Much of my reading is now rereading. I read new things infrequently. I try new authors hardly at all. I favour books about certain types or classes of character and set in certain locations. I'm really very choosy, very small-minded. I've come to the end of Trollope, an almost exclusive preference of mine through my twenties and thirties. I never thought I'd exhaust him. I've read all of Dickens and James too, other favourites, and often feel at something of a loss.
Rereading is inherently a limited activity, though of course it also has things to offer. I know what to expect and I know I'll also probably gain something new. But I have a fear. One day I'll pick up an old favourite and it'll mean nothing. It will have lost its savour. Such fears should not be underrated: reading, for some people, isn't just a pastime. It's deeply bound up with, indeed part of, their inner lives. And as we know from Brookner, one must cherish and protect one's inner life almost at any cost.
If Lotte in Weimar is comfort reading for me, I suspect it was comfort writing for its author. Published in 1939 while Mann was in exile from his homeland (Buddenbrooks having been publicly burnt) the novel is set in the early nineteenth century and tells of real-life Werther* heroine Lotte's arrival in Weimar forty-four years after her youthful association with Goethe. I am sorry the novel isn't better known in English.
Here is George Steiner on Mann:
Thomas Mann is a towering presence in modern literature. The analogy with Goethe, which he himself invoked, is often justified. The leviathan series of novels that chronicled the decay of the old European order, and its descent into the night of the inhuman, stands unrivalled. Our current politics, our aesthetics, our images of personal hurt carry the impress of Death in Venice, of The Magic Mountain, of Doctor Faustus. The epithet 'Olympian' has been attached to Thomas Mann. In an important sense, it is erroneous. There is nothing remote about these classics. They ache at us.
*Brookner's Family and Friends begins with an epigraph from Goethe's most famous novel. And the cold calculations of Elective Affinities are discussed in Altered States.