The Moment

On Rereading

Remaking the world

Victor Brombert
A stack of books
Adapted from a photograph by Luke McKernan / Creative Commons

In my pandemic confinement, staring at the bookcases in my study, packed with so many great books that have remained unread, I hear my own nagging voice—“Shame on you!” It’s now or never. Blaise Pascal’s words about contentment in the solitude of one’s room echo in my mind. I should feel grateful, I say to myself, and take full advantage of my claustration, now that I spend more time than ever at my desk, surrounded by the books amassed over the years. There is no longer any excuse for leaving these masterpieces unread.

The first volume I picked up was Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in the original Italian, perhaps because I vaguely remembered that the book’s licentious stories are told against the background of a collective calamity. In my early teens, I had found some erotic titillation by surreptitious glances at passages in the modern translation belonging to my mother. I had no idea at the time that the seven young women and the three young men who tell each other these salacious stories had escaped from the Black Death, and found refuge in a villa located in the hills overlooking their afflicted city. And so, a lifetime later, I resolved to read Boccaccio at last.

Surprise! Boccaccio’s “Introduzione” (which I had never bothered to look at in my mother’s copy) was not in the least frivolous or erotic but gave a detailed, graphic account of the deadly pestilence, the “mortifera pestilenza,” that devastated Florence in 1348. The symptoms of the virulent epidemic disease are described precisely: buboes (gavòccioli) the size of an egg or even an apple in the groin or under the armpits, large black spots on arms and thighs as well as other parts of the body. The reader is not spared references to the stench of corpses all over the city. Deplorable human reactions are reported: citizens feeling disgust for one another, brother abandoning brother, wife abandoning husband. Even children are abandoned. People think of saving only themselves—and, if they can afford it, fleeing from the city. All this was new to me.

But I was in for another surprise. On the second page of Boccaccio’s stark account of the Florentine pestilence, I discovered in the margins (I could hardly believe my eyes) what clearly was my own somewhat faded handwriting, as well as various sentences or expressions I had underlined. So I had read the “Introduzione” after all—and in the original Italian! But what I was rereading seemed entirely new.

This puzzled me. It also encouraged me to pick up another classic I had postponed reading for years: my long-­neglected bilingual edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Roman poet’s collection of epic narratives about mythological figures and their eventual transfigurations. The name of Ovid had occasionally been on my lips in the classroom. But I could not honestly say that I was familiar with his poem. And so I opened my volume, turning first to the pages devoted to the ill-­fated love of Pyramus and Thisbe (a mythological Romeo and Juliet couple), reduced by parental disapproval to whisper their love for each other through a crack in the wall. Then I moved to the well-­known story of Orpheus rescuing his Eurydice from the underworld, only to lose her again. And again, to my surprise, I found my handwritten remarks in the margins, and entire sentences underlined. Only this time I wondered: Why did I underline this sentence or line? It’s the next one that is important!

Clearly, my way of reading the text had shifted, and I myself had changed over the years.

this raised the larger question of rereading. It comes in many forms. There’s voluntary rereading, the result of a willful decision to revisit a book one has admired, or a book that has left one with some unanswered questions. This kind of planned revisitation could also be for verifying certain details in the text, or for checking on the moves of a given character. A conscientious academic might also wish to refresh intimacy with a work, and thus avoid relying on the same old notes, or mumbling through the same fifteen-­year-­old written lecture with assured soporific effects.

Contrarily, there’s what I had experienced with Boccaccio and Ovid, which could be defined as involuntary rereading. The original reading was either forgotten or so totally assimilated that the new chance encounter with the text produced surprise and astonishment. My reaction to the renewed reading no longer corresponded to the original experience, and I was no longer sure that I recognized myself as the same reader.

Montaigne looks at himself as the only human reality he can observe with some accuracy, not as a unique and irreplaceable individual, but as a reflection of the entire human condition. Yet even this closely examined self tends to elude him, for it is multifaceted, constantly evolving and mutating. Flux is indeed the great lesson. Human nature is multifarious and unstable. Life allows for no fixity.

Then there are what one might call subconscious rereadings, those that occur without the specific act of reading, much as the memory of a tune can haunt the mind without its actually being heard again. This form of remembered contact with a book can accompany us during a lifetime and continue to nurture and shape us. Much in the same manner, we may over the years recite to ourselves poems learned by heart long ago, which have become part of our self-­recognition.

And, finally, there is the rarer, quite precious experience that might be called “pre-­reading,” when certain dispositions in our character, coupled with circumstances, make us receptive in advance to an author we have not yet encountered. That is in substance what happened when, as a schoolboy, I occasionally skipped my science classes at the Parisian lycée, taking myself by Métro to unfamiliar quarters of the capital in order to blend, incognito, with the crowds. The truant adolescent did not yet know the poetic use of the word flâneur, but those city walks prepared him to discover Baudelaire as though he had read him attentively before.

all of these ways of reading are valuable. But an actual rereading can lead to a more complex, more literary, understanding of a text, when the stress is no longer on the what, but on the how, namely the craft of the composition and the quality of the language. And there are surprises. Renewed contact with a novel or a poem can activate the autobiographical curiosity, the search for a better knowledge of the self. The new reading, a form of revision, uncovers the change in us. The newness is not in the text. It is we who have evolved. Every rereading registers this revision, and further provokes it. As the literary critic Rachel Falconer pertinently observed in introducing a collection of essays entitled Re-­reading / La relecture (2012), renewed encounters with a literary work make us feel, on every separate occasion, that we are reading it for the first time.

Books can transform us. They can determine a mental landscape, remake our vision of things in much the way the advent of impressionism made people see both cityscape and landscape afresh. When Gustave Caillebotte painted a Paris street in the rain or the teeming boulevard observed from his balcony, he opened his viewers’ eyes to forms of beauty they did not suspect. Similarly, transformative readings—experiences after which one is no longer quite the same, and one’s outlook and sensitivity have been significantly altered—could be compared to a psychic rebirth involving the revelation of something new, or perhaps the discovery of what was there already but as yet unrecognized.

Some of the greatest writers have always understood this, and have made that shaping, transformative power of books the subject of their fictional work. Cervantes’s demented Don Quixote, an obsessive reader of tales of chivalry, is driven by a compulsion to imitate legendary knights-­errant such as Amadis de Gaul. The effect of those chivalric romances on his mind alarms his familiars to the point of asking the priest and the barber to burn his books and then seal his library so he cannot find his way back to it.

Emma Bovary’s romantic yearnings are similarly inflamed by books—namely, by novels and chronicles about passionate women and their great lovers, stories of steamy adulteries. She too burns to imitate her models, and live her own sexual adventures fully and dangerously. A lifelong admirer of Cervantes, Gustave Flaubert surely had Don Quixote in mind when Emma’s mother-­in-­law proposes to bar her from access to the noxious novels, offering to travel to Rouen in order to cancel Emma’s subscription to the lending library, and if necessary to alert the police if the librarian persists in his poisonous trade.

As for Anna Karenina, she too is an inveterate reader of tales of love. A frequent railway traveler, she cannot sit in her compartment without reading an English novel, intent on living her own passionate affair to fictional extremes. In the end, her compulsive jealousy drives her to develop creative scenarios worthy of a true novelist, as she watches the passengers at the railroad station shortly before her suicide, and imagines devastating stories of betrayal.

most readers can surely distinguish between books admired, books from which one has learned, books that have unsettled and disturbed, and others—fewer no doubt–which have changed one forever. These distinctions are in all cases very personal. Names come to mind. Some figures from antiquity: Homer, Sophocles, Virgil. Certain masters of the novel: Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Dickens. A few modernist writers: James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred Döblin. All great, their works often moving and revelatory. But have they changed one’s life? Have they altered one’s vision of the world? Not in my case.

For, long before the bookish intimacies of the pandemic confinement, the little boy I was, disobeying his parents’ injunctions, used to read secretively at night, under the blanket with the aid of a flashlight, and he understood even then, though only vaguely, that the book dear to him at that moment made it possible to see the world around him, himself included, in a new light.

My childhood readings, on the other hand, even of a bizarre and unsettling nature, did enter into my bloodstream. Many youngsters, especially in Europe, have been exposed to selected, often illustrated, passages of Don Quixote—memorable episodes such as the demented knight’s attack on windmills he takes for hostile giants, or the humiliating events in the country inn where Sancho Panza is tossed in the air in a blanket by malevolent fun-­seeking guests. For me, as a pre-­adolescent, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—the overheated idealizing brain and the realistic belly—became, in an as yet unformulated fashion, the complementary emblems of the spirit and the flesh. I vaguely understood that salvation, or rather sanity, lay in the sound balance between the two. Perhaps this understanding was a real beginning, after which I was no longer the same.

and after childhood? Whenever I ask myself which writers have determined my view of things, what literary works have helped shape my character, I come up, unsurprisingly in view of my lycée education, with the same three French authors: Marcel Proust, Stendhal, Montaigne—all three reread over the years, all three of them with a unique voice, but sharing some deep-­seated common features.

The encounter with Proust goes back to my late teens, when a bookish older cousin of mine urged me to read Swann’s Way. I realized very soon that something in me had been profoundly remade by these early parts of this very long novel. The pages about young Marcel’s life with his family in Combray, and the vicissitudes of Swann’s tormented love affair with Odette, changed my mental landscape. The narrator’s boyhood experience of jealousy and of the jealous imagination became for me an apprenticeship in suffering, as I read, transfixed, about his mother, who, instead of coming upstairs to his bedside to give him that ritualistic and appeasing goodnight kiss, fails to show up, remaining instead with her guest—the child’s rival that night—in the dining room downstairs, the site of a feverishly imagined “fête infernale,” the fiendish festivity from which he feels excluded. Instability and flux at the heart of Proust’s narrative revealed to me that the frustrations and torments of love were ultimately beneficial to the creative spirit, and that, in view of the transience of everything, mental suffering, especially the unavoidable agony of love, was a “mal sacré” (sacred affliction) at the root of all art, our only chance of victory over evanescence and death.

Mobility and flux are surely also at the heart of Stendhal’s work, though mostly in historical and social terms, and as manifestations of the author’s intellectual agility. I discovered The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, as well as Stendhal’s autobiographical writings, in my college years. His singular inner music, a blend of tenderness and irony (but an irony that protects the tenderness), altered the perception of my own identity. I began to see myself, or wished to see myself, as a lucid dreamer delighted to be taken in by my own dreams, a skeptical enthusiast watching himself live as though on a private stage. Stendhal became for me the model of mental freedom, and of the ability to reinvent oneself.

But the supreme lesson in flux came with my reading of the Essays by Michel de Montaigne, who has accompanied me ever since an admired mentor made me appreciate his restless curiosity, openminded skepticism, and fondness for paradoxical ideas. Montaigne looked with equanimity at the other side of any argument. The protean nature of his thinking delighted me, as did the unpredictable twists and turns of his conversational style. I found wisdom in his readiness to cohabit with what the flesh is heir to. After absorbing hefty doses of his writings, my glance turned inward. I was impressed by his justification for the unremitting interest he took in himself. Others look outward, he remarked, but he wished to penetrate into his own intimacy, and to explore his self in all its folds and creases, its “naturels plis.” The reason, however, is not narcissistic. No self-­indulgence here. Montaigne looks at himself as the only human reality he can observe with some accuracy, not as a unique and irreplaceable individual, but as a reflection of the entire human condition. Yet even this closely examined self tends to elude him, for it is multifaceted, constantly evolving and mutating. Flux is indeed the great lesson. Human nature is multifarious and unstable. Life allows for no fixity. A terse formula sums up Montaigne’s project. “I do not depict being. I depict passage.” I have reread these words many times in my mind.


rereading is subject
to fortuitous circumstances, and remains a strictly personal affair. But the act of rereading, especially of books that have had a transformative effect, illustrates a wider common experience: the continuous shuttle, or to-­and-­fro movement, between art forms and lived life. It is a creative weaving, a process by which we are ceaselessly shaped. This to-­and-­fro motion between artifact and so-­called reality takes various forms. It can occur between a given novel and specific urban setting, or between an admired painting and a geographic region. One might see the San Frediano district of Florence through a previous encounter with Vasco Pratolini’s fiction, discover Petersburg through exposure to Gogol and Dostoyevsky, or grow fond of the Umbrian countryside through earlier views of the delicate trees in the background landscapes of Perugino’s compositions.

Inevitably, this raises the question of sincerity. Are my perceptions of piazza Navona and via Giulia not hopelessly colored by my readings of Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome? A steady exchange takes place between the books that have left their mark on us and the life we lead. How to be sure that our reaction is really our own? Is there not a constant interaction between viewing life through books one has read, and reading (and rereading) books through what one has personally experienced?

But if these questions provoke anxiety, it can be an anxiety that exhilarates, filling one with a sense of discovery which, as I recall, goes back to childhood. For, long before the bookish intimacies of the pandemic confinement, the little boy I was, disobeying his parents’ injunctions, used to read secretively at night, under the blanket with the aid of a flashlight, and he understood even then, though only vaguely, that the book dear to him at that moment made it possible to see the world around him, himself included, in a new light.

Victor Brombert is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Comparative Literatures Emeritus at Princeton and is the author of the memoir Trains of Thought and of Musings on Mortality, winner of the Robert Penn Warren-Cleanth Brooks Award.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021

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