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The Books of High Summer
By Laura Kalpakian
Iâ€™ve often thought the Perfect Summer would be three whole months to do nothing but sit in some lovely place, a garden of some sort, and read Remembrance of Things Past. Yes, all three volumes. It would take three nonstop months, the reading itself is so rich, so redolent that you (that is, I) have to stop every page or so just to savor the prose, the thought or image. This is slow, delightful going.
So far life has not offered me that perfect summer. I have had to dip in and out of Proustâ€™s classic as best I can, but over the years I return every other summer to two novels that were key to me not simply as a reader, but as a writer. For me, they are synonymous with summer.
I first read The Great Gatsby on a place called Picnic Hill where I went to college. It was a secret sort of place, shaded by tall, scraggly eucalyptus trees, set back from the old Citrus Experiment Station. I had it to myself. I read the whole novel in one afternoon.
Gatsby was the only novel assigned in a summer school history course called The Twenties. (Another text was called the Era of Republican Ascendancy which gives you some notion of the general snooze level of the course.) Iâ€™ve always been glad I took that course. I might have read Gatsby under other circumstances, but that summer afternoon started my long love affair with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like many love affairs, this one had many disappointments, but I was also introduced to a huge array of other authors, both before Fitzgerald and after him, whose work delighted my imagination and gave me much to think about as a reader and a wannabe writer.
Gatsby is fitting summertime reading. After all there are all those parties, that summer at Gatsbyâ€™s house, and the book, literally takes place between the summer solstice (see Daisyâ€™s bit of conversation in chapter one) to Labor Day. Gatsby takes his last swim the day after Labor Day in September. I can teach this book in winter, but I cannot read it in winter.
My other favorite, obligatory summertime read is a very different sort of book, Virginia Woolfâ€™s small masterpiece, To the Lighthouse. Most of this novel takes place on one evening in the summer of about 1904 with a large, noisy family and their guests at the Ramsay summer house on the coast of England.
Whereas Gatsby is like a lively cocktail, easily downed, To the Lighthouse is demanding. I read it originally in grad school (where it was not assigned; Jacques Derrida was assigned, which also gives you some notion of the snooze level). I first read To the Lighthouse in what you might call a grad student fashion: that is, I plowed through it as quickly as I possibly could.
Then I came to the line in which Mrs. Ramsay had died. And thatâ€™s all it is, just a line, a throw-away line, not a great weeping farewell, not a momentous loss, just there among the detritus of everyday life, Mrs. Ramsay died. Not possible! Mrs. Ramsay! I was stunned as if Iâ€™d known her personally and her death was a shock! Certain that I must have missed something important in my fast read, I immediately went back to the beginning, and this time I really read what Woolf had written. I slowly gave myself up to the novel.
In fact, I had not missed anything. Mrs. Ramsay dies. They never get to the lighthouse no matter how many times I read it. But as a reader and indeed, a writer, I was never the same.