I heard that you should have a general knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to fully enjoy and benefit from reading Ian McEwan’s novel, Nutshell. Let’s see: a brother and his brother’s wife conspire to kill the married brother and assume the marriage rites for themselves. But the wife is pregnant and her very well spoken unborn child (the narrator) is against the murder plot and has a lot of thoughts on the nature of existence even before the mother’s water breaks.
Sounds a lot like Hamlet? And how many other narratives involving a wife and her lover plotting the murder of the old, boring husband?
When I was young I was often sick and spent many hours lying in bed either moaning in a darkened room with the measles (no vaccines then) or proped up on one elbow reading books and scratching my chicken pox. Sometimes I had books from the library and other times I had to rely on books that accumulated around the house. I got most of my books from Goodwill, used and often musty. Some of my books had evidently belonged to my parents, favorite stories from when they were young and impressed by Jack Hawkins, Bill Sikes, or Dorothy Gale.
I still have vivid memories of avidly reading those over-the-rainbow books by the local San Diego author L. Frank Baum and unexpectedly flipping to a gnarly and often damned scary illustration that might interrupt my sleep for weeks. Or how about that wonderful illustration by the much revered illustrator N. C. Wyeth in the book Treasure Island that showed the gruesome skeleton of a pirate who had been marooned on the island long ago. In fact, just the concept of being marooned all alone on a desert island added a new level of fright and concern to both my waking and sleeping hours for years to come.
That’s what I want to know,” I said. “Now what?” The only way of escaping from that question is not by repeating it but by not allowing it to exist, by not asking it or allowing anyone else to ask it of you. But that’s impossible and perhaps because of that, in order to answer it, you have to invent problems and feel fears and entertain suspicions and think about the abstract future, and think “so brainsickly of things” as Macbeth was told not to do, to see what is not there in order for something to be there, to fear illness or death, abandonment or betrayal, and to dream up threats, if necessary from a third party, even if only by analogy or symbolically and perhaps that is what drives us to read novels and news reports and to go and see films, the search for analogy, for symbolism, the need for recognition rather than cognition. Recounting an event distorts it, recounting facts distorts and twists and almost negates them, everything that one recounts, however true, becomes unreal and approximate, the truth doesn’t depend on things actually existing or happening, but on their remaining hidden or unknown or untold, as soon as they’re related or shown or made manifest, even in a medium that seems real, on television or in the newspapers, in what is called reality or life or even real life, they become part of some analogy or symbolism, and are no longer facts, instead they become mere recognition. The truth never shines forth, as the saying goes, because the only truth is that which is known to no one and which remains untransmitted, that which is not translated into words or images, that which remains concealed and unverified, which is perhaps why we do recount so much or even everything, to make sure that nothing has ever really happened, not once it’s been told.— A Heart So White (Javier Marías)
And don’t forget Lady MacBeth: “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white.”