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The more we change, the more we stay the same – re-reading a classic

Posted in Life & Love

View from the secret annex
View from the secret annex

At the same time as sofagirl sat down to write her piece on why books matter, I woke up with jumbled thoughts in my head and sat down to write about re-reading a classic 35 years later. Sofargirl quotes “Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit – because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.” It felt like such synchronicity that, after reading her post, I took out what I wrote, which I wasn’t sure would ever see the light of day, and thought I’d offer it to you as proof that books change with us, or we change alongside them: the more reason to hold them close .

I was born less than 20 years from the end of WWII – my young parents  were mere children themselves on  D-Day. The world I came into was on the way to richness and full of promise; the war stories  part of a family lore that didn’t affect me, or even interest me. My father avoided the worst of the Allied bombings by moving to the Apennines, the memory of  American soldiers distributing chocolate bars come liberation still vivid to this day. My mother’s story is more harrowing, caught as her family was in the “triangle of death”, where, when it was apparent the Germans were doomed, atrocities were committed on both sides of the fence, by desperate Nazis and by vengeful Partisans. The male side of her family was decimated as a result but she was only 8,  a child hiding under the table when her father was taken away, and those grandparents I never met had no way of influencing my happy upbringing.

In this shot, the 60's were nearly upon Italy
In this shot, the 60’s were nearly upon Italy

Italians in the 60’s bought Cinquecento’s, wore mini-skirts and so desperately wanted to move on that I never thought of myself as a child of the post war years. The war could have happened 200 years before as far as I was concerned, even if some of the tell-tale signs were still around, like the black arrows on the side of the buildings pointing to the underground refuges to be used in case of bombing.

In that sense, I wasn’t that different from Anne Frank at the time her Diary begins. A child living a middle class existence, preoccupied with school grades and boy crushes. Her diary, like for most teenagers, landed in my hands when I was 13, already a voracious and precocious reader. Like most teenage girls, I recognized myself in the rebellion against her parents, in the unequivocal signs that changes were afoot in my body and the book inspired me to start a diary of my own – one of those with a proper lock – long lost to a landfill, but, above all, it piqued my curiosity on the story of the Jews and Germany, a country I was already well acquainted with.

anne-frank-I reread the “Diary of a Young Girl” just recently,  the original version that was republished a dozen years ago. I had no idea my first battered copy was purged in the 50’s of all the passages critical of Anne’s mother and detailing their frequent rows, and sanitized of all its sexual material. Who knew that Anne had written in such specificity of the changes in her body, her sexual desires and even a not entirely accurate description of a vagina?

I take pleasure in re-reading the classics from time to time – especially the ones I tackled when I was much younger –  looking forward to a different reading experience. In the case of the words of a German teenager holed at the top of a building  in Amsterdam for over two years, it was not a case of  identifying with her anymore; if anything, I saw her rebellion and growing pains with the eyes of a mother and even felt  empathy towards her parents.

What tugged at my heart, and most surprised me, was the acuity, the intelligence,  wit and  talent of a 14-year-old with a lot of time on her hands to explore her inner life and to observe and then record, somewhat unwittingly, a road map  charting her physical and intellectual growth; the plight of an entire people and the fears and hopes of a continent.

Her hopes and ambitions – “I will not become a housewife like my mother, but a journalist and a famous writer; I want my work to be immortal” – are even more heartbreaking in the presence of such obvious talent, her death even more of a cosmic joke when it occurred less than a month before her camp was liberated.

Anne’s words, read today, encompass the microcosm of her life and time but also give voice to every child who has ever lost her life and become a cog in the machine of a war, an extermination, a genocide. A life cut short, a promise sacrificed on a needless altar – a better world mowed down by power or economic struggles, by carelessness on the part of those who should know better to protect such lives.

I was born at a happy time: my mother wore pearls and my dad owned his business. At thirteen I worried about my school grades, who my best friend was and when would I get kissed. Just like Anne in 1942. That innocence was short-lived: in my case, the 70’s hang heavy as the years of terrorism, of Molotov bombs and tear gas avoided on the way back from school, of the massacre at the train station a stone’s throw from my house. All in all, a small price to pay when, elsewhere, more lives are lost to wars and genocides and indiscriminate hate still rages on. History repeats itself and we are so predictable that we learn nothing.

Saturday, July 15, 1944

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them”.

Yours, Anne M. Frank

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  1. One of the things I have realised in my mid-thirties is that I need to re-read all those classics I so assiduously ‘ticked off’ in my teens and early twenties.

    Anna Karenina, for example, holds so much more power for me now, on the other side of marriage. I’m yet to re-read one of my absolute favourites, Middlemarch, but I know that I’ll have a new perspective on it – and much more tolerance for what I always saw as Dorothea giving and accepting a smaller role in the world.

    Which is not to say I’m jaded (although maybe I am?), but that experience shows us the importance of adapting our dreams and expectations to what Anne Frank describes as ‘grim reality’. Or put simply, the older I get, the more I understand how and why people have made their choices.

    January 14, 2014
    • Years ago I thought there were too many books to get through to “bother” re-reading what I already had. I think I reread Middlemarch about three or four years ago and Dorothea still infuriated me a bit, but for different reasons. And there is no love lost between me and Vronsky now! And when I re-read War and Peace it was Pierre I fell in love with. I suppose that’s what great literature does: makes you look at all the sides from different perspectives. And that perspective changes depending on where we are in life. If you do reread Middlemarch, I woud love to know what you took away so many years later. Thanks for your insight

      January 14, 2014
  2. Really enjoyed a very well-written post. Thank you…amazing in so many ways.

    January 14, 2014
  3. Nicely written. It’s amazing how the effects of books from our childhood stay with us. I too retreated into books growing up against the backdrop of violence of Northern Ireland. Lovely post.

    January 14, 2014
    • I think it’s easier to empathize with and to be more open to the plights of people far away from our circustances. I remember having a soft spot for Mandela, 18th century slaves and Bobby Sands. I happened to have a Northern Irish English teacher who fed my obsession with books on the subject and all kinds of political pamphlets. It was a valuable education.

      January 14, 2014

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