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Reading Reflections

Favourite novels fifty years on

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I don’t set myself up as a novel-writing guru, but I would insist on one essential rule: Good writing comes from good reading. But what, then, to read? Avid young readers do well to range as widely as possible looking for anything that is fresh and unexpected. Older readers, though, can do something not available to their younger selves — they can read again.

But why reread when there are so many unread books? I think because, after a span of a few decades, you are reading a different book, because now you are a different reader, and there are things you can learn from that change. The poet John Fuller once equated ‘the first chapter/ Of a book read for the second time’ with looking into a mirror. Now, past seventy, I have tried the experiment of using four novels that I first read between the ages of nine and twenty-five as mirrors for the reader that I was then, and the one that I am now.

Everything about Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter was wonderful to my nine-year-old self, including the wood engravings by C. F. Tunnicliffe and the strange West Country words that I couldn’t find in the dictionary. My imagination locked itself inside Tarka’s world so that I was, in effect, that otter cub growing up in his holt, taking his first tentative swim, catching his first fish. There is one particular moment when the identification became almost unbearable. Tarka’s mother takes up with a big old dog-otter, who chases Tarka away with snarls and bared teeth, and soon after that ‘his mother had forgotten, and perhaps would never again remember, that she had loved a cub called Tarka’. To a boy sent to boarding school far from home, that was a difficult sentence to read.

Tarka the Otter, now approaching its centenary, hardly shows its age. My own perspective has shifted, however, because I can now see its real distinctiveness. Most fiction purporting to adopt the animal’s viewpoint resorts to anthropomorphism. In Felix Salten’s almost contemporaneous Bambi, for instance, the forest animals hold conversations and think in moral terms, exactly as if they were people. The animals in Tarka do no such thing and reading the book as an adult, you understand why the Pathetic Fallacy is indeed a fallacy.

I was reading at a rate of two or three novels a week when, at sixteen, I picked up J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I ought to have adored this supposed quintessence of teenage discontent, being the exact age of the novel’s narrator Holden Caulfield. In fact I was never persuaded of his world, or his behaviour within it. Could he really check casually into a New York hotel by himself, and drink Scotch and sodas in a Manhattan piano bar? Furthermore I found him to be an unpleasant tick, posing now as a cynic, now as a moralist, then switching register to reveal himself as desperate for attention and sympathy. ‘Oh, grow up!’ we used to tell other boys when they became obnoxious. Towards the end of the book one character, Luce, says much the same to Holden. Luce is himself not very likeable but in this instance he is spot-on.

Holden as a symbol of his generation is the conventional view. But to me he reads more like a would-be-maladjusted kid pouring out his troubles to his analyst (Holden appears to be in analysis at the book’s end). You may at this point want to shout the words ‘unreliable narrator!’ in my ear. Yes, I know. But that idea, which would have been alien to me at seventeen, doesn’t make the narration itself more compelling at seventy.

Around the time I first read Salinger, a school friend pressed another coming-of-age novel on me, though it couldn’t have been more different: Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, originally published with huge success on the cusp of the First World War. I enjoyed this so much that I immediately read it again. It is the kind of extended British Bildungsroman that was then very popular — D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage all date to within a year or two of it, and all similarly trace the formative years of their authors’ alter egos. Here Michael Fane is the child of a single mother, whose rich married lover (to the boy, an unexplained visitor to the family) supplies the means to give her two children a genteel education. This education – nanny, governess, preparatory school, public school, Oxford University – is the spine of the story. In between are episodes in Michael’s growing up such as a healthy if sentimental boyhood friendship, an unhealthy adult one, a period of intense religious enthusiasm, and a heady adolescent infatuation for a girl his own age.

The writer Colin Wilson once defined the Bildungsroman as ‘a sort of laboratory in which the hero conducts an experiment in living’. But in fact the laboratory belongs to the author, who is the hero, and whose experiment is to refine, shape and package their life so that the reader identifies with it. Young readers are better at identifying with literary characters than older ones and, if Holden had failed to trap me, I certainly fell head-first for Michael Fane. Yet at seventy I found I could no longer stomach him, or his story. The Edwardian prose cloys, while the feelings, the ideas and the predicaments of the hero seem confected. Mackenzie’s lengthy experiment is, in my mature judgement, a bit of a botch. What on earth did I once see in this book? I can no longer be sure.

The German novelist Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game is ostensibly the ‘official’ biography of Joseph Knecht in the country of Castalia, an orderly – perhaps too orderly – future-world that had emerged from the dark and violent chaos of the twentieth century. It is built along Enlightenment lines and ruled by an intellectual elite, the Order, who place at the centre of their polity the Glass Bead Game, an obscure quasi-monastic discipline, which seems to proceed by the shuffling of cultural concepts, for example in mathematics, music, poetry or philosophy, into original and ever more recondite combinations. Ghostly parallels with other intellectual systems – including European scholasticism and Chinese Confucianism – appear here and there, but still the question arises, is the Game spiritually enriching, or actually pointless? Knecht, who rises to be Magister Ludi – a kind of Castalian pope – is finally disillusioned, resigning his post and dying a touch operatically by drowning in a mountain-surrounded lake.

A counter-cultural hit among my fellow university students during the early nineteen-seventies, part of the attraction for me at twenty-one was the book’s mysterious double identity. Was it a utopia, or a satire? It clearly emphasises Joseph Knecht’s rejection of industrial materialism, in the manner not just of the hippies but of an older radical tradition, the Victorian counterculture of polemicists like Thomas Carlyle or William Morris. The idea of a country in which intellectual absorption is prioritised over economics and politics held me across more than 500 pages — but even then I could see its dreamlike unreality.

Picking it up fifty years on I am more clearly aware that the novel, though appropriated by the sixties counterculture, was the product of a generation earlier, and in particular an expression of Hesse’s hatred of Nazism, from which he lived in exile. It remains an intriguing work, though its length and overall solemnity makes me think how much more enjoyable the conceit it embodies would be coming from Jorge Luis Borges, another cult figure in the same era, but one whose reputation has been more resilient. Borges, also a master of mock-academic counter-factuals, scores over Hesse for his wonderful minimalism and wit. I have always favoured literary wit and now, with time’s wingèd chariot rumbling towards me, I value brevity more highly than ever.

Seeing my reflection in these four reread novels, I realise that I now read fiction from a greater critical distance than I did, and more impatiently. My measuring rod no longer judges how deeply immersed I am in a novel, but gauges whether the levers and cogs of the narrative are correctly aligned. There’s undoubtedly a gain in this, but I know that something can go missing. I may have acquired a relish for ambiguity and ambivalence in literature, a feel for its devices as well as its desires, and a clearer eye for the redundancy of what was once fashionable. But this cannot quite compensate for the simple intensity of getting lost in a book. I regret the dimming of my more innocent eye, without which a writer’s work risks growing stale and predictable especially when we are writing of ourselves in retrospect, in the days of our freshly peeled youth. Revisiting the books that I read then has delivered a hefty reminder that, as the great novelist Rumer Godden believed, a writer often benefits by seeing just as a child sees.

Robin Blake is a novelist whose Cragg and Fidelis series of historical mysteries will soon stretch to its ninth published volume. Robin’s latest book is a collection of six ‘old-fashioned’ stories, War Time, which is issued exclusively in aid of the development charity WaterAid.

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