Tuesday, 20 March 2012

40BFL 11: Wuthering Heights

I read this book in one sitting, which is rare for me - I have all the attention of a goldfish that got dropped on its head as a guppy. But sometimes a writer can catch you by a thread of your soul and something of theirs snakes around yours and before you know it you're breathing their prose like you wrote it. Something of me is trapped in Wuthering Heights. If you haven't read the book you should know that it's not a pleasant thought.

Part of why it's a genuinely very clever book is that it's told by an idiot - a banal simpering man who is the very antithesis of the characters who arrest our concentration. But this idiot narrator is for most of the book himself recounting the story of the nurse. The astute reader will notice that this nurse is in fact the primary enemy of the story - she singlehandedly destroys Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship at the crucial moment and so causes the terrifying grief and tragedy that ensues. We learn through the text itself to mistrust the text. A tale told be a villain told by an idiot. What follows is an intriguing test of reading. Can we sort through the layers of subjectivity and see the world as it really is?

The truth is that we get glimpses, mostly revealed in the most gut-wrenching and disturbing prose so fraught with emotion that it leaves you in a distempered state of anxiety for days. At the same time our own fury is amassed at the very tellers of the story, who frozen in print are unable to admit, to suffer and enable the release of our own wrought feelings. (A similar effect is achieved in Ian McEwan's Atonement though with nowhere near the force.) As an exercise in subjectivity Emily gives us a haunted text - haunted by the reality of tragedy. This is not various angles on certain decentred happenings as one might find in a postmodern novel; this is a moral disaster and tragic ruin of lives, obfuscated by the complexity of character, guilt and stupidity - but the truth is there - as bare as a corpse in the living room.

I read one page again and again and I can't get beyond it:

I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

It is how St Ignatius wants you to feel about Jesus. And if you don't feel it towards the person you're with; after reading it, how could you ever want to stay with them?

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