It is a critical and theoretical commonplace that our choices of reading materials are not as free as we might initially think. When we choose a new novel to put on our nightstand that decision is more or less consciously informed by a number of personal, socio-political and economic factors. Indeed, even the choice to read a novel at all is one that is conditioned by a variety of things.
In October last year I noticed that my reading had started to follow an interesting trajectory – I had, without really realising it, read a whole sequence of novels in a row that had been set in Paris. These ranged from Alexandre Dumas fils’ melodramatic novel La Dame aux Camélias (1848) to Cara Black’s breathless thriller, Murder in the Marais (1999). Of course, there had been a certain element of chance involved in all this, which I was quick to acknowledge.
When I cast my eye over the texts that I’ve recently been reading I can see a new kind of connection emerging. This is a link not based on space but time.
A few weeks ago I read Amy Fay’s wonderful memoir, Music-Study in Germany (first published in 1880). Fay, an excellent pianist, records the time she spent in Europe studying with the greats of the piano between 1869-1875. Her teachers included both Carl Tausig in Berlin and Franz Liszt in Weimar. It is, quite simply, a wonderful book, full of life, immediacy and music.
I am currently reading Emile Zola’s novel Nana (also 1880), which charts the rise and fall of the eponymous character. I expect to finish this text in the next few days. This novel is set in Paris in those strained moments at the end of the Second Empire, immediately before the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71).
This is a coincidence I know but… both of these texts were originally published in the same year: 1880. They are also both ‘set’ at the same moment in time (the turn of the decade from the 1860s to the 1870s). Yes, one is a memoir and the other a novel but the fact remains. And, interestingly, as both looked backwards they both involved acts of memory.
I had not planned any of this – the dates of publication played no conscious part in my choices. Indeed, I only started to read Zola’s text when I did as I had received a copy for free.
Nevertheless, it makes me wonder whether we might add one more entry to that list of factors governing our choices of novels. I wonder whether specific decades, in fact any given moment in time, might exert a kind of gravitational pull on us.
I’m not sure. It would be interesting to know what you think.
In any case, I will soon be setting off on an altogether different course. After I have completed Nana I intend to read one of Jules Verne’s voyages extraordinaires, Around the World in Eighty Days. Although, now that I think about it, this text was first published in 1873, which was the very year during which Amy Fay studied with Liszt.