Vladimir Nabokov, himself among the subtlest of modern novelists, thought that, if identify one must while reading a novel, the one best to identify with is the novel’s author. Nabokov meant that the most sophisticated reading of a novel entails wondering why the novelist has done what he has, worrying about his manipulating his plot successfully, trying to determine how his mind works—in other words, putting yourself in the place of the novelist.
On this point the critic Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction held that “there is nothing more that can usefully be said about a novel until we have fastened upon the question of its making and explored it to some purpose.” By “identifying” with the author of a novel, we soon become acquainted with the technical aspects of the novel—why its author chose a first- rather than a third-person narrator, decided not to dramatize certain important scenes, supplied detail in some places and withheld it in others, and much else—and are thus able to read the novel more deeply, and thereby also become able, in Lubbock’s words, “clearly and accurately” to understand the novel. By doing so, he adds, “the hours of the author’s labor are lived again by the reader, the pleasure of creation is renewed.”
We read novels and short stories differently than we read other prose works. If one reads a biography of, say, the Austrian diplomatist Klemens von Metternich and comes across the three goals he wished to achieve at the Congress of Vienna, one feels one needs to make a mental note about those three goals, somehow to be responsible for knowing what they were and why they were significant. Characters in novels rarely have such clear-cut ambitions, goals, views. Even if they do, the novels in which they appear are less about their achieving these goals than about life’s manifold ways of complicating their fate. In relation to their characters, serious novelists are themselves mini-gods, instructing these characters—and us with them—that life is more complex than they, and perhaps we with them, ever imagined. Good novels are always informing us that life is more various, richer, more surprising, more bizarre than we had thought.
In a brilliant 1978 essay called “On Reading Books: A Barbarian’s Cogitations,” Alexander Gerschenkron, a labor economist at Harvard, set out three criteria for a good book, a category that for him included novels. “A good book,” Gerschenkron wrote, “must be (1) interesting, (2) memorable, and (3) re-readable.” As sensible as these three criteria are, so are they just that unhelpful, at least from the standpoint of informing a person what he or she ought to read. One cannot, of course, know if a book is interesting until one has read it, nor if it is memorable until a length of time has passed after one has read it, nor if it is worthy of being re-read until later in life one finds both the need and the time to reread it. Gerschenkron’s criteria, then, are a useful gauge to judge the quality of what one has already read and quite useless as a guide to what one ought to read. Still, one has to admire a man who claims—and I have no doubt of the truth of the claim—to have read War and Peace at least fifteen times, and twice “starting again after having read the last page,” so little did he want to depart the rich world Leo Tolstoy had created in that magnificent, that perhaps greatest of all novels.
Which brings me to the matter of re-reading. Re-readability is not only a useful criterion for a novel’s worth, but such is the complexity of serious novels that the same novel often reads differently at different ages while other novels cannot be read beyond a certain age and still others ought not to be read until one has attained to a later age. In this connection the Italian novelist Italo Calvino has described a classic as “a book that never finishes saying what it has to say.”
I shall never forget as a young man having been swept up by John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. (comprising The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money). I can even remember where I read large chunks of the work (on my stomach on the grass at nineteen in Indian Boundary Park on the far north side of Chicago). The trilogy, whose theme is injustice in American life and how it affects people’s lives, was for the apolitical young man I then was an eye-opener. My admiration for its author, whose novels’ scope took in all of the United States, was boundless. Nineteen, perhaps a bit earlier, was the perfect time to read U.S.A. Thirty may have been too late. I never attempted to re-read the book, a work that John Dos Passos himself doubtless could not bear to re-read, since all his political ideas underwent a radical change after his return from the Spanish Civil War when he discovered the murderous malevolence of international communism.
Around the same age, nineteen or twenty, I first read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which is generally thought to be his major work. Here again I found myself greatly admiring the novel, feeling not a little envy for the panache of the expatriate generation presented in its pages. Twenty years later, as a university teacher, I attempted to teach The Sun Also Rises and found the novel not only difficult to get through but at different points laughable in its pretensions and unpleasant in its anti-Semitism. For my amusement while struggling through it I began marking the number of drinks the novel’s characters consumed in its pages, stopping as I recall at seventy-nine around page 108. Ernest Hemingway’s novel clearly failed, at least for me, the re-readability test.
With these two novelists in mind, Dos Passos and Hemingway, I have thought that perhaps novels, like movies, ought to carry codes suggesting the best age to read them: Hemingway and Dos Passos, LT (Late Teens); Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald, NAT (Not After Thirty); Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, NBF (Not Before Forty). Others’ novels—those of Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer—would of course get an X rating.