Sunday, February 12, 2012
Revisiting the past
One of the things I did to pass the time as a young mother was to read books. I would visit the library and choose several to take home and would lose myself in them. It wasn't a particularly happy time in my life, so entering into the world of various authors would lighten my spirit and give me something to think about. I remembered reading "Of Human Bondage" by Somerset Maugham. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was written in 1915 and was considered to be a classic. It's long but easy to read, although I didn't remember much about it, other than that it followed the life of a young man. When I finished the book, I thought about it a lot, and over the years I considered it to have affected me profoundly and that it was one of the best books I had ever read.
I suppose it's true that you can never re-read a book, since the person who read it long ago has changed through life experience enough that the book is being read by an entirely different person. I'm about halfway through the book and find myself quite surprised that it affected me so deeply. Perhaps the protagonist's search to find himself was what the young mother identified with. Life was so different for me in those days, but the struggle to become your own person is one that goes on from one generation to the next. I think I felt trapped into motherhood and an unhappy marriage, and that would have certainly colored anything I was reading. But I remember so well that this book stood out from many others, and I decided to find out why, this me of today.
That Wikipedia link above tells me that the Modern Library ranked this book as one of the best 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century. Well, I guess I wasn't alone in thinking it was good. But I'm curious to know if I will feel that way when I reach the end of it in a few days. The world is not only very different today than it was fifty years ago, but the book was also written a century ago, and the inhabitants of the world of 1915 could hardly imagine what 2012 would look like. Who could have visualized the Internet?
I have probably spent as much time this week on line, reading the news, blogs, commenting, reading emails, as I would have spent at my job during my working years. Several hours every day find me peering at a computer screen, and the connection I feel with people I've never met, will never meet, consumes much of the time I once spent reading hardback books. In fact, I'm reading the aforementioned book on my iPad!
Another event of this past week has me thinking about how much our lives have changed. I finally got to the movies to see Albert Nobbs, where Glenn Close plays a woman who lives her entire life as a man, a butler in 19th-century Ireland. Both Close and another woman who masquerades as a man in the movie, Janet McTeer, have been nominated for Oscars for their performances. Although the movie hasn't been very successful at the box office, seeing the performance of these two makes it entirely worthwhile. I myself thought the movie was very good.
The reason they dressed and lived their lives as men is because in that era, if you were a woman without a husband, means, or the prospects of marriage, your options were extremely limited. When she was fourteen, Albert (the Close character) answered an advertisement for a butler and dressed herself up as one, got the job, and ended up working her entire life as a butler. No one suspected, and if you get a chance to see this movie, you'll see why. Albert found a way to survive in that world.
The young modern women of today have no idea how different the experience of being female in a male-dominated world can be. Of course, it's not the same everywhere in the world, but because of the Internet, because every corner of our world is easily visited on line, we know so much more about virtually anything that interests us, with just the click of a mouse.
Although the woman in Kabul who lives behind the walls of her home, unable to walk on the street alone, has no Internet, I suspect that there are leaks into her life of the wider world. I wonder if she has books to read, like the young woman I was a half-century ago, that spark ideas she wouldn't have otherwise. I wonder.