Mannequin Monday – The Wonder of Re-Reading a Novel

In our creative work we give form to feelings. In writing, music, sculpting, painting, photography, film. “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Anaïs Nin.

This week Mannequin Monday looks at the wonder of re-reading a novel. I re-visit authors Louise Penny and John Steinbeck to help us with that.

This Week’s Story

The Wonder of Re-reading a Novel

I am not a fan of re-reading novels. In my lifetime I have read hundreds, perhaps thousands of novels. They span a wide range of styles and genres. Most of them have been mysteries, police procedurals, thrillers, international espionage. I love a good mystery. In the mystery genre, my favorite authors include Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva, Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger, Frederick Forsyth. All excellent authors, with exciting, well-crafted novels. I admire Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch. His driving force: everybody counts, or nobody counts. And Silva’s latest novel, The Order, exemplifies hope in a troubled world, more so than many of his previous books. 

Few of these, however, inspire a re-read.

For me, the same holds true of most general fiction books. I usually read them, enjoy them, and move on. 

I don’t know if I can articulate why I do re-read certain novels. Perhaps it gives me a sense of homecoming, of comfort, of visiting with characters who feel like old friends. Maybe at times I am simply curious about why I enjoyed the book on a first read. On a deeper level, I think I re-read for a more profound sense of characters, and for re-visiting writing styles.

A more profound sense of characters.

Sometime around fifteen years ago something sparked me to begin re-reading some of the fiction classics I had read in school or in my earlier years. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time

Last week I re-read John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, the last novel he wrote. And prior to that, Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home. Here are some comments and quotes highlighting the books – some perhaps random, some specifically illustrating character or style. 

Louise Penny

Louise Penny is almost the only author in the mystery genre I will re-read. Her crime stories with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache may be lighter on drama, compared to other authors. But she is excellent at character revelation, superb in writing style. The theme of her stories: goodness/kindness conquers evil. These are several random quotes, meant to illustrate both character and style, from Penny’s The Long Way Home:

image of Clarence Gagnon painting
Clarence Gagnon Painting
  • “…what (Armand Gamache) really looked for were feelings. Because they would lead him to the truth.”
  • “Turmoil shook loose all sorts of unpleasant truths. But it took peace to examine them.”
  • On the tragic, early death of (Gamache’s) parents: “But the closest he’d come to consuming, corroding jealousy was seeing other kids with their parents. He’d hated them for that. And, God help him, He’d hated his parents. For not being there. For leaving him behind.”
  • “The tears were just overwhelming memories, rendered into water, seeping out.”
  • Regarding the feeling of a minor character – “The ancient ghosts, the restless souls, the malevolent spirits came back. They took all the colors from the world, and in the drained mist they settled around him.”
  • “A world where anything could come out of the mist.”
  • A character reacting to a stunning photo: “And inhaled. Not a gasp, exactly. Not that dramatic. But a sharp breath.”
  • A touch of humor, as a young police agent reacts to her awkwardness in the presence of the Chief Inspector – Stop talking, stop talking. He doesn’t care. Shut the fuck up…Oh dear God. Take me now.
  • “Fear lives in the head. And courage lives in the heart. The job is to get from one to the other.”
  • Regarding a tragic event that happened to the character Clara Morrow, Gamache says, “I’m a realist. Clara Morrow will not spend the rest of her life in that one horrific event.”

Anything could come out of the mist.

John Steinbeck

Re-reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent – the Penquin Classic version – has been enlightening. After I finished the book, I went back and read the introductory analysis written by Susan Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar. These are quotes from the book and from Shillinglaw’s commentary:

  • Steinbeck felt a profound unease with Cold War America – “a creeping, all-pervading, nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices, both corporate and governmental.” From a letter to Adlai Stevenson 1959.
  • Defiant patriotism informs the novel, says Shillinglaw. “The freedom to critique one’s country, he felt with increasing urgency, was the role of the artist in a free nation.” And – “The problem of how to confront American issues in fiction niggled at him.”
  • “Immorality is what is destroying us, public immorality. The failure of man toward men, the selfishness that puts making a buck more important than the common weal.” Letter to Eugene Vinaver 1959.
  • Here is a quote from Shillinglaw, perhaps reminiscent of Harry Bosch’s comment above: “The choices made by a grocery clerk in New Baytown, Long Island, matter within the textual pageant of human anguish – or else nothing matters.”

And several quotes highlighting Steinbeck’s writing style:

  • …the sparrows rose with a whispered roar of wings.
  • A woman says of her dead husband: Peace be to his ashes.
  • Of the main character’s wife Mary – contempt is not her tool.
Credit: Newsbreak
  • The main character – I have always from the time I was a child felt a curious excitement walking in new unmarked snow or frost. It is like being first in a new world, a deep, satisfying sense of discovery of something clean and new, unused, undirtied.
  • To be alive at all is to have scars.
  • We can shoot rockets into space but we can’t cure anger or discontent.
  • It’s a rare dawn that does not wave a small wind over the land.
  • The main character and his wife: We walked on the beach as we had thought we might, sat in the sand, picked up small bright shells and showed them to each other, as we must do, spoke with conventional wonder about natural things, the sea, the air, the light, the wind-cooled sun, as though the Creator were listening in for compliments.
  • And he says of his wife: She went through the day because it was planned and paid for, but the real shells she turned over and inspected were the shining days to come.
  • Discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger….the nation…the whole world… stirred with restlessness and uneasiness as discontent moved to anger and anger tried to find an outlet in action, any action so long as it was violent…

To be alive at all is to have scars.

My Current Writing

This week I’ll forego offering my own writing sample. The above comments were long enough. Next week!