Tuesday 30 May 2017

Comfort Reading

Art doesn't love you and cannot console you, said Anita Brookner. It's a discomforting assertion. When I examine my own intake or uptake of art - by which I mean my reading, for primarily I'm literary, verbal - I realise consolation is one of the chief things I look for. My sudden blogging, my sudden and tardy engagement with the Internet, after years of silence, has somewhat changed my reading habits. I now read more, and with more purpose. I look at what others are reading and am influenced. Or else I'm reduced, made to feel subtly inferior. These other folk - how quickly and how widely they read!

Much of my reading is now rereading. I read new things infrequently. I try new authors hardly at all. I favour books about certain types or classes of character and set in certain locations. I'm really very choosy, very small-minded. I've come to the end of Trollope, an almost exclusive preference of mine through my twenties and thirties. I never thought I'd exhaust him. I've read all of Dickens and James too, other favourites, and often feel at something of a loss.

Rereading is inherently a limited activity, though of course it also has things to offer. I know what to expect and I know I'll also probably gain something new. But I have a fear. One day I'll pick up an old favourite and it'll mean nothing. It will have lost its savour. Such fears should not be underrated: reading, for some people, isn't just a pastime. It's deeply bound up with, indeed part of, their inner lives. And as we know from Brookner, one must cherish and protect one's inner life almost at any cost.


I'm currently reading Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann. It's actually new to me, though followers of this blog will know I've read Mann before (like several Brooknerians - Elizabeth Warner in 'At the Hairdresser's', who puts aside Doctor Faustus, or Julius Herz in The Next Big Thing, who finds a significant old letter in a copy of Buddenbrooks). I've also been to Lübeck several times. (The Thomas Mann house is, like the Goethehaus in Frankfurt, an artful post-war reconstruction.)

If Lotte in Weimar is comfort reading for me, I suspect it was comfort writing for its author. Published in 1939 while Mann was in exile from his homeland (Buddenbrooks having been publicly burnt) the novel is set in the early nineteenth century and tells of real-life Werther* heroine Lotte's arrival in Weimar forty-four years after her youthful association with Goethe. I am sorry the novel isn't better known in English.

Here is George Steiner on Mann:
Thomas Mann is a towering presence in modern literature. The analogy with Goethe, which he himself invoked, is often justified. The leviathan series of novels that chronicled the decay of the old European order, and its descent into the night of the inhuman, stands unrivalled. Our current politics, our aesthetics, our images of personal hurt carry the impress of Death in Venice, of The Magic Mountain, of Doctor Faustus. The epithet 'Olympian' has been attached to Thomas Mann. In an important sense, it is erroneous. There is nothing remote about these classics. They ache at us.

*Brookner's Family and Friends begins with an epigraph from Goethe's most famous novel. And the cold calculations of Elective Affinities are discussed in Altered States.

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