Thursday, June 17, 2010


This morning I finished rereading Michael Hulse's translation of The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. Over the years I have seldom found any two readers sharing the same feelings about rereading. One of my friends rereads continuously. He loves 17th century prose – sermons above all – in small concentrated doses. Just a few paragraphs from a familiar author will often be enough to occupy his mind for a whole day – not at all in the sense that he meditates on theology, but in the sense that he meditates on rhythm and structure. He doesn't read fiction and his conversation leads me to think that he never reads any book straight through from cover to cover. I both admire and fear that style of reading, because it reminds me of the fierce Scandinavian Calvinists who terrorized my childhood with selected bits of Scripture.

My own reading needs to be on the scale of a whole book. Magazines give me hives. I hate anthologies. I might read faster or slower, depending on the book, but can only read straight through, never skipping anything or skipping around inside the book. Yet I can abandon a book if the author's voice becomes unconvincing or irritating. Some friends say they cannot do that. They are compelled to finish any book they have started. Compulsion seems to be an ingredient in everybody's reading. The variations I am noticing here only really amount to different ways of manifesting the compulsion.

For me it takes about ten years before I have forgotten a book enough that I can reread it with pleasure. How glad I was the other day to discover that I had forgotten The Emigrants enough that I could reread it.

I looked at some web pages about Sebald at different moments during the past couple of days while I was rereading his book, and one of the things I saw was a list of writers said to have influenced him. Proust was not on the list. But during this reading I often was thinking about Proust because it seemed to me (this time) that Sebald was constructing a mirror-structure to stand opposite to Proust. And this is because the big Proust subject (as everybody knows) is remembering. He is the poet of remembering. And Sebald is the poet of forgetting.