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Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

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Comments»

1. Peter - June 16, 2013

I have read neither Austen (her prose style, though exemplary, irritates me) nor Smith. However, I’m absolutely with you on the subject of Persuasion, which seems (based on seeing many Austen adaptations) to be a more mature work than, say, P&P, S&S and Emma. Perhaps the idea of the second chance appeals more as you get older. That may be why, as well as loving The Tempest, I’m also very fond of The Winter’s Tale.

And although, as I say, I haven’t read Zadie Smith, I find Dickens’ later work – especially the 1pp stuff like Great Expectations and Bleak House – has fewer of the faults you point out.

dolorosa12 - June 18, 2013

Yes, that’s what I like best about Persuasion – the maturity and the more reflective, somewhat melancholy tone. I’ve only seen The Winter’s Tale once, and I think I was too young to really appreciate it (I was about 12, I think), which just proves the point I was trying to make here. But I should return to it and see how I react to it as an adult.

I like the adaptations I’ve seen of Great Expectations and Bleak House, but I’m worried that my problem with Dickens might be more of a writing style issue. I’ll give them a chance in case.

2. jess - June 17, 2013

I’m afraid to reread HDM as well. =/ I reread the entire trilogy at least a dozen times front to back, and the individual books, sometimes out of order, even more times, certainly. That was back in high school. Since then, I’ve purchased the trilogy translated in two other languages, attempting to read it side by side with the original English as some inspiration to practice, but I can never get past that perfect first chapter, and its perfect first paragraph, and its perfect first line.

In fact, I’ve hardly reread anything at all. I don’t know if it’s due to lack of inspiration/motivation, or lack of time, but I certainly miss filling all that time I used to have with texts and ideas that inspire me.

dolorosa12 - June 18, 2013

I was an obsessive rereader as a child, teenager, and young twentysomething, but moving overseas has put an end to all that, as most of my favourite books are back in Australia.

The thing I’ve noticed is that as I’ve got older, I find it harder to feel things. I still read books, watch films and TV shows, and listen to music that move me deeply, but it’s almost as if texts have to work harder to evoke feelings in me. This is my fear with HDM. I can’t remember if I’ve told you this story before, but when I read The Amber Spyglass for the first time, I cried without stopping for three days. I am not exaggerating. My family thought I was insane. Obviously, on rereads, I didn’t cry for as long, but I cried every time. What worries me is that there will eventually come a time when I read that ending and am unmoved.

I can never get past that perfect first chapter, and its perfect first paragraph, and its perfect first line.

*swoons*

Peter - June 21, 2013

“The thing I’ve noticed is that as I’ve got older, I find it harder to feel things. I still read books, watch films and TV shows, and listen to music that move me deeply, but it’s almost as if texts have to work harder to evoke feelings in me.”

So true, so true. “All Passion Spent” and all that.

I think it’s a measure of Pullman’s achievement with Amber Spyglass that he not only managed to remember the way he might have felt when he was an early teen, but also to communicate that to his readers in such a way that it not only resonated strongly with teenagers but also evoked Proustian levels of memory recovery in those much older.

Perhaps this was not his direct intention. Perhaps he was only writing to wake or rediscover his own memories of childhood; writing for his purposes, not necessarily those of his readers. It doesn’t matter, and anyway there’s a lot to be said for writing to suit oneself.

3. Lauren - June 21, 2013

Ronni, great post. This is how I feel when someone asks me why I reread my favourite books. They might be the same, but I am different every time, so I get something different out of each read. When I first read the Twilight series I was at the end of a long relationship and I was taken with the idea of passionate teenage love that was blind to everything. A year later, I was repulsed by the selfishness of the main characters.
As for Persuasion, I love it…except for the rushed finish. The villain of the piece feels jammed in, the major reveal of his character is a large so what moment for me, because he has never been a real challenge for Anne’s heart. In my mind, there was no need for a foil in Persuasion. It was a journey of two people finding each other again, not about Frederick winning over Mr. Elliot. As I get older I find myself more drawn to Sense and Sensibility. I look at Marianne in a similar way to I look at my teenage self. She is the perfect embodiment of what it feels like to be young, impassioned and deeply naive. She reminds me of being young.

I don’t even want to talk about what happened with HDM. I cried myself sick, kicked your book across my bedroom, and have never read the series since.

dolorosa12 - June 22, 2013

You kicked my book across your bedroom? YOU KICKED MY BOOK ACROSS YOUR BEDROOM????

Just kidding, I don’t mind. I beat up a book once when it upset me.

I totally agree with everything you say. If I had encountered Twilight as a teenager, I would have adored it. At that age, I thought that TRUE LOVE meant you had to change your personality entirely, want to be with one person to the exclusion of all others and kind of give yourself up into their power. Thank goodness that a) I never fell in love at that age with anyone who returned it and b) the guys I was in relationships with were trustworthy people, because honestly, my understanding of TRUE LOVE was a recipe for abuse.

That’s really interesting, what you’re saying about Sense and Sensibility. Do you think you read more for nostalgia these days than when you were younger?

Lauren - June 24, 2013

I don’t know if it is nostalgia so much as a better understanding of human psychology. When I was a teenager I didn’t really understand Elinor at all. I thought Marianne was right and Elinor was wrong. I didn’t have the experience to realise that you could think like Marianne at an early stage or your life and like Elinor at a later stage. The main books I read for nostalgia are the OberChrons. They meant so much to me when I was young, because I wanted so passionately to believe in the possibility of a better world and better people and somehow the idea that mental powers could elevate humans above their conflicts and prejudices seemed so magical. Of course as an older person, I view it somewhat differently. I laugh at myself for thinking that having the ability to read other people’s minds would somehow make everyone a saint and that selfishness and avarice would be done away with. I still want to be a Beastspeaker though…

4. dolorosa12 - June 25, 2013

@Peter on June 21

(Replying here because you can’t reply to replies on WordPress.)

I think it’s a measure of Pullman’s achievement with Amber Spyglass that he not only managed to remember the way he might have felt when he was an early teen, but also to communicate that to his readers in such a way that it not only resonated strongly with teenagers but also evoked Proustian levels of memory recovery in those much older.

This is, I think, the heart of the reason why I don’t want to reread the books. I’m afraid his evocation of adolescence will seem off in some way. Although my last reread was when I was 22, I was a very young 22 in an emotional sense (by which I mean that I was perfectly able to hold down a full-time job, support myself, cook and clean, but was basically still a teenager mentally) and so the books were still essentially describing my own state of being.

So for someone who first encountered the trilogy as an adult to have that reacting is encouraging.

@Lauren on June 24

Oh, I emphatically agree with you. The thing about adolescence is that you think you will remain as you are forever. That is why everything is so much more intense then, why it seems to matter so much. It’s really strange when you think about it, because it’s one of the times of most intense change in your life, and yet you go through it thinking that nothing is changing at all, or, like me, resisting and clinging to the metaphorical furniture.

It’s probably clear from reading my blog what books are my nostalgia books: the works of Victor Kelleher, John Marsden, Gillian Rubinstein and Catherine Jinks. Marsden probably the most of all, because his works are so earnest in their appreciation for teenage idealism. However, his books, like all the others I’ve mentioned here, are not exactly starry-eyed about the state of the world. That is probably the fundamental difference of those books with Carmody’s: the other authors think idealism exists, but think that it’s something we grow out of, and that the world is ultimately exploitative. I’ve never quite worked out exactly what she thinks, except that at one stage I thought it too, but now too much time has passed, I’ve seen too much, and what she’s saying is inaccessible.

5. Catie - June 26, 2013

This is so true! There are books that evoke a nostalgia for the first time I read them, books that read differently every time I read them, and books that totally lose their magic on a reread (as an adult, or just as someone in a different stage of life). Lately I don’t reread uch, but there is something beautiful in those books that reveal more of themselves with each reading. And more about yourself as well.

Often I think back to books I disliked when I was younger and suspect that I may have missed something, that it just wasn’t the right time for me to read them. But then I don’t want to go back and reread something I disliked. Do you think there can be a wrong time to read a book?

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