THE GIDDY RELIEF OF READING REBECCA
(A conversation between the common reader and her brilliant friend)
by Maria Świątkowska
It happens sometimes. In fact, it happens all the time. I’m reading a Classic. A Classic is supposed to pertain to humanity, of which I am a part. Which is to say: I am human. Or so I like to think. And in this reading process I briefly, obliviously, indulge in this fantasy that yes, here is the story about every-man. Here is a story about me. I relish in the observations; I savor the reflections. I’m having a blast. I sit back and relax in my chair.
And then it happens.
Sometimes it’s twenty pages in, sometimes it’s halfway in. But, unmistakably, it is always there. The ‘ouch!’ moment is bound to occur at some point, making me feel like I have come to the party uninvited, sneaked in and then – in the middle of everyone having fun – the lights go out and the spotlight is on me and – ouch! – it turns out I am not on the guest list. Not even on the waiting list. Never have been. Like in one of those dreams where your out-of-placeness is the greatest anguish. The “Back-to-school-in-just-my-underpants”, or something like that.
You know the drill.
Precisely, that ‘ouch!’ moment comes when the author – or the narrator, but I’ll take the liberty the essayistic form grants me and not dwell on the questions of form boggling the serious minds of academic scholars – embarks on a trip of generic observations, and – it being a classic – chances are they are indeed brilliant, with that sharp insight that only a Great Mind can impart – and if I’m lucky they’re even amusingly ironic, which I enjoy thoroughly. And so I sit back, relaxed, as if having a friendly chat with an older, smarter friend.
And then – let’s take the example of Musil’s iconic novel-slash-essay The Man Without Qualities (in Burton Pike’s translation) – I happen upon the following sentence: “A man may love his dog and his wife. A child may love a dog more dearly than a man his wife.” A sentence like this takes me by surprise, spoiling all the fun I’ve been having until now. Because, clearly, in that clever phrase, I am not the man. I am not “a man”. It is much more likely that in this scenario, I am the man’s wife, quite probably less lovable than a child’s (a boy’s?) dog. But, of course, this is not about lovability.
This is just one sentence in just one book, but it points to something very common, so common, in fact, most of us rarely even take notice. But it’s things like that, the little things that put you back in your line. Little signs that read: “Remember how Umberto Eco said that every book has a model reader, one that its author imagined while inking or typing these words your eyes now run over? Well, honey, this was not you.” Even if you might at times feel an intense affiliation with, say, Ulrich, his thoughts were meant to inspire and amuse somebody else.
Oh. Right. Ok. So I misunderstood. We’re not laughing together. I haven’t received the invitation to the party. In fact, it looks as though I have stolen it from somebody else, mistaking it as mine, and sneaked in, unnoticed. And now my out-of-placeness becomes opaque. Poignant, even. Silly me. We are not laughing together. I am being laughed at.
And someone might say: who cares if the invitation wasn’t for you. If you got it, then by all means, girl, hold on to it. As tightly and as thankfully as you can, after all: this is not just any party – it’s the Classic who is the host. Enjoy it since, after all, now you can. The author is dead – literally as well as (as good old Barthes taught us when we were first-year undergrads) figuratively – who cares about who he had in mind writing this or that clever sentence.
Well, actually, I do. And please excuse me while I stubbornly refuse to not hold a grudge. And no, it does not mean that I’ll slam the book shut, throw it fiercely to the side, and ostensibly refuse to learn about where the musing and scheming of every-man will take him (spoiler alert: nowhere nice). But from now on I will not be as comfortable with the book. Something will change. Instead of pulling me in, I now feel as if it pushes me back. I wriggle a bit in my chair and sit upright from this point on. Less comfortable. Like when that one little remark is thrown matter-of-factly into a conversation you’re having with an actual, flesh and blood friend at a party, and you shrug it off with a smile – and yet from here on something changes, the vibe becomes different, and you start to look impatiently at your phone, suddenly eager for an excuse to leave.
Or, as was put more succinctly in the words of a woman much wiser than I am in The Mother of All Questions, “a book without women is often said to be about humanity”. Because, of course, the impression I have just described is nothing new. And yet the pang of it is something I feel anew every time. Even now that I have read my fair share of Classics, it always comes as something of a surprise. Maybe I’m naive, or maybe my memory capacity could be compared to that of a goldfish – and yet each time I open a new book, I approach it with an openness, a curiosity and a kind of trust.
A trust that it will welcome me.
Which makes it all the more disappointing when, in the end, once more it does not. Admittedly less and less so, after all my instincts are a bit better than those of a goldfish, but still – each time – just a bit.
Which in turn made it all the more exhilarating when I come across the book that does invite me – yes, someone like me – with open arms. And this is precisely how I felt reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions. What a relief it was to not have to go through those moments of misrecognition. The energy which otherwise I’d have had to spend on ignoring my out-of-placeness I could now give to the pure enjoyment of the skillful phrasing, the brilliant humor, the sharp insight. I could now sit back comfortably throughout the reading, let my hair down, relax my defense muscles, and occasionally even throw my head back in an outburst of genuine laughter.
Here I was, sitting in my armchair, laughing out loud at her magnificent snarkiness. Like in a conversation you are having with a good friend. Because reading a book, and a book of essays in particular, is like having this kind of a conversation. In one of her essays on reading, Siri Hustvedt, another brilliant and wise woman, observed that reading fiction is like giving up the voice of your internal narrator (that little voice in your head live-covering the ordinary events of your life in real time as they unravel) to the narrator in the book. Yes, I would say, but reading non-fiction means not giving yourself over to the text completely; more often it is an experience marked by a more active form of engagement, one in which your inner narrator gives up some of her space, but still interacts with that other guy who steps in.
And if it happens to be a guy who won’t even acknowledge her presence, well, that makes things pretty awkward, doesn’t it. It’s like halfway through the reading you realize you have invited someone to your house who you’d rather not have there. Hopefully things don’t go down Funny Games’ style, but at the very least it will be unpleasant. I realize that I’m talking now about two invitations, the one extended (or not) by the book to its reader, and the one that the reader extends to the book – although she may later regret it. But the reciprocity of this process is precisely what makes reading such a profound, formative – as well as oftentimes painful and disappointing – experience. There is a vulnerability there, intrinsic to every human relationship, whether taking place in real time, on flesh-and-blood basis, or belatedly, between the page and the mind.
The remaining part of Solnit’s quote I mentioned before goes: “… but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book.” A male friend of mine recently asked me, tactfully, a bit hesitantly, if the feminist book club I run is for women only. He assumed that a group reading texts by women must consist exclusively of women. And he was not entirely wrong – guys on our meetings are few and far between. But it’s not the question of them not being welcome (oftentimes I actually feel obliged, as I did during that conversation, to emphasize that yes, yes of course they are, very much so) rather, it is a question of a certain suspicion on their part, paired with what I would call a lack of curiosity.
Men tend to assume that, since women are a minority (which never fails to baffle me since, in fact, the very opposite is true) their experience is somehow marginal, which is to say that the figure of every-man could not do without a penis. And this also applies to the men who consider themselves allies to the feminist cause, who fully support their claims to self-expression and equal rights. That time we discussed Musil’s book in an academic setting, the room was filled with wise and woke young men who never missed an opportunity to denounce “White Heterosexual Maleness”. And yet the book was perhaps tenth in a row we went through in a syllabus filled with male-only authors striving to portray the human condition in its glorious, phallic fullness.
And nobody seemed to notice an important lack.
Not even the girls.
Or maybe they just assumed that, well, that’s just the way syllabi work. They’re meant to be universal, and therefore it follows that the character that more than half of humanity will find it easier to identify with is less likely to appear in the forefront. If you don’t like it, you can always supplement your reading experience by joining a feminist book club. And I will be the first to extoll book clubs, feminist ones in particular – like I said, I even run one. But my point is, that these should not be the only safe havens female readers should resort to in search of recognition. Nor should they be thought of as these exclusive sororities where no man shall venture (although, of course, if you and your girlfriends want to start a women-only group, then by all means you should go for it). In fact, I think by now we should be past the point where we have to actively prove to the guys that it’s okay for them to read, enjoy and talk about books written by and centered around women.
Because, after all, I’m sure they would also find writers like Rebecca Solnit delightful. And they should not stop themselves from experiencing this delight, nor should they rob their inner narrators from an opportunity to have an exchange with a brilliant friend – perhaps snarky at times, pointing out the things they were not aware of and that make them feel uncomfortable, but isn’t that what great friends are for? I realize that these observations are nothing new – but the thing is, they remain observable on a daily basis. I hope one day they will become obsolete, in the meantime, however, I encourage everyone reading this, regardless of the pronouns they go by, to indulge in the giddy relief of reading Rebecca – or any other writer who makes them feel like not only they are on the party’s guest list – but that they have been awaited, impatiently, for a long time.
Maria Świątkowska is a MA student of Inter-faculty Individual Studies in the Humanities at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. She participated in the Erasmus+ exchange programme at Utrecht University. Academically, she is interested in gender studies, translation studies, life writing and medical humanities. Privately, she is definitely a dog person.
Photo by Maja @scentofseconds
Hustvedt, Siri. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins. London: Panther Books, 1968. Print.
Solnit, Rebecca. The Mother of All Questions. Further Feminists. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017. E-Book.