Intertextual Time Travel

Last week, I wrote a two parter about The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “The Overcoat,” by Nikolai Gogol. Reading Gogol’s short story was, I felt, absolutely necessary to understanding the novel. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the idea of books in dialogue with each other even though they were published more than 100 years apart. Thinking chronologically, it’s impossible for it to be a dialogue. The Namesake can respond to “The Overcoat,” but “The Overcoat” can’t talk back to The Namesake.

Frank Weston Benson

Or can it?

Apparently this dialogue could take place in my head. (It’s a weird place.) Reading “The Overcoat” really did help certain parts of The Namesake, which remained more than a little opaque to me after I finished it. If I had gone back and reread The Namesake, I’m sure that I would have ended up with new thoughts about “The Overcoat.” If I hadn’t read these books together, I would have ended up with a book I didn’t fully understand and a very bleak story that made me chuckle before it punched me in the gut. The books would have been silent when they could have been talking to each other.

My little epiphany about the way that my brain turned into a literary time machine reminded me of one of my firm beliefs about books: they’re not alive unless they’re being read. Without a reader to host the characters and the ideas presented in stories, a book is just ink, wood pulp, and a bit of cardboard—or just pixels on a screen, if you prefer ereaders. Bouncing stories off of each other to see the sparks is another amazing thing we can do in our bookish brains.

If you’re interested in more bookish dialogues, see my Bookish Sommelier posts. They don’t travel as far in time as Lahiri and Gogol do, but they have very interesting things to say if you get them in the room together.

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