What the hell happens in Wuthering Heights anyway?

The Argumentative Old Git wrote an interesting post the other day about literary aftertaste. Why do some works remain in the memory long after you’ve read them, and others not?

My favourite case of this from my own reading is Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights is one of the few books I’ve read twice. (I’m not a re-reader. There’s too much yet left to read for the first time). I read it first when I was about seventeen. I thought it was great. But, if you’d asked me a few years later what had happened in it – any incidental detail I might have recalled – I could have told you nothing about it whatsoever. Even prompting would bring absolutely nothing back to mind.

So three years ago, I read it again – and this second reading prompted not the slightest recollection of the first. According to my records, it was my favourite book of that year. And yet – there it’s gone again! OK, it’s not so bad this time – I remember a few things, like: that it was some kind of love story, and not an entirely happy one at that. But I probably knew that anyway from hearsay. Otherwise there’s little of it left there; and the recent talk about the film hints at plenty of things I don’t recall: a cat hung up, Heathcliff’s madness – it’s all a blank to me?!

Anyway, I bought another book recently: Blaise Cendrars’ Moravaigne. I know I’ve read it – though I couldn’t say when – but I don’t remember a damn thing about it. Not one thing. Will I recall anything whilst re-reading it? – I doubt it. I might just as well be reading it for the first time.

Here’s a list of books I read in 2008 which I can genuinely recall nothing whatsoever (or very little) about:

  • The Lightning of August, by Jorge Ibanguengoitia (Nothing)
  • Fields of Glory, by Jean Rouaud (At one point, they were driving in a Citroen 2CV)
  • Some Prefer Nettles, by Junichiro Tanizaki (I think at one point they went to see a Kabuki play – an old man)
  • Sea of Lentils, by Antonio Benitez-Rojo (I feel it would come back with prompting – but I don’t know why)
  • The Swan, by Sebastiano Vassalli (It was about the mafia)
  • Tanzan’s Tonsillitis, by Alfredo Bryce Echenique (It was told in letter format).
  • Aurora’s Motive, by Erich Hackl (Nothing. Maybe it was a true story?)
  • Living’s the Strange Thing, by Carmen Martin Gaite (It was told from the point of view of a woman)
  • Agua, by Eduardo Berti (It was about an electricity salesmen in Portugal perhaps)
  • Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Something about an old man having sex with a young prostitute – but this I remember from the reviews, not the book itself)
  • A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kis (Short stories about revolutionaries?)
  • Farewell Sidonia, by Erich Hackl (Nothing)
  • Accident: A Day’s News, by Christa Wolf (Nothing)
  • The Book of Proper Names, by Amelie No Thumb (Nothing)

These books I remember best, and some guesses why:

  • The Return of the Caravels, by Antonio Lobo-Antunes (the strangeness of the entire thing, the idea of the Portugese Empire collapsing in on itself, or the great explorers all returning home to find a bankrupt Portuguese state)
  • The Luzhin Defence, by Vladimir Nabokov (the wonderful sequence when he’s going mad and sees the entire world as a chessgame)
  • The Battle, by Patrick Rambaud (vivid descriptive writing – the battle, the retreat across the river, the field hospital)
  • The Retreat, by Patrick Rambaud (vivid descriptive writing – the burning of Moscow, the retreat in the snow)
  • Her, by HD (the endless goddamn struggle to understand the text)
  • Ochikubo Monogatari (the weird world of Heian Japan)
  • Boy, by James Hanley (the sheer unexpectedness of the narrative, the whores and … no, I don’t want to ruin it)
  • Four Wise Men, by Michel Tournier (the part about the salt mines)
  • Brazil Red, by Jean-Christophe Rufin (the little French colony in Brazil, the Anabaptists, the jungle – the setting in general)

I shall try to think of some conclusions. I think I must just like exotic settings.

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13 thoughts on “What the hell happens in Wuthering Heights anyway?

  1. I thought about the same when re-reading Effi Briest. Like you I’m not much of a re-reader still i thought, the book would feel slightly familiar, the story felt familar of course but all the rest?
    Some books stick while others don’t and still I think looking back that I liked them. It is quite odd. I haven’t found a common denominator for those I forget or for those I don’t.
    I realize I remember moods best… Books strong on action and not a lot of introspection are gone soon. Non-fiction also stays quite well.

  2. We are all like you, I guess. That’s the point of keeping an online reading journal via the blog.
    For me, the kiss of death for a book is when you don’t even remember if you’ve read it or not. I can’t recall if I’ve read Atonement or The Corrections (that was pre-blog), I have the feeling I have, but I’m not sure…

  3. Caroline: yes, it’s the lack of a common denominator for those remembered / forgotten which is strange. You feel there should be one. I think perhaps books I’ve taken a long time to read tend to stick in my mind longer (if I read a book in a day, I know it will be forgotten); and perhaps books which stimulate my imagination / intellect. Or maybe it’s just a matter of the mood I was in when I read a certain passage.

    Even books I believe I remember well, in reality I suppose I tend to only remember a few scenes.

    Emma: Yes, it is quite useful having a list of books that I’ve read, although I kind of think that if you forget a book, then maybe that is what it deserves. I’ve had that failure to remember if I’ve even read a book before: usually I buy a book, and then it occurs to me sometime after that I’ve actually read it. Some time this year, someone was talking about the writer Ana Maria Matute, and at first I had a vague idea who she was, but then later it struck me I might even have read a book by her, and it was only when I saw the cover that I realised I had read it – though I still couldn’t remember anything about it.

    Oh yes, which leads me into one of my favourite theories (an idea far too good for this blog), that memory – and indeed, all aspects of the human mind – is primarily visual: we’re infinitely better at remembering things we see than things we read or hear. Which makes me think, perhaps I remember books which conjure up strong visual images in my mind. That would certainly fit the above list.

  4. I also read Wuthering Heights aged 17 or 18, and I remember thinking it was great but likewise have not a shred of memory of the plot, individual scenes or even the cast of characters (apart from Cathy and Heathcliff obviously). Yet there are other books from the same time I can remember sizeable passages from, never mind plot etc. Some of that is down to re-reading I suppose, but not all.

    I’m surprised you have the same experience with Cendars: isn’t that a shocking, scandalous book? I’ve not read it, but having read about it, it seemed the kind of book that would make an impression. Anyway, it’s silly to be asking you these questions, as you’ve already said that it clearly didn’t linger in the mind.

    Speaking of shocking and scandalous, it’s just dawned on me that I can remember almost nothing of La-bas by Huysmans, which I only read 4 or 5 years ago.

  5. I’ve just read Bataille’s The Story of an Eye, which is meant to be quite shocking, but I couldn’t even remember much about it when I started reading the appended essay by Susan Sontag (which is more interesting than the story anyway).

    La-Bas: gold-plated tortoise? obsession with late Latin literature? surely you can’t have forgotten?

  6. I am convinced there is no tortoise in La-bas. I remember a meal, a seduction scene, the fact that some characters live in a disused bell tower, and parallel narratives. Otherwise: blank.

  7. Are you sure you’ve got the right novel there? (Some characters live in a tower in Ulysses, don’t they? And then have a shave?). I don’t recall any of the things you mention.

  8. I haven’t read La-Bas, so the tortoise and the Latin literature are definitely in A Rebours.

    I’ve almost forgotten what happened in Middlemarch already.

  9. Ah, there you are Melton! – I see it was I that got the wrong book. Oh well! – I do, though, remember scenes in Silas Marner from 15 or so years ago – the baby transformed into gold (a fine capitalist tale?), or perhaps it was the other way round.

  10. Pornografia by Gombrowicz is one book I’ve read that I really can’t recall in any shape or form. I don’t even know if I’ve got the title right.

    I remember tiny shreds of Moravagine – mainly because some of the chapters are only a few words long.

    The tortoise is indeed in A Rebours. A friend of mine at art college used it as an example of what happens when you put too much into a picture – it collapses under the weight of everything. Ah art students imagining what they are doing has weight.

  11. I don’t really remember much about Pornografic either, and I really liked it. It was about some sort of relationship – a girl and a boy in a rural setting, and some emigres who are hiding there and involve themselves.

  12. I can’t even remember whether I liked it. I certainly read it all ( I find it quite difficult to abandon books ).

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