“In hearing the novel, we are of course hearing our own voice, hearing the process by which consciousness binds itself, with the utmost fragility, to material being, the process by which we tell ourselves who and what we are and were. For the novel voice to approach this most intimate, most hidden of infinite conversations, it does not need to pretend that it can speak. The novels that achieve [is this greatness?] the most searing proximity to our self-making mechanisms are those that hear their own silence, and live in the rather terrible gap, endlessly opening and as endlessly closing, between words and things, speaking and listening.”
Peter Boxall, The Value of the Novel
The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.
We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.
Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.
We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.