who could have and would have had a wonderfully healthy relationship if they could only remove themselves from society and the influence of the world around them – which is, of course, the tragic impossibility that causes them to sabotage themselves, those around them, and those who come after them. I’ve only ever found one film adaptation that I feel comes anywhere close to achieving a true sense of the novel and its characters and even that falls a bit short.
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
I began reading A Room with a View while on a charter bus taking my college art history class into New York City for what proved to be a disastrous trip to MOMA – because of an accident that delayed us for hours rather than anything wrong with the museum itself. I was less perturbed than many of my classmates because of the friends I had with me, and the fact that I had a book to help kill time. Beyond simply enjoying E. M. Forster’s examination of a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality during a time when – especially publically and for young women – sex wasn’t talked about. Of course, Lucy’s enlightenment goes beyond the surface subject matter and delves into the rejection and push to changes in society and its values among the different classes. I also found that regardless of the subject matter, characters, or plot, there is something about E. M. Forster’s prose that is almost mesmerizing. It isn’t a prose style that I find inherently frustrating (which is proving to be my continuing problem with Thomas Hardy), but rather relaxing.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I was probably one of the few students who didn’t have to read A Tale of Two Cities in high school. I was already familiar with the story thanks to Great Illustrated Classics and good old Wishbone. I did eventually read it on my own (after being disappointed that it wasn’t on the syllabus for my Dickens seminar in college either) and it was everything I had always expected it to be. It completely lived up to the hype and my expectations going in, but then, there’s always something to enjoy about Dickens and his writing style. I remember mentioning to one of my friends that I’d finally gotten around to reading it and listening to almost an hour of gushing over the character of Sydney Carton (who, I must agree, deserves a bit of gushing and to be ranked among the likes of Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, and Mr. Thornton). Perhaps my most recent memory of the book is a poster that hung in the grad student lounge that was the entire first paragraph of the novel in different complementary typesets to emphasize all the contradictions. A part of me still wants that poster.
Howards End by E. M. Forster
I enjoyed A Room with a View so much that I followed up with Howards End pretty quickly. This one had more slow parts but it was also longer. I don’t know that I was completely sold on the relationship between Margaret and Henry and was much more invested in Helen’s storyline. That said, I found the novel’s prominent themes well handled and progressive for the time it was written (though, having learned more about E. M. Forster and his involvement in the Bloomsbury Group, it’s less surprising). His prose style was just as relaxed and engaging as my first impressions. It took me a while to find a copy of A Passage to India that I liked but I do plan on reading that one before the year is out.