Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Pleasures of Re-reading and the Bibliomemoir

I have been indulging in my annual re-reading of Jane Austen and it has struck me — strangely, for the first time — that not one of her five heroines has a satisfactory mother... But in leaving her heroines without the wisdom, affection and guidance of a sensible mother, Jane Austen was artistically right. A book can only have one heroine and each of the novels has the same basic plot, the story of a virtuous and attractive woman who overcomes difficulties, including the lack of a mother, to win the husband of her choice. In other words, Mills & Boon written by a genius.
~P.D. James

A few years ago, I got rid of a lot of books. My place is really small, and I thought, "I love these books, but I will never re-read them."  I work in a library, after all - there's hardly a better place on earth to learn about new books coming out, my hold list is always full, and if I want to re-read, say, Beloved, I can always borrow it from the library, right?

I wasn't always this way.  In my teens, I can remember deciding to re-read one of my favorite novels, The Color Purple, every year (this lasted about 3 years, I think). I also re-read The Bone People and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit several times during my late teens. In my twenties, I liked Bastard Out of Carolina so much that immediately after I finished it, I turned back to the first page and started again. Not so long ago, I was haunting library book sales, looking for copies of Ngaio Marsh, my favorite mystery writer - I would re-read those as "comfort reading".

But, I'm middle-aged now, with a lot more reading under my belt, and new books coming up on my radar every day, it seems. So, though I will read everything that an author I like publishes, I find myself less likely to go back and revisit the books I've loved before.

Until I picked up Rebecca. I've been carrying it around in my car for ages and I'm not sure where I got it from.  I like the edition - it's the same cover as the paperback copy I read back in my teens, when I read it for the first time.  Then, I was closer in age to du Maurier's nameless heroine at the beginning of her story; now I'm older than Maxim, described by Mrs. Danvers in the book as "not yet forty-five".

I started reading Rebecca again while I was in my car, waiting for something.  Now I'm starting to think of it as my car reading, because I'm enjoying it so much I want to savor the re-reading - unheard of for me. I usually gobble books up in haste, and forget the whole plot just as fast. This re-reading is giving me time to appreciate du Maurier's language as she sets the scene:
This was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace.  Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand. The terrace sloped to the lawns, and the lawns stretched to the sea, and turning I could see the sheet of silver, placid under the moon, like a lake undisturbed by wind or storm.  No waves would come to ruffle this dream water, and no bulk of cloud, wind-driven from the west, obscure the clarity of this pale sky.
Re-reading also gives me the chance to focus on details. While they are still in Monte Carlo, Maxim "took an emery board out of his pocket and began filing his nails" while the nameless narrator is trying to tell him she has to leave to return with her employer to New York. I'm still trying to figure out the meaning of this gesture, but hands in general seem to be important signifiers to du Maurier - when the narrator meets Mrs. Danvers, the latter is described as having a hand "limp and heavy, deathly a lifeless thing", whereas Maxim's sister's Beatrice "shook hands very firmly". Later, when Maxim and his new wife have returned to Manderley and are having an uncomfortable conversation about broken china, she polishes her nails - "They were scrubby, like a schoolboy's bails. The cuticles grew up over the half moon. The thumb was bitten nearly to the quick."

In that same conversation, Maxim worries he is too old to be with the new Mrs. de Winter; he thinks she has gotten thinner since they returned from their honeymoon, and is not happy.  His concern is tempered with a parental scolding - he berates her for hiding the broken object "[j]ust like a between-maid...and not the mistress of a house" and for her tone, telling her "It was not a particularly attractive thing to say, was it?" Meanwhile, her feelings for him are feverishly devotional: "You are my father and my brother and my son. All those things."

Sigh. I haven't yet finished my re-reading of Rebecca.  Even though I already know how it ends, the journey of reading, the Gothic atmosphere and the suspenseful buildup, still holds me spellbound. Yet, when I picked up a book called The Rebecca Notebooks and Other Memories, du Maurier has this to say about her creation:
It is now over forty years since my novel Rebecca was first published. Although I had then written four previous novels, The Loving Spirit, I'll Never Be Young Again, The Progress of Julius and Jamaica Inn, as well as two biographies, Gerald: A Portrait and The du Mauriers, the story of Rebecca became a instant favourite with readers in the United Kingdom, North America and Europe. Why, I have never understood!
The Rebecca Notebooks contain the notebook du Maurier kept while writing Rebecca, full of the changing details of the story - Mrs. Danvers was called Mrs. Danvers from the start, but Maxim was at one point called Henry, for instance - along with "The Rebecca Epilogue", with which du Maurier originally intended to end the novel, and "The House of Secrets", an article she wrote to contribute to a book called Countryside Character. The "...and Other Memories" part of the book appears to be early stories.  I've read du Maurier's introduction to The Rebecca Notebooks, but not much more...yet. After I'm done taking in the novel again, maybe I'll go back with du Maurier's notebook entries and compare and contrast.

Are you also a fan of Rebecca? If you are interested in further immersing yourself in Rebecca, we also have the eBook, the book on CD, and the movie and PBS special (starring Game of Thrones' Charles Dance as Maxim de Winter).  There are also no less than 3 re-imaginings of du Maurier's classic in the library catalog - Alena by Rachel Pastan, Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman, and Mrs. de Winter by Susan Hill - in addition to other titles by Daphne herself and a delightful biography of the author, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller by Margaret Forster.  And while you're at it, why not try a mystery or two by Joanna Challis featuring a young du Maurier as a sleuth?

The idea of re-reading Rebecca was in part inspired by reading Rebecca Mead's delightful bibliomemoir, My Life in Middlemarch. Here are some other bibliomemoirs from the library catalog:

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz

How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned From Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis

How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne: In One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields

What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Jo Walton

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt by Nick Hornby

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by  Geoff Dyer

The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch   

What about you? Are there books you re-read again and again? Do you write about what you've read? Let us know in the comments!


P.D. James on Jane Austen [Washington Post, video]

Re-reading: The ultimate guilty pleasure?  [BBC]

Rereading as Rebirth: Young Susan Sontag on Personal Growth, The Pleasures of Revisiting Beloved Books, and Her Rereading List [Brain Pickings]

Are Rereadings Better Readings? [New Yorker]

Re-reading books is good for your health [Stylist]

The top 10  books about reading [Guardian]

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