Tracy Ryan

We probably all have our list of favourites from early in life, but what about the books it took us a lifetime to get to, the ones we’d heard about but never got around to reading, or that had never crossed our path, till much later?

Sometimes these belated reads can come like a bolt out of the blue, just when you thought your reading tastes had either stagnated or at least settled into the shape they were always likely to take.

For me the first of these bolts from the blue was the French novelist and general man of letters, Stendhal, about six years ago. Though I’d been exposed to French literature since high school, for some reason I never got around to reading him.

What makes this even stranger is that my first French friend, when in our teens I asked her that typically adolescent question, “Who is the greatest French novelist?”, immediately responded, “Stendhal”. It took another two decades and more before I finally opened the pages of The Red and the Black and was utterly hooked.

Stendhal, by Johan Olaf Sodermark

“Stendhal” was the pseudonym of a man who used literally hundreds of pseudonyms – Marie-Henri Beyle, born in Grenoble in 1783 and passing away in Paris in 1842. His life thus spanned a period of particular tumult in French history, from the French Revolution and Terror during his childhood, through the Napoleonic period and Restorations, and the July Revolution. His life may have been short by modern standards, but he saw much of human behaviour under extreme circumstances, especially on the journey to (and from!) Moscow with Napoleon’s army…

It’s not surprising then that his fiction should reflect – or indeed chart – these upheavals, and with acute insight into the psychology of his times. Yet it’s the wit and zest of his writing that attract me, and counterbalance, or leaven, the intellectual seriousness.

Stendhal’s autobiographical writings, especially the technically unfinished Life of Henry Brulard (yes, even in autobiography he gives himself another name) are equally dazzling, intriguing and funny. He is a master of irony, yet also full of compassion. An added attraction is his warmly expressed feminism and admiration for how women of his society could transcend limitations.

It was The Red and the Black that caught me, but just as breathtaking is his other major novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, whose “hero” Fabrice participates in what must be the most deflating and anti-glorifying battle scene in nineteenth-century fiction, as he naively and zealously attempts to join Napoleon at Waterloo.

In some ways I’m glad I didn’t read him too early, as his novels were written in his middle age and certainly some of their ironies would have been wasted on me as a teenager – though he often writes of, and well understands, young people. Still I expect, as with all the greatest literature, his work will go on revealing new dimensions as the reader ages and returns to it. As I know I will, again and again – there’s no cooling-off, no abatement, with this author.

My other great belated read, and it dates from this year, is Dostoyevsky. Again, people have been telling me for years I should read him, would like him, and so on. Furthermore, he’s often named as a major influence on particular writers I have always admired. Finally, in the context of some research on Stendhal, as a kind of comparative in the realm of crime (for Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is a novel of crime, as well as many other things), I opened Crime and Punishment.

Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov

Of course, for those of you who know Dostoyevsky well, there will be nothing surprising in the idea of being “blown away” by this book – but each reader discovers each book in the world anew, no matter how well known and celebrated it may be.

It’s something of a shock to realise that a life-changing work has been sitting on your shared bookshelf for years and you haven’t yet been touched by it. And to know that, however stale you think you may have become as a reader, it’s possible to have that “first” experience of real literature all over again. When I “found” Stendhal, I thought with joy, “There is something else to equal Hardy!”

Now, having just finished Crime and Punishment, it seems to me more like this: “So there is something to put up there with Shakespeare and Dante!” I don’t mind if this sounds like stating the obvious (there will always be readers who disagree with it, besides!) or over-enthusiastic. To me that’s what literature is about – being able to stir that surprise, that encounter with difference, that newly-aroused energy. And the possibility that it’s never at an end, that not only are there more such works out there, but more to come, from writers we may not yet even have heard of, is also mind-boggling.

Belatedness is only relative, after all. I’m glad not to have read Crime and Punishment in my youth – I suspect I would have been overwhelmed by its negative, more depressing aspects and not seen the wood for the trees. By the same token, since we only have so many years in which to read books, I wouldn’t want to have left it too late and missed it altogether. (Now there’s the rest of Dostoyevsky to get to – see my earlier entry on “repeat reads”!).

What else should I be sure not to miss? What did you discover early on in your reading life, and what did you leave till later?

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