Briefly Lost

There is a scene in the 1984 film Amadeus where Tom Hulce, as Mozart, is composing at a billiards table in his house. There is chaos in the house – he and his wife have been yelling at each other – but when he closes the door and leans over the table and rolls a billiard ball gently across the table as he begins writing he hears the music he is composing and the other noise disappears. He is in his own composing world, which cannot be sullied by base everyday concerns, and we hear what he writes as he writes it, until he is interrupted by a door opening or something, and then the music stops. And at that point we realise how totally he was immersed he was in what he was doing. It’s a very effective moment, for we understand something of how an artist must be able to turn away from banal concerns and devote themselves to creating.
This scene popped into my head the other morning, quite suddenly, when I was reading on the train. Laetitia and I found ourselves on a different train – all trains seemed to be late and out of order at the time – and we had thought we might be late, until we got on the train we were on. We were both reading and I noticed a few people getting up to get off, more people than usual, and a man said, “It’s terminating here.” At that moment, hearing the voice of the man, a spell was broken, the carriage was empty, and I realised there had been a different voice in my head. Emily Brontë had been telling me her Wuthering Heights story, and I suppose I felt like I was in the room with the characters threatening each other, and I suppose I felt like they seemed real and the action seemed suspenseful, but I’m not so sure about that. It was the voice. The voice held me, as I suppose a compellingly told story should hold a reader.
It was something of a revelation. When I was in Year 12 this book was one of the books we officially studied, but for some reason unknown at this remove I never finished reading it and that never presented a problem as we had studied another novel and I answered questions in exams on that – I think (like I said, I can’t really recall). My memory is of feeling like there was no strong urge to pick this book up again, having put it down all those years ago, when I still felt like it might be a good idea to read it in order to be super-prepared for my exams, but I do have to day I’m very much enjoying it now. The complex relationships between the characters aren’t presenting me with much of problem either, and I always used to laugh that the story was too convoluted because of the characters … which probably indicates that I was a bit of a lazy smart arse as a youth, at least in some ways.
And it’s a tad strange to be having this reaction to a canonical work of fiction when the recent completion of two other works in that canon have left me feeling decidedly lukewarm. It’s not a criticism of the books as much as some kind of acknowledgment that some things just don’t appeal to us as much as other things do – especially in artistic expression, which is all about opinion and personal preference – but I didn’t respond to Frankenstein and Madame Bovary as much as I thought I would. Both are undeniably great works, the former virtually creating a genre, and the latter being considered a seminal work of realism which has influenced all subsequent novels in some way. Sometimes you read something famous and you just think that it’s crap and you have no idea why people go on about it so much. That wasn’t true for me: I didn’t love these two – I suppose that’s the best way I can put it.
They were emotional and suspenseful and moving. They both felt like going to a new place and coming back home again when the story was over. But something was missing.
It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to admit to not loving a great work. We can’t all love them all. And you can always re-read something and find all the things you missed the first time.

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