I’d promised myself three completely unstressed days of reading this weekend and so far that is precisely what I’ve achieved. I’m halfway through both Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder and Lindsey Davis’s The Ides of April and I think I’m enjoying both of them. The caveat to that is that I’m finding the Rubenfeld completely unmemorable. Each time I come back to it I have to really work at remembering what has happened and who some of the more minor characters are. Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to read it in tandem with another book, but I need it for a reading group meeting on Wednesday and I don’t like to finish the selection until the day before at the very earliest, so I’ve been rationing myself.
It is interesting that some books are so memorable that whole passages are imprinted in one’s mind, whereas even the most important features of others slip through the little grey cells like so much water. Although I’m basically a plot person, I suspect that in this respect the action has very little to do with what is recalled and that the most important factor is the author’s use of language. I can still quote entire paragraphs from Alan Paton’s superb novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, even though it is decades since I read it.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
Carefully honed passages such as this sing their way not simply into our minds, but into our hearts as well. The love felt by Paton and by his main character for their home country of South Africa is palpable both in the individual words and in the way in which those words are brought together into what amounts to a prayer with all the linguistic and quasi-musical features we would associate with such a text.
Or, we might remember books and passages from books because in some way they chime with where we are (figuratively if not literally) at the moment when we read them. Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow is one I recall in great detail because it was the book that brought me the realisation that I was regaining my mental as well as physical health after a long period of illness. In this novel a group of scientists are trying to come to an understanding of a new culture and, for me more importantly, the way in which its language works. One of the group thinks that she has identified the conditions under which a particular verb form is used only to have the more senior linguist point out that the rule she is suggesting specifies a set of circumstances that are necessary, but on their own, not sufficient to account for her observations. The notion that linguistically something is necessary but not sufficient may sound supremely unexciting to you but I can assure you that for me it was like a light coming on at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel. I can still remember exactly where I was when the revelation that I was not only following their discussion but had come to the same conclusions before they did hit me. It was the moment I knew I was on the road to recovery.
So, I must assume that there is nothing in the language of the Rubenfeld, nor in the substance of the discussion, that is exciting me. I’m sure this is just a mismatch and that other people will have thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it far more memorable. I suspect that these acts of recall are very personal phenomena. Is anyone going to tell me that I’m wrong about The Interpretation of Murder? Or will you share your own memorable or unmemorable texts? I would love to know what books or specific passages from books have lodged in other people’s minds.