Norman Garstin (1889), The Rain It Raineth Every Day — Hermione Lee in her extraordinary book about Penelope Fitzgerald says it was one of Fitzgerald’s favorite pictures — this is my late afternoon silent-reading to myself book
‘What’s to become of us? We can’t go on like this.’ “Yes, we can go on like this … We can go on like this for the rest of our lives’ — the last words of Fitzgerald’s Innocence in the manuscript
Friends and readers,
Most of the advice I’ve had since being widowed — to find new friends by doing things in groups where people share my interests, to find new interests, rediscover old that I had forgotten from years back, say before I knew Jim, to take a trip, get some kind of job — has been well meant. But I’ve found myself not able to follow through on much of it because in reality these things do not turn out as conventionally imagined. Mostly for me it’s been a matter of returning and carrying on. Returning to what I so enjoyed when Jim was alive or going on with what I’d become over 45 years.
Among these has been listening in my car to wonderfully imagined, deeply felt books read aloud so well I thought a scene was occurring somewhere out of the book even if I could not see it, and felt I had heard different voices speaking in all sorts of tones. It began around 1993 when I was told by someone on the Net that there were companies who allowed someone to rend books-on-tape that could be listened to in a car or at home. I could get catalogue books and order them through the mail. I sometimes ended up with awful readers, but I began to encounter fine and great ones and of course kept a list of names. I was never been able to account for the deep pleasure this kind of experience gave me. It was more than a matter of feeling bored, frustrated, imprisoned in a car for the time and distance it took me to go somewhere or take one of my daughters somewhere, wait around sometimes (as there was not enough time to go home) and come back. I didn’t like to admit aloud that I was lonely even then, and these human voices felt like friends, presences keeping me company whose minds were filled with intelligent thought and feeling. But it was so.
So strong was the pleasure that it really distressed me when in the very late 1990s conglomerate corporations took over these companies, got rid of audio-books that had no wide popularity, except for the usual mainstream 19th century “classic” novel, proceeded to put up the price, refuse to rent (you had to buy), and changed the merchandise to modern sufficiently wide-selling novels and various sorts of fashionable trash. I especially missed good non-fiction books, literary biographies, informative and insightful histories, meditative travel writing. Then tapes went out and there were only CDs and increasingly only CD players. Jim and Izzy both understood the loss for me was real and separately tried to convert some of my tapes into CDs so I could substitute these in my car. They couldn’t manage it, so clever had been the built-in obstacles. I felt grateful for their efforts.
Over the years, I’ve learned to make do with buying and rely on classic novels or the better fashionable (Booker Prize say) novel, once in a while a good non-fiction. Learned to download onto my computer desktop — though I don’t listen much since at home I can read them myself. I sometimes listen very late at night when my brain is too tired to read and I prefer the book to a movie.
Recently I’ve listened to the whole of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South read by Clare Wille, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall read by Simon Slater and any number of Trollope novels, read with imitable perfection by Timothy West. Slater brought the text alive to me in ways I hadn’t managed reading on my own. I write tonight because the pleasure I used to know has not been so fully renewed until thee Gaskell texts (before North and South I listened to Mary Barton read by Juliet Stevenson and before that Cranford with Nadia May), and I’m thinking maybe I have had a new insight into why I like this experience so – and why I love Gaskell. These fictions (and hers particularly) are like having a front seat at a performance of dream-thoughts translated into dream-content that mirror the author and reader’s enacted deeply yearned for kind of self, or experience, or landscape, a transcript. What’s on the page or in the air is a metaphor by which the author through the reader re-conceives his or her identity or re-lives and reshapes a traumatic experience, creates a fabulous kind of idyll out of the materials that conventional novel making (especially using historical material) offers. In Gaskell’s case transcript sustains me, and enables me to act out my grief and loss as she acts out hers. I’ve learned this is what I love most about her: those frequent moments where there erupts into her text this enacting of wrenching sorrow. Or such vividly felt moments of wild funnyness and upsurges of rescuing joy. All this was for the author originally (and now this includes many other authors I turn to beside Gaskell) and the responsive listener now is work, hard work to stay together, not to lose one’s grip on where you are at the same time (I driving my car) — and a means of keeping at bay what troubles you, what you may be surrounded by.
These thoughts are also prompted by what I heard and read in the Future Learn course in Mental Health and Literature I’ve been following for 6 weeks now. Someone there did write of a story Mary Beard told
about a slave in the household of Emperor Augustus. This slave had an impressing skill he now and then was demanded to demonstrate in front of the court; He could namely read in silence, ie read a text to himself and afterwards explain the content of what he just had read. And that was regarded with the deepest respect, as being something very remarkable. If the story is true — and I’m not sure, as I said — then it is a fascinating tale about how people in ancient days consumed a written text. Aloud, in front of others, as if a performance event. But reading aloud in front of a group of people, is today more or less the inverse, we have to learn it again. To do as the classics did.
I was reminded of how Chantal Thomas turned that into a moving subjective novel, Farewell my Queen (Les adieux a la reine) a fictionalized story of how Marie Antoinette so valued one lady of her court who read aloud to her beautifully. Our modern way of reading in silence and to some extent against loneliness as the primary or sole way to take in a book is relatively new. This summer I mean to listen to David Case reading aloud Constance Garnett’s English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Today I used a page cutter for the first time in years and so know I am the first person to have read my copy of Thackeray’s Denis Duval, part of a complete set of his works edited, introduced by his daughter, illustrated by him. It was gift by someone’s special friend to them, and when he gave it to me he asked that I never tell her he gave it away …
I looked for pictures of people reading aloud to one another: I’ve discovered that the typical and frequent one is of a woman reading to children; indeed there are very few that show anything else usually. Paintings are of people in luxurious circumstances or very poor; again mostly adults reading to children, though there are pairs of lovers where the woman reads aloud to the man or a woman to another woman and the listener is as much looking at the other person as taking in the text.
Victorian pictures are exemplary groups of people. We know the Austens did this nightly when they could; I almost believe that Frank’s first wife in Southampton (this would be 1809) left the arrangement (which included Martha Lloyd), insisted on living elsewhere because (as Austen notes) she could not bear it. Fanny Price gives up on reading aloud from history books with her sister, Susan, who is much more able to listen to Fanny with interest — Fanny regrets to admit she has not formed habit of reading.
There are much more lively pictures show a person telling a story aloud (without a book) — these are often Christmas pictures.
I am aware that as reading books seriously as a habit is not common among people; that therefore it’s even less common to listen to a book or text read aloud because it takes concentration and is a form of mental work, and I’ve discovered paintings that are made are most often made to sell to a generality. Photographs record some special occasion, like a festival of poetry or conference where someone up front reads aloud to the others sitting down, then usually the person reading has some authority otherwise or the person gathering the group together. Finally there is implied some special relationship between reader and read to. The best ones do capture the listener concentrating on the text.
I found an article arguing that it’s better to read silently because you process the words quicker and thus can get more reading done (!). It is true that when you read silently to yourself you go at your own speed, can stop and dwell, and the tones and interpretation that emerges is yours. Then again a reader will have different emphases and bring out meanings I’ve never noticed. There is a prejudice against listening to a book read aloud. I’ve heard people express the idea this is cheating somehow, not real reading. Here’s an article from The Guardian on reading aloud in a circle, defending and explaining what is to be gained; we are told it’s back in fashion and of course see a group of people doing this and are told more and more are doing it today. Most articles though defend reading aloud as a way of helping children learn to read, value it, and bond between parents and children.
When I was between 8 and 10, my father read aloud to me. He read Dickens lest I not like Dickens. He tried to read The Secret Garden which he had loved as a boy, but found it so egregiously snobbish, class-ridden, reactionary he had to give it up. He was embarrassed in front of himself that he had been so fooled. Two of the happiest moments of my life when I was around 12 or so: he read aloud to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night.” I’ve loved those texts ever since. I don’t remember why he did that. So there is the idea of a special circumstance.
Here Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon reads aloud to Kate Winslett as Marianne: she has been very ill, the lines are especially comforting, and she is falling in love with him (1995 S&S, scripted Emma Thompson, directed Ang Lee)
What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eat the earth, it is no more at all …
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth aught,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought …
When Jim and I were young and had only a radio (at the earliest part of our marriage) and then in NYC had no TV, we read aloud to one another, he to me mostly. He read mostly Virginia Woolf, her essays and meditations, some letters. Once we tried Can You Forgive Her? by Trollope but it was too long for such experiences together. When he was promoted to a more senior job in an office, and began to work long hours, and I was teaching and going to graduate school we began to be too tired. Nothing more discouraging than the other person falling asleep. When Caroline was young (age 9 or so), he read aloud to her and I Kipling’s Just So Stories. I don’t know if she remembers, but she appeared to love this. Once at the Library of Congress a book I cherished was stolen from my “shelf” (a place you can have to keep books in) and I was so upset. Jim read aloud to me that night a story from Kipling. The whole experience comforted me so.
I have no photos of these times. Would we have taken snaps using our cell phones or ipads today? Perhaps. Jim took most of the photos of me reading I’ve used on this blog and other places from time to time with an ipad.
Now the real treasure of this blog: listen to Stephen Fry reading aloud Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale
I know I love to go to the Jewish Community Center for exercise classes because this requires me being in my car 35 minutes there and back and now listening to Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. If I had no way of listening to a good book read aloud this way, I might not go as often.