Reading Group: 2002 Discussions

LGBT Community Center NYC The Gay & Lesbian Reading Group, based in New York City, is a friendly and diverse discussion group founded circa 1982. We welcome everyone interested in GLBT Literature, and appreciate all points of view. We read contemporary and classic works of GLBT-related fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry. Join us the second Thursday of each month, 8:00pm at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, NYC.

In addition to many GLBT Literature Resources, this site also archives information about the G&L Reading Group from 1997 to today, including all of the books we have discussed.

Books & Resources: 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 || Books Only:  1998 | 1997 || Full Index

Books Discussed in 2002

(in reverse chronological order)

 

Book
December
2002
Giovanni's Room – James Baldwin
1956 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

  • Giovanni's Room – Amazon.com resources [reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author, discounted new & used copies]
  • James Baldwin: Library of America editions (definitive texts, notes, acid-free paper, hardcover)
  • Baldwin as New York Times "Profiled Author" – the original NYT reviews, articles by and about Baldwin, an audio recording of Baldwin, and more
  • James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time – two-hour documentary, from Americanwriters.org, available free online as a RealPlayer file. NOTE: You must click on "Watch the Program" (text link to the right of the drawing of Baldwin – but do NOT use the "Watch" link above the Baldwin drawing which is not correctly linked)
  • Baldwin Quotations – famous lines from Baldwin's fiction, non-fiction, and plays
  • James Baldwin: Teacher Resource File – links to biographies, bibliographies, criticism, lesson plans, etc. NOTE: Absent is any information about Baldwin's sexual orientation, or about his works with same-sex themes
  • Other Baldwin works we have discussed:
  • Film Connection
    • James Baldwin film connections – from the Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb)
    • Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the Month – Ossessione (1942), gay director Luchino Visconti's extraordinary first film (which also began the influential Neorealist film movement) and Baldwin's novel are both gritty yet poetic works about a bisexual man, trapped in a world of passion, sexual confusion, and murder.

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – December 12, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 40 of us at our jam-packed December 12th discussion (one of the two or three best-attended in recent years) of James Baldwin's 1956 novel, Giovanni's Room. Set in postwar Paris, it tells of a young American torn between his desire for a handsome, rootless Italian man and the woman he plans to marry.

Giovanni's Room was enthusiastically praised by most of our members, both for the exceptional quality of its writing and the social and psychological insights into its era, although a few people found it a "hysterical soap opera, with a cast of self-loathing characters." This was the third Baldwin novel we have read in the past four years; we discussed - and highly praised - Go Tell It on the Mountain in October 1998 and Another Country in June 2001. Some of our members said that they consider James Baldwin (1924-1987) not only one of the greatest gay and African-American novelists, and social critics, but one of the greatest American writers... period.

We began by discussing how Baldwin captured the constricted, and virulently homophobic, 1950s, as refracted through a twenty-something white American knocking around Europe. Some of our members who lived during that era recalled the powerful experience of reading the novel when it was first published, with one of the most fully-drawn gay relationships portrayed up to that point.

Others said that even back then, a decade and a half before Stonewall, Baldwin did not have to present such "doom-laden" bisexual/gay main characters as David (the narrator) and Giovanni. It was noted that Patricia Highsmith, albeit using her pseudonym of "Claire Morgan," had already written an equally psychologically probing yet affirmative novel about a lesbian relationship, The Price of Salt (which we discussed in March 1998). Still other members argued that Baldwin's portrait of David offered great insight into the painful compromises which GLB people had to make to survive in that era, even when they were several thousand miles removed from the US.

We spent much of our discussion scrutinizing David, the novel's first-person narrator. We explored such questions as, Was he a figure of self-loathing, who wilfully refused to accept his gay identity and hence could never form a committed relationship with another man? Or was he simply a confused young man searching for a fulfilling life in a hostile, not to mention confusing, world? Another major point of contention was what, if anything, David learned from his tragic relationship with Giovanni.

And we talked about what it meant for Baldwin, a proud African-American and a major figure in the Civil Rights movement, to write a work (this was only his second novel) devoid of black characters. Did he do that to focus on issues of sexual orientation; or - as a few people speculated - did Baldwin himself fantasize about being a "super desirable, blond-haired pretty boy" (as one member put it) like his protagonist?

We also looked at the perhaps continuing relevance of David - with his lack of genuine self-acceptance - for GLBT people today.

On a structural level, some of our members argued that the relative "flatness" of all the characters except David - including the two people vying for his love, Giovanni and Hella - was because of his intrinsic psychological limitations, namely, that he cannot sufficiently connect with anyone else (or even himself). A few people believed that the limitation was more Baldwin's than his character's. One person pointed out that the language David uses sometimes sounds, and feels, more like that of "a didactic Baptist minister" (such as Baldwin's own father, perhaps) than a privileged young white man.

We ended our discussion by examining Baldwin's style, which most people praised for its lyrical quality, as well as for its flexibility in limning David's range of (sometimes tortured) emotions. Many people also praised the novel's subtle but powerful symbolism, both major (Giovanni's room, which is simultaneously "womb-like" and sepulchral) and brief, such as the final image of the letter, announcing Giovanni's imminent execution. The novel ends, evocatively, with David slowly tearing "it into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me."

Several members commented on reading the novel very differently at various points in their lives, sometimes focusing on its emotionally negative aspects, other times savoring Baldwin's mastery of language and form. It is a novel which few people will ever forget.

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The Group
November
2002
The Group – Mary McCarthy
1963 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – November 14, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 29 of us at our collegial November 14th discussion of Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel, The Group. It follows the post-graduation lives of a group of eight women from Vassar's class of 1933, as it satirizes high society, socialism, intellectuals, and sexual double standards.

The novel was highly praised by most of our members, although a few people had some serious reservations. We began by discussing how Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) succeeded in capturing a very specific time and place: 1930s upper-class life on the East Coast, primarily Manhattan and Boston. Although "a long-since vanished era," several members, of a wide range of ages, said that they recognized many of McCarthy's characters among people they know today (including themselves).

Many people were struck not only by the vibrancy of the characters but by McCarthy's ironic tone, which some argued mirrored the generally well-intentioned, but hopelessly narrow- minded voice typical of the pettiest members of the titular group. A few people argued that the novel's tone was "smug and snotty, rather than genuinely satirical." They said that the narrator was both too intrusive - with endless catty asides - and insufficiently aware of the psychological factors which drove the characters. "This was especially problematic with a primary figure like Kay," they said, since we never even learn whether she died accidentally or by suicide.

Others were quick to defend McCarthy on all counts, praising the subtlety and inventiveness of her wit ("her jabs at social and intellectual pretensions were a hoot"), as well as her insight into characters. They argued that McCarthy has the right to use a non-omniscient narrator; and they especially liked the ambiguity surrounding Kay's climactic death, since the reader has to make up their own mind about the event.

Another criticism was that the eight principal characters plus their significant others were simply too many to follow, and that as a result the novel's momentum was lost. One person quipped that red editorial pens couldn't have been that expensive forty years ago: "The novel is too long by at least a third." However, several other people enjoyed the novel for its "sheer readability;" adding that they had no difficulty distinguishing - and feeling emotionally involved with - the large cast of characters. Others thought that Kay was an effective unifying device, since the novel begins with her wedding and ends with her funeral.

Many of our members, both women and men, had high praise for McCarthy's dissection of sexual hypocrisy in its many forms. Some people remembered just how shocking the (exclusively heterosexual) erotic scenes were, when the novel was first published. Others pointed out that each succeeding generation reads with new eyes, and that because such scenes are now commonplace, we are better able to assess McCarthy's novel as a work of literature, rather than as a work of "transient sensationalism."

The character we spent the greatest length of time discussing was the enigmatic lesbian expatriate, Elinor "Lakey" Eastlake, who makes a dramatic appearance in the final pages. Lakey, arguably the most emotionally stable and happy character in the novel, acts as a final catalyst, causing "the group" to reveal a great deal about itself and its assumptions. Many people were impressed, and moved, by such a sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian in a novel by a non-lesbian author like McCarthy. Others felt that, even by the standards of 40 years ago, she could have fleshed out Lakey a good deal more without sending her readers scurrying in a homophobic tizzy (McCarthy, a literary novelist and critic, wrote The Group with the hope that it would become her big best-seller: It did). They also noted that the few pages in which Lakey appears are the "tightest and best-written part of the entire novel." Many people wanted to know more about this fascinating woman and her European partner.

One of our members shared his very personal response to this novel, noting that as a teenager it gave him a yearning for "the pseudo-sophisticated New York world beyond my banal small town suburban upbringing." He went on to add that he now realized how brilliantly Mary McCarthy had skewered everyone - "herself, the girls of Vassar, her entire generation and the American reading public" - since by the novel's end "the group" is "no better off emotionally (though they are economically) than their contemporaries who did not go to college, Vassar or otherwise."

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Blood Wedding & The House of Bernarda Alba
October
2002
Blood Wedding (1933) & The House of Bernarda Alba (1936) – two plays by Federico García Lorca

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – October 10, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 27 of us at our impassioned October 10th discussion of two plays by poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca: Blood Wedding (1933) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936). Blood Wedding is a folk tragedy, written in verse, about a bride who deserts her groom for her lover; The House of Bernarda Alba is about a bitterly possessive mother who dominates her five grown daughters.

Lorca's plays were enthusiastically received by some of our members; others were more sparing in their praise. We began by discussing the problem of reading Lorca in translation. As one person, with a professional background in Spanish literature, remarked, "When you come to his poetry and plays in the original language it is absolutely electrifying. There was nothing like it in earlier Spanish literature." Several people mentioned that, even in translation, they found Lorca powerful, even overwhelming.

Another topic we discussed at length was reading versus seeing Lorca performed. The people who had attended a recent staging of Blood Wedding in Manhattan, or who had seen Carlos Saura's 1981 film of a dance version of the play, talked about how they came to the text influenced by a specific production. Others preferred reading the play "cold," seeing only the production which they imagined. Some members felt that Lorca, with his minimal stage directions, needs to be seen in a theatre, with the dynamic interplay of actors, music, costumes, sets, and lighting. We compared Lorca to other playwrights we have read recently, such as Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), who provide detailed descriptions of action and setting. We shared a laugh over House of Bernarda Alba's "infamous" (and probably tongue-in- cheek) stage direction, from early in Act One: "two hundred women finish coming in..."! We also talked about how any one interpretation (stage, film, or even the individual reader) is inadequate for realizing Lorca's complex vision, which combines a mastery of stagecraft, psychological insight, and myth.

Some members talked about how the plays both look back to classical Greek tragedy and ahead to modernist drama and film. One member mentioned how Lorca was used by Tennessee Williams, who in turn became a major influence on the great contemporary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother).

We also had a lively discussion of how Lorca uses a female perspective in both plays. We speculated about how this was related to Lorca being a gay man living in a repressive society. We also looked at whether his view of women was - or was not - stereotyped. Some of our Latina/o members talked about the still-prevalent typing of women, in Latin culture, as "either virgins or whores;" and how that was reflected in Lorca.

This led us to examine Lorca's insights (which some members considered profound) into the connections between social and familial oppression, repressed emotion, and its "release as violence," which is a common theme in both of the plays we read, as well as Lorca's other works. Some people noted that Lorca, as a gay "outcast" (albeit a successful playwright), had a unique understanding of the repression/violence dynamic. We also looked at same-sex aspects of Lorca, including the fleeting remark, in House of Bernarda Alba, that Pepe, the play's macho "stud," is also "at 4:00 AM" off sleeping with boys.

Near the end of our evening, members familiar with Lorca's brief life (1898-1936) noted that, as a child, he had been a precocious composer and pianist before focusing on poetry and drama. Later, at the University of Madrid, he "fell in" with some of the people who would become Spain's leading artists (while living in exile from the dictator Franco's regime), including the painter Salvador Dali and filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Los Olvidados, Viridiana). We also talked about Lorca's poetry (including the "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias" and the homoerotic Sonnets of Dark Love - included in the two previous newsletters), which some people preferred to his plays. They praised his poetry's concrete, voluptuous, and sometimes surreal images. It was pointed out that Lorca was also an energetic liberal and political activist. Shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was executed by the fascistic Nationalists - in a particularly gruesome and homophobic manner - and buried in an unmarked grave.

Our discussion ended with some people noting that no matter how localized the "folk-based" subject matter of Lorca's plays, his themes are universal: the tangled connections between love and lust, the complex roles of women, and the cruelty, violence, and death which result from emotions frustrated by convention and tyranny. Lorca is an artist - and notably a gay artist - whose vision is still all too relevant.

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The Bell
September
2002
The Bell – Iris Murdoch
1958 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – September 12, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 31 of us at our ecstatic September 12th discussion of Iris Murdoch's 1958 novel, The Bell. It recounts the experiences of a lay Anglican community, led by a closeted gay man, encamped near an ancient British abbey inhabited by an enclosed order of nuns. If memory serves, in recent years the Reading Group's wild enthusiasm for this novel was equaled only by that for Forster's A Passage to India (February 2001), McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (September 2000), and Woolf's To the Lighthouse (August 1999).

A resounding carillon of praise extended to all aspects of The Bell, from its philosophical, symbolic, and emotional complexity to its deeply-drawn characters and richness of detail to its compulsively readable style which deftly balanced comedy and drama. It also highlighted one of our group's strengths, namely, that the one or two people who had reservations about the book ("the characters were 'wet,' whiney and unappealing" and "some of the plot machinery was a bit creaky") were listened to attentively and respectfully... before the other 30 people continued, as one member jokingly put, "riding on the praise train."

To give a sense of the novel's flowing and resonant style - universally praised by our group - here is a representative excerpt, from the end of Chapter 14. Many people commented on how brilliantly Murdoch, writing in the third person, enters completely into the minds and feelings of her four or five major characters. Here we have the browbeaten wife, Dora Greenfield, escaping briefly from Imber Abbey to one of her favorite places, London's National Gallery, where she has been "a thousand times and the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face." PLEASE NOTE that I have included here the painting referred to in this passage: Thomas Gainsborough's "The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly," from about 1756 (which might also bring to mind the scene with Dora and the butterfly near the end of Chapter 1). Here is the passage, quoted in full:

PaintingDora stopped at last in front of Gainsborough's picture of his two daughters. These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike.

Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. Even Paul [her husband], she thought, only existed now as someone she dreamt about; or else as a vague external menace never really encountered and understood. But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all.

These thoughts, not clearly articulated, flitted through Dora's mind. She had never thought about the pictures in this way before; nor did she draw now any very explicit moral. Yet she felt that she had had a revelation. She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.

Dora looked anxiously about her, wondering if anyone had noticed her transports. Although she had not actually prostrated herself, her face must have looked unusually ecstatic, and the tears were in fact starting into her eyes. She found that she was alone in the room, and smiled, restored to a more calm enjoyment of her wisdom. She gave a last look at the painting, still smiling, as one might smile in a temple, favoured, encouraged, and loved. Then she turned and began to leave the building.

Dora was hurrying now and wanting her lunch. She looked at her watch and found it was tea-time. She remembered that she had been wondering what to do; but now, without her thinking about it, it had become obvious. She must go back to Imber at once. Her real life, her real problems, were at Imber; and since, somewhere, something good existed, it might be that her problems would be solved after all. There was a connexion; obscurely she felt, without yet understanding it, she must hang onto that idea: there was a connexion. She bought a sandwich and took a taxi back to Paddington.


We looked at this passage in great detail, discussing how - and why - it reflected a secular epiphany, inspired by what one member called "Dora's entering totally into a concrete work of art." We contrasted the revelation here to some of the novel's less- tangible ones, which Murdoch describes as being brought about through religionand other "metaphysical forces."

The passage which we spent the largest part of the evening discussing came in Chapter 13. It involved earnest, "extremely attractive," Oxford-bound Toby (whose favorite word is "rebarbative"), when he climbs over a wall into the mysterious enclosed area, and finds nuns placidly tending a cemetery. People talked about this tender and funny, yet strangely powerful, scene in terms of sexuality, religion, and myth, not to mention its psychological ramifications.

We also argued (in a friendly way, of course) about why the "utopian" Imber community eventually disintegrates. Was it because of the spiteful machinations of alcoholic Nick Fawley, closeted leader Michael Meade's ex-lover from many years earlier (or did they ever "consummate" their affair, some wondered)? Was it because of Michael's growing attraction to Toby, and the potentially ruinous scandal it was about to cause? Because of the fake "miracle" (covertly swapping the abbey's new bell for the symbolically-charged ancient bell found buried in the pond) concocted by Toby and Dora, with whom he has sex for the first time? (Toby's possible bisexuality was another hot topic of speculation: His passion for Dora cools quickly, and at the novel's end he once again thinks of Michael.) Or was the community doomed because of the rigidity and narrowness of Michael's successor as group leader, James Tayper Pace? Or was it because of some fundamental flaw in people's natures, whether divinely-caused ("sin") or purely human? And how does that social disintegration relate to one of Murdoch's central insights: "Violence is born of the desire to escape oneself" (Chapter 13)? We also talked about the positive consequences of the Imber community's dissolution, especially on Michael, Dora, and Toby, who re-enter the world purified by their suffering, with eyes - and hearts - more open.

Several people commented on the novel's nuanced understanding of gay psychology and experience, remarkable in a work from 45 years ago. Although Michael is a tortured character, he is also richly drawn and complex. One person was surprised, and delighted, to see a gay man of faith come to, as she put it, "our contemporary understanding that following yourself is what God wants you to do."

The experiences of Michael - as well as Dora, Toby, and Nick - opened another rich vein of discussion, as several people offered their views on the connections between religion, and spirituality, and sexuality, not to mention how any (or all) of those forces can lead to either personal destruction or fulfillment.

As many of our members would agree, there is far more complexity, and sheer reading pleasure, to be found in The Bell than a summary of our discussion can reveal. Long after you finish Murdoch's extraordinarily entertaining and moving novel, you may continue to hear - and feel - its reverberations.

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The Sheltering Sky
August
2002
The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles
1949 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – August 8, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 22 of us at our provocative August 8th discussion of Paul Bowles's 1949 novel, The Sheltering Sky. Bowles provided an excellent brief summary of his book in a letter to his publisher: "[It is] an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously; in the actual [Moroccan] desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit." Many readers, including his lesbian wife, acclaimed author Jane Auer Bowles, saw the central characters of Port and his spouse Kit as based on the Bowleses themselves (although a few people at our discussion disagreed with this interpretation).

The group's reaction to The Sheltering Sky was mixed to favorable. Many of our members expressed admiration for Bowles's spare but lyrical prose. Singled out for praise were his descriptions of the desert, which one member said "genuinely evoked eternity and infinity."

To give a sense of Bowles's style, here is a representative paragraph from Chapter 23, which describes the desperate state of mind of Port, the central male character:

It was an existence of exile from the world. He never saw a human face or figure, nor even an animal; there were no familiar objects along the way, there was no ground below, nor sky above, yet the space was full of things. Sometimes he saw them, knowing at the same time that really they could only be heard. Sometimes they were absolutely still, like the printed page, and he was conscious of their terrible invisible motion underneath, and of its portent to him because he was alone. Sometimes he could touch them with his fingers, and at the same time they poured in through his mouth. It was all utterly familiar and wholly horrible - existence unmodifiable, not to be questioned, that must be borne. It would never occur to him to cry out.

Despite people's enthusiasm for Bowles's evocative - and sometimes hallucinatory - style, only a few people responded favorably to his bleak view of life. One member said that this novel, like much of Bowles's short fiction, felt "like a tale of metaphysical horror, with the difference being that in classic horror an ordered universe is implied behind all of the monstrosity, while in the nihilistic Bowles the 'sheltering sky' is an illusion, with nothing but emptiness behind it." Bowles could have provided a motto for his existential leanings in this line, also from Chapter 23: "no action one might take or fail to take could change the outcome in the slightest degree." One person joked that he connected "too much" with Bowles's vision, adding "but that's what I'm on medication for."

One of our members was struck by what she called Bowles's tendency to divorce each of his characters from everything and everyone, including himself. Others felt that Bowles did not create characters, with psychological depth, so much as philosophizing puppets who were written solely to embody the author's perspective on life. As someone said, "How else could you explain such dumb behavior as not getting a simple vaccination before going to a country like Morocco with all of its known diseases at that time?"

Another person suggested that part of Bowles's motivation in writing this particular novel (his first book after a successful career as a serious composer) was to "cash in" on the postwar popularity - and often critical acclaim - of existential-themed works. It was noted that Bowles even wrote the English translation of Sartre's best-known play, No Exit (its most quoted line being, "Hell is other people").

This view was disputed by others, who felt that Bowles sincerely believed - and to an extent actually lived - what he wrote about in the novel (although he did not move permanently to Morocco until years after it was published).

Some people felt that Bowles wanted to explore his own bisexual or gay nature in the novel, especially in the shadowy relationship of Port and Tunner, as well as in Kit's androgyny after she is forced to impersonate a man in the final section. But it was suggested that Bowles was prevented from exploring same-sex themes because of self-imposed censorship. In 1949 such a novel - let alone a first novel - might have ended an author's career. One of our members, who grew up in the 1960s, offered a fascinating insight into existentialism's popularity 40 or 50 years ago, which might also shed some light on Bowles. Our member said that the idea that 'existence precedes essence' - which implied that you could make, or re-make, your own identity - was tremendously liberating for him, and many other GLBT people, at that time.

We ended our discussion by touching on Paul Bowles's extraordinary, and long, life, and his friendships with some of the most important artists of his day - the ones listed here were all gay, lesbian, or bisexual - including Gertrude Stein, Aaron Copland, Jean Cocteau, Virgil Thompson (who called Bowles "a dazzling blond"), Andre Gide, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood (who took Paul's last name for his character Sally Bowles of The Berlin Stories and Cabaret), Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, William S. Burroughs, and many others, not least of whom was his wife, Jane Auer Bowles, who first inspired him to write fiction after he had completed over 150 musical compositions.

One of our members, who was especially familiar with Bowles's life, noted that the enigmatic author deflected every opportunity to know him, both in his personal life and even in his novels and stories. One of the authors in our group, who has read all of Bowles's works, ended our discussion - on a note of cold comfort - by pointing out that The Sheltering Sky is "the least nihilistic of his novels."

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Strangers on a Train
July
2002
Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
1949 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – July 11, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 27 of us at our thrilling-and-chilling July 11th discussion of lesbian novelist Patricia Highsmith's 1949 thriller, Strangers on a Train. It tells the nightmarish story of how a sociopathic playboy lures an up-and-coming young architect into swapping murders.

As one person put it, "Maybe what our parents taught us about not talking to strangers wasn't such bad advice after all!"

In any event, most people agreed that Patricia Highsmith's novel was fast-paced and genuinely suspenseful, with much fine writing (especially remarkable since this was her first novel). However, others criticized her artificial characters and cynicism. Some people thought that Highsmith acted as a sort of puppet-mistress who spun out characters and situations solely to dramatize, and "prove," her bleak worldview.

One area which received near-universal enthusiasm was Highsmith's taut style, for its vivid imagery, compulsive rhythms, and sly sexual suggestiveness. You can see all those qualities, and more, in this pivotal - and terrifying - moment from Chapter 12, in which Bruno murders Guy's shrewish wife Miriam:

His hands captured her throat on the last word, stifling its abortive uplift of surprise. He shook her. His body seemed to harden like rock, and he heard his teeth crack. She made a grating sound in her throat, but he had her too tight for a scream. With a leg behind her, he wrenched her backward, and they fell to the ground together with no sound but of a brush of leaves. He sunk his fingers deeper, enduring the distasteful pressure of her body under his so her writhing would not get them both up. Her throat felt hotter and fatter. Stop, stop, stop! He willed it! And the head stopped turning. He was sure he had held her long enough, but he did not lessen his grip. Glancing behind him, he saw nothing coming. When he relaxed his fingers, it felt as if he had made deep dents in her throat as in a piece of dough. Then she made a sound like an ordinary cough that terrified him like the rising dead, and he fell on her again, hitched himself onto his knees to do it, pressing her with a force he thought would break his thumbs. All the power in him he poured out through his hands. And if it was not enough? He heard himself whimper. She was still and limp now.

[NOTE: I have posted a comparative analysis of this scene in both the novel and film, including Highsmith's text and extensive stills from Hitchcock's film.]

Many people were gripped not only by Highsmith's language, but by her two unforgetable main characters, Bruno and Guy. Some members noted that they liked being forced to go into disturbing emotional places - in the safety of a novel - where "good" and "evil" could hardly be more murky and complex. To quote a key line from the book, "Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality loved."

As admirers of the classic 1951 film know, this is NOT what happens in Hitchock's version. There Guy is a tennis star, not an architect; and he never murders Bruno's father. As various members pointed out, most of the film's story - including almost all of its most memorable sequences - were invented by Hitchcock and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (author of such classic suspense novels as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely). Since many of the people at the discussion were destined, a week later, to see and discuss Hitchcock's film at a group party, we resolutely focused on the novel.

We spent much of the evening trying to unravel the novel's psychological complexities, including the mystery of why Guy would ever have acquiesced to Bruno's murderous scheme, even after Bruno had murdered Guy's wife. Although most people found Guy "spineless and creepy," our members offered an unprecedently wide range of interpretations to explain his behavior. Approaches ranged from psychoanalytical (Freud's theory of the id and Oedipus complex, as well as Jung's views on archetypes and "The Shadow" were all invoked) to socio-economic (unbearable social pressures on Guy - the only character not "from money" - drove him to it) to biblical ("Was Bruno's pimple, described so vividly in Chapter 1, the 'mark of Cain'?," as one person speculated - but then, what about the "big mole" on detective Gerard's cheek on the last page?) to literary (the novel obeys the basic rules of its suspense genre; also Bruno is Guy's "doppelganger" or "evil double," another classic device) to philosophical ("Highsmith is an Existentialist," as another person put it, "plain and simple").

Of course, we also looked at the sometimes conspicuous homoerotic attraction between Bruno and Guy, and how - despite Guy's protestations - "it's definitely," as one person put it, "a two- way street." Their meeting on the train (very similar in both Highsmith and Hitchcock's versions) was called a "classic pick-up scene." And the night's biggest laugh came when someone said that their exchange of murders was "the equivalent of 'You do me, I'll do you!'" Another person shared the insight that, "in fact it would have been the perfect crime, and they would have gotten away with it, if only Bruno had not been in love with Guy and felt compelled to go back to him."

We next focused on Bruno. Several people thought that his alcoholism was handled clumsily. And even more people were unconvinced by his death. Some wondered if Bruno had even died, since his body was never recovered (in today's sequel-happy era, you could be certain that he would be back for More Strangers on Another Train). We spent some time talking about whether it was an accident or suicide.

The only woman in the novel, Anne, provided another heated topic of discussion. Several people found her made entirely of cardboard, although she was "a good - even witty - symbol for 1950s consumer culture." Others thought Anne had genuine depth; they pointed out her nuanced and evolving understanding of Guy throughout the novel.

Perhaps more mysterious than either Bruno or Guy is the author herself. As some of our biographically-inclined members pointed out, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) had an exceptionally diverse career, which included the romantic lesbian classic, 1952's The Price of Salt (published in that virulently homophobic era under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan" - our group enthusiastically discussed it in March 1998). But Highsmith is also the creator of yet another of the most acclaimed, and popular, sociopaths in literature (and film): the beguiling bisexual con-man and murderer, Tom Ripley. He appears in five novels which span her career, beginning in 1955's The Talented Mr. Ripley and ending with 1992's Ripley Under Water. Several people speculated about how much, if at all, Highsmith's nihilistic worldview in Strangers on a Train (and the Ripley novels) indicated her personal, as opposed to literary, beliefs. We also talked a good deal about whether or not her bleak view of gay men suggests that she was "homophobic" - perhaps even self-loathing - or whether this was simply one more aspect of her worldview, which sees a "full complement of evil" in people, as well as the "natural compulsion to express it" (Chapter 42).

We ended our discussion by looking at the book's structure. Many people had trouble with the second half, which they said became a conventional detective story, in contrast to the chillingly original first half. Others praised the structure, pointing out that Highsmith was exceptional at maintaining momentum right to the last page.

It was suggested that, for a novel which exists on so many levels, Highsmith may have playfully provided is own motto: Detective Gerard points out to district attorney Howland the case files "that overlapped in a long row, like cards in a game of solitaire" and says, "'Read from the bottom up.'"

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Howards End
June
2002
Howards End – E.M. Forster
1910 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – June 13, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 26 of us at our exuberant June 13th discussion of E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, Howards End. It explores the connections between two very different families of wealth - the liberal Schlegels and conservative Wilcoxes - and a young middle-class man who hopes to "better himself."

E.M. Forster (1879-1970) would have appreciated not only the enthusiastic response but the close reading which our group gave Howards End. Many aspects of his celebrated novel were singled out for praise, including its broad social panorama, the range of its psychological and sociological insight, and even its mystical undercurrents (all of these elements had also been praised in A Passage to India, Forster's final novel, which our group discussed in February 2001).

A few people compared Howards End very favorably to some of their favorite novels, including George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871) and the best of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Others argued that Forster had a more subtle and deep understanding of society than even those revered authors.

Some members talked about how they responded deeply to Forster's unique style, which is somewhat formal and witty, yet flexible enough to take on - at various points - the unique sensibilities of a wide range of characters. One person noted that Forster marks the dividing point between earlier novelists, with their "certainty about society and human nature," and the more open, complex, and ambiguous modern writers such as Forster's friend Virginia Woolf (they were both members of the famed Bloomsbury Group).

We spent much of the evening trying to unravel the novel's narrative complexities, including the mystery of who is telling the story, and how much does he - or she (some argued the narrator was a woman) - know about the characters and their world. For some people, such concerns were secondary to the sheer exuberance of Forster's writing and the fascinating story, which spans several years and encompasses such a broad spectrum of people.

The character we discussed at greatest length was Leonard Bast, the middle-class clerk who finds himself spiraling downward after acting on bad career advice blithely given, at the Schlegel sisters' request, by Mr. Wilcox. (Our focus on Bast may sound surprising, since he is often regarded as only the fourth or fifth major character in the novel - but he certainly caught the interest of our group.) Bast brought up many of the novel's central - and still-relevant - issues, including self-realization vs. conformity, responsiveness to nature vs. the inexorable destructiveness of the "modern age," and - at the heart of the book - the nature of class relations. One person, mentioning Bast but focusing on the laborers and servants who populate the novel's background, criticized Forster for having "no working class consciousness - yet he is supposed to be a writer of strong humanist and democratic values."

We also used Bast to talk about sexuality - or rather the lack of its explicit mention - in the novel. This issue came up when someone joked, How could a gay author write a novel without any sex? A woman responded that of course there's sex in the novel: How else do you explain Helen Schlegel and Bast's baby? That got a big laugh. It also opened up our discussion to the other "not- talked-about" aspects of Forster's novel, as well as his life.

Our members familiar with Forster's biography mentioned some important details about his life as a gay man and how it affected his writing. For instance, there may be a parallel between the novel's sexual reticence and the fact that Forster likely never had physical relations until he was nearly 40 - ten years after he wrote Howards End - when he fell in love with an Egyptian tram conductor in Alexandria. Happily, in 1930 Forster began a loving relationship with a handsome, intelligent, albeit married, police constable named Bob Buckingham, which lasted till Forster's death at the Buckinghams' home in 1970.

It was also noted that Forster became aware of his orientation in the severely repressive climate following the 1895 Wilde scandal. But, as someone pointed out, there is a positive dimension to his acute awareness of gay oppression: It fueled his anger at all forms of social and political injustice. We can see that throughout his body of work, including Howards End.

A man at our discussion said that for him the one truly satisfying relationship in the novel was between two women: the strong friendship - even love - of Margaret Schlegel and Mrs. Wilcox. He was especially moved because their connection overcame steep differences of opinion about a wide range of issues, including the (then) burning issue of women's suffrage.

Clearly, Howards End is not only a rich, complex, and - as most of our members would agree - highly entertaining novel, it also provides - in the famous passage from Chapter 22 - a motto by which people can live, with themselves and each other: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

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The Member of the Wedding
May
2002
The Member of the Wedding – Carson McCullers
1946 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – May 9, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 25 of us at our exuberant May 9th discussion of Carson McCullers' 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding. Set in the dog days of summer in a small Southern town, it tells of 12-year-old tomboy Frankie (F. Jasmine) Addams' coming of age.

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) would have glowed to hear the rapturous praise which most members of our group gave The Member of the Wedding. It was praised as much for its psychological depth as for its shimmering style, both of which - many people noted - perfectly captured the thoughts and feelings of a lonely, imaginative girl taking her first steps into adulthood.

Before describing our discussion further, take a look at this representative passage from Part II of the novel (about three-quarters through):

"Well, what is you talking about?" asked Berenice.

F. Jasmine shook her head, almost as though she did not know. Her heart was dark and silent, and from her heart the unknown words flowered and bloomed and she waited to name them. From next door there was the evening sound of childrens' baseball and the long call: Batteruup! Batteruup! Then the hollow pock of a ball and the clatter of a thrown bat and the running footsteps and the wild voices. The window was a rectangle of pale clear light and the child ran across the yard and under the dark arbor after the ball. The child was quick as a shadow and F. Jasmine did not see his face - his white shirttails flapped loose behind him like queer wings. Beyond the window the twilight was lasting and pale and still.

As several people pointed out, McCullers uses - as in the passage quoted above - simple language, closely-observed details, and sinuous verbal rhythms to etch a portrait of Frankie and her world. (One source of McCullers' mastery of narrative rhythm may have been her training as a classical pianist.) Some people remarked that McCullers' prose literally made them feel the oppressive heat of that cramped Southern town. Many others commented that they felt like they were inhabiting the mind and body of Frankie, so vividly did McCullers bring her to life. They were also fascinated by what one person called Frankie's "compendium of personalities," as she - at various points in the story - defines herself as either nondescript Frances, tomboyish Frankie, or "sophisticated" F. Jasmine Addams.

Perhaps the aspect of Frankie which affected most of us was her simple, and universal, desire to be "the member of the wedding" - to find what she calls "'the we of me'" - and to be connected to her family and the world, as well as to herself. McCullers found not only the humor but the deep pathos in Frankie's quest.

In fact, a few of our members found this novel "excruciatingly painful" in its depiction of Frankie's, and many of the other characters', profound sense of loneliness. We talked at length about Frankie's friend and mother surrogate, the African- American maid Berenice, who has gone through a long series of husbands - some violently abusive - but never found lasting happiness. As Berenice confides to Frankie, "'Why don't you see what I was doing?' asked Berenice. 'I loved Ludie [her first husband] and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward. What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces. My intention was to repeat me and Ludie. Now don't you see?'"

McCullers excels at depicting the many traps her characters - and many people - fall into which prevent them from finding genuine contentment. (An even more wide-ranging analysis of this "alienation" can be found in McCullers' first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which our group discussed - to enormous acclaim - in September 2000.)

Another vital theme we discussed was how Frankie, and by the extension all of us, must learn to 'read between the lines' to understand the full meaning of a situation. As McCullers writes in connection with Frankie and the red-haired soldier, "It was again as though the soldier talked a kind of double-talk that, try as she would, she could not follow - yet it was not so much the actual remarks as the tone underneath she failed to understand." A crucial part of Frankie's journey is to understand more and more about "the tone underneath" both in the world around her and within herself.

We also discussed how McCullers, who identified herself a lesbian (although she married a gay man named Reeves McCullers), coded some important same-sex content into her novel. We looked at the pivotal scene, described in only the sketchiest detail, of how Frankie sees two young black men kissing "back at the end of the alley." We also noted the scene which occurs when Frankie and her friend John Henry West (modeled on McCullers' friend Truman Capote) describe their respective visions of utopia. Frankie "planned it so that people could instantly change back and forth from boys to girls, whichever way they felt like and wanted." John Henry chimes in that "people ought to be half boy and half girl." Significantly, McCullers ends her novel with Frankie's crush on a new girl friend ("the daytime now was filled with radar, school, and Mary Littlejohn"), while her successful 1950 Broadway stage version of Member of the Wedding concludes, on a heterosexual note, with Frankie mooning over a boy named Barney MacKean whom she says looks like "a Greek god."

Our members praised McCullers' novel as much for its many layers of social, political and humanist meaning as for its vivid descriptions of one young girl's taking her first steps into a larger, and more complex, world. We ended our discussion by noting, with great sadness, that all of McCullers' major works were written while she was still in her twenties, between 1940 and 1946 (throughout her life McCullers endured many serious health problems, including multiple strokes and breast cancer). But her extraordinary, and deeply loved, works - culminating in The Member of the Wedding - continue to endure.

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Billy Budd, Sailor
April
2002
Billy Budd, Sailor – Herman Melville
1891 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – April 11, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 28 of us at our spirited April 11th discussion of Herman Melville's 1891 short novel, Billy Budd, Sailor. Set in 1797 aboard a British warship, it tells the tragic tale of the "Handsome Sailor" Billy Budd, his sadistic nemesis Claggart, and - caught between them - the "intellectual" Captain Vere. The novella was left in manuscript at Melville's death, and not published until 1924; a definitive edition did not appear until 1962.

Although a few of our members had strong reservations about this complex and enigmatic work, most people offered the highest praise.

First, let's hear from the critics: One member asked, tongue in cheek, "Where's the story?" Another person, who found it, "hated its pretentiousness and cardboard characterizations." The third critic said she admired and enjoyed Melville's Moby-Dick, but found Billy Budd claustrophobic, not to mention testosterone- driven.

The praise for Billy Budd focused on many aspects of the work. Several people were fascinated by Melville's unique style, so rich in metaphor, which draws on traditions as varied as mythology, Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, English history and literature (especially Shakespeare and Milton), not to mention nautical jargon (Melville was a professional sailor before he became a writer).

One person noted that although Melville was extraordinarily learned, he also had a wonderful sense of humor. Take a look at the opening of Chapter 4: "In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some bypaths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such a bypath. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least, we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be." That passage is a jaunty complement to the one in Chapter 28, when Melville writes, "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial."

And although the book's many "bypaths" and "ragged edges" fascinated most of our members, they did leave others frustrated by their seeming irrelevance.

Looking at the work as a whole, many people were moved by the archetypal drama of "good vs. evil": Billy vs. Claggart, with Vere the "everyman" caught between them. But as our discussion proved, that drama could be interpreted in many different ways. We touched on a political reading, with Billy representing a sort of Rousseauean "natural man," Claggart as a representative of "Natural Depravity" (Chapter 11), and Vere as the exemplar of a middle-of-the-road social order. But did Melville "accept" Billy's execution as being necessary for a larger social good, i.e., the preservation of law and order? Some people thought so; others strongly disagreed.

Some of our members were moved by Melville's resonant use of Christian elements, with Billy as Christ figure, Claggart the demonic tempter/destroyer, and Vere in the Pontius Pilate role. Other members pointed out that Melville was, if anything, more agnostic - even "pagan" (shown by his love for native peoples, and disdain for missionaries, in his early novels Typee and Omoo) - than Christian.

Other people read the story in terms of Greek tragedy: Billy as tragic hero, his stutter the 'tragic flaw' which leads to his death, Dansker the unheeded oracle of doom, and a fatalistic plot which unfolded over a brief period of time in a single location. Other people argued that Billy lacked the stature of a genuine tragic figure - just as he lacked the spiritual nobility of a Christ figure. Still others made comparisons to Shakespearean tragedy, focusing on similarities between Claggart and Iago, the villain in Othello known for his "motiveless malignity." Chapters 11 and 12 see Melville wrestling with the "enigma" of Claggart's "hidden nature."

One member thought Claggart was a "closet case" who wanted to destroy the beautiful Billy because he could not "have him." And in Chapter 17, Melville slips in this suggestive passage: "sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban." Some people speculated that Claggart's evil springs neither from some metaphysical or biological/genetic source, but from his failure to accept his own sexual nature.

This line of discussion opened up the rich topic of homoerotic content in the novel, as well as in Melville's life. We all had a good laugh at the seminal 'spilled soup' scene in Chapter 10 between Claggart and Billy, when the master-at-arms taps Billy "from behind with his rattan" and says, "'Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!'"

On a personal note, some of our members, who came of age in the 1960s, emphasized how important this book had been to them as a "canonical gay text." They talked about how the "erotic descriptions" of, say, the "Handsome Sailor" (in Chapters 1 and 2) were for helping them define a gay identity, at a time when invisibility - in literature as in life - was the rule.

Our group delved further into the same-sex mysteries of the text, speculating not only about Claggart's frustrated attraction to Billy, but possibly Captain Vere's as well. One member noted that while the 1851 novel Moby-Dick presented an affirmative (some would say astonishingly affirmative) depiction of same-sex relationships - the narrator Ishmael marries his shipmate Queequeg and they celebrate a "heart's honeymoon" - Melville's view on "the ship as an alternative community" had darkened by the time of Billy Budd 40 years later. The member went on to say that the narrator of Billy Budd - who may or may not represent Melville himself - is more overtly homosexual than any of the characters. This produced an "Ah!" moment in the group, as many of us were struck by the validity of that comment.

Other members talked about Melville's intense relationship, possibly sexual, with Hawthorne during the late 1840s/ early 1850s, when Melville was writing Moby-Dick (which he dedicated to Hawthorne) and Hawthorne was completing House of the Seven Gables. The burning of their intimate correspondence is surely one of the greatest losses to American - and possibly gay - literature. Homoeroticism - and the social/political implications of same-sex desire - is a constant, if subtle, theme throughout all of Melville's writing.

Another member suggested that perhaps one solution to the "enigma" of Billy Budd can be found by applying Melville's own subtitle - "an inside narrative" - to the work as a whole. In an "inside" reading, this ambiguous (and one could argue "post-modern") novel is seen as a series of subtextual clues - sometimes playful, sometimes purposefully obscuring - about everything from its sexual attitudes to its political meaning. As Melville writes in Chapter 21, the truth and meaning of the tale "every one must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford."

Yet that is a very tricky "light" indeed. One of our members said that Billy Budd can be seen as a warning against the dangers of mis-reading: it sets countless "traps" for the unwary reader who tries to pigeonhole it as "simply" political or Christian or literary, historical or allegorical or psychological. Billy Budd draws on, and plays with, all those codes, and more. Just when you feel you have a handle on 'what it really means,' Melville pulls the poop deck out from under you... again. But always with a sense of humor, and with prose as forceful as an ocean current.

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The Notorious Dr. August
March
2002
The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes – Christopher Bram
2000 novel

SPECIAL: Mr. Bram joined us for questions & answers

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – March 14, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 36 of us at our jam-packed March 14th discussion of Christopher Bram's 2000 novel, The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes. Spanning the period from the Civil War to the 1920s, and moving across the United States, Europe, and the Near East, this epic work centers on August Fitzwilliam Boyd (aka Dr. August), a pianist whose music may be inspired by the spirit world, and his complex relationship with Isaac Kemp, an ex-slave who is his sometime lover, and the prim Alice Pangborn, whom Isaac marries. Following our discussion, we were fortunate to have Mr. Bram join us for a question and answer session, moderated by his friend and our member Joel W. (Mr. Bram had also joined us in 2000 when we discussed his novel Gossip, and in 1997 when we did Father of Frankenstein.)

The Notorious Dr. August received near unanimous acclaim from our group on all counts: plot, style, characters, and even history. Although a couple members noted minor inaccuracies, many more people were dazzled by Bram's skillful interweaving of sixty years of American and international history into his story. Some favorite moments included the cameo appearances of such icons as Frederick Douglass, Brahms, and Freud.

Beyond the broad historical canvas, several of our members talked about the thematic, and emotional, depth of the novel, which explores issues of race, spirituality, sexuality - and what it means to truly love someone. Although a few people remarked that they found the characters "too symbolic," others found them compelling. They praised Bram for embodying his constellation of themes through such flawed and complex people.

While some members understood the self-denying Dr. August - who resigns himself to living without a fulfilling sexual relationship after Isaac leaves him for Alice - others were infuriated by "his emotional weakness." Even more controversial was Isaac: some people praised his increasing spiritual devotion, while others saw him as a self-involved, self-deluding prig. Many people were moved by how Dr. August's and Alice's relationship moves from mutual suspicion to genuine, deep caring.

As several people noted, part of Bram's accomplishment is his ability to create characters who simultaneously contain a range of contradictory viewpoints, such as the elderly Dr. August who says, in the closing pages:

Today, however, his words sound wiser to me, his God more appealing. I envy Isaac's ability to push all the madness of life - the misfortune, violence, error and pain - up into heaven, where it can be called God and given purpose. We are each of us full of sins, regrets, contradictions, and despair. Would that we could all dissolve them in a fire called God, a fierce music that purges the soul without destroying the body. Such a pretty phrase, "born again."

Bram's fluid style and swift pacing were also praised, as were his use of memorable images, such as the electrocution of the elephant Topsy at Coney Island, and the fiery destruction of Dreamland.

During our lively question and answer session with Mr. Bram, he noted that he had long wanted to write a "fat historical novel." He also mentioned that Notorious Dr. August was the first book he had outlined in advance. He was happily surprised that, during the editorial process, he had not had to add, or remove, any major sections. Mr. Bram also remarked that he felt a strong connection with all the characters, despite - or because of - their complex, contradictory natures. When asked about any autobiographical significance, he revealed that Dr. August and Isaac's relationship was suggested by his own long-term experience with a college classmate. When asked about the spiritual content of the novel, Mr. Bram noted that he was sceptical but open-minded. Our hour with Mr. Bram flew by, and I'm sure we all hope he will join us again for discussions of his future novels.

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Possession: A Romance
February
2002
Possession: A Romance – A.S. Byatt
1990 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – February 14, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among those of us at our February 14th discussion of A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel, Possession: A Romance. It tells parallel stories of two pairs of lovers - two Victorian poets, and two contemporary academicians trying to uncover the poets' secret lives.

Not even Byatt's prestigious Booker Prize (Britain's top literary honor) could shield her from the scorn of most - but not all - of our members. Virtually every aspect of the novel - style, structure, psychology, and its depiction of gay, lesbian, and bi characters - was examined and found wanting. As one of our members colorfully summed it up, "This endless, bloated novel is like a Macy's Parade balloon held down by a mouse."

That "mouse" is the love story of two repressed, minor Victorian poets (created by Byatt): Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Much of the novel consists of their previously-undiscovered love letters, as well as extended excerpts from their poetry. Everyone present - even the book's defenders - agreed that these pastiche poems were, at best, flat; at worst, they were compared harshly to their obvious (at least to the former English majors among us) models: Coleridge, Robert Browning, Tennyson, and other 19th century poets. We also spent a considerable amount of time comparing Possession to a novel which clearly served as its inspiration: John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

However, some people were moved by the increasingly passionate journal entries of LaMotte and Ash. Although others found "the repression - in both the modern and Victorian stories - so thick you could cut it with a knife."

Others criticized this "inauthentic" novel for containing not characters, but merely caricatures. However, one of our members who works in scholarly publishing, said that she thought Byatt had done an accurate, and quite funny, job of satirizing cut-throat academicians.

Some people found the novel not-so-subtly homophobic: For example, all the women who appear to be lesbian (in Byatt's descriptions) are easily "switched" when a willing - or even a not-so-willing - red-blooded man comes along. Or, as in the case of LaMotte's longtime "roommate" Blanche Glover, they commit suicide when the object of their affection becomes "straightened out."

One woman denounced Byatt for implying that - as perhaps the major subtext of the entire novel - "biology is destiny;" which implies, on one level, that 'there can not be lesbians in Nature, since Nature is concerned only with propagating itself.' (Clearly Byatt - who has often noted her fascination with biology - was not familiar with the growing literature on same-sex couplings found throughout the animal kingdom, about which you can read more in Bruce Bagemihl's recent study, Biological Exuberance.)

One of the novel's defenders liked how Byatt used a traditional detective story formula to contrast with the highfalutin literary subject matter. He also praised what Byatt at one point calls the "plot-coil," as she interweaves past and present, with the two plot strands - and characters - drawing ever closer. However, he was troubled that you had to be a specialist in Victorian literature to unravel the dense tissue of allusions stuffed into the novel, including the symbolic names (e.g., Coleridge and "Christabel," Browning and "[Childe] Roland," Tennyson and "Maud"). While dissecting Byatt's "intertextuality" is sure to keep many scholars employed for years, it did raise issues about "elitism" in the novel.

Others were disappointed by what they felt was sloppy structure, saying that time and again (modern day literary sleuths) Roland Michell and Maud Bailey "serendipitously stumble on" exactly the clue they need to continue their "quest." Many people found the last twenty pages - with digging up a grave during a torrential thunderstorm - ludicrously (as opposed to "satirically") over the top. Although the final "coda" had some champions, because of its unexpected sweetness, they were a small minority.

To balance our group's critical opinion of the novel, it should be pointed out that not only has it garnered many awards (besides the Booker), it was also a major international best-seller which received glowing reviews in the mainstream - i.e., non-academic - press. For instance, the November 5, 1990 issue of Time Magazine raved that "its manifest intelligence, subtle humor and extraordinary texturing of the past within the present make Possession an original, and unforgettable, contribution." It is even now being filmed as a major Hollywood production starring Gwyneth Paltrow. As always, the only way to know what you will feel about a book is to read it yourself... but you knew that [smile].

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Patience & Sarah
January
2002
Patience & Sarah – Isabel Miller
1967 novel

LINKS – followed by a summary of our discussion

  • Patience & Sarah – Amazon.com resources
  • Isabel Miller (glbtq) – introduction to her life and work
  • Mary Ann WillsonSPECIAL for our group! – includes information on – and artwork by – folk artist Mary Ann Willson (who inspired Patience in Patience & Sarah), plus Isabel Miller on Willson
  • Patience & Sarah: The Opera – music by Paula M. Kimper, libretto by Wende Persons
  • Film Connection
    • Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the MonthThe Night of the Hunter (1955) is an exceptional cinematic work to compare to Patience & Sarah (of which there is no direct adaptation). The film, both lyrical and unsettling, is legendary gay actor Charles Laughton's only work as director. Like Miller's novel, it makes intriguing, albeit quite different, use of American folk art themes.

DISCUSSION SUMMARY – January 10, 2002

First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 18 of us at our January 10th discussion of Isabel Miller's novel, Patience & Sarah. Published in 1967, it is a love story about two women who, in 1816, flee a puritanical New England town in search of a home of their own in the "wilderness" of New York State.

Although most people prefaced their comments by saying that Patience and Sarah was a little (1) schmaltzy, (2) sappy, or (3) "like a Harlequin romance," they also admitted to being moved - and some to tears - by this tender, yet heroic, and deeply-felt novel.

One of our women members pointed out how important the novel was, since between Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Patience & Sarah (published over 40 years later), the only lesbian fiction in wide distribution had been lurid, dime-store pulp novels. And, she noted, it was the first time that a "viable lesbian couple" had been presented in any novel.

We continued our discussion by talking about author "Isabel Miller," which was the pen name created by Alma Routsong (born November 26, 1924) from an anagram for "lesbia" and her mother's birth name. Miller was inspired to write the novel when she found a reference to folk artist Mary Ann Willson (who became "Patience White" in the novel) and "her 'farmerette' companion" Miss Brundidge ("Sarah Dowling"), who owned a farm together in Greene County, New York, in the early 19th Century. For more information on Willson - and to see examples of her art - click here.

We lamented how poorly documented GLBT life is before recent decades. For example, all that we have of Willson, besides some of her wonderful paintings, are a few legal documents and references in long out-of-print art books. (If you are interested in GLBT history, be sure to read Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., edited by Jonathan Katz, which includes an extensive interview with Alma Routsong/ "Isabel Miller").

One aspect of the novel which appealed to many of us was its smooth weaving of historical details into the story. Miller, a zealous researcher, skillfully depicted the lives, customs, and environments of a wide range of people living in early 19th Century New England, even as she told her engrossing story.

Although her syntax was modern, she sometimes used period vocabulary to give an authentic feel to the voices of Patience and Sarah (who alternately tell the story in five first-person sections). One member favorably compared Miller's direct, evocative literary style to that of Willson's painting.

However, some people criticized Miller for not including a more comprehensive social context. It was pointed out that we are told almost nothing about other people in Patience and Sarah's Connecticut town, or about Patience's boarding school experience, or about why Patience would choose to remain in such an oppressive environment after having been educated (unlike most women then). Others defended Miller by saying that her emphasis was foremost on her two central characters, and that she was writing a romance, not an historical novel.

Also praised was how Miller explored various aspects of LGBT life at that time, not only in the title characters, but in bisexual Parson Peel. Peel is a doting husband and father to a large family for much of the year, but when the weather permits he takes to his horse-drawn cart as an itinerant bookseller... becoming romantically involved with boys whenever he can. One of the most popular sections of the novel concerns the relationship of Peel with Sarah, who is disguised in drag as "Sam" (since no woman could wander alone freely at that time). Peel believes "Sam" to be a strapping young man, and becomes taken with him. He even teaches "Sam" how to read, until he finds out the truth, then stops... since he - and the culture of his day - does not believe women need to know how to read.

Some of our members liked how Miller never editorialized about her characters or their times. She simply depicted them, and allowed us to decide for ourselves what we feel.

Another member pointed out that, while the book is historically accurate, he noticed a distinct overlay of 1960s lesbian/ feminist concerns on this story set in the 1810s. For example, the themes of coming out, of life in the closet (the title characters and Parson Peel, but also Patience's repressed sister-in-law Martha and Sarah's sister Rachel), and of the role of women in a male- dominated society were undoubtedly present in the earlier era. But focusing on them - in the way that Miller does - seemed a particularly "Sixties" phenomenon.

History and ideology aside, most of us admitted to being swept up in this heartfelt and deeply-moving love story.

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recommended

Mozart's Complete Works — not GLBT related but the musical bargain of the decade. All 600+ works on 170 CDs — see my notes

 

GLBT Literature: 990000

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