Disgrace is the kind of novel that can make you want to stop everything, find a quiet spot somewhere, and do nothing else till you’ve finished it. It can restore your lost love of reading. It can sustain you through other books that are not quite so good because you know books have the potential to be this good and so they’re worth persisting with.
I’m not sure why I liked Disgrace so much. I could no doubt analyse the experience and come up with some plausible literary explanation but I’d rather not. I’d rather just enjoy the aftermath and read another book while I still have the enthusiasm.
The book I’ve chosen was a present. It’s called The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but then I wasn’t sure I’d like Disgrace either. You’ve just got to make a start, haven’t you?
I made a start and fell asleep. Well, look, it has sentences like this:
“That image of streets in furtive chaotic flight, and of the Seine panorama being rolled up, was frightening for the first minute; then a lassitude in which reedy fantasies wavered began like smoke to fill Henrietta’s brain. She relaxed more on the sofa, shutting her eyes. But she could not hear the clock without seeing the pendulum, with that bright hypnotic disc at its tip, which set the beat of her thoughts till they were not thoughts. Steps crossed the ceiling and stopped somewhere: was Miss Fisher standing by her sick mother’s bed? She can’t be dying, she wants to know about me. The stern dying go on out without looking back; sleepers go out a short way, never not hearing the vibrations of Paris, a sea-like stirring, horns, echoes indoors, electric bells making stars in the grey swinging silence that never perfectly settles in volutions of streets and empty courts of stone.”
I was so bemused by this paragraph that this morning, upon waking, I decided to do at once something I’d promised myself I would leave till the end, which was to read the introduction by A.S Byatt. What did Dame Antonia make of this strange, old-fashioned book? I was desperate to know.
“I began the book, a compulsive reader, having already worked my way through most of Scott and much of Dickens, expecting to find a powerful plot, another world to inhabit, love, danger. I found instead my first experience of a wrought, formalized ‘modern’ novel…”
Hang on a minute, Dame Antonia. Modern? Modern, did you say?
” a ‘modern novel’, a novel, also (and this I remember clearly as being supremely important), which clarified…”
Clarified? Clarified, are you sure?
“… or would have clarified if I had been clever enough to focus it, the obscure, complex and alarming relationships between children, sex and love.”
Ah, well I know I’m not as clever as you, Dame Antonia, so if you couldn’t focus it, what chance have I? But I can see how reading this sort of novel might be good for me.
Dame Antonia’s introduction is quite gripping actually and it braced me sufficiently to make me go back to the novel with a renewed sense of purpose. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the evolution of literary intelligence and the subject of reading generally.
Among the interesting things she says of her first reading of the book, when she was a child of ten or eleven, is this:
“I learned, from that reading, two things. First that ‘the modern novel’ was difficult: it stopped and analysed little things, when you wanted to get on with big things — it made it clear to you that you did not understand events, or other people. And, more important, more durable, I learned that Elizabeth Bowen had got Henrietta right. Adult readers are given to saying, of children like Henrietta, that ‘real’ children are not so sophisticated, so articulate, so thoughtful. What I remember with absolute clarity from this reading was a feeling that the private analyses I made to myself of things were vindicated, the confusions I was aware of were real, and presumably important and interesting, since here they were described.”
Yes, thank you, Dame Antonia, for reminding me why I like to read. I am not alone in my confusion, that much is clear. I am having to read this book very carefully, but I am finding my childlike analyses of certain things vindicated, just as you say. I only wish I could have read it at the age of eleven, like you, when it might have accelerated the learning process and obviated some of my more embarrassing sexual catastrophes, not to mention my many literary faux pas.