Lately I’ve been mulling over some long iconic classics of the size of Don Quixote, Moby Dick, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Tale of Two Cities (or almost any Dickens), Les Miserables, Midnight’s Children, War and Peace (many Russian titles), Fortunata and Jacinta… What makes us want to read them, keep reading them, love or hate them, or leave us indifferent?
If you are anything like me, most of this type of classics are everywhere. Even though many are fans, I am convinced I won’t enjoy them, and I don’t want to give them my time. I forget that they are not like that, they are amazing and captivating, but not all of them are that for all us.
What determines our success reading them?, -if by success we mean finishing them-. My theory is that we all have something built in and some conditions that will increase our chances of connecting on more levels, and that could help us enjoy them. What are those conditions? To me, the most significant is our culture and language background. It’s not a coincidence that readers from Spanish speaking and Latin American countries have a higher chance of succeeding with Márquez or Cervantes, and those with deeper roots in the Anglosaxon world show partiality towards Dickens. But it’s not just nature, it’s, as always, both nature and nurture.
As readers, with age, we get more and more prepared to tackle other classics on the heavy weight category. We may have also gained insight in another culture. For example, for me to succeed reading Don Quixote, I first had to try several times by force, (school reading), and I only read it in part, (however, those chapters I read started to resonate with me.) At a later age, going back to it was like vacationing at a familiar place. Every time I read it, the familiarity with its structure helps me not to be bogged down by the interminable stories that get all tangled up. I know they are all having a neat conclusion. I can lift myself a bit from the immediacy of the text, and enjoy the landscape with some perspective.
As for One Hundred Years of Solitude. This and Love in the Time of Cholera, I read them in my twenties. In this case, nature and lack of nurture were the perfect combination. Why? By nature, I mean that the language was deceivingly easy. To me, reading names like José Arcadio Buendía, Ursula Iguarán, or Santa Sofía De La Piedad, conjures familiarity. On the other hand, names such as Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass, Emily Wardle and Nathaniel Winkle, (all characters from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers), make my tongue trip and my mind skid. They don’t stick fast as the others do.
This is one of the biggest hurdles for me when reading Russian classics. I know it’ll take me time to become familiar with the long and foreign names plus the nickname for each and all. I pinch my nose, close my eyes, and stay like that for 70+ pages, which I try to read relatively fast. By the middle of the book, I usually start to know who is who. If I don’t, I google and read the Spark Notes, and finally I nod and make sense of what I have read so far. I sometimes read the notes on the chapters ahead. That’s what I did with The Ambassadors. This is a personal strategy to gain familiarity. Some like not knowing what’s coming. I didn’t mind spoiling Strether’s secret in The Ambassadors in exchange for a bit more understanding of what was going on. I still didn’t get what happened very well, but I’m afraid that’s part of the book. Most of these titles also share that in common. Their ambiguity. And also the assurance that every re-read will reward us with deeper understanding.
As for nurture, it was to my favor that I was young and had no expectations. I never read Márquez thinking I’d find any overarching themes. Young and ignorant, I also had no notion about what authors do when they challenge form or content. Everybody read it, I read it, I liked the immediate thrill of the stories, I felt accomplished when I read the last page, and that was all. We didn’t talk about what we got from the book, it was just a trophy. Much like the youngsters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. All of them claiming to have read The History of Tom Jones and other doorstoppers. Doing the math, the protagonist doubts it would be possible, all that reading, -unless they spent every single hour of the day reading, which they weren’t-. But that was youth to me. Have you read this one? Yes, or an embarrassed no. Did you like it? Yes or no. Thank you, next.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a title that I have not revisited yet. My Honduran friend has. She, in her early forties, told me how much more meaningful her second read was. She said exactly what Indian readers express concerning Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The book was Hispanoamerica, the book was India. The repetition shows a country condemned to the circle of violence. Generation after generation, the same vices show up. Curiously, for both cultures, the limits between natural and supernatural are so blurred that the supernatural way of story telling feels the real, while the more rational way seems foreign. If we think about it, Dickens himself is hyperbolic, but his Anglo background, his language, sets a completely different frame.
Having lived in Spain and Texas for 27 and 21 years respectively, with 9 months of a stay in London, and another 9 months in Guadalajara, México in between, I can say that Spanish is a much more enveloping language than English. Ortega y Gasset explains this well in his Meditations on Quixote. (Parenthesis. The title bothers me a bit, since it’s not really that much about Don Quixote, but about the German thought versus the Latin thought, and a bit about what Don Quixote represents in the history of literature. How different it is, and what’s new). This throws me back to the idea that sometimes we have an intuitive understanding of the classic, an undercurrent of meaning that irrigates the soil and makes our reading very satisfying. Before I forget, Ortega tells us how Cervantes is the first author that writes about a common person. Before, knights and poems were epic, the narration wasn’t of ordinary life, but of happenings that are interesting in their very nature. The modern novel, -like modern art-, looks at the ordinary, the art shifts from the content to the form or technique, it’s presenting the common in a beautiful and different way.
If I tell you the plot of Don Quixote, or of One Hundred Years, or Midnight’s Children, there’s nothing spectacular, -I mean the people in the book are common, and the supernatural or magical is everywhere, is in the way things are told-. If I tell you the story of Oedipus Rex, Odysseus, Medea, that’s different. Even a poor retelling will convey a very one of a kind story. Actually, those first stories weren’t conceived as books to be printed and read in privacy, but were poems passed through the oral tradition, plays, tragedies, archetypes. Don Quixote’s never ending stories, One Hundred Years’s endless repetitions and ambiguity, and all the somehow boring parts of all these long classics, challenge our desire to be in control and find meaning. The highlights in them depend on the fillers. The fillers keep us reading for weeks, sometimes months. They force us to move inside them. And if we aren’t very aware of what we are entering, or we are young and naive, we may not want to go there, or stay there long.
With Moby Dick, I attempted it four years ago or so along with a friend. She had no problem with it, loved it from beginning to end. I started well. By this time, I had been reading the King James Bible, I knew a little bit of North American history, my nurturing was optimal. Still I lost interest half way into it. Brona is having a read along, and I considered attempting it again, thought about it, was undecided. But reading her notes on some chapters, and some others’s notes, fueled my desire to try it again. It’s possible that my time has come to enjoy it.
As for Dickens, I read Great Expectations in Spanish and enjoyed it. It’s not the same. I could attempt it in English. But if I choose one of his books, I can’t say I will read the original. And forgive me if I am drawn to Spanish and Russian door-stoppers more than English ones, 🙂
I won’t close without saying how thrilled I am to see some of you reading my favorite long books such as Don Quixote, or Fortunata and Jacinta. Even if you only read them partially, just giving them a try is such a beautiful gesture to us, fans of these old friends. It’s okay, in my eyes, grin, to like reviews of these books more than the books themselves. You probably know that it was like this for me in regards to Jane Austen, and cats. Not cats reviews, but love for cats. I just didn’t get it, until I raised our little girl, Missy cat, by hand, -as Dickens jokes about in that scene in Great Expectations-, since the time she was a week old.
A word about translations. It’s not, I believe, the fact that we read in translation what makes us not experience the books in their plenitude. Depends on our relationship with the translation or our motives for one. If our nature and nurture don’t help us, translation can put us in a place even more removed from the core of the book. When our language and culture are the same as the original, certain apprehending faculties get activated. It’s that feel, that familiarity, that intuitive recognition. When I choose to read in translation, say, Dickens, I do it to conjure that familiarity, and free myself to appreciate the text in aspects that my nurture may make possible for me to enjoy. Listening to good audios for these books, -whether translations or original-, will also give us some welcome proximity. I admit I have not properly read Midnight’s Children. I couldn’t at the time. I listened to it. The narrator did different voices and accents, which lifted the text, and gave me clues as to what was said tongue in cheek, what was monotonous, or spoken loud, or whispered.
So, I’m committing to Moby Dick. I don’t know how it’ll be, but at least, I’ll meet Ishmael and Queequeg in those first chapters, which are hilarious, full of wisdom, myths, legends, character, and larger than life.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very glad we have lots of varied door-stopper classics. Which is yours?