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Monday, May 1, 2017

Why (and how) I reread Austen: in order to get to the other side….of her broad context!

An interesting thread arose in Janeites & Austen-L yesterday, prompted by a post by Ellen Moody:  
“I've been finding much comfort and strength lately in rereading Emma once again. She herself is this privileged person but she does have numerous burdens which many of us might share or have analogous experiences of and she endures them with a mostly good temper. Like Virginia Woolf (who I've been reading lately and is much influenced by Austen) I could do less with the plot (though this sounds ridiculous) and more development of the inner center of characters like Emma and Jane Fairfax, less caricature of Miss Bates, but that later would be another book.  (There is equivalent of Miss Bates in Mrs Dalloway, a Miss Killman, and the heroine Clarissa is hard put to endure her.)  Here's a question in this direction: why do we (those of us who do) keep rereading her?”

Diane Reynolds replied to Ellen: "I wanted to pick up on Ellen's question of why we reread Austen. I dip into her novels frequently, and I think the chief reason I reread her is that she constantly surprises me: some detail or vignette I had never paid attention to--or not paid attention to in a long time--will suddenly jump out at me and delight or perplex me. "

And I then chimed in as follows:
“And I’ll echo you, Diane, and add that it never ceases to astound me that this still happens for me, even  after 25,000 hours of studying JA's writing! The only difference is that now the things I see for the first time are no longer isolated odds and ends; the new catches are invariably connected to earlier ones. And sometimes a new wrinkle in a given passage piles on top of one in that same passage that I first saw 7 years earlier; and together the two undergo a sea-change into something richer and stranger still.

Put another way, her novels are huge, complex jigsaw puzzles (like the one Mr. Woodhouse works on with Mrs. Weston while Emma et al are on their outing); but now, after 12 years, I regularly find pieces that fit snugly into other pieces in the Big Picture of the puzzle. It’s impossible to quantify the pleasure that this activity provides to me on a daily basis.

Our 2 year grandson has just mastered the 4 little 12-piece jigsaw puzzles I bought him 2 months ago, as to which at first he had not the slightest clue how to get started. Today he can do each of them in less than a minute, because he now understands the few basic principles of puzzle-solving (straight edges outside, matching colors and shapes, etc). With Jane Austen's fiction, I get the exact same joy that he does in putting his puzzles together, now that I've mastered the rules of solving JA's novel-puzzles that I’ve figured out over time! They are easy to describe, yet they are the building blocks for dazzling complexity – so we might call them the “DNA” of Jane Austen’s writing (here are four of the most significant rules):

Rereading the same passage from a different point of view can yield a shockingly different meaning, which was intended by Jane Austen to be detected upon re-reading;

Puns and sentence structure can generate deliberate ambiguities, allowing two plausible interpretations of the same scene, both of which were intended by Jane Austen to be detected upon re-reading;

Unusual turns of phrase or character/place names may point to earlier works of literature or history which shed light on the scene in Austen’s novel in which they appear, allusions which were intended by Jane Austen to be detected by knowledgeable readers; and

These alternative meanings are not disconnected from each other; rather, they cohere in order to yield a second, alternative version of the overall story—I call that the “shadow story”, which (you guessed it) were intended by Jane Austen to be detected by her puzzle-solving readers!


Diane also wrote: "Sometimes when I read one of the novels it as if I have put new "spectacles" on and am reading it a new way, as if it is a new book."

As you know, Diane, I’ve believed since my early 2005 epiphany (triggered by first hearing of Leland Monk’s 1990 suggestion that Frank Churchill murdered his aunt Mrs. Churchill) that there is indeed another book inside each of the six Austen novels.


Diane: "It's a pleasure too that the stories are so familiar I can plunge it at whatever scene or part catches my fancy and be instantly oriented."
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Again, Diane, you and I are on the same page, so to speak. The truth is that I haven't read any of the six Austen novels (or even more than a few chapters) straight through in about 10 years! Instead, and as you so aptly put it, I've taken a few thousand dives into the six novels at different spots, and have endlessly enjoyed the process, each time, of retrieving a few more pearls from the Austenian deep (to paraphrase Titania in her famous speech in A Midsummer Nights Dream which just happens to have the acrostic “O, Titania” in it!), which neither I nor anyone else had ever seen before.

In that way, rereading for me is a very different process from, say, relistening for the umpteenth time to a favorite great piece of music, such as a Mozart piano concerto (compared so fruitfully by Robert Wallace to Austen’s novels several years ago). I must listen to that concerto from start to finish without a pause, or my pleasure is reduced; whereas with a Jane Austen novel, I, like you, Diane, know each story inside and out, and so my primary delight is in seeing little pieces of the story in a fresh light and then fitting those new understandings into the Big Picture.

And it’s a special gift, which I also receive occasionally from my unrelenting efforts, when one new little piece alters the entire Big Picture in some profound and pervasive way. It’s the reverse of the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back”—instead, it’s a small detail that somehow functions as a “key” which unlocks the door to an entirely new gestalt. For example, when I realized last year that Mrs. Norris wanted to live alone in the White House on the Mansfield Park estate so that she could always have a bed available for a “friend” (i.e., female lover), it changed the way I saw Mrs. Norris’s motivations in the entire rest of the novel!


Diane: "…earlier in the year my husband and I were puzzling over how we might diagram a very long sentence in Persuasion, one we had never before had noticed was so long. We never did get out a big sheet of paper to diagram it completely, but we did discuss it."

Which one, if you don't mind my asking? I love them too! Indeed, does any other author break the rule forbidding writing overly long sentences so regularly and so delightfully as Jane Austen? I've never yet regretted the exercise of pausing for 10-30 minutes to painstakingly parse out the meaning of one of her challenging compound sentences. As my late father said after he obliged me by reading a few chapters of P&P for the first time in his long life (he was 90 at the time so I wasn't expecting him to read the whole thing!). His very astute observation was that Jane Austen's writing demanded slow, careful reading, or else a great deal of meaning and beauty would be missed. When rereading quickly in order to keep up a steady pace to get through an Austen novel in a short time period, it is all too easy to unconsciously skim over a complex passage which would require time to parse out carefully. And, sharp elf that Austen was, she tempts the reader to do exactly that, especially (as I will note below) with the long “boring” speeches of Miss Bates in Emma.

Aside from Diane, Jane Fox also got in the act, when she wrote the following response to Ellen:
“One of the reasons I've reread her novels so often is that the prose pulls me in and along. I think when talking about more complex stuff, we forget about the beauty of her writing. I do not find this grace her earlier writings. I cannot analyze what it is about her writing (as opposed to plot, characters, and so on) that makes it so appealing. Can someone else explain? Is it the rhythm of the sentences? The vocabulary? The length (or shortness) of the paragraphs?”

Jane, in my view it’s a no-brainer that all of JA's novels are filled from one end to the other with exquisite passages that should delight any connoisseur of the English language. However as I’ve commented in the past, there's something EXTRA special about the writing in Emma - the fever in her mind that Emma describes when she thinks of herself as an imaginist is, I believe, JA's sly way of slipping in a wink at her own exuberance at the red heat of creativity that ignited her mind when she wrote Emma, especially the speeches of Miss Bates.

 JA was clearly drunk (or better, high) on words, in the exact same way Shakespeare must’ve been especially high on words, words, words, when he wrote the characters of Hamlet and Falstaff - an ecstasy of genius, epitomized in Falstaff’s egotistical (yet accurate) self-portrait:
Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: the brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not
able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only
witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.
Those who read Emma and skim quickly through Miss Bates's speeches to get to “the good stuff” are like those who don't pay close attention when Falstaff jokes about seemingly vulgar nothings in the Henriad - you're missing JA's greatest "poetry", and you’re missing the cream of her wit, thinly disguised as a seeming inability of Miss Bates to speak to the point!

But back to Jane Fox’s original questions—can Austen’s writing be analyzed on a technical level so as to point to patterns of verbal rhythm, vocabulary, and/or sentence structure which function as a kind of artistic fingerprint, that tells us “Jane Austen alone could have written this”? I’ve read many scholarly attempts to get to the essence of the genius of Austen’s writing style, but none comes to mind which does more than grasp isolated pieces of it.

My brilliant high school friend, the composer, conductor and pianist Rob Kapilow, has made the centerpiece of his career his “What makes it great” series of live presentations over the past several decades, in which he uses his deep musicological knowledge to expose (to music lovers without musicological knowledge) the essence of the greatness of different composers. As a great example of Robert’s body of work, listen to this 6-minute segment on the PBS New Hour from a few years ago, in which Rob reveals the essence of the greatness of the song “Over the Rainbow”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbKEB1v8McA   I aspire, one day soon, to replicate, in the realm of Austen and Shakespeare, Rob’s very high level of jargon-free demystification and illumination of great art.

And finally, Nancy Mayer responded to my comment about my no longer rereading Austen’s novels from start to finish as follows:
I think that rereading pieces and chunks of the works leads to interpreting things out of context. It is the same way people misinterpret the Bible and misuse Shakespeare. Quite often a passage takes on an entirely different meaning when read outside of context.”

Nancy, as you so regularly do, you’ve disagreed with me in a way that (of course, in my opinion) is simultaneously very wrong on the surface, and yet very helpful on a deeper level, in providing (however inadvertently) the suggestion to elaborate on a key aspect of my initial point. In this case, you’ve massively begged the question of what “context” means, when speaking about a novel. Your comment suggests that for you, context is limited to the immediate vicinity of the sentence or paragraph being interpreted, informed by the entire preceding text of the novel. And it’s certainly true that popping into a passage in the middle of an Austen novel by a reader who does not know the story of a novel very well is a fraught enterprise, in which misunderstanding is a grave danger.

But for me, “context” has a much broader meaning, when it comes to really great fiction, such as Austen’s. As one example among several, how many times have I found, often with the assistance of a computer word search, that several, seemingly unrelated passages scattered through one of Austen’s novels are actually linked together thematically by the common presence of an unusual key word or phrase – and when those scattered passages are lined up next to each other, lo and behold, we find out that Jane Austen has carefully written each of them so as to collectively illuminate each other, and leave the diligent reader  with the reward of a startling new meaning.

Now, Jane Austen wrote her novels nearly two centuries before it became possible to locate those linked passages at one keyboard stroke – but the practice of compiling concordances in which disparate passages containing the same word or phrase began before Jane Austen was born, so she could well have hoped that if she achieved great fame as a writer, her novels would one day be “concordanced”, enabling her re-readers to access those connections. In any event, those widely separated textual connections have been there the past two centuries, patiently awaiting recognition and understanding – and so I toss your own  challenge back at you, and suggest that it is you who has been blind to important “context”, for all your sequential full-novel rereadings. Whereas I paid my dues by doing my sequential readings earlier in my Austen reading “career”, and now I have the luxury of gaining additional context in other ways. More context is better than less, isn’t it? And the key question becomes, how to identify broader context intended by a given author, and distinguish it from broader context that the author never dreamt of.

And by the way, speaking of Biblical interpretation, two of the greater practitioners thereof, Robert Alter and Richard Eliot Friedman, were great early influences on my method of interpreting Austen's writing, as I spent much fruitful time during the years 1998-2000 reading their scholarly takes on the Hebrew Bible, which relied on spotting exactly those same sorts of long distance connections between widely separated passages in the Biblical texts. In fact, Friedman's greatest achievement, embodied in his scholarly masterpiece, The Hidden Book in the Bible, was to show that at the core of the Hebrew Bible was a single masterwork, now lost in the mists of history, in which the David saga is seen as Part Two of to the Part One consisting of the stories of the patriarchs mostly contained in Genesis and Exodus. As Crocodile Dundee might have said had he been a Biblical scholar, "Now THAT'S context!"

To conclude, Nancy, I take your statement "Quite often a passage takes on an entirely different meaning when read outside of context”, suggesting this is a bad thing, and presume to amend it as follows:
“Quite often a passage takes on an entirely different meaning when read outside of its immediate context….and that is exactly what the author intended, so make sure you don’t miss it!”

Cheers, ARNIE

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