October 24 @ 6:00 pm
Into the life of the author, a novel appears, as if by chance, and changes everything. As a child in a music class where a remarkable teacher watches over a classmate marked for tragedy, the author comes across Willa Cather’s novel, Lucy Gayheart, and is prepared by fiction for an actual death by drowning of someone near her. Later, recently married and living in a newly independent Nigeria, a teacher now herself, she assigns Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to her students and is instructed by them in the violent legacy of colonialism, and visits an old slave port where she is made aware of her own benighted American innocence. In Nigeria, too, she is given A Portrait of a Lady and deeply ponders her own new marriage through the lens of Isabel Archer’s cautionary fate, remembers her adolescent fear that reading might be a way of avoiding experience. Afterward, spending a year in northern France, she puts Madame Bovary resolutely aside to discover in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest a detailed guide to the town where she is living, the poverty and suffering hidden within its walls. The memoir closes with a tender account of the author’s friendship with the writer Diana Trilling, whose failing sight inspires a plan to read aloud Proust’s masterwork, an undertaking that requires six years to complete. Faced with Diana’s approaching death and the mysteries of her own life, the author wonders whether reading, after all, may not be experience at its most ardent, its most transforming.