Difficult though it is to admit, I often read novels and then forget what they are about. Not just minor details – whole novels slide past my eyes, to be quickly forgotten. Novels from the same author merge in the memory, and even relatively recently read books which I have written about here resist more detailed recollection. I am not sure this is just about quality, although that obviously is a factor – there are plenty of books I wish I never had to forget, quietly pressing the delete button in my brain minutes after the last page has been turned.
Why is this, and does it matter? I am not going to try an amateur dissertation on human memory here – that would be both arrogant and futile. I think we all understand at a basic level that the more carefully we read and consider a book, the more likely we are to remember it. Blogging about books I read is in part an attempt to anchor them in my memory and prevent them fading away, a bit like repeating one’s lines in a play. But I also think that the way we read is more important. To illustrate this, an anecdote:
Stuck on a train recently I fired up my Kindle, and turned as I so often do the comforting arms of Stella Gibbons. I have written before and at length about the glories of Cold Comfort Farm, and it is probably the novel I would most like to read as I leave this earth, in the unlikely event I get that choice. Flora, as I am sure you know, goes to live with her bizarre relatives in darkest Sussex, and arrives to find the place largely deserted. She is shown to her bedroom, and describes it thus:
“She dressed in pleasant leisure, studying her room. She decided that she liked it.
It was square, and unusually high, and papered with a bold though faded design of darker red upon crimson. The fireplace was elegant, the grate was basket-shaped, and the mantelpiece was of marble, floridly carved, and yellowed by age and exposure. Upon the mantelpiece itself rested two large shells, whose gentle curves shaded from white to the richest salmon-pink; these were reflected in the large old silvery mirror which hung directly above it. The other mirror was a long one; it stood in the darkest corner of the room, and was hidden by a cupboard door when the latter was opened…..One wall was almost filled by a large mahogany wardrobe. A round table to match stood in the middle of the worn red and yellow carpet, which was covered with a design of big flowers. The bed was high, and made of mahogany; the quilt was a honeycoomb, and white.”
So far as I can recall, for what that is worth, we don’t revisit this rather sweet welcoming room again. Flora has an adjoining sitting room she uses to while away her time, but not this bedroom.
When I read this paragraph the other day what struck me was that I had never read it before. More precisely I had no memory, not the faintest echo, of having read this description before, despite the fact that I have read Cold Comfort at least once a year for more than thirty years – obsessive I know. How could that be? Had it been craftily inserted by some unscupulous Kindle editor for reasons unknown? Unlikely. Was this a case of the Eyre Affair coming to life? Even less likely. Or was this the first sign of early onset memory loss? My best guess is that I had read this paragraph before, but never really paid it any attention.
Why did it not stand out? The description is detailed and well written, and is noteworthy because it is not in the mock heroic form used for many other descriptive passages, nor the humourous style used for much of the rest of the narrative. It is not clear whether the narrator here is Flora or the author – the gentle appreciation of the room could come from either. There is nothing arch or judgemental about the description, which there usually is from Flora’s descriptions of the farm. It occurs to me it might even be text from an abandoned alternative novel that Gibbons is recycling here. I have however edited out for reasons of brevity some comments about mirrors found in commercial hotel bedrooms that might give a different perspective.
I can only conclude I didn’t remember this section because I have never read it properly. It doesn’t matter that Flora has a nice bedroom at the farm, so I have mentally skipped this page to move on to the wonderful “porridge breakfast confrontation with Adam and his clettering twigs.
What other gems might there be lurking unappreciated in CCF – I will have to re-read it to check……