On Berlin, Re-reading, and Book of Clouds

Friday, December 9, 2011

David Bowman has an interesting and timely back-page essay in The New York Times Book Review this weekend.  It's called "Read It Again, Sam," and it celebrates books fine enough to be read again.  Patti Smith reports on her plan to read again An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.  Stephen King professes to having read Lord of the Flies eight or nine times.  Bharati Mukherjee reveals that she re-read all of Louise May Alcott at least a half-dozen times at the tender age of 9.

And you?

Earlier this week, while on a plane home from London, I reached for Book of Clouds (Chloe Aridjis), a book I'd read at once upon its release in 2009.  It's just the right size for an eight-hour flight (with a nap tucked somewhere in between), and I'd wanted to re-read it because I craved the surreal mood it had engendered within me—the fog, the mist, the strange; I craved the Berlin at the book's heart.  How had Aridjis achieved her effects?  I would examine this.  I would study it.

I had remembered Clouds as a lyric of a book, and indeed extraordinarily beautiful images float throughout. But what was also fascinating to me, upon my second review, is that Aridjis is not tricking her reader with language here; she is never overreaching.  Indeed, some of her oddest moments and most surreal, memorable constructions are rendered with thoroughly uncluttered, even straightforward prose—a glorious effect that I had not deconstructed my first time through.  So caught up was I in the mood of her Berlin—in the underground worlds, in the residues of a sinister past—that I failed to see that passages like this one, describing an abandoned bowling alley beneath the streets, had been meticulously and not (until the very end) metaphorically put forth.  Aridjis gives us the facts.  She lets us do with them what we will. 

After traversing several dark, damp rooms, plowing ever deeper into the labyrinth, though it was hard to tell how many doorways we'd actually crossed, we arrived at the so-called Gestapo bowling alley, a rectangular room, somewhat larger than the others as far as I could tell.  Our guide asked us to fan out so that everyone could see and directed his flashlight at different spots.  I stepped out from behind a girl with pigtails and began to look around.  It was a pretty chilling sight.  Everything, it seemed, was just the way it had been left decades ago.  At the center of the room lay a metal contraption, about eight feet long, an obsolete machine once used for spitting out wooden bowling balls, and with its rusty corners and thin bars, it looked, at least from afar, like a medieval instrument of torture, like those racks to which victims were bound by their hands and feet and then stretched.

I would not have known this about Clouds had I not read the book a second time.  I would have carried with me a false idea about Aridjis method—a first-blush idea, not a studied one.  I loved the book even more the second time I read it through.  I loved it, though, for somewhat different reasons.

Always, in perpetuity, Clouds will be a signifier for me—a book that in large part sent me to Berlin this past summer, a trip that subsequently led to my own work on a new (and very different) book set in that city for the beautiful Tamra Tuller of Philomel.  Without Clouds, I would not have taken that trip, in other words.  Without Clouds, I would not now be sitting here, surrounded by books and films about Berlin's past.  This was a book that had deserved a second reading.  Most good books do.

6 comments:

Becca said...

I re-read often, and never fail to find new ideas and impressions.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I've so been looking forward to re-reading Lucy Maude Montgomery's selected Journals (five in all). There books I imagine I'll return to for a lifetime.

kelly said...

I rarely re-read (say that five times) . . . but one book I read almost every year is The Great Gatsby.
It's a reminder of how a certain person can write in a narrow space and own it.

Serena said...

to answer your question. I've reread a number of books, Wuthering Heights and Pride & Prejudice many times, but I love reading Shakespearean plays too. I'm an odd duck.

KFP said...

Re-reading Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall has been a wish of mine for many years. I finally found a like-new hardback copy in a charming roadside bookshop in Vermont earlier this year (no one was minding the store but the door was open; I just left the money and then some on the check-out desk with a note). But have yet to get to the re-reading. Thanks for reminding me.

I have re-read The World According to Garp many times and continue to marvel at John Irving's complex and compelling storytelling his use of language--and humor. I re-read many writing books, most especially Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I also periodically re-read Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gifts from the Sea.. And T.S. Eliot's poetry. All of these renew me and I always find new insights and resonance. I also frequently revisit favorite children's books, including picture books.

As an adult I re-read a book I adored as a pre-teen, Mrs.Mike by Nancy & Benedict Freedman. I was shocked to think the writing bad and how could I not have noticed that when I was young? Perhaps I didn't know know about good writing then, and was just swept away by the story and learning about things I had no idea about at the time. Or--perhaps as I in a bad place as an adult, and my assessment was incorrect. So--I plan to re-read that one again someday. And probably write about it, if doing so gives me something to say. I loved Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights around the same age and they certainly hold up.

I know I have more answers. To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay and The Diving Bell & the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby: both short so don't take long to revisit. And oh my yes one of my all-time favortite books, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

Fun question.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

KFP, I loved Mrs. Mike as a girl! And I remember reading Gifts from the Sea at the beach one summer -- bliss.

  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP