Part of being a writer is observing the connections, coincidences and ironies in everyday life; we rejoice in comparing, analysing and making meaning from otherwise unrelated events.
Perth author, Lynne Leonardt, recently wrote:
“Whether you enjoy a book often depends on where you were, what you were doing and what was going on around you; in general, what food for thought your impoverished soul was hungering for at the time.”
Now, herein lies the coincidence: I was only meditating on Lynne’s notion the other day. You see, many of my favourite novels are the ones I read during my formative years. I wonder if they would still hit the mark now; or, if I’d ‘kill’ them, like when I killed The Dark Crystal by watching it as an adult.
I was recently reading through Annabel Smith’s old blog posts and found a list of novels she thought over-hyped (see post here). One of them is a book I read at least five times between the age of seventeen and twenty. I still list it in my ‘Favourite Novel List’, even though I haven’t read it in ten years. It spoke to me at the time. Upon reflection, I’m wondering if it would still speak to this thirty year old mother of two; a thirty year old who has let go of a lot of the angst and insecurity. Before I reveal the title, I’ll tell you what Annabel said of the novel:
“Perhaps one of the most overrated books of all time, it seems to whip all those arty, pseudo-intellectual types into a frenzy. I found it flawed in many respects and a little pretentious.”
Oh, goodness. The title could be “KRISTEN LEVITZKE, AGED NINETEEN” because her summary, is, unfortunately, probably a rather accurate description of me at nineteen. Undergraduate Arts degrees are much wasted on the young…
The novel is, of course, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I feel compelled to reread it and see if my feelings have changed. Somehow, I doubt they will, because I bloody loved that book. I’m reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides at the moment, and it actually reminds me of Tartt’s novel in some way. It begins as an American campus novel and weaves plenty of obscure, and possibly pretentious theory within. Maybe it appeals to my vanity; for once, I know something (even if it is just the name of a long forgotten theorist or feminist performance artist!). Maybe it’s because it validates my arts degree; makes me feel like studying English and Philosophy and Fine Arts and History has some kind of currency. Or maybe I’m still a bit of a wanker. Either way, I hope that one day, I can write my own semi-autobiographical bildungsroman set in Perth’s very own leafy green UWA campus. It will have a really great charcter arc…I hope.
It’s my birthday next week, so it’s nearly a year since I had a bit of a wanky 30th birthday fancy dress party. I went for a tongue-in-cheek and WARM costume, dressing as Donna Tartt: the quintessential, stereotypical writer; reclusive, pretentious, clad in black, and ‘Louise Brooks’ bobbed.
Can you find Wally?
This was the invitation, and everyone ‘came to the party’, so to speak, with their costumes. It was a bit like being in one of my favourite Woody Allen movies, Midnight in Paris. I hobnobbed with all sorts of literary and artistic figures: Frida Kahlo, Jay Gatsby, Woody Allen, Charlotte (of the web!), Alice, The Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Miss Marple, Waldo, Mary Poppins, Robin Hood, Banksy, Sherlock Holmes, Little Red Riding Hood, Friar Tuck, Batman, Lady Macbeth, Arthur Dent, Biggles, Jamie Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Rogue, The Chimney Sweeper, Batman, Elizabeth Bennett, Titania, Hermione… it was a night I’ll never forget.
Great post, Kristen! Your degree in fine arts is worth a lot, believe me — I speak as one who wishes they had that knowledge. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve taken all that learning in and it’s sitting there in your subconscious, available for you when you write. Firstly, don’t forget, you chose the arts because you’ve loved them. That counts for heaps. Secondly, when you were learning how to read and analyse literature, you were exposing your brain to beautiful language, time and again, and at an age where your brain was still soft and rubbery. (As compared to an old brittle one!) Your brain remembers. You are able to string a series of words together that form an image, an honest image, and you use words well, so they sound beautiful together, because that’s how your brain has formed. It shows in your writing. Not only have you’ve learned ways to read a book, you’ve learned ways to write language, too.
Thanks so much for your kind response, Louise.
From one admirer to another: I think it’s amazing that you have such a fine grasp of language AND a degree in medicine (AND I believe you have four children?!). How I long to have a real understanding of scientific method and statistics. I fear that my brain is, indeed, brittle! 🙂
I look forward to meeting you properly on the 21st of July.
Great post! Personally, I enjoyed The Marriage Plot. Yes, it certainly was pretentious but I think that was important for the characters. My best friend HATED it though so it’s one of those ‘to each her own’ books!
You’ve got me curious as to whether I would still enjoy The Secret History if I read it again now – I don’t think I’ll test this theory, but just continue to love it. 😉
Have you read Tana French’s The Likeness or Hannah Richell’s The Shadow Year? They both are reminiscent of The Secret History to me.
Thanks for a thought provoking read, Kristen.
I’ve heard that The Shadow Year is like The Secret History. Thanks- I’ll add it to my ever-growing pile of books.
It’s funny, I think that ‘pretension’ tends to come from a place of ambiguity. When you’re a teenager or an undergrad, you’re learning about who you are- your place in the world, your values and artistic preferences. People are pretentious when they’re not yet comfortable with who they are, or they’re not yet sure about who they are. It’s incredibly liberating when one realises that they do not have to apologise for what they like or dislike; what they find comprehensible, what they find perplexing. So, it’s little wonder that the tone in these ‘campus novels’ are somewhat pretentious; their protagonists are on the cusp of adulthood, and, as yet, their personalities and preferences are ill-defined.
Edited to add: Madeleine’s sister in the marriage plot is a great example of this ill-defined personality; she is a chameleon who changes her personality in accordance with fashions and fads.