Good writing does not belong to a time. I remember explaining my relationship with my father as a teenager through the books I was studying and reading. At GCSE we studied The Death of a Salesman, and King Lear, both were replete with themes that seemed particularly close to my experience, that seemed to speak to my understanding of the world, of the family, of respect and its place in our relationships. Those stories could not have been written about people and places more distant from my own upbringing in late twentieth century, home counties England. Yet I developed a reading of those books that fitted my own life experiences, that spoke to my own views of the world. Had you sat Arthur Miller and my sixteen year old self down and asked us to talk about The Death of a Salesman you would have heard us discussing two different books. I had a developed my own hermeneutic of that book: or more precisely I had read the play and taken from it what I wanted and left a great deal of the rest. I have not read it since and I have never seen it performed.
Milan Kundera describes the distance between the author and his readers, opened up by the blandness, the coldness of the printed word in his wonderful book of essays, Testaments Betrayed: “When a famous professor of medicine asked to meet me because he admired Farewell Waltz, I was most flattered. According to him my novel was prophetic; in my character Skreta, a doctor who treats apparently sterile women at a spa by injecting them secretly with his own sperm with a special syringe, I have hit on the great issue of the future. […] he looks me in the eye again: much as he admires my work, he does have one criticism: I did not manage to express powerfully enough the moral beauty of the gift of semen. I defend myself: this is a comic novel! […] I am baffled and suddenly I realise: there is nothing harder to explain than humour.”
Lear is different. I find with great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens, if you are to read them at all, relationships with them change a great deal over time. Where I once loved Oliver Twist as a child, A Tale of Two Cities has surpassed all Dickens for me in early adulthood. Still, Lear is a most extraordinary tale of family. The opening scene of King Lear, as written or performed, is among the most haunting pieces of writing I have ever read or seen acted: “Nothing will come of nothing.”
Certainly, the aim of Miller and Shakespeare was not to write for my sixteen year old self’s personal development, to explain the world to me in any way that they could imagine or even I. Yet, that is how I read them. That is the reason that books make it from the past and into the future. In fact it is how books write the future, if they do at all: they go on being written each time someone reads them. They exist in the past and in the future because they are meaningful to both, more than mere political comment, more than historical artefact. Books can bind us to an understanding of ourselves, old ones as much as future ones.