It is difficult to hear unkind things said about great favourites. This has happened a couple of times recently, and I felt the need to defend the novels. And yet, I tempered my reaction. I am realising that our reading lives are not simple.
One instance was a comment about ‘The Master and Margarita’ (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov. Satan appears in Moscow. There is a cat. What’s not to like? A friend said she could not finish it. I remember the experience of reading the novel so well – while I was living in Moscow. I was eighteen and my memories are perhaps rose-tinted by the mere fact of my youth. I lived the plot as I walked the streets imagining, this is where it all happens.
Then, on another occasion, a couple of friends agreed that, basically, Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ (1981) is unreadable. But, but, but, I wanted to cry, I loved it. I read it when it came out and have been following Rushdie ever since. I read ‘The Satanic Verses’ (1988) before the violence and the fatwa. Despite inner, imaginary arguments with Rushdie about characters, particularly his women, and plot and endings, I keep going back to each new novel, because, despite every qualm, I love his use of the English language.
But what, I have to ask myself, would I think of ‘The Master and Margarita’ and ‘Midnight’s Children’ if I went back and read them now? Would I too find them difficult and unengaging? The horrible truth is, this is possible. How we respond to a book is not just a function of the words we find on the page. Our reading is also coloured by where we are in our own lives.
And I fear going back and possibly spoiling the rosy glow around much loved titles.
Thanks to Ginny for the image of well-loved books.