Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Reading group: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

There's never a long discussion to report when we unanimously love a book - there's no disagreement and no criticism of the book itself - and this choice of Doug's was a prime example. Spufford is known to have wanted to write an 'eighteenth-century novel' set in New York, and we felt that in Golden Hill he has succeeded magnificently.

It opens in 1746 as Smith, a likeable and hapless young Englishman cast in the mould of the male protagonists of eighteenth-century picaresque novels, disembarks in New York, then a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, and makes without delay for the house of a merchant, with an order for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. Needless to say, this causes a huge stir. Can he be trusted? And what does he intend to do with such a great sum (which in fact isn't that readily available as cash, causing the banker problems)? - a question that for most of the book both the inhabitants of the town and the reader are kept asking. In true eighteenth-century picaresque fashion, we follow his adventures as he is variously wooed by the inhabitants and punished for his lack of verification - at one point ending up, in a highly vivid episode, in jail - and becoming romantically entangled with the headstrong spinster daughter of the merchant.

The whole novel is entirely vivid, packed with the physical and social details of the town, colonised at the time by the Dutch and English. Spufford is a historian, and it is therefore no surprise that he should be armed with such knowledge, but what we found remarkable was the way that there is absolutely no sense of research - the novel simply lives and breathes the time and place in which it is set. We are never explicitly told, for instance, that smallpox took a while to be brought from Europe to the New World; instead we are shown the fact briefly but vividly through Smith's amazement, on first seeing the Lovell daughters, that their faces are completely unpocked. We felt delighted by such things. The novel is full of energy and extremely humane, touching and funny in its depiction of Smith and his antagonists, and we all agreed that we had found it great fun.

Someone, I think Clare, did say that she tired a little of the eighteenth-century locutions, but Doug and I thought that Spufford had created a remarkably successful hybrid register for his narrator, which is both drenched in eighteenth-century flavour yet reads with complete ease to modern eyes and ears.

But why, one might ask - and I did ask before I started reading - write a pastiche of an eighteenth-century novel? Spufford's agenda is in fact modern, and indeed political. It would give the game away to say in precisely what way, but suffice it to say that the injection of the issues of homosexuality and race into the template of the eighteenth-century novel makes for searing historical and literary comment. Following indeed in the mode of eighteenth-century novels, there is in fact explicit - and funny - comment on the novel form, other novelists of the eighteenth century and novelistic modes. At the commencement of a card game of piquet, the narrator says - tongue firmly in cheek and clearly mocking those contemporary writers who wear their research on their sleeves: 'Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet,' but in trying to provide it bursts out: 'Wait - wait - alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun.' Similarly, while relating the progress of a sword fight: 'But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle than if I shouted numbers at you; which, indeed, I appear to be doing. The truth is, I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader's mercy, or rather their sense of resignation.'

There is a final twist at the end of this book worthy of any contemporary postmodern novel (I won't give it away) which tickled us all. We could see holes in it, but we didn't mind; like the impossible way that Smith, writing to his father in prison, manages somehow - presumably with an inkwell and quill! - to take down a verbatim record of the raving speech of a fellow inmate even as it's happening - it felt like part of the joke that this whole book is - a joke, however, with a serious and deeply humane message.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reading group: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Warning: plot spoil.

Jenny, who had suggested this Booker-winning novel, said that she had really liked it, and that it had impressed her enough to make her think about her own life. It's a first-person recollection by Tony Webster, now in his sixties, of a life in which a long-ago friendship with a fellow schoolboy and a long-forgotten first girlfriend turn out, in his later years, to affect him subtly but deeply.

The book is composed of two parts, and the first, shorter part encompasses the entire trajectory of Tony's early relationship with the two.

I don't normally relate the plots of novels in great detail in these reports, but I find it necessary for this book since it is in essence a minute examination of the narrator's memory of events and his interpretation of them at the time and years later. In addition it's necessary in order to report our discussion, since as a group we were uncertain about the final interpretation intended.

The story told in Part 1 is this:

Arriving in the sixth form at Tony's grammar school, oddball and more seriously intelligent than Tony and his facetiously clever and witty friends, Adrian nevertheless quickly becomes part of their clique, and indeed its centre, the one to whom the others defer. After school, the group inevitably disperses to jobs and university, though they try for a while to keep in touch. In his first year at university Tony meets Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, a somewhat cool and superior and indeed controlling girlfriend. During the first summer vacation, she invites him to her family home. This is a strangely disturbing experience which Tony will later put down to class differences (they are posher than his own middle-class family): Veronica's father is joshingly contemptuous towards him, her elder brother knowingly cynical, and her mother contrastingly attentive yet strangely unmotherly. Oddly, he finds himself left alone with her mother to have breakfast - Veronica, stating, without having ever been given any evidence, that he likes to lie in, has gone walking with her brother and father - and her mother gives him an obscure warning about Veronica, her own daughter. Veronica in turn comes up to London for the day and is introduced to Tony's 'gang' who are still at this point meeting up occasionally in the holidays. For the whole of the following year Tony and Veronica go out together. Veronica has always refused to have sex with Tony (as, narrator Tony explains, was fairly typical at the time), and continues to do so until, at the end of that second year, they break up. It is after this that she consents on one occasion to have sex with him, and it becomes clear that she is not the virgin he has always assumed. Not long after, Adrian, to whom Veronica paid flattering attention on her visit the previous summer, writes to Tony informing him, with what purports to be a show of chivalrous honesty but which Tony senses is other, that he and Veronica are now going out together. Thus, it seems, the cold Veronica has been cheating Tony in one way or another all along.

Tony finally sends a letter to them both telling them 'pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples', wishing them good luck, warning Adrian to be prudent as he senses that Veronica has suffered some kind of damage in early life, and suggesting (since Veronica's mother had warned him about her) that Adrian talk to her mother about her. At the time he doesn't even formulate for himself what that 'damage' may be. Now, he muses to the reader about it - some kind of sexual abuse by her father, perhaps - but admits that he cannot know even now. After this episode, he tells us, he put the two of them out of his mind and got on with his own life, travelling and having a brief, friendly affair on his travels with another girl. On his return he discovers that Adrian, although recently found by their mutual friend Alex to be happily in love with Veronica, has taken his own life. (Tony thinks at the time: 'If there was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was Veronica.') Adrian has left a letter for the coroner explaining his motives which accord with the fierce logic he applied to such issues when they were schoolboys - 'the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you' - a stance which Tony eventually comes to admire, although why Adrian should take his own life while he was apparently so happy remains a mystery.

This completes the story of Tony's youthful involvement with the two, and Part 1 concludes with a brief resume of the intervening years up to the present - a career as an arts administrator and marriage to Margaret, a grownup daughter, a later amicable divorce, and a quiet, orderly retirement as a single man volunteering at the local library and hospital.

However, what the reader has experienced is not just a story, but a meditation on the nature of memory and time, in particular the memory of one's former self and motives:
Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.
As a result the story being told often slides into uncertainty. The novel indeed begins with an exercise in subjectivity - fleeting and evocative remembered images from moments in the story, presented out of context and resonant with mystery or ambiguity. The conclusion the reader is being led towards is that the story we have just been told is Tony's construction - however sincere - and not necessarily the correct one.

Part 2 begins: 'Later on in life you expect a bit of a rest, don't you?' heralding the fact that, out of the blue, the past of Part 1 will come back to disrupt Tony's apparently settled life.

Veronica's mother, it seems, died five years ago and has puzzlingly left him £500 and 'two documents', one of which is a letter apologising to him for the way the family treated him on his visit all those years ago, and confirming that Adrian was happy in his final months. The other, it will turn out, is Adrian's diary, now however, the lawyer tells him, in Veronica's possession. Thus, on top of the old mystery of Adrian's suicide, a group of new mysteries opens up: Why would Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, leave Tony £500? (She says in the letter that she's not even sure of her own motives in doing so.) How did she come to be in possession of the dead Adrian's diary? And why, all these years later, has Veronica purloined it, knowing as she must that it was left by her mother to Tony?

His interest in the mystery surrounding Adrian's death reignited, Tony sets off in pursuit of the diary and tries to contact Veronica. She proves elusive but he finally manages to contact her and engage her in an email exchange in which she is cryptic and irritable-seeming - behaviour he doesn't find out of character in view of her former cold and manipulative self. In fact, she answers his first email with a single short phrase which can only refer to his question about why her mother had left him the £500, and which he can make no sense of at all: 'Blood money'. Eventually however he receives via the lawyers a single photocopied 'fragment' from the diary.

This throws up further mysteries. It's an arcane discussion of human relationships in terms of algebra, including some indecipherable equations, and which once again impresses Tony with Adrian's intelligence and rationality. It ends tantalisingly on an incomplete sentence: 'So, for instance, if Tony -'

Tony, unseated by this rupturing of the past into his peaceful life, muses on a possible and likely ending for the sentence: 'If Tony had settled less easily for a passive peacefulness...'

He continues to hassle Veronica and eventually she agrees to meet him. He is shocked by her now worn and shabby appearance. Once again, however, she seems obstructive and uncommunicative. She can't let him have Adrian's diary, she says, because she has burnt it, and dodges his question about the incomplete sentence concerning himself. After only ten minutes, handing him an envelope, she gets up and leaves.

The envelope turns out to contain the letter Tony wrote after learning that Adrian and Veronica were together. It is not at all the measured missive he remembers - although it is clearly the one he wrote - but an outpouring of nastiness and vitriol.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? ... My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.
The events of the past now shift for Tony into an entirely different focus: his former self is revealed to him as callous and self-centred, and Veronica and Adrian appear in a much more sympathetic light. From a less self-centred perspective, even that strange visit to her house seems different: perhaps her brother was not contemptuous towards him after all, but simply not interested in him. No wonder Veronica is contemptuous of him, he thinks, and no wonder she has been reluctant to give him Adrian's diary. His remorse spreads to encompass his whole life: unlike Adrian, he feels, he has settled for the mundanities and failed to live the examined life.

He emails Veronica, apologising for his past behaviour. Her response is again puzzling: 'You just don't get it, do you? But then you never did.'

Now different, fonder memories of their past relationship surface.
I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this - to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways. All I can say is that it happened, and it astonished me.
He asks her to meet him again, more socially, and she agrees, and this time they are more amicable. Once again however she has managed before departing to have told him nothing whatever about her own life, but by the time is he travelling back on the train, Tony's old excitement about her has been rekindled. His hope is shattered on the next meeting, requested again by him: bafflingly, she picks him up in her car from a Tube station in a part of London unfamiliar to him and refuses to speak as she drives furiously and in a way that makes him realises she is nervous. She stops the car and commands that he look at a group of people with learning disabilities walking towards them with their care worker. She gets out and the group mob her with childlike affection, calling her Mary, which is her second name. When Tony asks about it all, she simply repeats that he just doesn't get it, 'and you never will,' and promptly tells him to get out of the car and drives away.

Saddened, Tony realises that this is the end, that he has been foolish to imagine any rekindling of their relationship, but he is curious about this final incident, and begins driving back to the place and hanging out in the pub he heard the group and their care worker talking about visiting on Friday nights. Eventually they come in while he is there, and an odd encounter with one of them, a gangly younger man with glasses, makes him realise who he looks like: Adrian. He is, it comes to Tony in a moment of revelation, Adrian's son.

Was this why Adrian committed suicide? Simply because, after all, like the boy at their school who had done likewise, he wasn't able to face the consequences of getting his girlfriend pregnant? A scenario that must now 'recalibrate' Tony's sense of the honour and dignity and philosophical logic of Adrian's death. With further remorse, Tony imagines the consequent life Veronica must have had as the single mother of a disabled son. He writes to her, once again apologising for his past behaviour, and wishing her and her son a peaceful life. A reply comes back: 'You just don't get it, do you? ... You never will, so stop trying.'

It is on a further visit to the pub that he learns from the care worker what it is he didn't get. That Veronica is not the mother of Adrian's son. She is his sister. Their mother died five years ago.

Everything shifts once more, like the contents of a kaleidoscope. This presumably is behind Adrian's suicide: his impregnation of his girlfriend's mother. Suddenly Tony, and we, can see that on Tony's visit to Veronica's house in the university holiday, her mother's behaviour towards him was sexual, and that Adrian in his turn must have come in for the same treatment. That Veronica, in leaving her mother alone with Tony so unaccountably, was consciously or unconsciously involved in some kind of collusion, and that it is this that is the real damage to her that Tony sensed all those years ago. It explains the algebraic equations in the fragment from Adrian's diary - Tony realises now that the letters are the first letters of all their names, Adrian's, Veronica's, his own, and Sarah's, along with 'b' which stands for 'baby'. And now Tony can complete the unfinished sentence: if he hadn't suggested that Adrian speak to Veronica's mother...

Except that there was some uncertainty in our group about whether this is in fact the intended conclusion. In spite of the explicitness of the passages that ruminate on memory and time, this denouement occurs fairly briefly and glancingly. Doug was thinking of something that had also occurred to others of us, although we had discounted it: the possibility that it is not Adrian but Tony who is the younger man's father. Tony has interpreted things mistakenly on so many occasions, is it not possible that he is failing once more to grasp the truth? Once before, concerning the letter, his memory has edited his behaviour: could it be that he has excised his own sexual behaviour on that long ago vacation visit? If that is intended, I didn't actually find it psychologically realistic - unless, that is, Tony is consciously and calculatedly deceiving the reader whom he addresses directly and confidentially throughout, though there seems little clear evidence this is the case. Tony says he understands now why Sarah left him the money and the diary, and also why Veronica referred to the £500 as 'blood money'. It's presumably a reward for pushing Adrian into her arms by suggesting he speak to her about Veronica. But this seems to me very tenuous (and unlikely) (and it has taken me until now to work out that this is what Tony must mean when he says he understands). These behests would in fact make more sense if there is a blood connection between Tony (rather than Adrian) and Sarah and her son. But then the question arises once more: why did Adrian commit suicide? And the disabled son's name is Adrian, after all, it turns out: presumably he has been named after his father. Examination of the equations in the diary fragment doesn't really help. Adrian and Tony are both represented in the equations by 'a' (Adrian often called Tony by his full name 'Anthony'), and while Tony assumes that a1 represents Adrian and a2 himself, it is after all only an assumption. Wouldn't a1 indeed more logically represent the first boy to have a relationship with Veronica? In any case, though, no one in our group could really be bothered with the equations, which seemed a strangely schoolboy-autistic route to interpreting a novel.

There was comment that the book overall is signally lacking in emotion. This is chiefly, I think, because everything is mediated through Tony's reasoning retrospective speculation, but Mark and (I think) Doug expressed shock at Tony's apparent lack of emotion and flippancy on receiving the news of Adrian's death: when Tony's mother asks him if he thinks Adrian did it because he was too clever, he has the emotional space for the slick sarcastic reply: 'I haven't got the statistics linking intelligence to suicide.' In addition, although this is a short book, it is extremely plot-driven and plot-intensive, which gives the whole thing the somewhat mechanical air of a crossword puzzle - underscored, of course, by the business of the equations.

As indicated above, however, it was a crossword puzzle that left us feeling unable to complete it. No one at the time of the meeting could understand the significance of the memory of the Severn Bore which appears in the list of evocative moments at the start of the book. It was only on my second read through that I realised it is more or less spelled out: when Tony's feelings for Veronica are reignited he compares his emotional reversal to a river running backwards. But this is in fact only a temporary state, and the comparison is buried in Tony's cerebral rationalising rather than conveyed in dramatic action, and the image thus lacks the weight it seems to signal.

No one could fault the prose, which was polished and stylish, as always with Barnes, and witty: I said in the meeting that when I first began reading the book I was very much disarmed by the wittily ironic depiction of the cocky sixth-formers. However, as I read on I couldn't help feeling that the prose of the book shares their clever-clever air of patriarchal privilege, and others agreed. I also felt that although Tony comes to doubt himself, there is nevertheless an overriding self-obsession - it is still, ultimately, Tony's sense of himself and his own dignity with which the book is concerned - which we didn't feel was undercut by authorial irony - unless Doug's interpretation of the ending was correct.

John was particularly critical of the portrayal of Veronica. Jenny accepted Veronica as a horribly cold and manipulative person, but John said this was a male stereotype of women: he couldn't actually see that much wrong with Veronica's behaviour. As Ann and I said, all that was wrong with her in retrospect was that she didn't want to have sex with Tony and, as John said, it is typically and traditionally sexist to condemn a woman as cold and controlling for that. It is true that when Tony realises the truth about his own letter, and then again at the end, Veronica comes to be viewed in a more sympathetic light, but the trouble is that this reassessment takes place entirely on the level of (Tony's) introspective reasoning, whereas the earlier view of her is dramatised and thus made more vivid, consequently leaving a stronger impression. What is dramatised later is her cat-and-mouse treatment of Tony during their later meetings, which, while Tony and the reader are in ignorance about the truth behind it, reinforces a view of her as manipulative and even nasty. In fact, it is hard to fathom the motives behind this behaviour, and I don't find it psychologically convincing: why, having forced Tony so belligerently into an encounter with her disabled brother would she keep avoiding telling him the truth about him - even when Tony makes the mistake of thinking he is her son? I suspect it of being a mere authorial manipulation to stretch out the mystery. The uncovering of the mystery, when it comes, seems both perfunctory and highly artificially manipulated: the younger Adrian has some kind of strange reaction to Tony, for which there is no evident explanation, and it seems merely a device to cause the care worker to seek out Tony and ask him to be careful with him, which then allows for a conversation about him in which the truth is revealed. There was a general feeling in the group that the plot as a whole was indeed over-manipulated and artificial.

John also objected to what he saw as a sexist and ageist view of older women, the disabled son described by Tony as 'born to a mother ... at a dangerously late age. A child damaged as result,' when Sarah had been probably not much more than forty when she conceived him. I said that on the other hand I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing was a bit of a schoolboy-type sexual fantasy about older women, and there was general agreement. I also thought Tony's ex-wife, who obligingly and maternally talks through it all with him, was yet another male stereotype: that of the woman as all-accommodating mother figure. When she does finally get fed up with it - when Tony starts wanting to discuss whether he's in love with Veronica -  she tells him: 'You're on your own now, Tony', the classic pronouncement of a mother forcing her teenage son to stand on his own two feet.

Most of us, particularly the men, found Tony's casual and carefree holiday affair unconvincing: not only did it seem unlikely because of his prior character, we felt that it couldn't have happened without changing him, which there is no evidence it does.

All in all, no one beside Jenny was particularly impressed by the book in spite of its Booker win, though Clare, who had seen the film, said that the book was better, as the book of course is supremely an exercise in interiority which film cannot easily convey.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading group: In the Cut by Susanna Moore

Warning: plot spoil.

I've been getting way behind with my reports of our reading group discussions. Furthest back in the past is our discussion of In the Cut, the 1995 novel by Susanna Moore, later made into a film with a very changed ending. It is the story of Frannie, a young, single female New York teacher of English with a free-wheeling and adventurous attitude to sex and an academic interest in New York gangster slang with its conflation of sexuality and violence. One night, looking for the toilets in the basement of a bar, she comes across a man being pleasured by a redheaded woman, his face hidden in shadow but clearly aware that Frannie is watching. The next day the redhaired woman is found dead in Frannie's neighbourhood and Frannie is interviewed by the detective, Malloy, investigating the case. Immediately attracted to Malloy, she becomes sexually involved with him, while the threat of a serial killer gathers and Frannie herself seems to be in danger.

I suggested the book as, although I'm not keen on crime thrillers, I had heard that this book was very well written. What it turns out to be is an attempt, via a first-person narration, to inject female subjectivity into a genre that has historically omitted it - the viewpoint has traditionally been that of the detective rather than that of the victim. (In this way the book bears similarities to Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys which we discussed previously - and there are other similarities between the two books - but we thought this far superior.) There was general agreement that it is indeed exceptionally well written, in stark, acute prose. Several of us were very taken with the gangster slang theme and the interspersed glossaries that slyly promote the plot with its own conflation of sex and violence. (Although some wondered about some of the language - did New York detectives such as Malloy really still refer to women as 'broads' in the 1990s?).

There was deep division in the group concerning the sexual character of Frannie as evidenced by her involvement with the sexist hardbitten Malloy - mainly between me and Jenny. Jenny strongly thought that Frannie was simply sexually curious, but I felt there was something of masochism in her attitude and behaviour - especially as there is reference to her cold distant father and an emotionally arid colonial childhood - and that the author may be making the point that sexual violence towards women is to some extent facilitated by a female masochism induced by a patriarchal society. An important point, I think, is that the intelligent Frannie is quite clear-sighted about Malloy's machismo yet almost matter-of-factly accepts it. The novel indeed begins with Frannie's criticism of her students' disapproval of the machismo in Hemingway and Naipaul, and the fact that it blinds them to 'the intelligence of the books'.

There was also division about  the character of Malloy: some, mainly the men, felt that Moore showed the vulnerability behind his machismo but others strongly disagreed, and it turned out that Clare had failed even to go on reading the book because she had been so put off by the character of Malloy and by Frannie's capitulation to him. Others felt that there was however authorial irony in the treatment of this (indeed there is a self-conscious discussion of literary irony on the first page of the novel).

There were a few quibbles about structure and plot. We are teased as readers to begin to think that Malloy could be the murderer, and Frannie eventually entertains the suspicion, which ratchets up the tension in her relationship with him. However, we thought that the red-herring clues planted to cause us to make the link weren't well handled: why does she not notice that they are  also associated with the real murderer, whom she has known all along? Everyone thought that a long speech by Malloy after sex, explaining himself and his history to Frannie, was almost embarrassingly out of character - which is why, perhaps, it was felt by some that the novel failed in portraying his buried humanity.

Although the book is billed as an 'erotic thriller' everyone agreed that that there was nothing erotic whatever about the extremely explicit sex portrayed in the book, and that on that level it was immensely successful in its mission. The final scene, in which Frannie is trapped by the murderer, tortured and about to die, told as it is from Frannie's viewpoint, is truly horrifying, with nothing whatever of the danger of salaciousness in  more objective narrations.

Trevor, however, couldn't accept the validity of this ending. As the novel comes to a close Frannie remembers lines from a poem about dying she has seen on the subway. The novels ends with these lines:
I know the poem.
She knows the poem.
a sudden, final change of grammatical person. In my view this cleverly manages to present the subjectivity of the victim while deflecting the question, But how did she live to tell the tale? as well as to create an ironic objective authorial comment on the situation and indeed the genre. However, for Trevor this felt like a cheat, and still left him, after the subjective immersion of the final scene, with the question hovering.

Admiring as most of us were, there was nevertheless a lingering sense that in the brilliant replication of the tropes of crime fiction and its language and atmosphere, there was after all something of collusion with the violence of the genre, and for this reason Ann said that, like Clare, she hadn't liked the book at all.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading group: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

This book, first published in Romania in 1934, and only last year published in English for the first time, has a history poignantly echoing its subject matter and theme.

It is the first-person story - narrated in the form of a diary and in many ways paralleling the author's own journal - of a young man who, as a student in 1920s Romania, struggles with anti-Semitism and the sense of his own Jewishness newly thrust upon him by the equal status recently granted to Jews in the country and the inevitable backlash. While the unnamed narrator will conclude at the end of the book: 'I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you're not. It's not a matter of either pride or shame', he doesn't feel that Jewishness is his prime identity. Rather, he identifies as Romanian, or, as Clare, who had suggested the book, said, he feels that his identity is primarily rooted in the Danube and the fishing village beside it from which he comes. And he sees himself primarily as an individual, rather than a member of any grouping.

It is an identity he is denied not only by anti-Semites who see Jews as alien and the cause of the country's troubles, but by other Jews who see him as espousing the assimilationism they deplore. The early (undated) entries consist of reports not only of the beatings he and his fellow Jewish students suffer at the university - and the escapes and detours they have to make to avoid them - (before they are eventually virtually barred from lectures), but also of the lengthy arguments he has with the Jewish friends who espouse different positions from his own, and indeed from each other. Marcel Winder embraces the role of Jewish victim or martyr, metaphorically notching up his beatings on the bedpost; S T Haim is a fervent Marxist, preparing for revolution; and Sami Winkler is Zionist, planning to emigrate to Palestine. The narrator also meets Abraham Sulitzer, who as a travelling bookseller personifies the archetypal Wandering Jew, an anti-Zionist anti-assimilationist who insists on the supremacy and future longevity of Yiddish (and utterly derides the notion of the re-adoption of Hebrew, a 'dead language'), and the books he sells are, amazingly, Yiddish translations of European classics.

While the narrator cannot agree with any of his Jewish antagonists, he remains on friendly, indeed affectionate terms with them all, and all of their arguments, indeed their whole speeches and even their lectures, are laid out verbatim with scrupulous fairness in a book the overall tone of which is indeed wistfully affectionate. It is not a fairness that, on publication and for many years after, author Sebastian would experience over his book.

There are two non-Jewish characters by whom the narrator is immensely impressed: the brilliant lecturer Ghita Blidaru, who persuades him to move from law to architecture, and the architect Mircea Vieru, to whom Blidaru introduces him, and for whom he then works. Both impress him with their respective intellectual and creative abilities, and their liberal attitudes - although both, as the war approaches and antiSemitic attitudes harden and 'normalise', will eventually express anti-Semitic thoughts of their own, once again replicated by the narrator with thoughtful scrupulousness. Blidaru was based on Sebastian's real-life lecturer and mentor Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write a preface to the novel. Unexpectedly, Ionescu wrote a denouncement of both the novel and the author, deriding him for believing that he could think of himself as belonging to any nation, and anything other than a Jew. Unfortunately, Sebastian allowed publication to go ahead with Ionescu's preface. Opprobium fell on him from all sides. The narrator hopes that Sami Winkler will 'prevail' in Palestine, but can't believe that he will. 'Two thousand years can't be overcome by leaving for somewhere,' he muses after Sami's departure, and he has wondered about the effect of settlers on the existing population in Palestine. The book, and the author, were consequently roundly condemned by anti-Semites and Zionists alike.

Everyone at our meeting was amazed by this book, by the way that it addresses so calmly and reasonably issues that seem again, today, too volatile to be considered with dispassion and dealt with via the kind of calm discussion that, as Clare said, is the only way to solve problems. We all thought it a very important book and that its publication in English in our present climate was salutary and timely.
Ann, a historian, said too that she was prompted to read up about the history of Romania which of course we don't learn about in the UK.

However, when Clare commented that she thought the book flowed beautifully, most people disagreed, finding that the long replicated speeches and extracts from lectures given by the characters required a different kind of reading from that of the novelistic mode of the rest, and thus made for a difficult, disjointed, overall read. Afterwards I met Trevor, who had been unable to make the meeting, and he said that his reaction had been the same. Nevertheless, all felt it was a book that one should read, and were grateful to have done so.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Reading group: Utz by Bruce Chatwin

Warning: some plot spoils.

Once again much time has passed between a reading group discussion - this one was held in early March - and my finally getting around to writing about it, and I'm afraid my account of our meeting may be a little sketchy.

Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death, this book concerns the story of Utz, a minor Saxon baron (he claims), a half-Jew and a lifelong collector of Meissen porcelain. Beginning with Utz's funeral in 1974, the story is narrated in the 1980s - in Chatwin's famously lapidary prose and with much erudition - by a male art specialist who as a young man encountered Utz in Communist Prague in 1967 (the year before the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet crackdown) - his one and only meeting with him. Throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, Utz had amassed and guarded his priceless collection which he now took the narrator to view, crammed into his small flat beside the Jewish cemetery. Earlier he had hidden it from the Nazis on his Sudetenland estate, and now, having pragmatically given up his estate to the Communists and retreated with his porcelain to Prague, he was protecting it from appropriation for the museum through one of his many 'deals'.

Most people in the group were fascinated by the book's theme (though John was a notable exception): that of the pathology of obsessive collecting, and the tension between an obsession with collecting material things that bind you to one place and the need to be footloose and free of possessions - a tension known to have been that of Chatwin himself, a former Sotheby's expert addicted to bohemian travel.

According to the story that Utz told the narrator, hassled in 1952 by the Communists over his collection, he had the urge to 'get out', away from Prague, and he 'escaped' to Vichy, tearing himself away from his collection and leaving it in the charge of his devoted housekeeper Martha (a former servant on his Saxon estate). But after failing to enjoy anything in Vichy, from the views to the food, and after failed attempts at sexual liaisons, he was soon drawn back. During the meeting the narrator concludes: 'The collection held him prisoner.'

The narrator also reports that early in his life Utz had written, in an article denouncing the 'suffocation' of museum collections in which things cannot be touched: '...the passionate [private] collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.' Utz explains to the narrator the source of this fetishisation, tracing the connections between the Biblical notion of clay as the source of human life, the Jewish notion of the golem (central to the history of Prague Jewry) in which a gifted and learned Rabbi could create a golem as God created Adam, and the medieval notion of the Holy Grail and historical events linking it with the special clay required to make Meissen porcelain. 'Are you suggesting your porcelains are alive?' the narrator asks him, and Utz replies, 'I am and I am not.'

This ambiguity characterises not only Utz: it characterises the whole story, and indeed the book itself. It was pointed out in the group that on the occasion of Utz's first Vichy adventure it is not after all the porcelain, exactly, that draws him back:
He was desperately homesick, yet hadn't given a thought for the porcelains. He could only think of Martha, alone in the apartment.
The narrator, too, comes to doubt Utz's claim to have needed simply to get away - even entertaining briefly the idea that he was a spy - since it soon becomes clear that the trip to the formerly Nazi-collaborating Vichy became a yearly occurrence, and a yearly chance for Utz to deal in porcelain - as Utz says, when others were smuggling precious private possessions out of Prague and the hands of the Communist authorities, he was smuggling them in.

Ten years after the death of Utz in 1974, the narrator is passing once again through Prague. He visits the museum, knowing that part of the deal that Utz had made with the Communists was that it should go there after his death, only to find that the collection has in fact disappeared. He meets up with the professor who first introduced him to Utz, who now reveals information that undercuts the story we have learned so far, and the impressions the narrator has so far received. Utz, it turns out, was by no means the ineffectual lover he was presented as being at Vichy, and the strangely sumptuous bedroom the narrator had witnessed when visiting his flat in 1967 had been frequented - much to Martha's heartache - by a series of 'Merry Widows' and operatic divas. And Martha, who slept on the landing, had not been simply his servant, it turns out. In 1952 he had married her as a matter of convenience, in order not to be evicted from his flat. Sometime in the sixties, finally rejected by a young opera singer as a ridiculous old man, he accepted Martha fully as his wife and into his bed, marrying her again, this time in church, in 1968, the year after the narrator's encounter with him.

The novel ends with uncertainty. What actually happened to the porcelain? (I won't give it away here.) Did it really happen this way, and why? What were the motives? The narrator comes to his own conclusion, but it's one that he wants to believe, rather than one he can be certain of: that in the end material objects are nothing in the face of human love. The overriding effect is an evocative sense of the unfathomable mysteriousness of human motive and life.

Early on in the novel the author strongly signals this underpinning uncertainty by stating that Utz was of nondescript appearance, and that he cannot even remember whether Utz had a moustache. It will turn out later that he did have one - the professor, Orlick, will tell the narrator that tickling women's throats with it was Utz's particularly idiosyncratic seduction technique. In the early section the narrator addresses the reader in a confidential manner: 'Supposing, then, we add a moustache? ... On reflection, I think I'd better withdraw the moustache', thus not only leading us to read the whole story up to Orlick's revelation with a picture of Utz without a moustache before having our preconceptions overturned, but also explicitly highlighting the authorial choices, and consequent contingency and unreliability, of storytelling.

I have to say however that the way this is handled strikes me as not entirely successful. The book, which is very short, is related from a single time level - one year on from Orlick's revelations - and, since all of the events of the novel are over before the story is narrated, and the narrator clearly therefore knows the whole story before beginning, his uncertainty about Utz's moustache in the earlier part of the narration is inconsistent with his eventually evident prior knowledge of its existence. It may be that Chatwin is thus slyly conveying the unreliability of his narrator, and indeed of his own novel, but it seems to me, rather, a structural error in a book that on the level of prose style is a masterpiece of polish.

The treatment of Utz's funeral compounds for me this view. In the light of the end of the book we can see that the evocative tenor of the opening funeral scene, with 'jackdaws with twigs in their beaks ... wheeling above the lindens' - is the product of the narrator's imagination and surmise. The narrator is quite open about this: at the end, after recounting the revelation by Orlick of the fate of the porcelain, he states: 'I am now in a position to add to my account of Utz's funeral.' Since the narrator has in fact known the whole truth behind the funeral scene before beginning his narration - ie, his position with regard to knowledge of events hasn't in fact changed - this again seems a structural error.

We didn't address this in our discussion, though comment was (fairly belatedly) made on the unreliability of the narrator. It was Ann who had suggested the book, since, working in museums herself, she had been particularly interested in the subject matter. She had jotted down her thoughts as she reacted to the book, noting the elegance of the prose, but also wondering if the book was somehow patronising. If I remember rightly, she had wondered at the end if it amounted to very much. We all agreed on the elegance of the prose, but I said, in line with Ann's sense of patronisation, that I found it perhaps rather conventional and patriarchal. In spite of the thematic obsession with uncertainty, there seemed to me a patrician air of certainty in the manipulation of language, and I wondered too if there was a kind of cultural autocracy in the unexplained references to arcane knowledge and phenomena. Clare said she had wondered that too.

And that, I'm afraid, apart from the inevitable and lengthy dissection of the plot and themes and characters' motives, is all that I can remember of our actual discussion.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Reading group: The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

Trevor suggested this short 1929 novel, Hamilton's first, and the first in a trilogy now published in one volume, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. It concerns the infatuation of twenty-five-year-old London pub waiter Bob with a young prostitute, Jenny, and tracks the course of his downfall as she manipulates him and milks him of the savings he has put aside for his future, a future vaguely conceived but in which he imagines becoming a famous writer.

Trevor said he thought the book superb. He especially thought the dialogue - of which there is a great deal - wonderful, and he was utterly taken with the way the author leads you through Bob's mental justifications as, time and time again, Jenny gets him to give her money (usually affecting protest) and then, after promising not to, stands him up, and Bob, disarmed by her exceptional physical beauty, wavers between seeing through her and convincing himself of her excuses.

Group member Jenny agreed. She said she had been utterly fascinated by those mental acrobatics, and intensely interested in finding out how they would play out and end up. Mark and Clare, too, seemed very positive about the book.

However, Ann, John and I had reservations, and Doug was outright negative. The book begins with an evocative description of the pub off the Euston Road in which Bob works, and its atmosphere and clientele and comings and goings, and Doug said he had loved this - it so conjured up those London pubs - but that once it had got onto the relationship he had lost all patience with the book: he didn't find the relationship believable at all.

There was a lot of counter justification: the point was, Bob was infatuated, and surely it's the case that under that circumstance you can see someone double, as Bob does; you can, as Clare put it, know that someone is bad for you but still be besotted with them.

Although I agreed absolutely that this was the case (in life), I had said early on that I was afraid that I found the constant dealings between the two antagonists repetitive, and Ann and John now strongly agreed, Ann going so far as to say she found them tedious. People would go on to object that such situations are repetitive, but it is of course a novelist's job to write about repetition without creating a tediously repetitive read. I completely acknowledged that for someone in Bob's situation none of it would seem tedious, it would all be high emotional drama, but I never actually felt emotionally involved in his drama, never actually shared it and felt it myself: never in those moments that Bob convinced himself that she wasn't cheating him and did love him did I believe so too, or at least hope he was right. I was too easily able to judge the situation objectively and foresee how it would end, which made me impatient with the repetitive journey towards it - all of which Ann and John and Doug very much concurred with. People said, But what about the time Bob goes to buy a new suit (squandering his savings on it as a way of wooing Jenny)? Ann and I (and pretty much everyone) agreed that this was indeed a masterful depiction of class diffidence, and Ann and I said that that was the point: as soon as something different happens - different from the endless meetings between the two, always following the same pattern, and the word-for-word identical and spurned phone calls Bob makes to Jenny's lodgings - the novel perked up for us. We felt the same about the time that Jenny breaks her own protocol and takes Bob up to the room she moves into to share with two other prostitutes (having absconded her lodgings without paying the rent).

I thought it was a function of the somewhat patrician, ironic, and thus ultimately distancing prose. The early description of The Midnight Bell pub begins in this somewhat old-fashioned patrician mode:
Those entering the Saloon Bar of 'The Midnight Bell' from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane, a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription 'Saloon Bar and Lounge', and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful, careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing. Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it.
Engaging as this is as a piece of verbal wit, it ultimately wraps the clientele of the pub - and by extension the people of the novel - in an urbanely amused narrative consciousness, ultimately belittling them. The individual pub habitues are, as people in our group (including Doug) said, beautifully observed, but the mode employed to observe them makes them merely quaint. The early section in which we are given a full account of Bob's character is cast very much in an ironic tone:
...[he] took to dreaming again - dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
Often the prose ascends to lofty near-sarcasm, employing, indeed, a patronisingly and mockingly repetitive mode, as in this scene in the room that Jenny shares with the other two prostitutes:
'Well, said Sammy, 'I been havin' my soul saved. You know that corner where Lisle Street joins Wardour Street?'
The company [ie, Jenny and Bob] did.
'Well, there was a boy standin' there - see?'
The company did.
'He couldn't've been more than seventeen or eighteen - it's just about three o' clock, an' e' was sort of standin' about. See?'
The company did.
'Well, so I goes up to him, like, you see, an' I says, "Where do you come from," I says, "Eton or 'Arrow?" See?'
The company did, and tittered.
And so on (and it does go on...)

That depiction of 'common' speech which is shared by Jenny, (and common is a term that both the socially aspirant Bob and the narrator would use) is of course inherently patronising. It is perhaps significant that in the second book of the trilogy, which deals with Jenny's story and in which the author thus has to enter Jenny's consciousness, her speech is markedly less caricatured.

Similarly patronising, I found, was the constant use of what J B Priestley called Komic Capitals, a heavy way of ironising, indeed mocking, both the speech and attitudes of the characters, as seen in Sammy's next speech in the scene above:
'So he don't say nothing. 'E just sort of Tugs at 'is collar...'
I said that I felt that the use of such a distanced prose was perhaps a function of author Hamilton's youth when he wrote the book (he wrote it in his early twenties). It is well known that the book is closely autobiographical, and Ann added the insightful comment that it would be a way for Hamilton to distance the experience for himself.

Jenny and Trevor had not been troubled by any of this, however, and for them the book had been an extremely satisfying read.

It was noted that this book is essentially the same story as that of Hamilton's Hangover Square, which we discussed last March - there are even references in both to Maidenhead as a kind of Shangri-la to escape to, and both George in Hangover Square and Bob are cheated over a trip to Brighton. Hangover Square was considered the more mature novel by those who had doubts about this one: less facetious in tone and setting the relationship in a wider social and, importantly, political context in the run-up to war. Mark said also that Hangover Square was the more psychological novel, which I thought was perhaps another way of saying what I had been trying to say about The Midnight Bell.

Clare asked if anyone else had cringed as much as she had at the depiction of Jews - as dirty thieves. We all had - and I had balked at the view of the narrator and Bob of prostitutes (clearly Bob makes an exception for Jenny): they are often objectified as 'they' or 'them' or 'their kind'. Everyone agreed, however, that in 1925 such attitudes were part of the social fabric. Ann said that she had really loved the vivid details of London demi-monde life in the 1920s, with which we all thoroughly agreed, and while Trevor had been right to say that the story was still relevant and that the relationship and its trajectory could take place today, we felt that the book was best read as a historical document.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Friday, February 03, 2017

Guest post: Reading group: The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

A horrible cold prevented me from attending the meeting to discuss this recent Booker-winning novel. It features a narrator who, having spent his childhood in the 'Agrarian black ghetto' of Dickens as the subject of his sociologist single father's psychological-racial studies, decides to put Dickens back on the map by reintroducing slavery and segregation in a hugely ironic challenge to contemporary assumptions of racial diversity. Tackling such an urgent subject, and told in a wisecracking, immensely erudite and intelligent prose, the book fully justifies its Booker win. I didn't however find it an easy ride/read, and the following report of the discussion written by John shows that others in our group felt the same. I am grateful to John for stepping in:


REPORT BY JOHN:

Mark chose The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, and gave a brief account of his view of it. He said he thought the book was “absolutely terrific”, particularly mentioning the author’s grasp of popular culture. Mark clearly regards it as an important book and in his opinion it was on occasion “laugh out loud”. Trevor agreed and said the book is extremely clever. (Readers may be interested to contrast The Outsider (or The Stranger) by Camus; a sharp contrast on the theme of racism, and which now seems a far more traditional approach; see our discussion of it.)


There was some disagreement about how funny this book is; though a number of people picked out one or two funny passages. Clare said she “didn’t get it”, presumably in reference to whether it was funny or not, and I agreed. I mentioned the group’s response to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: Doug had tried many times to introduce Pynchon to the group and finally succeeded with that one. He found The Crying hilariously funny but (most of?) the rest of the group had no idea what he was talking about. I put forward the opinion that humour is a very personal thing.

There was general agreement that this is an important book, and deserving of the Booker prize. This was because it tackled head-on the difficult topic of the idea that what is usually known as the human race (allowing reproduction between members of that race) is in fact a group of races, “whites”, “Negroes”… Our discussion took place before the current developments in America underlining the book's message, and there was a variety of strength of feeling among us about the extent of racism in our current society, the strongest being expressed by the member of the group who is what is sometimes referred to as “mixed race”, and the member who had made an academic study of post-colonial literature. After some discussion, when asked directly, the mixed race member of the group stated that he had been racially abused as a boy, in particular on one occasion being attacked by three youths, presumably of about the same age. It was clear that the attack was racist due to the vocabulary the youths used. Some people expressed surprise, presumably because in their view this member of the group is apparently fully integrated into British society, and in most circumstances (at least locally) “passes as white”. He was in a non-heavy sort of way (I think) raised as a Christian. I said that I felt it was clear that the group could openly discuss the issues raised in his presence within the security of the group but that some groups of people would either be too embarrassed to do this, or there would be conflict on some of the issues. I expressed the view that it is important that if society is to progress issues such as this, relationships between the sexes, sexual abuse and paedophilia must be openly discussed. (However, I have noted in meetings with other groups that care is needed: I have had a little contact with witchcraft scares in Nottingham, which were eventually shown not to have any foundation in reality.)


There was fairly general agreement that the book is not an easy read. At least two of the five people present had not managed to complete it in the allotted month, though to some extent this was because some were very committed to family over Christmas, and also illness. There was fairly general agreement that the style of the book was dense and intense, with a style perhaps more usual to short stories. There was an agreement that Beatty is clearly a very clever guy. Jenny said that about two-thirds of the way through she began to feel the book was getting tiresome and she had to force herself to go on. I agreed it was “hard work” but went on to say that this was about the point when the book benefitted from the use of a more traditional story line. I also compared it to Ulysses, saying it was similar in the use of digressions, and also in subject matter as the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew in Ireland, and to some extent an outsider to the society he lived in.*


Doug was unable to attend the group and briefly summarized his opinion (as he has usefully done a number of times before), stating:


“I’ve not quite finished the book but I haven't enjoyed it as much as thought I was going to after the opening few pages. I've found the heavy dialect of the main protagonist made it hard to get into the rhythm of the book and the cultural references had me resorting to Google on a regular basis. So I just found it quite hard going - far more so than, say, A Brief History of 7 Killings, which had its own challenges in the language.
But it was wildly funny in places and definitely worth the read.”


I and (at least?) one other member of the group expressed surprised as we had felt Doug would like the book, with what (to me at least) is a similar use of throw-away, rather jocular humour to the Pynchon. I said I felt that at times Beatty’s digressions served little more purpose than to introduce a joke that did not strike me as being particularly funny.


The discussion of the book concluded, but as often happens in the group, much discussion of the issues raised continued for a couple of hours. Again it can be concluded that whether one actually likes the book or not, the issues are important. One member agreed that the book contained some fabulous writing. Famously, she likes food, and compared reading the book to tackling a rich box of chocolates, with initial enjoyment, leading to eventual satiation. Perhaps the lesson learned is that this book should be taken in small doses. Certainly it is advisable to allot more time to this book than would usually be the case with a book of this length, about 250 pages.

Report written by John.

*Ed (EB): There is a reference to Joyce's Ulysses at one point in the book, which I took as a self-conscious acknowledgement and tribute.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading group: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Prompted by the immense success of the novels of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, in particular her linked Neopolitan novels, and of course by the recent fuss around her apparent 'umasking', John suggested this stand-alone novel, and the rest of us, none of whom had yet read Ferrante, jumped at the chance to read it.

However, not everyone in our group shared the popular opinion, and views of the book were sharply divided.

Suspecting that this would be the case, John avoided expressing his emotional reaction to the book, and concentrated on discussing it in more neutral literary terms. A breathless first-person narration, it charts the emotional journey of Olga from the moment her husband Mario announces that, through an 'absence of sense', he feels the need to leave, and walks out on her and their two young children. As John said, the book is significantly titled: not only is Olga abandoned, thereafter she abandons herself, falling into the kind of madness of the abandoned woman she witnessed in childhood and subsequently despised and dreaded, and consequently at moments abandoning her children both physically and emotionally. As Jenny would point out later in the discussion, and as Olga herself will realise later, it is not Mario but Olga who, as a result of his actions, suffers an 'absence of sense'. (Mario has in fact of course gone off with another, younger woman.) Initially, before she comes to realise that Mario is never coming back, Olga makes a point of being reasonable and understanding, a stance she has always previously taken. It is the way in fact that women are traditionally supposed to behave, and is thus another kind of absence of sense.

Mark interjected that surely this was a hackneyed subject, but John stated that he thought that this novel was not simply telling a hackneyed story, but was very much a political statement of the continuing trap of the institution of marriage for women. Having once despised tragic heroines like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Olga is now haunted by the spirit of them (and, as she becomes more unhinged, haunted more literally by the ghost of the abandoned woman of her childhood, the poverella). Having at eighteen considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes, and having indeed begun a career as a published writer, she has ended up a mere wife, modulating herself for the lives of others, subsumed to the Family. John thought it no coincidence that the book that most strongly haunts this novel, Anna Karenina, begins All happy families... He pointed out that, like that novel (and in his opinion most great novels), The Days of Abandonment begins with a sentence that gets right to the thematic point: One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. (Note that reference to lunch, not only locating Olga in the domestic that traps her and in which she will be left, but implying the familiar order and composure from which she is now shaken.)

It now became clear that the three women present, Jenny, Clare and I, had found the book utterly emotionally engrossing - although I had to confess that because I had read it at a huge compulsive rush I read it again, and the second time, without the tension of not knowing what was going to happen, felt less emotionally engaged and more distanced from the character. On first reading, however, all three of us had identified closely with Olga and her experience, and had found the portrayal searingly truthful. John and Mark, however, the two men present, both said that they had wavered as they read it, sometimes liking the book and sometimes disliking it, John saying that he found it sagged a little in the second half - a sensation I did have on my second reading. Mark seemed to come down on the side of dislike, as he went on to be pretty critical. He repeated his view that the situation - a woman emotionally trapped by marriage and motherhood - is outdated; he thought young women nowadays would be baffled by it. To begin with we found it hard to answer that, except to say that nevertheless women of our generation who do identify with it are a significant enough demographic not to be discounted and to account for Ferrante's huge popularity, and that in any case Italy is still a conservative enough society for its theme to be still current there for younger women. But a main point made by this novel, as had been said, is that that so-called outdated stereotype, which might baffle younger women, and which had indeed baffled the young Olga herself, is not so easily sidestepped even now, a notion that we three strongly agreed with as a result of our own experience.

Clare said she was really interested in the meta-issue of Ferrante's anonymity and 'unmasking' (as far as I know, no one knows for sure if the woman who has been fingered as the author behind the pen-name is really the author). In discussing Olga's state of mind John had mentioned that there is a lot of excrement and urine in the book, and the fact that Olga is obsessed with sex, in particular transgressive sex. None of this is gratuitous; all of it is an inevitable outcome of the situation and Olga's deteriorating state of mind. Rejected so suddenly and roundly by her husband she is inevitably swamped by a sense of her hitherto unsuspected inadequacy: has he found her sexually inadequate? Does his lover provide sexual satisfactions she hadn't? - questions that lead her unsuccessfully and depressingly to abandon herself 'without love' and 'with pure ferocity' to transgressive sex with a neighbour, Caranno, a practical stranger. Everything inevitably seems to her spoiled and poisoned - there is dog-shit on the pavement, a lizard and ants invade the house - and Olga herself becomes the focus of loss of control, letting the house fall into chaos, running out precipitously with the dog in her nightgown and needing herself to urinate and defecate in the woods. As one of her children falls ill with a fever, and the dog simultaneously lies dying and leaking shit, she becomes convinced that she is secreting some sort of poison that is affecting all around her. Such graphic material caused shock on the book's publication in 2002, which I consider a telling comment on continuing perceptions of women (women are not supposed to be so earthy or to lose control), and on what a female author is allowed to write. It is probably therefore significant that one suggestion has been that the author of the Ferrante books is a man.

I said that one of the reasons I found the book so deeply and personally compelling was that it made me wonder why I hadn't written about certain of my own experiences, and I realised it was because I don't write anonymously (although Elizabeth Baines is a pen-name, people have long known who I am). I would love to go back to the days when I first started writing under a pen-name and no one knew me: there was freedom then from my writing being judged through the lens of my real-life persona or vice versa. Reading Ferrante's book made me realise that the better known I have become, the more difficult it has become to write about certain experiences of my own in a way that could be interpreted as autobiographical.

Now there was a huge altercation. Mark seemed to think this fairly ridiculous. Surely when you write, he said, you don't write for others but for yourself? Hadn't we read the Paris Review interviews in which so many writers say they write for themselves? It is however a matter of degree and of negotiating between, on the one hand, the desire to express oneself and portray the truth as you see it, and, on the other, the need to communicate and the context into which your writing must be published. But surely, Mark said, it's fiction? He was right of course that it is a mistake to read fiction as autobiography, but the fact is that there is a huge tendency to do so, and to identify the author with the protagonist.

Mark then criticised the translation of the book, citing the substitution of the American use of Fahrenheit for the European Celsius (when Olga is taking her ill child's temperature) and the use of 'magnifying lens' which he thought should be 'magnifying glass'. The rest of us found these trivial points in a book dealing so truthfully with searing issues, and hadn't even noticed them. I found 'magnifying lens' acceptable anyway, and in fact more resonant in a book about shifts in perception, and John said he thought Fahrenheit was acceptable in a translation probably aimed at the American market. Mark criticised the prose, finding it lacking in punctuation, especially in commas. I said, isn't this a function of the fact that the breathless style mimics Olga's slipping state of mind, and isn't it actually explicitly addressed in the book: Olga reflects that as a young woman she despised the lack of commas in those novels of tragic heroines, but abandoning herself to loss of control in her new situation, she embraces a lack of commas. Mark said he knew this, but he still objected to the lack. (However, leafing through the book now I can't actually find this lack; the book is in fact liberally sprinkled with commas - sometimes in place of full stops, indicating Olga's sliding, uncontrolled state.) In direct contrast, the rest of us found the book extremely well-written, with style beautifully suited to the situation. In fact, I said to the group, I don't believe that I would ever go to pieces in the way that Olga does in that situation - I don't believe I'm like Olga  - but I found that the way the book was written made me identify with her totally on that first reading, and Clare and Jenny agreed.

From the meeting it looked as if our opinions of this book were divided along gender lines, but Doug, who hadn't been able to make the meeting, had written that, 50 pages in, he was finding it 'captivating and harrowing in equal measure' and couldn't wait to find out where it went next. And, conversely, Ann, who was also unable to be present, had written that she had found the translation clunky and clumsy, and had 'just wanted to shake the protagonist', finding her 'too overwrought, incompetent, incapable'. LIke Mark, Ann found her 'just old fashioned in attitude and assumptions' and simply thought 'At last!' when Olga comes to realise that she has invested too much of herself in her relationship and her role as a wife and mother. There is an agonising section where Olga is trapped in the house with her ailing child and dying dog because she can't undo the lock she has had installed by workmen who made lewd lock-based insinuations as they installed it. She is able to undo it only when the neighbour Caranno arrives outside the door. Ann thought this an outrageously overdone metaphor, and John pretty much agreed with her, but none of the rest of us women did. While it does of course operate on a symbolic level, I read it chiefly not as an authorial metaphor, but as a purely practical effect of Olga's state, which I found realistic (ie she was simply in too much of a state to get the thing open before she relaxed, her situation creating an emotional and physical block about it). Ann had also foreseen the ending of the book early on, but none of the rest of us had done so, since we felt that the book was interrogating traditional paradigms rather than simply employing them. And there was quite some amazement on the faces of us women at Ann's statement that if this is typical of the rest of Ferrante's work she wouldn't be bothering with it. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here