Moving in the rarified circles of a creative writing MFA, where writers like David Foster Wallace and Jack Kerouac are gods, I tended to keep a low profile about my abiding love for Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” Ever since, as a teenager, I first read my mother’s small hardbound copy, published by Collins – which became mine after she died – the set pieces have stayed vividly with me. Helen Burns’s death at Lowood School; the meeting with Rochester when he falls from his horse; Jane saving him from the fire in his bed; Mason’s terrible scream in the night; the summer night when Rochester entreats Jane to accept him as a husband and the great horse-chestnut tree splits in half; the strangers at the church who say the wedding ceremony cannot go on; Jane wandering on the moors; the call of “Jane!” that compels her back to Thornfield. Of course, I know the elements that would make it questionable by today’s standards of fiction – a protagonist who is so wholly good and all-seeing, the far-fetched plot twist that has her resuced on the moors by her only living relatives. And then there is the Gothic novel madwoman in the attic. But it is a book that I return to again and again, and it never disappoints.
So, I was delighted – and surprised – to read the By the Book Q&A with Kazuo Ishiguro in the March 5th issue of The New York Times Book Review (to coincide with the release of his new novel, “The Buried Giant”).
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
Charlotte Brontë’s recently edged out Dostoyevsky. As I reread in maturity, I’m less patient with Dostoyevsky’s sentimentality, and those long improvised meanderings that should have been edited out. But his take on insanity is so wide-ranging and profound, one begins to suspect it’s a universal condition. As for Brontë, well, I owe my career, and a lot else besides, to “Jane Eyre” and “Villette.”
Well! “I owe my career, and a lot else besides …” How intriguing. That was all there was, no further explanation, so I started wondering how and why. It’s true that Ishiguro’s books are also written in the first person, but there seemed more to it than that, so I went on a search. I came across an Art of Fiction interview with Kazuo Ishiguro by Susannah Hunnewell in the Spring 2008 edition of The Paris Review. Towards the end, there is this:
You are, in fact, a fan of Dostoyevsky
Yes. And of Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins—that full-blooded nineteenth-century fiction I first read in university
What do you like about it?
It’s realist in the sense that the world created in the fiction is more or less akin to the world we live in. Also, it’s work you can get lost in. There’s a confidence in narrative, which uses the traditional tools of plot and structure and character. Because I hadn’t read a lot as a child, I needed a firm foundation. Charlotte Brontë of Villette and Jane Eyre; Dostoyevsky of those four big novels; Chekhov’s short stories; Tolstoy of War and Peace. Bleak House. And at least five of the six Jane Austen novels. If you have read those, you have a very solid foundation.
I think of the penetrating impact that “The Remains of the Day” had on me, and how thrilling it was to hear Ishiguro read from “When We Were Orphans” and have him sign my copy. If this writer, whom I admire so much, believes that he owes his “career, and a lot else besides” to “Jane Eyre” and “Villette,” then I feel free to indulge my love of Charlotte Brontë to my heart’s content.