How thrilled I was to be living—on the face of it—the beautiful dream suggested on the little paperback’s cover. (It is “Girls at a Window,” a Madrazo y Garreta painting of two women gazing down from a balcony, presumably on the brilliant goings-on in a splendid piazza.)
How amazed and disappointed I felt to discover that the book repelled me. It struck me as a farce of manners, and embodied every English-as-conquering-culture conceit.
I felt embarrassed by my response—never mind the thoughtful, wry introduction by Mona Simpson—and miserable for the loss of that book as part of the revered, ongoing, interior library of Greatest Hits.
How could this be? I remember reading the little novel long ago, finding it enchanting, and then finding the Merchant-Ivory film version equally enchanting.
What had happened? Had I changed that much? Had the world?
In fact, when revered old classics let us down, we’ve no choice but to assume the blame as readers. We’ve changed: not the book.
If we’re doing it right, we gain larger awareness as we age and look at the world. Understanding larger implications—historic, economic, sociological—makes stories that had once seemed charming now look blinkered at best—or affected, or arch, or worse.
We can certainly re-read certain classics as we go forward with a compassionate eye toward the circumstances surrounding the book’s making—the author’s; the era’s—never least, we can focus that compassionate eye upon our own, earlier naivete.
But to fall out of love with a book is a serious matter. I fear to lose those literary idols I’d considered eternal.
In result, I confess feeling afraid to reread certain works I remember adoring.
I’m not proud of that.
I want those books—or maybe my memory of my perception of them—to continue to inform my thought and writing and reading.
Maybe the more interesting riddle is: which works still truly hold up—and why?
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.