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.