I re-read my favourite novel last week. Patrick Süskind’s Perfume has been my top read for years; I’ve read it once each decade since the 80s, which makes my most recent read my fourth. I wondered if it would retain its ranking after I’d finished….it did. My copy is now battered, creased and dotted with damp/fungus/something organic, but I think it will survive a few more reads yet. This time, I found the story to be even darker; more sinister. Grenouille, the orphan with superhuman olfactory powers, intent on capturing the essence of beauty in scent form, at all costs, seemed to have more intensity about him. If anything, I had more sympathy for him this time round, this solitary, misunderstood, much-abused creature. And of course, this is the wonderful thing about returning to a novel after many years: I brought a decade’s worth of extra emotional baggage to this reading, along with a decade of experiences, a decade of reading, a decade of relationships. I probably don’t need to buy any more books now; I can simply re-read my whole library for ever more.
The interesting thing about re-reading Perfume was that it felt like reading the book for the first time again. I hadn’t forgotten the basic plot of course, but there was much that had slipped my memory. This isn’t a great revelation to me: lots of things slip from my memory all the time. And ten years is, well, ten years. Details fade away like the colour from sun-bleached book spines. Rediscovering them feels a bit like coming home.
Having returned Perfume to its place on the shelf, where it is now free once more to culture its spores and mouldy patches (which down here by the sea could possibly occur like a speeded-up, time-lapse film), I began thinking about which other novels I’ve re-read over the years. Not a lot, as it happens. Which surprised me. Tales of the City and Harry Potter I have returned to multiple times. They are quick and comforting and I’ll often turn to them when I’m struck down with a cold. Apart from them though, I realised that I don’t go back to novels very often. I’m not sure why; I’ve watched some movies over and over. Part of the reason could be that I’m so keen to read as much as I can as quickly as I can. Time is, of course, running out! And writers are supposed to read as widely as they possibly can. Isn’t returning to the same novels time after time a waste of time? Shouldn’t I just get as many under my belt whilst I can?
And then I began thinking about my childhood reading. Until I began buying middle grade books in my adult years (research, naturally. Not at all because so many of them are so much better than adult fiction. Not in the slightest), I didn’t own many at all. If any. For many years as a child, the library was my sole source of books, until I had money enough to buy my own. I did have a fine range of younger titles – Blyton, Dahl, and my Dad’s 1950s editions of the Jennings stories. But nothing for older children actually lived on my book shelf. There is a reason for this: the lack of middle grade books correlates exactly with my parents’ divorce. Hence, the library becoming so important to my reading after the age of eight (I don’t suppose the Tory Philistines are reading this, but if they are…oh, why bother? They’re not interested in the importance of culture for the masses). This, then, explains why I didn’t re-read anything after becoming part of a single-parent family: when you’ve only got four library tokens a week, they can’t be wasted on something you’ve already read.
However, those few books I did own when I was much younger….those, I did go back to time after time after time. So many times in fact, that, like my favourite movies which I can almost quote from, they are imprinted on my mind, (clearly, I need a LOT more re-reads of Perfume to get to this level). They are not great works of literature; they might not even be close. But they were my books, and therefore formed part of my world.
And now I’m going to be terribly daring. I’m going to reveal – and this feels like an admission of sorts – that the books I returned to most often as a young child were indeed Enid Blyton books. I must have read the entire Famous Five series umpteen times; the Adventure books almost as many. The stories which really stuck with me though were the Faraway Tree tales. Pure nonsense they might be, but the images Blyton conjured of weird characters (Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Mister Watsisname), and strange, ever-changing lands at the top of tree (Upside-down Land, Take-what-you-want Land), these never left me. They’re still up there. And they still make me smile. It’s interesting – to me at least – that I don’t recall the names of the children who had the adventures; I only seem to remember the surreal and slightly anarchic details. For instance: I only owned one Roald Dahl book. Not for me Danny; or James and his peach; or the wonderful Witches. No. My only Dahl is the one no-one else had; the least favourite; the least well-known: It was Charlie; but not the factory. I was a proud owner of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I must have read this book a hundred times and have never once lost sight of the Vermicious Knids spelling out their sinister message with their bendy alien bodies: Surreal and anarchic, I think you’d agree. Of all the images from my childhood reading that I have retained, I think Dahl’s Knids are the most prominent in my mind.
Having spent a significant amount of time considering the value and joy to be had from re-reading books, I came to a realisation: one day I hope to see my own books published and read by children. And re-read if they liked them enough. And if I want kids to re-read my books, they are going to have to be memorable enough to qualify for a re-read. Which means I should spend less time ruminating about my historical reading habits, and rather more time writing something to read.
I’m off to see if I’ve come up with anything half as joyous as a Vernicious Knid……