Affinity Sarah Waters
DISCUSSION December 11, 2003
DISCUSSION SUMMARY December 11, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 24 of us at our heated December 11 discussion of Sarah Waters's 1999 novel, Affinity. Set in 1870s London, it tells the story of the intensifying relationship between an upper-class woman named Margaret Prior, recovering from a suicide attempt, and a young spiritualist, Selina Dawes, imprisoned for murder.
Most people enjoyed the novel a great deal; several referred to it as a "real page-turner," with compelling characters and a genuinely surprising twist ending. Before that appraisal was developed, the minority of dissenters pointed out what they believed to be the book's shortcomings, namely, that the characters were relatively flat, and the overall plot and especially the ending were derivative of Film Noir (including such classic works as 1944's Double Indemnity, 1981's Body Heat, and Bryan Singer's recent The Usual Suspects yes, the enigmatic maid Ruth Vigers was compared to that film's notorious "Keyser Soze"), and that Waters offered "a sort of dumbed-down pastiche of Victorian prose, with simplified language and constructions." In particular, the "fog" passage was noted (with its obvious borrowing from Dickens's Bleak House), together with how Waters "somewhat mechanically starts most paragraphs with a topic sentence as if she were writing another doctoral thesis and then simply enumerates a few more examples of it."
Although must people stated that they enjoyed the novel on its own terms, here are two parallel quotations to allow you to compare Waters with one of her literary models (and favorite authors), Dickens.
Sarah Waters, Affinity (1999)
Part Two (second paragraph)
There have come fogs, too yellow fogs and brown fogs, and fogs so black they might be liquid soot fogs that seem to rise from the pavements as if brewed in the sewers in diabolical engines. They stain our clothes, they fill our lungs and make us cough, they press against our windows if you watch, in a certain light, you may see them seeping into the house through the ill-fitting sashes. We are driven into evening darkness now, at three or four o'clock, and when Vigers lights the lamps the flames are choked, and burn quite dim.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853) Chapter 1 (second paragraph)
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
A few people agreed that Waters had not succeeded in exactly capturing the feel of Victorian prose (although one person said her immediate models were the great suspense writers of the time, such as Sheridan LeFanu and Wilkie Collins, rather than Dickens), they argued that the book's other strengths more than compensated for that. In fact, they believed that the book would have been much less popular if Waters had attempted a "slavish imitation" of the prose of its period. Several members also pointed out that Waters was much more interested in the social history of that time than the literary style. In particular, they noted the many nuances which Waters explored, especially as they related to women, across a broad social spectrum, ranging from the wealthy Prior family to the servant class to the criminal women and their warders locked away in Millbank prison.
A few people noted that Waters's descriptions of the prison were so visceral that it made them feel queasy: "I could actually smell the stench of that horrible place." Waters was praised for exploring the complex sociopolitical, and even sexual, network of victimization, especially as it relates to women: the matrons beat down their female prisoners, but "genteel society" oppresses the matrons and Victorian culture generally dehumanizes the entire "fairer sex," in a wide range of often subtle ways, regardless of their social rank.
Talk of the "various forms of prisons" seen in the novel, from Millbank to Margaret's boudoir, also raised the counter-theme of freedom, and what it meant not only to the characters in the novel but to women of the Victorian era. Some people talked about money, in particular Margaret's inheritance (the value of which she never understands), as the only possible means for a woman then to find freedom. Others believed that "Selina's series of deceptions are understandable since she had no other way to be free." Still other people, who considered Selina's actions "immoral and terrible," disagreed strongly with that opinion.
In fact, much of the discussion focused on the enigmatic medium, Selina. (Please NOTE that I am purposely not divulging the novel's surprise ending.) The big laugh of the evening came when one of our regular members said about the Machiavellian Selina, "I know her; I dated her!" Some people believed that Selina was psychologically-rich and utterly fascinating. But others thought that she was "paper-thin" and unbelievable (with "murky motivations"), not to mention derivative of many earlier femmes fatales. They also found many of the characters stereotypical and unconvincing. The books many defenders noted that Waters, despite her strong academic background in the period, was "consciously and successfully" trying to spin a yarn and "not writing some Freudian case study."
We also spent a good deal of time looking at the same-sex aspects of the story. Some members noted that Waters used spiritualism, which was enormously popular among Victorians, as a connection to lesbian relationships. As one person put it, "I don't know if women Victorian mediums had their female subjects take off all of their clothing and then embraced them, but it certainly made for some powerful and steamy scenes in the book." We also discussed how the same-sex aspects of Selina's practice, when brought out at trial, prejudiced the court against her, and likely added years to her already harsh prison term for the murder of the widowed, and closeted, woman who took her on as a live-in spiritual advisor.
Several people noted how much they liked the swift pace which Waters maintained," especially after the first hundred pages or so." A few others wished that she had "sped up the book even more," since the final few pages "change almost everything we thought we knew" about the two principals, as well as one seemingly-minor character.
We ended our discussion by looking, in detail, at the plot's multiple twist endings. A few people said that they had seen them coming "a mile away," but many more said that they were genuinely surprised, or even shocked, by the climax and its aftermath. Some members found the ending "forced and unsatisfying." But many people found the revelations fascinating; and some were impressed by how Waters handled the "ambiguous motivations" which led Selina to act as she had.
The Counterfeiters André Gide
DISCUSSION November 13, 2003
- The Counterfeiters Amazon.com resources: reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author. If you order a new or used copy here you help support this Web site thanks!
- Center for Gidean Studies superb site covers all aspects of Gide's life and work, with critical and biographical information (including reminiscences of him by such friends as Jean Cocteau and Truman Capote) plus Gide-related organizations, events, and more
- André Gide excellent essay by Prof. Scott Fish exploring same-sex aspects of Gide's life and work (from glbtq encyclopedia)
- GLBT Connections to Twentieth Century French Literature - see Gide in a broader GLBT literary context (from glbtq encyclopedia)
- André Gide: Words and Pictures biographies, remembrances of Gide, photographic archive, critical studies, much more
- André Gide Quotations from selected works, and including "It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not."
- Gide film connections from Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb)
- Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the Month See The Sea (1997) Writer/director François Ozon's See The Sea, one of the most innovative and harrowing suspense films in years, connects with The Counterfeiters in its exploration of the connections between deceit and desire. Also, last month's Recommended Film, Greta Schiller's superb documentary, Paris Was A Woman, is set during the period in which Gide wrote The Counterfeiters; he even makes a cameo appearance.
DISCUSSION SUMMARY November 13, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 29 of us at our heated November 13 discussion of Nobel laureate Andre Gide's 1926 novel, The Counterfeiters. Set in Gide's (18691951) Paris in the early twentieth century, it tells the intertwined stories of a range of upper-crust characters, including several young men and the older men who affect their lives, and an illicit band of schoolboys passing counterfeit coins.
Before summarizing the discussion, here is a representative passage from Part II, Chapter 3 ("Edouard Explains His Theory of the Novel") to give you a sense of Gide's technique, not to mention his sly sense of humor. The acclaimed fictional author, Edouard (whose life intersects with most of the many other people in this sprawling, but relatively brief, work), is describing to a friend the plan for his novel:
"What I want is to represent reality on the one hand, and on the other that effort to stylize it into art...."
"My poor dear friend, you will make your readers die of boredom," said Laura; as she could no longer hide her smile, she had made up her mind to laugh outright.
"Not at all. In order to arrive at this effect do you follow me? I invent the character of a novelist, whom I make my central figure; and the subject of the book, if you must have one, is just that very struggle between what reality offers him and what he himself desires to make of it."
While some people greatly admired Gide's reflexive and wry technique ("sometimes it's good to have a novel spin your head around"), others were put off by it, and a couple of people confessed to "hating" the book.
Gide's admirers praised his "endless invention," his "ability to make a novel of ideas so passionate and involving," how he set up "complex but resonant and highly entertaining" connections between the two narrators (Edouard, mentioned above, and the first-person storyteller, who may or may not be Gide himself), and captured the glitter, hypocrisy, and complex inner lives of the upper strata of Parisian society. They also appreciated how the book "had the flow of lived experience," as Gide "spun an ever-growing web of perceptions, or rather misperceptions, between the many characters." And they noted that, "whatever you may think of the novel personally," it is one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, which almost single-handedly created what is now called meta-fiction (or fiction which is about the nature of fiction as well as life; a technique later employed by Nabokov, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Calvino, and García Márquez). Gide's critics lamented that the book was "hard to follow and pretentious," the characters were "paper thin," the story read more like a "gussied-up soap opera than that magnificent contemporary work, examining the same milieu, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, aka Remembrance of Things Past," plus the 75-year-old translation is "hopelessly out of date" and "in short, it's just one big yawn." A few people, who had also read the novel before, remarked that, coming back to it now, "it felt flat, and I wonder why I liked it so much when I read it in college."
Another point of criticism was how Gide, who was himself gay, handled the several major bisexual and gay characters. Some people liked the often subtle ways in which he portrayed same-sex connections, such as the scene in Part I, Chapter 6 between the two major teenage characters, Bernard and Olivier, in bed. Others felt that Gide was being "too discreet," since several of the character were "flamers" and deserved to be depicted "more honesty." Others argued that that was not possible in the 1920s, or for several more decades. Several people were also disturbed, or even disgusted, by the "predatory relationships" of the older gay- or bi-identified men, such as Edouard and the Comte de Passavant, and the young men they "take under their wing and, in some cases, taint or even destroy them."
One aspect of the novel which everyone seemed to agree on was Gide's unsatisfactory handling of the several women characters. As one person put it, "They all seemed to be either victims like Laura Douviers or Madame Molinier or Rachel Vedel or victimizers like that high-toned tramp Lady Griffith." Some people accused Gide of wishful thinking, or worse, when he has Madame Molinier "bless" the unstated but clearly homoerotic relationship between her teenage son Olivier and Edouard.
Various members pointed out the book's many historical, literary, and philosophical layers, "which intertwine in so many ways." For instance, someone wondered in what year this book was set: "There's lots of attention to detail, but no reference to any year." As if in response, Gide wove in a portrait of the historical figure, and precocious inventor of Theatre of the Absurd (with the 1896 play King Ubu), Alfred Jarry in the late scene at the "wild party;" Gide would also have known that Jarry was gay. Since Jarry is portrayed, subtly, as middle-aged, and since there is no reference to World War I, we can gather like Gide's contemporary readers that the action takes place around the 1910s.
Also noted, and praised by some, were all of the different textures which Gide gleefully wove into his multi-layered text, from classical mythology to the Bible (we'll get to his views on religion in a moment) to an eclectic range of literature (French, German, British, and more). A couple of people were especially intrigued by his use of "metaphors from biology," introduced primarily in the downward-spiraling Vincent's lyrical descriptions of the natural world. As one person noted, "those beautiful but unsettling passages, about insects and fish and the like, serve as complex comparisons to the lives and fates of the characters."
We also spent some time looking at the wide, but often sly, range of humor which Gide employs, from the characters' wide range of eccentricities (some people found them fun, others "fake and boring"), to the many in-jokes which both narrators share with us (as the first person narrator notes in the witty "Review of the Characters" which ends Part II, "If it ever happens to me to invent another story, I shall allow only well-tempered characters to inhabit it..."), to a few surreal moments, such as Bernard's extended "Twilight Zone-y" meeting with the angel near the end.
And that brings us to another major theme of the novel, which provided some of the most passionate moments of our discussion: Religion.
Edouard writes in his journal (Part I, Chapter 12) that "The deeper the soul plunges into religious devotion, the more it loses all sense of reality, all need, all desire, all love for reality.... The dazzling light of their faith blinds them to the surrounding world and to their own selves. As for me, who care for nothing so much as to see the world and myself clearly, I am amazed at the coils of falsehood in which devout persons take delight."
Some people found Gide's irreverence, which finds its most overt form in the above passage, liberating; others stopped just short of calling it bigoted.
We also talked about the complex, intertwined roles of religion and being gay played in Gide's life, and how the latter kept him from ever being able to embrace the Christian faith which he longed for. We also glanced at how that lifelong internal struggle affected his entire body of work fiction, theatre, memoirs, and criticism. Several people were familiar with Gide's life, and they pointed out that, on the one hand, he was one of the pioneering gay writers, "outing himself" in his early autobiography, and even writing a landmark "defense of homosexuality" in his 1920 book, Corydon (wittily modeled on the philosophical dialogues of Plato, not to mention Oscar Wilde, whom he knew personally as a young man). But on the other hand, they pointed out that Gide was never able to reconcile himself completely to his own sexual nature and what society dictated was its conflict with religion. One member made a comparison between the "unfinished nature of The Counterfeiters and Gide's own not-successfully-integrated life." Others argued that "Gide's open, not to mention playfully reflexive, form for the novel was strategic, exactly what he wanted to make us readers question such lofty topics as both the nature of fiction and the social reality of that time."
We also looked at the meaning of the title, which on its most literal level refers to the subplot of counterfeiting ring which uses schoolboys ("like something out of an upscale Oliver Twist") to pass off gold-plated glass disks for actual coins. We also explored how the title relates to Gide's more general, and resonant, theme of falsehood, which connects with such narrative elements as men fathering illegitimate children, adults engaging in clandestine affairs and, generally, people groping for truth amid the artifice and hypocrisy of their milieu; not to mention the intertwined layers of authorial "falsehood" between Edouard (his copious journal entries comprise half of the novel), the anonymous narrator, and Gide himself. One person noted a connection between the book and earlier literature, saying that "hypocrisy was maybe the most popular theme in nineteenth century French fiction;" others noted how the book felt both "old-fashioned yet very self-aware in a Modernist kind of way." And as mentioned above, as a GLBT reading group we saw the connections between "counterfeiting" and not being able to live your life openly as a GLBT person, whether in the guise of such characters as Edouard or Olivier, or even Gide himself.
By the discussion's end, some people remarked that after hearing so many different points of view they had a better perspective on this novel which remains so controversial, and influential, three-quarters of a century after it sprang from Gide's imagination.
The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett
DISCUSSION October 9, 2003
- The Country of the Pointed Firs Amazon.com resources: reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author. If you order a new or used copy here you help support this Web site thanks!
- The Country of the Pointed Firs FREE unabridged copy of this short novel, which you are welcome to read online or download to your computer. This link includes Jewett's four additional stories of Mrs. Todd and the Blacketts (included in some published editions of the novel), but please NOTE that they were published, in the Atlantic Monthly, in this order: "The Queen's Twin" (February 1899), "A Dunnet Shepherdess" (December 1899), "The Foreigner" (August 1900), and "William's Wedding" (published posthumously in 1910) which gives a satisfying close to this story cycle, as the unnamed narrator says: "We went home together up the hill, and Mrs. Todd said nothing more; but we held each other's hand all the way."
- A tip on making online texts more readable: In your browser, go to File and select "Save," then open the book in your word processor and make the font and size comfortable for reading or printing.
- Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project outstanding resource, providing an introduction to Jewett's life and work; her novels and poetry in annotated, reliable, and free online editions; bibliographies and more (from Prof. Terry Heller of Coe College)
- Sarah Orne Jewett excellent essay by Prof. Marilee Lindemann exploring lesbian aspects of Jewett's life and work (from glbtq encyclopedia)
- Female Romantic Friendship Prof. Marylynne Diggs's article traces the history of this important social and literary tradition, and includes much on Jewett (from glbtq encyclopedia)
- "A Revisitation of Transcendentalism within Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs" Prof. Melissa Richardson's essay explores Jewett's infusion of womanhood and community into Transcendantalism (from Domestic Goddesses, a site about 19th C. women authors)
- Jewett's house in South Berwick, Maine; where she wrote many of her books (from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities)
- Sarah Orne Jewett books FREE online here are links to all of Jewett's writings currently available unabridged and FREE on the Web (from The Online Books Page)
- Jewett film connections from Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb); she is profiled in the 1998 GLBT documentary Out of the Past
- Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the Month Paris Was A Woman (1995). Director/editor Greta Schiller's award-winning documentary not only illuminates the lives and works of women artists (Gertrude Stein, Colette, Djuna Barnes, many others), many of whom were lesbian or bisexual, in Paris of the 1920s and '30s, it is superb filmmaking. It connects with The Country of the Pointed Firs in its celebration of the diversity, creativity and unique power of women.
DISCUSSION SUMMARY October 9, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 26 of us at our lively October 9 discussion of Sarah Orne Jewett's 1896 book, The Country of the Pointed Firs. Set in Jewett's (1849-1909) native state of Maine, it tells of a woman writer who spends the summer in the small (fictional) coastal village of Dunnet Landing, and becomes involved with several of the residents.
This book inspired praise from several people, and criticism from others. Some people were struck by the spare, impressionistic writing which they felt captured the hard life of these taciturn fishermen and farmers, and their stoical wives and daughters. In fact, several people talked about the many strong women, and how they revealed independence in such different ways. The continuum stretched from a woman, bitterly disappointed in love, who went to live alone on a barren island - and who did very well by herself, to the vivacious herbalist, and widow, Mrs. Almira Todd, who strikes up a close friendship (some people wondered if it was an intimate relationship) with the never-named narrator. We also discussed some of the many other women, of all ages and dispositions, who people Jewett's world.
That brings us to another major topic which we explored (or rather, debated). Is this book actually a novel, organized along the principles of "a beginning, development, and resolution," or is it rather a loose collection of stories with some recurring characters (the narrator is always there, since it is written in the first person, and often with Almira Todd)? Both points of view had advocates. People supporting the latter position argued that most chapters have the narrator meet a new character, who then proceeds to recount her or his personal experiences "almost in the form of a monologue."
A couple of our members noted that the book "feels more like an organic novel" if you read it in conjunction with the four supplemental stories which Jewett wrote after its publication, and which are included in some editions (and the free online edition). Originally appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, they are: "The Queen's Twin" (February 1899), "A Dunnet Shepherdess" (December 1899), "The Foreigner" (August 1900), and "William's Wedding" (published posthumously in 1910). These stories continue, and many people said brought to a satisfying conclusion, the key stories of Mrs. Todd's brother William, and especially that of Mrs. Todd and the narrator.
Before summarizing more of the discussion, here is a representative passage - from Chapter 20 ("Along Shore") - to give you a sense of Jewett's technique. The following two-paragraph excerpt shows her playing with gender stereotypes (the person the narrator visits, Mr. Tilley, is a fisherman whom she finds knitting). It also shows her use of a counterpoint of perspectives, with the narrator finding her assumptions ("I could imagine") undercut by the widower's simple but heartfelt reminiscences inspired by the room they are in ("'You see for yourself'"). In addition to the very different manners of speech (Jewett meticulously recreates the man's dialect), there is the contrast of the narrator's "cinematic" use of a stream of many images with Mr. Tilley's tight focus:
"This was what [my late wife] called the best room; in this way," he said presently, laying his knitting on the table, and leading the way across the front entry and unlocking a door, which he threw open with an air of pride. The best room seemed to me a much sadder and more empty place than the kitchen; its conventionalities lacked the simple perfection of the humbler room and failed on the side of poor ambition; it was only when one remembered what patient saving, and what high respect for society in the abstract go to such furnishing that the little parlor was interesting at all. I could imagine the great day of certain purchases, the bewildering shops of the next large town, the aspiring anxious woman, the clumsy sea-tanned man in his best clothes, so eager to be pleased, but at ease only when they were safe back in the sail-boat again, going down the bay with their precious freight, the hoarded money all spent and nothing to think of but tiller and sail. I looked at the unworn carpet, the glass vases on the mantelpiece with their prim bunches of bleached swamp grass and dusty marsh rosemary, and I could read the history of Mrs. Tilley's best room from its very beginning.
"You see for yourself what beautiful rugs she could make; now I'm going to show you her best tea things she thought so much of," said the master of the house, opening the door of a shallow cupboard." That's real chiny, all of it on those two shelves," he told me proudly. "I bought it all myself, when we was first married, in the port of Bordeaux. There never was one single piece of it broke until Well, I used to say, long as she lived, there never was a piece broke, but long at the last I noticed she'd look kind o' distressed, an' I thought 'twas 'count o' me boastin'. When they asked if they should use it when the folks was here to supper, time o' her funeral, I knew she'd want to have everything nice, and I said 'certain.' Some o' the women they come runnin' to me an' called me, while they was takin' of the chiny down, an' showed me there was one o' the cups broke an' the pieces wropped in paper and pushed way back here, corner o' the shelf. They didn't want me to go an' think they done it. Poor dear! I had to put right out o' the house when I see that. I knowed in one minute how 'twas. We'd got so used to sayin' 'twas all there just 's I fetched it home, an' so when she broke that cup somehow or 'nother she couldn't frame no words to come an' tell me. She couldn't think 'twould vex me, 'twas her own hurt pride. I guess there wa'n't no other secret ever lay between us."
While some people greatly admired Jewett's "seemingly simple, yet deeply resonant style," others were put off by her use of "too much thick regional dialect." The style also raised the issue of the somewhat mysterious narrator, who is never named, and who often acts as what one person called a "passive observer rather than any kind of active participant" in the life of this tight-knit community.
For many people, Dunnet Landing itself was the most appealing aspect of the book. They liked how close "but not nosy" the townspeople were, "striking a good balance between being there when needed but also knowing when to leave each other alone." A few of our members, who grew up in small towns decades after Jewett wrote, could relate to that "unique communal experience which she captured so well."
Various members pointed out the many literary, philosophical, and spiritual layers of the book. We talked about the extensive Christian symbolism in the book, for example, Mrs. Todd's mother is "almost a saint" - although as someone else pointed out, she is human enough to snipe about some of the guests at a big family feast. It was also noted that Jewett, in her focus on strong women, has "presented an almost feminist revision of traditional Christianity." Yet other members connected Jewett to "a feminized, and hence more appealing, version of the Transcendental philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau." Many people responded warmly - and some passionately - to Jewett's deep connection to nature, saying, "It is extraordinary how she found exactly the right language to capture the sea and woodlands, as well as the people who live there."
Also noted, and praised by some, were the many different textures which Jewett sparely, but evocatively, weaves into her text, from classical mythology to the Bible to Native American culture to various works of English and American literature. A few people were especially intrigued by her use of the supernatural, primarily in the haunting tale of a limbo in the far North, stumbled upon by a now-retired sea captain. (Also, one of the four additional stories, "The Foreigner," is a ghost story; in fact, Jewett wrote several supernatural tales throughout her life.)
We also spent some time looking at the wide, but often sly, range of humor which Jewett employs, from a few moments which were "almost slapstick," to the more frequent depiction of comical (but never maliciously-portrayed) tics of character.
One person asked why he had never heard of a writer as exceptional as Jewett, and someone explained that she is usually classified ("or relegated") as an example of the so-called "regional writers," who lived in and depicted a particular area outside of the major urban centers. Someone else said that she was also "pigeonholed as a 'woman writer,'" and hence did not receive as much recognition, at least in some literary histories, as her male "regional counterparts." Another person recalled Virginia Woolf's theory of specifically "women's writing" - with flowing language, emotional insight, and a lack of traditional plot conflicts - and suggested that Jewett well embodied it.
We also talked about Jewett's life, including the "Boston marriage" she enjoyed for 30 years living with Annie Fields, the widow of a prominent Boston publisher. The two women formed friendships with some of the major artists and intellectuals of their time, including Henry James, William Dean Howells, Rudyard Kipling, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, and Willa Cather (Jewett served as her mentor).
By the end of our discussion, a few people noted that after hearing such a wide range of comments, they had a richer perspective on this book - or is it a novel? - "which at first seemed so quaint and simple."
Returning to the four supplemental Dunnet Landing stories, some people remarked that "William's Wedding" gives a very satisfying close to entire work, as the narrator (who had left the village at the end of the novel, but who has now returned a year later) says, in the final words which Jewett wrote on this memorable community:
We went home together up the hill, and Mrs. Todd said nothing more; but we held each other's hand all the way.
At Swim, Two Boys Jamie O'Neill
DISCUSSION September 11, 2003
- At Swim, Two Boys Amazon.com resources (reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author, discounted new & used copies)
- At Swim, Two Boys Web Site outstanding!, with articles, reviews, photographs of the novel's actual locations, original stories by O'Neill, and more
- Hear Jamie O'Neill read two excerpts from the novel courtesy of The New York Times
- An unused passage from At Swim, Two Boys introduced by O'Neill; it would have occurred about halfway through the novel
- "My Dublin" O'Neill discusses the genesis of his novel, and gives a taste of Irish gay life
- Three Short Stories by Jamie O'Neill free, unabridged online copies
- 1916 Easter Rising illustrated history of the historical event which forms the background of novel
- O'Neill film connections: None yet from Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb) but we all know that At Swim, Two Boys is ripe with future Oscar potential
- Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the Month Jubilee (1978) is an anarchically beautiful, wildly funny political fantasy from filmmaker/painter/author Derek Jarman. It connects stylistically and thematicallly with At Swim, Two Boys in that both works are formally experimental, and tell stories about finding love in a time of chaos.
DISCUSSION SUMMARY September 11, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 29 of us at our September 11 discussion of Jamie O'Neill's epic 2001 novel At Swim, Two Boys, which he spent 10 years writing while working nights in a London psychiatric hospital. Set in 1915/16 Dublin, it tells of two teenagers, scholarly Jim and rough Doyler, who fall in love - and who become involved with a reflective older man, MacMurrough - as their world is thrown into chaos by the Easter Uprising for Irish independence.
This novel inspired nothing less than tidal waves of praise from almost everyone. Its plot, characters, style, interweaving of historical and fictional elements, were all lauded in glowing terms. One member said that she considered this The Great Gay Novel, and predicted that it would be enjoyed for decades to come. Several people agreed, some noting not only its many awards but its popularity with readers around the world, both GLBT and straight. Others spoke about how profoundly moving it was, inspiring them at the end to tears and silence.
A few people did have problems with the novel, which of course greatly added to the dimension - and passion - of our discussion. Some found O'Neill's style too literary - with its sometimes baroque syntax "borrowed from James Joyce and Flann O'Brien" - to be involving. But others argued that O'Neill is spellbinding in his mastery of the widest possible range of styles, from raunchy Irish slang to individualized speech for each character to moments of true poetic inspiration, in both philosophical and erotic passages. Some people felt that the plot was contrived in the way it "placed the protagonists at famous historical events." Others pointed out that Dickens (whose comic/political characters - like Mr. Mack - were another clear inspiration to O'Neill), Stendhal and Tolstoy did the same thing.
Many others marveled at how O'Neill interwove the real and the fictional. One member, well versed in Irish history, talked about the Easter Uprising; he also passed around several books with photographs of the period. We also talked about how O'Neill connected, some said brilliantly, the struggle for Irish independence with the struggle for GLBT independence.
It was noted that O'Neill, throughout his novel, alluded to the entire tradition of gay literature, from ancient Greek myth and history (the sacred band of Thebes), philosophy and literature to medieval, Renaissance, and modern writing (including such diverse figures as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde). We also looked at a few passages in detail, including the following from chapter 11 - told from MacMurrough's point of view - which could also stand as a watch cry for GLBT people everywhere:
Help these boys build a nation of their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literatures for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale; and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light.
For only with pride may a man prosper. With pride, all things follow....
In terms of character, we spent the most time discussing the central figure of MacMurrough, who had recently been imprisoned - like Oscar Wilde - for having sex with men (he was especially fond of "chauffeur-mechanics"). Several people talked about the psychological complexity of MacMurrough, who finds himself in the middle of several conflicts, both historical and personal. He is at once the novel's most philosophical voice, yet at the same time finds himself emotionally and sexually entangled with each of the two young men (first with Doyler, then - after Doyler is forced to flee Dublin - with Jim). Some people generalized about how this reflected gay relationships - with their blend of friendship, protectiveness, and desire - both in the past and today.
By the end of our discussion some people remarked how much they looked forward to rereading the novel, in light of the wide range of ideas generated by our discussion. Some felt sure that they would be rereading it many times in the years to come.
b l a c k o u t
We did not meet August 14th because of the East Coast power outage
Reflections in a Golden Eye Carson McCullers
DISCUSSION July 10, 2003
- Reflections in a Golden Eye Amazon.com resources (reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author, discounted new & used copies)
- If you want all of her novels in one volume, get McCullers' Complete Novels Library of America Edition (Member of the Wedding, Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Clock Without Hands) definitive texts, concise notes, acid-free paper, great value
- SPECIAL for our group! Stuart Sherman's Reminiscences of Carson McCullers our late, multi-talented fellow member Stuart Sherman, as a young man, lived with McCullers in her home at Nyack, NY and served as her secretary/ companion. Exclusively for our group, Stuart has left the complete article from which he read an excerpt at our September 2000 discussion of another McCullers' novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I prepared this Web version under his guidance.
- Carson McCullers Project many resources and links
- Works by McCullers which we have discussed previously (LINK is to a summary of our discussion):
- McCullers film connections from Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb), including director John Huston's film version of Reflections in a Golden Eye
- Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the Month Effi Briest (1974) one of the greatest works from the prodigiously talented gay writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder connects with Reflections in a Golden Eye in its exploration of the steep price of repression and deceit. My two cents on John Huston's 1967 adaptation of Reflections in a Golden Eye is that, despite a talented not to mention gay-friendly cast (Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Harris), it's a flat, uninvolving movie; but let's not forget that Huston, in his heyday, also directed such superb films as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The African Queen (1951), and unforgettably co-starred in Chinatown (1974).
DISCUSSION SUMMARY July 10, 2003
Carson McCullers's 1941 novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, set in the 1930s on a Southern Army base, tells the grotesque and tragic story of sadomasochistic Captain Penderton, tormented by his desire for Private Williams (himself a voyeur); the captain's wife Alison, who is having an affair with the newly-arrived, and womanizing, Major Langdon; the major's wife Leonora, who responds self-destructively to the trauma of her son's death; the servant Anacleto, whom she befriends; and a peacock, which gives rise to the book's title.
First, a BIG THANK YOU to Ryan W for his comprehensive and elegant notes on the discussion, which I was unable to attend. As Ryan summarized it, there seemed to be fairly general agreement that this Southern Gothic story lacked warmth and operated on more of a metaphorical level than a literal level. Following are the thoughts of two dozen different Reading Group members, presented in the order in which they spoke:
- The hierarchy of the society is capitulated in the last sentence of the first paragraph: "two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse," listed in descending order of importance. The presence of the horse also suggests that something sexual is going to happen.
- Another member talked about the sense of constraint, control. "Little moments of living" experienced by the characters are the only time they could be free.
- Several of the characters use nudity to act out against their otherwise ordered and stifling lives. The excess of meats at meals also reflects the characters' indulgence.
- It should be read not as novel, but as a Greek tragedy. Leonora is Helen of Troy, and Anacleto acts as a Greek chorus. This structure gives the reader the freedom to fill in emotional gaps. This member felt crippled by knowing the film too well, in part because he finds the film much weaker than the book. He also pointed out that repression creates innovation.
- This was one member's third time reading the book. He is impressed by how concise and funny it is, i.e., cutting off nipples is so extreme that it becomes funny.
- Another member seconds the humor angle, pointing out the characterization of Anacleto, and more particularly, the passage that describes Leonora as a virgin four nights into her marriage. "When she married the Captain she had been a virgin. Four nights after her wedding and she was still a virgin, and on the fifth night her status was changed only enough to leave her somewhat puzzled."
- Anacleto seems like an unfinished character. Overall, the characters represent the bizarre and unusual.
- Another member argues that Anacleto is a character similar to many of McCullers's, in that he finds love in an unusual way.
- None of the characters match up with our expectations. They find happiness in situations which we find peculiar.
- The use of the word "murder" at the beginning of the story may indicate something other than the killing at the end. The murder of the soul, perhaps? The story is filled with so much violence that one can't predict what murder will take place.
- The story is more about survival than about love.
- The afterword by Tennesee Williams made one member comment that it is excessive to add this novel to the canon of modern art. [Williams wrote that it "is one of the purest and most powerful of those works which are conceived in that Sense of The Awful which is the desperate black root of nearly all significant modern art, from the Guernica of Picasso to the cartoons of Charles Addams."] Is McCullers as good as Williams suggests?
- One member sighs, Life is a lot more gruesome than the book.
- Events in the story just happen, beyond the understanding of characters.
- Another member compares McCullers to André Gide.
- The character of Alison seems to be a projection of McCullers's worst nightmare. Someone else points out that Alison's predicament in fact parallels McCullers's own marriage to a bisexual army officer.
- The "peacock section," in which Anacleto describes the reflection in the eye of the peacock, seems unresolved in our discussion. Here is the passage in full:
"Look!" Anacleto said suddenly. He crumpled up the paper he had been painting on and threw it aside. Then he sat in a meditative gesture with his chin in his hands, staring at the embers of the fire. "A peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in it these reflections of something tiny and "
In his effort to find just the right word he held up his hand with the thumb and forefinger touched together. His hand made a great shadow on the wall behind him. "Tiny and "
"Grotesque," she finished for him.
He nodded shortly. "Exactly."
But after he had already begun working, some sound in the silent room, or perhaps the memory of the last tone of her voice, made him turn suddenly around. "Oh, don't!" he said. And as he rushed from the table, he overturned the water glass so that it shattered on the hearth....
- One member notes that reflected spheres in art represent the deity. Perhaps McCullers intends something similar?
- Prior to the "peacock section," the Captain takes medication and, slipping into unconsciousness, describes a bird on his chest with golden eyes. "This quantity of the drug gave him a unique and voluptuous sensation; it was as though a great dark bird alighted on his chest, looked at him once with fierce, golden eyes, and stealthily enfolded him in his dark wings." (That same section ends with Private Williams watching "The Lady" until dawn.)
- A peacock's beauty (its unfurled tail) comes from a behavior associated with fear and defense, sometimes mating. The grotesque revealed by beauty.
- Characters seem twice removed from self-understanding: not only do they not understand their predicament, they don't understand that they don't understand their predicament. The story seems a bold indictment of culture.
- The story seems to contrast sexual and spiritual love, and the former remains unfulfilled.
- None of the characters are labelled "gay," "straight," or anything in between. Sensuality and sensibility follow a parallel course.
- The discussion ends with a member noting that "eye" is a homophone of "I."
Many people agreed that Flush: A Biography - which Woolf, late in her life, said was her personal favorite of all her books - was an impressive literary achievement and a deeply moving human, er canine, tale of emotional growth and love.
Carson McCullers is one of our most popular authors. In recent years we discussed her books, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (September 2000 link is to a summary of our discussion) and The Member of the Wedding (May 2002 link is to a summary of our discussion).
True Enough Stephen McCauley
LINKS in late June these links will be followed by a summary of our June 12 discussion
- True Enough Amazon.com resources (reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author, discounted new & used copies)
- Stephen McCauley's Web Site books, events, contact, more
- True Enough at AllReaders.com something called a "Gordonator Ranking" seems to relate to the books' quantified 'romance quotient'
- McCauley film connections from Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb), including film version of The Object of My Affection
- Jim's Recommended GLBT Film of the Month Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa's (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Ikiru) epic, visionary masterpiece freely adapted from King Lear, is intended as a complete stylistic contrast to Stephen McCauley's True Enough, although - at a fundamental level - both works are about the consequences of misplaced trust, and betrayal. Why is Ran my recommended GLBT film, when the writer/director is not GLBT-identified? Kurosawa has reinvented Shakespeare's Fool as a fascinating, multi-dimensional transgender character renamed Kyoami, who stands at the thematic and emotional heart of the film.
DISCUSSION SUMMARY June 12, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 28 of us at the truly controversial June 12 discussion of Stephen McCauley's 2001 novel, True Enough. It tells the story of two thirty-something professionals whose lives intersect: There's gay Desmond Sullivan, a biographer of pop culture "mediocrities" who has been in a "secretly monogamous" relationship for years, and straight Jane Cody, a successful Boston public TV producer who wonders whether she really loves her "nice" second husband while beginning an affair with her "hot" first husband.
For most of the people present, True Enough was simply not enough.
The novel did have a few champions, who praised its "insight into human nature, warmth, and cleverness."
But many others criticized it on every level, from character and story, to McCauley's "pedestrian" writing style, to the failure of its humor. As one member put it - with a foreshadowing of the many scathing comments to come - "McCauley is no Oscar Wilde, although he desperately wants to be, ending each section with a would-be witticism."
Let's take a look at a representative paragraph - from Chapter 11, section 1 - which came under scrutiny at our discussion. Here is the setup: Architect Brian, Jane's narcissistic brother, has phoned Desmond, hoping for a clandestine date - Brian's very pregant wife notwithstanding. Brian asks,
"Not too busy taking care of your students?" There was a faint suggestion of something lewd under this, as if he assumed Desmond spent the bulk of his time prowling the streets or luring students into his office so he could "take care of" them. Desmond had found that most of the closeted men he knew assumed that all openly gay men spent at least ten of their sixteen waking hours pursuing or engaging in sex. It was an insulting assumption that took profligate promiscuity for granted and discounted the possibility of professional pursuits and emotional fidelity: the actual number of hours was probably much closer to six.
A few people liked the light, breezy tone of the passage (which one of our members read aloud). But others did not; and some strongly disliked it, including the "cheap and stereotypically homophobic" punch line. One person pointed out that this passage indicates McCauley's failure throughout the entire novel. "He usually writes in the third person but from a limited first-person point of view, as do many authors. But then all of a sudden McCauley whips up a temporary omniscient narrator, not to delve into his characters - who are paper thin - but merely to pontificate through shallow punch lines, like 'much closer to six.'" In other words, McCauley changes his own ground rules if he thinks he can get in a yuck or two, but unfortunately the humor is rarely very funny, and almost never insightful like, say, Wilde's.
Other of our critics complained that the book's structure felt creaky and, after the first third, became "downright dull." Some people liked how McCauley "eventually fitted together all of the pieces of the half-dozen main characters' stories." But for many others, that was not enough to sustain their interest. And few people were surprised by the predictable "surprise ending." Others attributed this lack of sustained narrative interest to McCauley's inability to create characters of any depth or resonance, i.e., "Flat. Flat. Flat."
At this point two or three others, who had read all four of McCauley's novels, said that his first, The Object of My Affection, is "excellent, even if it is yet another of his gay man/straight woman buddy books." Someone then accused McCauley of being obsessed with "the phony heterosexuality of gay men."
If you thought our discussion was calming down, no way! Using True Enough as a springboard, we now launched into a very lively debate about contemporary gay life, from a fiction vs. fact perspective.
Getting back to the novel proper, some people said that they came to it with very modest expectations. "I thought it was going to be a light read - nothing more - and it was." Others argued that McCauley's work should be held to a higher standard, since that "is clearly what he wanted, with his attempts at 'literary humor.'"
Another member then commented that, "throughout the entire novel nobody tells the truth, only what's 'true enough' to get by - which might have been an intriguing premise in the hands of a better writer." Mincing no words, another person said, "in trying to make the mediocre, long-forgotten singer Pauline Anderton into a larger symbol of lying - and an ironic symbol at that, since her rough, untrained voice is depicted as 'truthful' - McCauley has unconsciously created a perfect emblem for his own novel, which is shallow, fundamentally dishonest and not nearly 'true enough.'"
To end on a less critical note, a couple of people again remarked that, "higher aesthetic and ethical considerations aside," they enjoyed it as a pleasant and quick summertime read. Those of us who come regularly to the group know that, at heart, we are a genuinely friendly, good-humored bunch: Maybe it's just lightweight books which bring out so many heavy-hitting comments.
Flush: A Biography Virginia Woolf
LINKS followed by a summary of our discussion
- Flush: A Biography Amazon.com resources (reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author, discounted new & used copies)
- Flush is the biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) told from the point of view of her pet cocker spaniel named Flush. Here are links to free, unabridged online copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry:
- Flush also features poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) here is an index of all free online copies of Robert Browning's poetry
- Woolf as New York Times "Profiled Author" the original NYT reviews, and more
- Virginia Woolf Web many resources, incl. Woolf Studies on Web
- Introduction to Woolf biography, criticism, and more
- Works by Woolf which we have discussed previously:
- Works by Woolf Free, Unabridged Online Texts
DISCUSSION SUMMARY May 8, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 29 of us at the howlingly enthusiastic May 8 discussion of Virginia Woolf's 1933 book, Flush: A Biography. It tells the story of the famous Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning from the unique point of view of Elizabeth's pet cocker spaniel named Flush.
We were extremely fortunate to have two very special guests from beyond the grave: Ms. Woolf herself (albeit with a slightly bandaged nose) and none other than - Arf! Arf! - Flush (who mischievously arrived without a leash, but since he was about six feet taller, and more bipedal, than one might have expected, there were no complaints).
The many mortals present were, by and large, very enthusiastic about the book, although several admitted that they had been skeptical that we were reading a "dog story." Of course, Woolf had no interest in writing something so simplistic, and we spent much of the evening looking at the many complex meanings from the relationship of the famous poet and her pooch.
Several people praised Woolf's extraordinary use of language, which was at once both lyrical and incisive. Many people liked how she managed to write "a Woolf book" yet at the same time enter so completely into the emotions, and even thoughts, of a dog.
Another person commented that it suggested several periods of the novel, including the 18th century - with its sometimes picaresque adventures (such as Flush's kidnapping); the 19th century - with its extended descriptive passages, Flush's "rags to riches" story, and the Dickensian social commentary; the 20th century - with its ironic, and sometimes reflexive use of narration; and even the 21st century - as science comes to understand more about the emotional, and cognitive, nature of dogs and other animals. As someone else said, "Woolf was not only ahead of her time, she is for all time." Her many fans agreed.
Much of our discussion also revolved around the emotional nature, and its implications, of Flush's and Elizabeth's relationship. Some people were moved by the dog's devotion; they talked about they could relate to the need for sublimation (which is one of the primary "lessons" which Flush learns) in their relationships with people, as well as with pets. Others remarked how much they could relate to Flush's (canine) jealousy when Robert Browning "stole his place in his mistress's heart." Still others expressed their disturbance about what they called "essentially a slave relationship." This raised the more general topic of pets and their owners, which we explored at some length.
Many people agreed that Flush: A Biography - which Woolf, late in her life, said was her personal favorite of all her books - was an impressive literary achievement and a deeply moving human, er canine, tale of emotional growth and love.
In a Shallow Grave James Purdy
LINKS followed by a summary of our discussion
DISCUSSION SUMMARY April 10, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 26 of us at the discussion of James Purdy's 1976 novel, In a Shallow Grave. It tells the story of narrator Garnet Montrose, a young man who has been horribly disfigured in an unnamed war (possibly Viet Nam), and returned to his crumbling home in Virginia ("my house is all books and emptiness"). Obsessed with a now-widowed boyhood crush, Georgina Rance, he devises an elaborate system of having his hired "applicants" carry letters to woo her. Garnet's relationships with two of these applicants forms the core of the novel. They are a wraithlike African-American, Quintus Pearch, and a wild young drifter, Potter Daventry. Their relationships become increasingly entangled, until some of them are resolved in an apocalyptic finale.
Unprecedentedly, several people said that although they had read the enigmatic short novel, they came to the discussion "not knowing how I felt about it." Of course, an attitude like that with our group was ideal, since it helped open up the discussion along many different lines.
Several people praised Purdy's distinctive use of language, which was a combination of the colloquial, literary (Garnet loves to read crumbling old books from his dead family's enormous library, then sprinkle archaic words into his speech), graphic, and humorous. Here is an example, from the climactic scene when Garnet looks up and sees Daventry in a new way:
The expression on his face dumbfounded me. I have never seen such a countenance. Oh, if only as they say, one had the power of words, or was a painter, if only no, no photographer could have caught it either, for the eye sees so many movements and flashes and colors no photo can ever bring his face, well I knew then he was not human, but a messenger, eve his missing teeth was right for his face, which in all the gloom and wind and bad moon shone like spun gold.
Garnet's comment that he then "knew that [Daventry] was not human" brings up another theme which we discussed at length: The role of the supernatural, and the spiritual, in the novel, as well as Garnet's reliability as the narrator.
Some of our members pointed out the book's many different mystical strands, including mythic, biblical, and even occult ones. Others took a rationalistic approach, arguing that all of the seemingly otherwordly events could be explained as natural phenomena. They believed that Garnet's "falling for mumbo jumbo" made it clear that he was, as one person put it, "a notoriously unreliable narrator." And considering the near miraculous cure which Garnet undergoes at the end, some wondered whether he had been that terribly scarred to begin with, or whether he had projected his self-loathing outward onto his own body.
Garnet's sexual nature was also the subject of a lively, and extended, part of our discussion. One of the women in our group thought the novel was a deeply moving, and deeply affirmative, gay coming out story. But another person found the book "morbid and terribly depressing - just look at the title!" With those two interpretive poles established, many others positioned themselves at various points in between.
Yet another aspect of our discussion focused on whether or not Garnet was "gay in any traditional sense." Many people felt that there was no sexual activity between Garnet and Daventry, or between Garnet and Quintus. But others, who enjoyed reading between the lines, disagreed. And as one person queried, "If there's no sex between the men is this a gay story?" Many people believed that it was, since - as one member put it - "being gay is a total orientation, and not just physical coupling." Another person felt that Garnet's emotional journey, throughout the book, was ultimately self-healing. She believed that he was able to overcome his self-deluding "crush" on Widow Rance and accept himself as a gay man, even to the point where he could let other men (Daventry, then Quintus) into his life, emotionally if not sexually. But as someone else said, the book's final pages imply that Garnet may be ready for "more than platonic friendship. And in the absence of In a Shallow Grave, Part II, we'll have to decide for ourselves what happens next."
We also spent a great deal of time examining the character of Quintus, as well as whether or not Garnet's attitudes towards him are racist. Many members were shocked when, halfway through the book, Garnet offhandedly uses the "n" word. Some people tried to defend Garnet, saying that he was a product of his culture from three decades ago; others could not excuse him. Several people were genuinely moved by the relationship between Garnet and Quintus, while others saw a lingering element of "master and servant" in it.
We ended our discussion when one of our members pointed out that she found this to be a very funny, and highly entertaining, novel, despite the fact that Purdy takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride. She pointed out, "The names are improbable and delightful. Garnet Montrose and Quintus Pearch... puh-lease!" We also talked about the all of the verbal humor, not to mention slapstick, found throughout the book, and how Purdy skillfully uses this to balance the moments of violence, creepiness, and even apocalyptic destruction.
By the time our discussion ended, several people were willing to go "on the record" that they now really enjoyed this book, and that - thanks to the many different points of view we shared - even more rich, and bizarre, than they had previously thought.
In a Shallow Grave is an example of Southern Gothic fiction (although Purdy was born in Ohio and lives in New York City.) In recenet years we have discussed several other Southern Gothic works, including Jim Grimsley's novel Dream Boy (December 1999), Dorothy Allison's novel Cavedweller (June 2000), Carson McCullers' novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (September 2000), Tennessee Williams' two plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer (October 2000), and Truman Capote's novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (December 2001).
|The Changelings Jo Sinclair
LINKS followed by a summary of our discussion
DISCUSSION SUMMARY March 13, 2003
First, THANK YOU to Michael S for sharing his summary of the March 13 discussion. This is the only discussion I have missed in the six years that I have been a member of the group. The Changelings is Jo Sinclair's (pseudonym of Ruth Seid) 1955 novel about the growing friendship between two working class teenage girls, one African-American and Christian, the other white and Jewish.
Most people did not like the novel. As one member put it, "I felt like I was sitting through an After-School Special." Another person pointed to the plot discontinuities, and the endlessly repetitive didacticism.
One member spoke about how he had grown up in a very similar environment although it was in Brooklyn, and not the medium-sized Ohio town which serves as the novel's setting. Someone else noted that he had heard stories from his father about growing up Jewish in Chicago, which he related to the book. It was also pointed out that what Sinclair was writing about, rather than her writing, was what gave the book its power. One person wished that it were a better book since the dead-end of inter-ethnic competition is so central to the history of America, and particularly New York City. Other members talked a great deal about the relevance of the book to today, with one person pointing to the example of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
The novel was also compared unfavorably to one of our most highly praised novels, Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which we discussed in September 2000). Sinclair's use of structure and character, trying to depict a broad social canvas, seemed much less assured than McCullers'. Also, McCullers' novel, written over a decade before Sinclair's, was an obvious inspiration for The Changelings.
Another member raised the question of sexuality in the book, wondering if there was a hint that the character Ruth Miller had been molested by her father. But most people felt that that was not what was being suggested.
There was a general disappointment that there were no gay characters (as the cover seemed to promise), and that so many plot threads never really went anywhere.
The discussion ended with one person expressing a kind of sneaking admiration for the author. Although they did not find the book particularly well written, they considered it important for its time.
|The Sacred Night Tahar ben Jelloun
LINKS followed by a summary of our discussion
- The Sacred Night Amazon.com resources (reviews, readers' comments, other works by the author, discounted new & used copies)
- The Sand Child this 1985 ben Jelloun novel precedes Sacred Night in what is essentially a two-part work
- Tahar ben Jelloun profile (prepared for the G&L Reading Group)
- Tahar ben Jelloun photograph and brief poem
- Tahar ben Jelloun film connections from Internet Movie DataBase (IMDb)
- Morocco Page from the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Center, includes links to maps, data, analyses and more
- Guide to Morocco from Lonely Planet; both informative and witty
- Morocco Photo Diary by Robert Bremec striking images
DISCUSSION SUMMARY February 13, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 19 of us at our February 13th discussion of Tahar ben Jelloun's 1987 Prix Goncourt-winning novel, The Sacred Night (he is Moroccan, but lives in Paris and writes in French). Set in a hallucinatory version of Morocco, it tells of the exploits of Zahra, a woman who had been raised as a man, but who now ventures forth on a journey of self-discovery through an Islamic world of myth, symbolism, and sometimes terrifying political reality.
The group seemed to like The Sacred Night, although very few people heaped it with praise. It was pointed out that it is the second half of a two-part work, and we did not discuss its beginning, The Sand Child (although some of us read both short novels). Hence many people were a bit confused by certain plot and character developments which depended on a knowledge of both books. But filling in those gaps is part of what a book group is for, right?
Many people liked how ben Jelloun interwove fairy tale, myth, symbolism, and even historical reality in depicting the surreal, but immediate, world of Zahra's adventures. Others found the book highly derivative, especially of "the enigmatic, jewel-like, and superior tales of Jorge Luis Borges" (whose collection Labyrinths we discussed in June 1997). In fact, ben Jelloun makes explicit his debt to Borges in The Sand Child.
There was general agreement that ben Jelloun had successfully realized the concrete reality of his novel's Moroccan world - with vivid descriptions of sounds, tastes, and textures - even as he shifted his characters into and out of more dreamlike levels of existence. As some people noted, this is one of the few works we have read set in the Islamic world, and the only written by a Muslim author. Of course, as several people pointed out, ben Jelloun is a very iconoclastic Muslim author; one person wondered why a fatwa had not been leveled at him. Someone responded that his novel is so ambiguous, on so many levels, that "the censors probably do not understand just how subversive it is of authoritarian beliefs."
We spent much of our discussion talking about the many ways in which ben Jelloun explores gender, and how it relates to personal identity, economic and social privilege, and the potential for personal growth, even transcendence. Zahra was widely considered a fascinating central character, especially since her journey covers so much emotional terrain. Begun in The Sand Child, when her father - desperate for a son to inherit his wealth - tricked people in believing she was a male, it continues in The Sacred Night when she is raped by a faceless man muttering prayers, threatened by ghosts in a bathhouse, finds love in a brothel through a sexual game with a suicide-obsessed blind man (known only as the Consul), and confronts her many dispossessed sisters, who enact a terrible vengeance on their former privileged "brother" who once lorded it over them.
Many people saw Zahra's development as a clear indication of her unwavering, but tortured, personal quest for liberation from a constricting, misogynistic society. Some women, and men, praised ben Jelloun as an exceptional feminist author.
The section we focused on at greatest length was the ambiguous ending, in which Zahra, at last freed from prison, may have found her lover, the Consul, not only still alive but become a veritable saint. Or, as other people believed, she had finally cracked and entered a world of total delirium. Still others believed that Zahra had actually died, and been transfigured - along with her beloved Consul - into holy figures, with Zahra now a sort of fertility goddess.
Several people thought that such a complex ending was the right way to conclude, even as it mystically opens up, Zahra's saga.
|The Sea, The Sea Iris Murdoch
LINKS followed by a summary of our discussion
DISCUSSION SUMMARY January 9, 2003
First, a friendly welcome to all newcomers, who were among the 20 of us at our windward January 9th discussion of Iris Murdoch's 1978 novel, The Sea, The Sea. Set in contemporary Britain, it tells of Charles Arrowby, a famous and egotistical theatre director, who has retired to a seaside cottage to write his memoirs, only to find himself beset by an unending torrent of visitors from his past. Then he runs into the woman he loved, and lost, decades earlier.
Only a few of our members were enthusiastic about The Sea, The Sea. Murdoch may have been a victim of her own triumph, since her 1958 novel The Bell (which we discussed in September 2002) was perhaps the most rapturously praised book we have read in years. Many of our members criticized The Sea, The Sea - despite its popular and critical acclaim (it won Britain's coveted Booker Prize) - in relation to that fascinating earlier novel.
For many people, the sheer bulk of The Sea, The Sea was on obstacle. Depending on the edition, it clocks in between 500 and 600 pages. Yet it was felt that it is not particularly rich in incident. Several people made suggestions about how they would have jettisoned a third or more of its length, without losing any thematic or psycholgocial substance. Few of us were surprised to learn, from a member who has read several of Murdoch's novels (inspired by his newfound love of The Bell), that after her early successes, she adamantly refused to let her publisher change - let alone cut - any of her writing. A few people noted the perhaps similar hubris of her character Charles Arrowby.
Several people also criticized the characterizations. We discussed how Murdoch, who was a noted philosopher as well as a novelist, creates characters primarily to embody her abstract ideas about life and ethics. In her best work (such as The Bell) characters feel like they come from lived experience, but in The Sea, The Sea they felt more like puppets, with Murdoch pulling the strings to suit her philosophical objectives. Some people defended Murdoch by pointing out that the characters felt flat because they were supposed to. They argued that this is a first- person narrative, entirely from Arrowby's point of view, and that Murdoch's goal is to reveal him, in all of his complexity and contradictions, through his distorted views of the people around him.
Some members, both women and men, felt that Murdoch did a surprisingly poor job developing her many female characters, whom one person described as "mere stick figures." The point was also made that even if Murdoch's characters are credible, their intentions - their deeper psychological motivations - are not. Still others argued, again, that these flat representations of women - not to mention the male characters who are similarly treated - are there to reflect, and even comment on, Arrowby's blinders.
We also talked about the novel's supernatural, and mystical, strands. Arrowby has several brief, vaguely occult experiences, ranging from ghosts to a sea serpent. And much is made of Arrowby's cousin James, a soldier turned Buddhist. Several people thought that Murdoch stated - perhaps too baldly - the spiritual theme of her novel in the late expository scene between the two men, which we examined in detail. Charles says that he "thought religious people felt weak and worshipped something strong." James retorts, "That's what they think. The worshipper endows the worshipped object with power, real power not imaginary power, that is the sense of the ontological proof... But this power is dreadful stuff. Our lusts and attachments compose our god... All spirituality tends to degenerate into magic... The last achievement is the absolute surrender of magic itself... Goodness is giving up power..."
Some people tied this theme with the central image, not to mention the title, of the novel: The sea. One person described it as being simultaneously "innocent and terrible, and very ambiguous, a place where you must surrender your own power." Arrowby went into seclusion to try to literally re-collect his life, after decades of artifice and emotional turmoil both on- and off-stage. But by the end of the novel, has he managed to create for himself an inner space - simultaneously of peace and dynamism - like that of the sea? And has Murdoch succeeded in creating characters and a world which we find authentic and compelling?
Only you can answer those questions for yourself.
NOTE: If you would like to discuss The Sea, The Sea outside of our group, the New York Times' online book forum has made it their selection for February 2003. Go to: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/books/review/reading-group-picks.html
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