Saturday, November 17, 2007

On reading strange books in strange lands

Over at Atlantic Ave., Amy is participating in a book meme (similar to one I had posted a while back). But I'm not posting because of that; I'm posting because the book that Amy, who lives in New Hampshire, happens to be reading just now is Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

I had wanted to ask her this in the comments section, but I thought I'd save my weirdness for my own blog:

What's it like, reading Faulkner in New England (even though part of it is set at Harvard)?

I ask this because of a reading experience I had, years ago.

The novel was John Irving's The Cider House Rules--bought in hardback, no less!--and the occasion was a train trip from Nuevo Laredo to Mexico City back in my college days. I was excited about reading the Irving because I'd become, if not a fan, then at least an appreciative reader--I'd especially enjoyed The Hotel New Hampshire.

So, after a breakfast of café con leche and pan dulce at our stop in San Luís Potosí, I returned to my room and started to read.

Or tried to.

Something wasn't working. I assure you that the landscape south of San Luís Potosí isn't much to look at (you've seen one sagebrush-covered plain, you've seen them all), so it wasn't the view that was distracting me. Nor was it that the book was bad. I just wasn't getting it, for some reason--it wasn't resonating with me at that level where a reader grasps the world of the text as well as the plot and characters, etc. As I kept after it, it gradually dawned on me that maybe I was in some sense reading it in the wrong place. The Cider House Rules depends heavily on its New England setting (look at the title), but I wasn't even in Texas, where I'd at least have the faintly-felt tug of culture to ground me. No, it was the place where I found myself as I was trying to read: it was too distinct, both geographically and culturally, to serve as a complement to Irving's narrative.

I finally gave up on trying to read it while in Mexico. But I had also brought along with me Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I had read it before, but at that time it had seemed to me a beautifully-written but bizarre book. It was a book not about another part of the world, but another planet. This time, though, though northern Mexico could not be more different from the steamy Caribbean coast of Colombia, this time it clicked with me, very nearly audibly. It seemed as though in a sense I was on that other planet.

So anyway: does any of this sound like reading experiences any of you have had? If so, I hope you'll reassure me that I'm not entirely daft by posting about it/them on your blogs and linking back here.

I'm looking forward to reading what you have to tell.


R. Sherman said...

There's no question that familiarity with a novel's setting helps in "getting it." For example, it helped my appreciation of No Country For Old Men, that I'd traipsed around West Texas and Big Bend Country a few times. Likewise, with Southern writers, those of us from the South understand them, because we see ourselves, family acquaintances, society, etc. reflected in the writers' work. We understand, because the writer understands us.

I hope that makes sense.


John B. said...

Yes it does.

I know there's a certain obviousness to the point, such as it is, of my post. It's just that I'd not felt that strong sense of disconnectedness while reading the other Irving novels I'd read in the past. Yet, I've still not been to New England (the closest I've been is New York City, which most would say doesn't count, I suspect). You'd think that if a book is really doing its job, little things like the reader's unfamiliarity with its setting wouldn't be a problem. And--as best I can recall, at any rate--The Cider House Rules wasn't/isn't a bad novel. So: was my physical presence in Mexico indeed to blame for my not being able to "read" Irving's novel?

This is an odd thing to imply about reading, that the exchange between reader and text doesn't take place in a vacuum--that the reader's physical location (aside from more obvious things like noise, temperature, comfort, etc.) can also shape that exchange. Maybe.

Amy said...

John B., I thought I left a comment yesterday but I must have pushed the wrong button. I'll try again...

I can't say for sure what it's like reading Faulkner in New England yet (but now I'll be paying more attention to that) because I haven't gotten very far. My problem is a smaller geographic "where" (and "when")-- I've been trying to read Absalom, Absalom! in bed at night. I fade out before I get to the end of a sentence.

I can say that in general I don't have a disconnect between my personal geography vs. my current literary geography, though some writers are better than others at making you feel the place. (Willa Cather.)

There can be no doubt that travel enriches understanding and enjoyment of literature, but some of us have to settle for the armchair.

I really like your question and thoughts about it though because I started college as an English major and finished, eventually, with a BA in Geography.

One of the things I like about my job in local journalism is the way it answers the question WHERE. You can get your news so fast and completely all over the web, but it's the local reporters/ observers/ bloggers/ first-draft-of-history-writers who see it first, and can provide context, and share a sense of PLACE.

Raminagrobis said...

For a long time I've had this idea that whenever I go on a trip to a new city or place, I should try to accommodate my reading to the setting. It's had mixed results. When I went to Cuba I took Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea' and 'To Have and Have Not' (successful). On a trip to Budapest I read Antal Szerb's 'The Pendragon Legend' and 'Journey by Moonlight' (less successful, because although Szerb was a Budapest writer, the first of these novels is set in England and Wales, and the second in Italy). When I went to Vienna, having given up on the idea of making inroads into Thomas Bernhard, I took along Kafka's diaries - and although Prague isn't quite Vienna, it was in the end a pretty good fit.

I'm going to Madrid next month for a wedding, Any recommendations?

John B. said...

The only modern Spanish writer I know is Miguel de Unamuno. I'm certain there are others worth knowing that are more contemporary, but I have to plead ignorance.