Friday, April 12, 2024

Reading group: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Only four of us to discuss this book suggested by Doug (who couldn't be present), and all four of us found it a worthwhile, if not gripping read.

It begins with a Prologue relating the uncovering by university archeology students of a secret cemetery in the grounds of a Florida former boys' reformatory school, in which are buried the bodies of clearly mutilated boys. Not that the cemetery was secret to the boys once attending the school, nor the fact that behind the school's public profile as a place of education and rehabilitation, it was in fact a hell of cruelty, abuse and racism. The Prologue ends with a former back 'student', or more appropriately inmate, who 'goes by the name of Elwood Curtis', deciding to return from New York for the public inquiry.

The narrative now switches to 1962, when Elwood, a conscientious and studious boy being brought up by his grandmother, receives for Christmas a record album of speeches by Martin Luther King, which deeply affects him and colours his view of the world as he matures. We follow his maturing as he works in the local newsagents' (persuading the newsagent to stock anti-racist journals), studies hard (encouraged in his both his education and his idealism by his activist teacher) and dares to attend a protest. Until one day, on the way to attend the college in which he has enrolled for night-school, through no fault of his own he is picked up by the police and ends up in Nickel.

We then follow the horrors of life at Nickel through Elwood's perspective, a nightmare for all, but especially for the black boys who are segregated from the white boys in the school and treated even more harshly. Our member Ann said that a most remarkable thing about the book is the way in which Whitehead manages to lay completely bare the horror in an almost matter-of-fact way, never once being melodramatic or vying for the emotion strings of the reader - which keeps you reading, never needing to turn away from the horror, yet which somehow in the end makes it all the more horrifying. (It's also horrifying to read in the Author's Acknowledgements that the book is inspired by the story of a real Florida school.)

Whether or not the idealistic Elwood and the more cynical Turner, a fellow inmate who befriends him, will escape Nickel becomes a major plot point, and I think it would be wrong of me, for those who haven't read the book, to reveal what happens, and to discuss in specific detail what we made of it, since the outcome turns on a major (and quite stunning) revelation, knowing which would I think adversely affect how you read the whole book. Mark said he thought it was amazingly cleverly done. Ann and I both said that we had had inklings of it now and then throughout the book, but I simply wondered at those moments if these were narrative mistakes. My initial reaction when I came to the revelation was that it had been tricksy, though Ann and Mark argued for it convincingly on thematic grounds. I also commented that there was little psychological exploration of the fallout of this revelation for characters, but Ann and Mark felt that psychological exploration wasn't the purpose of this book, its purpose being more that of journalistic exposure. I always argue that the main political strength of novels is psychological and emotional, but I had to agree that this novel was compelling. However, John, who strongly agrees with me on this point about novels and psychology, said that he'd found it less compelling than did the rest of us, which may be because the material was very familiar to him from his work as an child psychologist, so that the exposure project didn't work so well on him. Mark did agree that the twist/revelation did actually smack of airport-type novels, but he thought that that was in fact another political strength, Ann corroborating this by saying that she felt far more people would read this novel than would read the more obviously literary Toni Morrison (books of whom we have discussed here, and here where we discuss Morrison's own view that novel readers need to be 'moved' rather than simply 'touched'). And the Nickel Boys is indeed beautifully written, in tough, clean prose.

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Reading group: A Room with a View by E M Forster

Ann suggested this 1908 novel in which Lucy Honeychurch, travelling in Italy with her cousin and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett, struggles to accommodate Edwardian expectations of her as a young woman, but, due to an unsettling encounter in Florence, after her return home and an unsatisfactory engagement learns to thwart those expectations, to finally acknowledge her own feelings and think for herself. 

Ann said that, having had little time to read this month, she had that day listened to an audio version of the book, and - to her surprise, I think - had found that she hadn't enjoyed it - in fact she seemed to think it was pretty awful. She acknowledged the comic episodes, and did enjoy those, but didn't at all like what she called the philosophical and purple passages. Mark - who instantly said he had loved the book - said with surprise, and to the agreement of others, that he hadn't noticed those, and Doug said he had skimmed them, passages in which the author comments on human nature in general, though often wryly and always in relation to the action and characters. We mused briefly then on the different experiences that listening to a book and reading it present - the possibility of skipping or skimming when you read a book for yourself, and the different emphases and indeed tone that an audiobook reader and producer can impose on a text. Ann's experience had made her dissatisfied with the book more generally: she felt she didn't know what it was, or what it was about. Was it a comedy or not? Was it a comedy of social manners, was it about class, or was it meant as a love story? I said that I thought it was all of those things, though chiefly, as I have indicated above, it was about the awakening of Lucy's consciousness, taking place in the context of class at a time of social change and challenges to the conventional role of women.

At the beginning of the book Lucy and Charlotte are newly arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence, and encounter the other exclusively English residents. At the dinner table the snobbery of the middle-class guests is directed at a father and son, the Emersons, who have no such pretensions and hold with none of their conventions: they are clearly 'lower class', and are suspected of being 'socialists'. Lucy has complained of her room not having the promised view, and the Emersons offer to change rooms with Lucy and Charlotte - a hugely indelicate intrusion in the middle-class codes of the day:

The better class of tourists was shocked at this, and sympathised with the newcomers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said:

'Thank you very much indeed: that is out of the question.'

'Why?' said the old man, with both fists on the table.

He insists heatedly, and:

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub anyone so gross... she looked around as if to say, 'Are you all like this?'. And two little old ladies [...] looked back, clearly indicating, 'We are not; we are genteel.'

I had read this book many years ago at university and loved it. I said now, though, that this time around I had found these episodes much funnier than I did then. As the daughter of an engineer who at the time would probably have been termed lower middle class, I had had similar snobberies directed at me by more upper-class acquaintances, and I felt uncomfortable reading it and less able to appreciate the humour. We discussed the changing impact that books can have at different times. Ann said she appreciated how challenging this book must have been at the time of its publication, but felt that since the things it was pushing at - class snobbery, the subordination of women - have since been largely addressed (if not solved), its impact was inevitably much less now. Everyone present except John and me had seen the film, and I got the impression from what they said that the film, presumably because of this, very much pushes the love story element. With reference to Ann's comment about purple passages,  I did have to say that on this reading I found one or two moments in the narration sentimental: describing the English village in which Lucy lives, the author comments on the 'tinkle' of church bells, which seemed utterly inaccurate - church bells don't 'tinkle' - so that however wry he is being about the tweeness of the environs, he ends up sound twee himself. Doug, who was nodding, said he didn't even think that there was any irony in the passage. It was interesting to me to note that none of this ever struck me when I read the book all those years ago, and it seemed like a mark of how the tenor of life has changed.

There was some talk about the characters. Ann said that none of the characters were likeable, not even Lucy, to, I think, general agreement - although I don't feel it's necessary to like characters to be interested in them, and unlikeable characters are of course a staple of satire. John commented, to more agreement, that the Emerson son George, the main love interest, is a mere cypher: we hardly get to know him at all. I said, to strong agreement from Clare, that the clergyman Mr Beebe had seemed the most sympathetic character, as he seems to see through Lucy and to have her interests at heart, especially in not wanting her to marry the dreadful Cecil who is compared by the author to a stiff medieval knight (Lucy's escape from him, along with her growing proto-feminist consciousness, is described as leaving the medieval world behind). But that when the elder Mr Emerson opens Lucy's eyes to her own truth, and she makes the choice of George, Mr Beebe is displeased. It turns out that he would rather Lucy didn't marry at all than follow her heart, which seems in the context mean-spirited. Some people in the group thought that Beebe was closest to the author, E M Forster, who was homosexual - necessarily closeted in that time - and that this explained it. However, it seems that the author is very much on the side of Lucy and George's union at the end: Mr Emerson, he says, had shown Lucy 'the holiness of direct desire' (which, as someone said, could be the author's veiled plea for homosexual love). The most obviously unlikeable character is the chaperone Charlotte, who is so restrictive with Lucy, so determined to make her conform to social expectations - and so falsely set-deprecating - and who quickly whisks her away from George when the spark first kindles between them. Some thought it seemed odd that right at the end it turns out that she had the chance to stop Lucy talking to Mr Emerson and changing her mind, yet didn't do so. Clare pointed out that this was in fact a significant change: Charlotte too had been repressing her true impulses in the need to conform to Edwardian society, and she too had rebelled, or been persuaded, in the end.

John particularly liked the ironic chapter headings - as did I - but he was perhaps the most dubious about the book beside Ann, unsure about the way that the tone becomes less comic as the book progresses and it concentrates more on Lucy's awakening - which perhaps links with Ann's feeling of not being able to work out what kind of book it was. This didn't trouble the rest of us, however, and I think most were pleased to have read it. 

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

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Reading group: Assembly by Natasha Brown

Mark suggested this book enthusiastically, having previously read it and loved it, a debut that has been shortlisted for several prestigious political prizes.

A short book written in a spare, consciously fragmented style, it is the thoughts and experience of a young black woman, a high-flying financier, as she prepares to travel to a celebration at the home of the parents of her upper-class white boyfriend. It begins with a kind of prologue of short sections depicting the ways in which she has been subtly and not-so-subtly objectified and abused by the chiefly male colleagues who feel she has no right to her success, and which she has had to accept and even internalise in order to survive and advance in her career:

...when that mouth opened up and coughed its vitriol at her ... she understood the source of its anger... She waited for the buzz of her phone to excuse her and - in the meantime - quietly, politely, she understood him.

It was nothing. She thought this now, as she thought it each morning. She buttoned up her shirt and thought it ... She thought it as she pulled her hair back into a neat bun, smoothed down her stiff, grey pencil skirt.

Thus she assembles both her appearance and her psychology to fit into the world in which she is moving. 

The third person in which this section is told serves the function of formulating her objectification - 'There was no we. There was he the subject and her the object'. After this section the narrative switches to the first person, 'I', as the narrator unpicks her situation and examines the ways in which she has been forced to assemble a persona in order to fit into a racist society, indeed to objectify herself, 'the person she has constructed'. The shift in narrative voice thus enacts the protagonist's psychological shift as she moves on from her adopted persona, comes to reject it and to want to disassemble it. The catalyst for this is her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, treatment for which she has rejected, weary of conforming and moulding herself to expectations.

Everyone in our group really admired the first part of this book - the spare, fragmented style acutely encapsulating the tortured psychology of the protagonist, and the searing and true depiction of the micro aggression with which she daily struggles. It's hard to pick out quotes to illustrate the depiction of the resentment of her colleagues - who are well aware of the unacceptability of racism yet believe her promotion is due only to the company's policy of 'diversity' - as it's so suitably subtley done.

Most people in our group were however less enamoured of the latter part of the novel in which she arrives at her boyfriend's family's country estate. Doug said he didn't believe for a moment in the relationship between the protagonist and her entitled, somewhat oblivious boyfriend, and I had to agree that I didn't find it entirely psychologically convincing. Someone suggested that this was because the upper-class characters of the boyfriend and his parents were stereotypes. Ann said there have been so many novels about the snobbery of the upper classes, set in such stately houses, that this didn't feel at all original, indeed it felt second-hand. Mark pointed out that it had not been done before from the viewpoint of a black protagonist, and Ann had to agree. Nevertheless, there was a feeling that there was something artificial about the depiction that left us unconvinced.

My view in retrospect is that the problem lies in the language of the book, which I did say in the meeting had rather troubled me. Towards the end of the book there is a section in which the narrator counterpoints English dictionary definitions of the words black and white, exposing the negative connotations of the first, and the positive connotations of the latter. She then asks: 'How can I use such language to examine the society it reinforces?' Which had prompted me to acknowledge that increasingly, as I read, I had felt a little uncomfortable with the language the narrator herself uses: at times it is highly abstract and Latinate, which indeed failed to convey to me her situation on an experiential level. While I found the beginning of the book so emotionally affecting, as it progressed the language became increasingly formal and distanced me from her experience, indeed objectified it. In the meeting, Clare strongly disagreed that there was any distancing of the narrator's experience, feeling, like many reviewers, that the fragmented form of the novel conveyed it beautifully. However, there was general agreement when I said that overall this is quite a cool, objective and distanced book, in spite of its fragmented mode and searing subject matter. 

The beginning vividly conveys the attitudes of the male workplace colleagues via (remembered) direct speech:

No, but, originally. Like your parents, where they're from. Africa, right?

I mean it's - well, you know. Of course you do, you understand. You can understand it in a way the English don't.

Yet when the narrator later tells us that her mother gives her reports on the phone about old friends in their community, and that this bothers her, we do not share her experience any of these conversations, she merely sums them up briefly, as I have here, and then muses on her own reaction in this formal language:

I decided my complaint was primarily formal, the set-up and punchline she employed; making me remember knowing, invoking memories of a person, of a life, and then revealing the death.

When she comes to introduce into the narrative her friend and colleague Julie, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's parents, she simply tells us about them, summing them up in that formal language - with little or no direct action or dialogue to illustrate or prove, or indeed make us experience what she tells us about them. Of her boyfriend's parents, she says:

It was a purity of lineage, of history: shared cultural mores and sensibilities. The preservation of a way of life, a class, the necessary higher echelon of society.

It could be argued that this formality of language is an aspect of the protagonist's need to assimilate, and of her colonisation by patriarchal culture, but it does seem therefore a mistake that as her disassembling progresses, the formality of the language should increase, and it seems to me now that it is this that made the later sections of the book less emotionally convincing for us than the early part. 

Towards the end especially there are polemical sections outlining the black history that led to this moment (conveyed indeed in essay-like formal language), and everyone in the group felt that these marred it. Mark (the book's biggest champion) said he felt that it was perhaps the mark of a debut author who didn't trust the reader to grasp the subtext and message of her narrative, and others agreed.

I said that I also felt a bit troubled by the narrator's rejection of treatment for cancer. It seemed to me less of a rebellion, or 'Transendence', as the last section of the book is titled, than a capitulation. I couldn't help agreeing with the reviewer I read who asked 'Why not drop out rather than drop dead?' She questioned the implication that the only way to be is to be a high financier (otherwise you may as well drop dead). This chimes somewhat with what John said to me outside of the meeting, which is that he wondered how far a criticism of racism a book can be when the protagonist is so highly successful and rich, and when the crucial social problem is that society militates against such a trajectory for black people, though he felt uncomfortable wondering it. I said, but isn't the point that, however outwardly comfortable a black person may seem to be, however much they have managed to overcome the obstacles, they still suffer from racism (even a more insidious and thus poisonous racism), they still live their life seared by discomfort. This is a main point, made explicitly in the book: that it's just not possible to assimilate, however hard the protagonist has tried, and the conclusion of course is, why, in the final analysis, should she? Nevertheless, while I can see that, as Clare said, the protagonist's succumbing to death is an aesthetic choice that makes the point, I felt strongly disappointed by the suggestion that, psychologically, there was no other way. 

However, in spite of our quibbles, everyone felt this was an impressive debut, and all had read it in a sitting.

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

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Reading group: O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

When John suggested this, Elspeth Barker's only novel, the members of our group who glanced at the beginning imagined it was going to be something of a grim read - typical Scottish Gothic, as Doug put it. In fact, the novel is a subversion of that genre, and is full of black humour and anything but a grim read. Everyone enjoyed it very much, and most of us were unable to put it down, and read it in a sitting.

It begins with the description of the stairs of a gaunt Scottish castle, on which, it will be revealed by the end of the first page, lies the body of Janet, a sixteen-year-old girl 'oddly attired' in her mother's black lace evening dress. The first chapter goes on to tell that she was mourned by none, even her parents, apart from her pet jackdaw who 'searched for her unceasingly' in the woods and glen, eventually killing himself by flying into a wall.

After the first chapter the novel switches immediately to an account of Janet's life, beginning with her birth during the Second World War. The tone becomes immediately wry, the rhythm of the prose lively, and the whole effect satirical as the author paints a picture of a girl growing up with distanced aristocratic parents and disappointing them with her lack of femininity and a passionate character expressed in a love of poetry and identification with the wildness of nature. There are moments that made us laugh out loud. Here are two ancient sisters at the village hall party, one of whom has been at the first sitting of the party tea, the other of whom has yet to eat:

Very old Miss Pettigrew came trembling up, leaning on her stick. 'Here you are then, Annie,' she said to her sister. Her jaw dropped loose, her mouth hung limp and open; in went her black-veined claw, out came a set of pinkly glistening false teeth. Her sister grabbed them; with no ado she popped them into her own mouth. She paused for a moment, sucking noisily. 'Macaroons!' she cried, 'Och, that's braw!'

The novel is full of this combination of grotesquery and hilarity, though, as Ann and Clare said, as Janet grows, the mood grows darker. Janet is indeed treated cruelly, by her distant, preoccupied mother (who only really likes babies, and keeps having them - children who turn out to be much prettier and more amenable), and by the boys of the boarding school her father establishes in his inherited castle. The feisty Janet is quite capable of taking revenge on the son of visitors after he tries to trap her and exposes himself to her, by pushing him into the poisonous giant hogweed in the unkempt garden at which he has sneered. But once she is forced to accept her own burgeoning sexuality and has to experience the horrors of boarding school, her feelings become more complex and difficult to deal with, and the mood becomes bleak. (Anne and Clare noted that there is no mention of menstruation which one would expect to be central to this crisis of identity for Janet. This book was first published in 1991. While some feminist authors had then been tackling such matters head-on for some time, they were still considered by many a subject unfit or too delicate for literature.)

Finally it will be revealed how Janet died on those stairs (which I won't give away here). The book is however no whodunnit, more of a whydunnit, though none of the four of us present were convinced by that ending. My main, and John's, doubt about the book was that there is no real story arc or thematic development propelling it - it's really basically a simple, linear account of a childhood - extraordinary and curious to most readers in its setting and milieu (the gothic castle and the eccentric aristocratic ways of the family), though in fact fairly typical of that social milieu, with the same point, Janet's role as a sore thumb in her family, illustrated repeatedly if entertainingly. We did in fact get a little frustrated, even wearied, by this, and it was the brilliant prose and sensibility that kept us reading. Ann made an interesting point. She said that when she was at boarding school herself she and her schoolfriends read scores of books beginning with this kind of setup, an ugly duckling made unhappy in a family. Jane Eyre, she pointed out, is a literary version of the same thing. (She imagined that this was what influenced O Caledonia, although in fact it is known to be strongly autobiographical.) However, in these books this setup was always the prelude to a story of escape from the situation and the transformation of the ugly duckling into a beautiful, successful swan (in fact Elspeth Barker herself did escape to London to become a successful journalist and member of the literary set). Here, however, no such transformation takes place, and this is what makes the book a subversion of the tradition, and its radicalism was why, no doubt, it was originally published by a feminist press. However, the fact that Janet remains in that establishing (and establishment) situation (which leads to her death), while making an interesting political point, did give the book for us a certain stasis, fortunately compensated for by the dynamic prose and the compelling insight into Janet and the family dynamics.

John did say afterwards that, in spite of the book's publication by a radical press, he felt uncomfortable with what seem some politically incorrect notes: the child Janet's attitude to the maimed soldiers living nearby (before the family move to the isolation of the castle) is one of horror. I said, Isn't it actually more complicated than that, more Janet's reaction to the horror of maiming (rather than just to the men themselves), which goes along with her empathy towards the animals that most people ill treat or kill? Also, it is Janet who befriends the grieving and mentally unstable aunt, Lila, who lives with them in the castle, while Janet's mother cruelly packs her off, committing her finally to a 'lunatic asylum', where Janet visits her during her Christmas holiday from boarding school. But John felt that the grotesque descriptions of the other patients in the mental hospital were lacking in empathy. And I didn't really have much argument against the fact that the hunchback gardener at the castle turns out to be evil, in true disablist tradition.

We discussed other, more minor points. Some people felt that, though most of the novel takes Janet's viewpoint via the close third person, there was the odd strange change of viewpoint that seemed to have no useful purpose, such as to that of Janet's mother in a somewhat prolonged and seemingly levered-in section about a Teasmaid that causes tension between the parents. 

Overall, though, everyone very much enjoyed this book in spite of our early lack of expectation.

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

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Reading group: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I had left it far too long to suggest a book for our next meeting, so I plumped for this as something short that people would be able to read in the time left. The story of Gregor Samsa who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant beetle-like creature, it has been subject to many interpretations - Marxist, feminist, Freudian and autobiographical - and it is cited as a major influence by many current authors who consider themselves writers of the 'Uncanny', which last made me especially keen to re-read it.

Gregor lives with his family - his parents and sister Greta - all of whom he has supported with gruelling work as a travelling salesman since the family business collapsed. A conscientious but downtrodden worker, he is very distressed to find that, trapped on his back with his little legs flailing, he can't even get out of bed to get the train to work, although for a while he tries to believe against the odds that he'll manage it. Initially his family, calling though his locked door, are worried about him, but when they finally see him they are horrified, his father in particular. Only Greta his sister is able to make herself enter the room and care for him, bringing him the kinds of scraps of food she thinks in his transformed state he would like, though he is unable to eat them. The chief clerk from his company visits to berate him for not appearing at work, increasing Gregor's distress by warning him that he risks dismissal. Eventually even Greta turns against him, seeing the creature in the room as no longer Gregor, and pronouncing that it has to go.

I said that of all the interpretations I'd read - the feminist interpretation concentrating on Greta, the autobiographical and Freudian view of the father as echoing Kafka's own harsh and dominating father - I was most sympathetic with the Marxist reading. In this Gregor's transformation is an acting out or a metaphorical fulfilment of a situation in which workers are trapped in a capitalist system that treats them like vermin - Gregor becomes the vermin he is considered to be. He has also been used by the selfishly bourgeois unit of his family: he will overhear a conversation between his parents in which it will turn out that, while he has been under the impression that his father lost everything when his business folded, and has been flogging his guts out to keep his family, his parents have been sitting on a nest-egg saved in spite of the business collapse. English translations, of which there are several, present Gregor's transformation variously: in one he is 'a gigantic insect', in others a 'bug', or, in Michael Hofmann's most recent translation for Penguin Classics, a 'cockroach'. Some, however, stay closer to the original German, the literal translation of which I understand to be 'a monstrous vermin'. This less concrete phrase does conjure the all too common attitude of employers in a capitalist system to workers requiring payment - as drains on their own wealth and thus blights on their own lives. It seemed to me indeed that as Gregor's state is revealed, the insect he most strongly resembles is a bedbug, that most intentional and covert of bloodsucking insects, and the most difficult to eradicate. He does after all begin the story in bed; his 'brown' belly, like that of a bedbug, is 'sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments'; when Greta enters his room he scuttles and hides under the sofa with the pointed end of his body sticking out, as bedbugs can do; when eventually he crawls on the walls and ceilings, he leaves dark trails like the blood-smears of bedbugs. A monster, in other words, that is condemned as feeding off others while in reality being starved.  

It is interesting to note that, as Michael Hofmann records in the Introduction to his Penguin Classics translation, on publication of the book Kafka insisted that the cover should not portray an insect (as so many modern editions do), indicating a strongly metaphorical intention. Yet, as our group commented curiously, the story unfolds as a very literal development of a metaphor. There is that immediate anatomical description of his new body, and we are treated to an extended explication of Gregor's difficulties in adjusting to his new incarnation, his initial inability to get off his back, his surprise at finding that once he is on his legs they have the power to take him along fast, his lack of knowledge as to what he can eat, and, for a long while, his ignorance of his ability to crawl on the walls and ceilings. This is nothing of the kind of transformation occurring in fairytales, in which the prince turns magically and instantaneously into a frog or vice versa, and that's that: here it is something much more laborious and concrete, and indeed intellectualised. (And indeed both Clare and I did find it all got a little boring in the end.) There is much contemporary writing that self-consciously references Metamorphosis by using this literalising technique in portrayals of transformations, and it is usually labelled 'Uncanny'. Personally I don't think it merits the term, since the concrete nature of the mode dispels the sense of unease and the unknown that the uncanny - works such as Poe's or Shirley Jackson's - provokes in the reader. For this reason, I find, it is never successful unless it is used in service to a political point, drawing the reader towards it on an intellectual level, as here.

But what is that political point in Metamorphosis? Ann had an interesting take: she saw the whole thing in the context of Kafka's position as a German-speaking Jew in Czech-speaking Prague, and could see that it was about othering. Clare concurred, and saw it as possibly about disability. John, a psychologist with a particular interest in perception (ie how one perceives what one experiences through one's senses), read it all as deeply psychological: Gregor, downtrodden at work, used by his family and despised by his father, comes to see or feel himself as an insect: it is all inside his head. But because he yet retains his human consciousness (and is thus aware of the horror of the situation), John saw the piece as a horror story. We did all feel that the end of the story, which deals with Gregor's final treatment by his family and their subsequent progress without him, occurs in a hurry and the story fizzles out. It seems that Kafka was never satisfied with the end, which, since Kafka is known to have had a difficult relationship with his own family, does seem to support an autobiographical reading. 

It seems to me that Metamorphosis encompasses all of those meanings: that the things in Kafka's life - his own employment as a cog in the wheel, his cruel and domineering father who saw him as weakling, his experience of antisemitism - would have contributed to its composition. Mark and others wondered why it has lasted and has become so vastly popular, and this is the reason, we decided: it is a story about power, capable via its metaphorical character of accommodating various schools of thought that have arisen since.

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

Friday, November 10, 2023

Reading group: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Doug's suggestion, this novel by acclaimed linguist and novelist Diego Marani was received as a 'masterpiece' in his native Italy, and in its English translation (by Judith Landry), published by the small UK press Dedalus, it has provoked high praise as a brilliant - even 'genius' - study of the way that language and memory shape us and give us our sense of our place in the world.

The premise of the novel, indicated in the book's back-cover blurb, is that a man, found unconscious with a head injury on Trieste harbour in 1943, wakes from his coma having lost all memory and language and any sense whatever of his own identity.

However, the novel does not begin with this intriguing scenario, but with a Prologue written some years later in the words of Petri Friari, a Finnish doctor working in Hamburg's city hospital. This Prologue conveys a number of facts that float in mystery, presented in the following order. First, Friari states that in 1946 - ie at the end of the Second World War - he found a manuscript in a trunk in the military hospital in Helsinki, 'together with a sailor's jacket, a handkerchief with the letters S.K. embroidered on it, three letters, a volume of the Kalevala [the national epic of Finland] and an empty bottle of koskenkorva [a Finnish vodka]'. The manuscript, he tells us, is written in a 'spare, indeed broken and often ungrammatical Finnish, in a school notebook where pages of prose alternate with lists of verbs and exercises in Finnish grammar', and including headlines and cuttings from newspapers. He knows the facts behind this manuscript, Friari then tells us, and the story it is unsuccessfully trying to tell. He has therefore, he tells us, reconstructed its story in a 'more orthodox' form, filling in the gaps it leaves with interjections of his own. He now reveals that having fled Finland as a young man, he had returned to look for the author of this manuscript, but found only the objects enumerated above. His motive for reconstructing the manuscript, he says, is to honour and memorialise a man who, through 'a cruel misunderstanding' on Friari's part, had been 'unintentionally driven towards a fate that was not his own'. Friari hopes also to 'reconstruct my own story, my own identity, through other eyes'. However, the Prologue ends on a pessimistic note: having once briefly felt he could be reconciled with his own country, Friari now feels exiled once more by the (unidentified) tragic events of which he indicates he, Friari, was the agent, and he concludes: 'perhaps Massimiliano Brodar is merely an instrument of my damnation.' 

What follows is the story of the author of the manuscript in the author's 'own' words ventriloquised by Friari, occasionally interrupted, as has been promised, by interjections of Friari's own. It begins as the author emerges from a coma to the indistinct sight of Dr Friari watching him. It is 1943. He is on a German hospital ship in Trieste harbour where he has been taken by some of its sailors after they found him on Trieste harbour. In the collar of the jacket he was wearing is a label bearing the Finnish name, Sampo Karjalainen, and in its pocket a handkerchief with the initials S K. Friari, exiled from Finland in his youth after his father was taken political prisoner and put to death, yet harbouring a lifelong longing for its culture and language, thus takes a special interest in the patient, caring for him constantly. As he very slowly recovers, Friari sets passionately about the task of re-teaching him Finnish, clearly relishing that re-involvement with his own native tongue. However, Sampo, as he must know himself - although the name has no familiarity for him - fails to recover his memory or any sense of his identity. Finally, Friari manages to secure a place for him on a journey to a military hospital in Helsinki, in the hope that once back in his own country, Sampo will begin to remember things and know who he is. Yet in Helsinki Sampo struggles. He works hard at the language, as the school exercise book will show, but the language fails to nourish him, he fails to feel he belongs in it, that it is part of him. The army pastor takes him under his wing, and Sampo attempts to absorb the Finnish lore with which the pastor is obsessed, and with which he constantly regales him. But the pastor's obsession sinks into a kind solipsistic madness and he leaves for the front and is very soon killed; Sampo is thus abandoned and goes on feeling anchorless. A young female military nurse becomes attached to him, but he is unable properly to relate to her - he has no concrete identity with which to relate - and he cannot even see the point of answering the three letters she sends when she is posted to the front.  

One day he is sitting on the harbour and a German-made warship heaves into view. On its side is written the name it received after it was fairly recently requisitioned into the Finnish navy: Sampo Karjalainen. It is suddenly clear: the name he has come to think is his own, the name attached to the jacket in which he was found, is simply that of a ship (with which, he will assume, he was once associated, though he has no memory of it). The minimal identity he has managed to develop crumbles away. In despair, and because he must indeed be Finnish, he decides to join up and fight for Finland.

At this point, Friari tells us, 'Sampo''s manuscript ends. Friari now tells us that a War Office file carries the information that private Sampo Karjalainen 'fell in the battle of Ihantala'. He now knows who 'Sampo' really was, he tells us, and that the reason for his journey to Helsinki, made as soon as the war ended, was to tell him, though of course it was too late. In an Epilogue, Friari explains. The man found unconscious on the dock at Trieste was the victim of a German secret agent, Stefan Klein, a man with therefore the same initials and who had been serving on the ship Sampo Karjalainen. Klein had clearly attacked him in order to lay hands on an Italian uniform and equip himself to infiltrate enemy forces. 'Sampo' had in fact been Italian, not Finnish, born indeed in Trieste itself and serving in the Italian army. His real name, printed in the leave permit found in the lining of the jacket Klein was wearing when he was shot dead by the partisans, was Massimiliano Brodar. The novel ends on a note of remorse and deep sadness as Friari reflects on his mistake and 'arrogant' assumption, made through his 'blind attachment to his country', and his sense that now he can never after all atone for what happened to his father.

All of us in our reading group were fascinated by the theme of language and identity, and the insights about this provided by this linguist author. Without language, the mind of the recently injured 'Sampo' is 'a ship whose moorings had been shattered by a storm. I could see the landing stage bobbing not far off... A subtle veil, like a form of hypnosis, was shielding me from the colours of reality.' Imagining that the language he is teaching him is his native tongue, Friari puts his finger on the way our native language locates us in time, in our past and thus our identity: 'Think of each word as though it were a magic charm which might open the door to memory'. Mistakenly tutored (as we will finally understand) in the wrong language, in Helsinki 'Sampo' has the 'distinct impression that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my consciousness I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive'. 

We did all however find the book something of a difficult read, and it seemed to all of us a lot longer than it is in terms of pages. John said to agreement that the book is written in a formal, almost old-fashioned style, which makes for ponderousness, with much telling rather than showing - although there are some lyrical descriptions - and others noted that it was repetitive. Everyone found the long disquisitions by the army pastor on the epic Kalevala somewhat wearing, and couldn't see the point of their portrayal in such detail and at such length. A main comment was that although there were ostensibly two characters narrating, there was no variation in the voices. This was of course excused by the fact that Friari is taking it upon himself to reconstruct and re-tell 'Sampo's' story for him, but this does make for a monotony of tone, and Friari's is something of a formal voice. (In fact, as I think Clare pointed out, Friari is imposing his own voice on 'Sampo', and thus committing an act of colonisation.) The only real indication of a change of narrator when it occurs is a shift to italics in the typography whenever Friari makes an intervention (and since these italicised sections sometimes last for several pages, they are less physically easy to read).

There were aspects of the structure that left me unsatisfied, which is why I have laid out the events above in the sequence in which they occur in the novel. In fact, the 'plot' is to some extent given away at the beginning: we know right from the start that the author of the manuscript is probably dead; we know that Friari feels responsible through having made some fatal mistake, and we are even twice within the Prologue given the author's name, Massimiliano Brodar - indeed it is given the prominence of being the final two words of the Prologue. However, that short Prologue sets up so many mysteries, and provides so many facts in such a short space and at a point when readers are still trying to orientate themselves in the situation, that the connection of that name with the writer of the manuscript slipped me and others by, or at least quickly fell away from our consciousness. And indeed the discovery by Friari of the real name seems to be presented in the novel as something of a 'reveal'. (Whether a consciousness of the fact that 'Sampo' is really Italian would have added to or detracted from the tension of the events I find hard in retrospect to judge.) There is another structural confusion: in the Prologue Friari refers to the document that will follow - his recreation of 'Sampo''s story - as having been written in the past: 'It was many years before I could bring myself to offer these pages to the public', he says, and tells how he was helped in his reconstruction by the nurse who became involved with 'Sampo' . Yet in Friari's final intervention, which reads as a continuation of the same running commentary, he is still in Helsinki, having only just found the trunk with its contents and discovered that he is too late to find 'Sampo'. I also found it hard to grasp Friari's need to 'atone' with regard to his country (at one point he talks of his father having been unjustly murdered, yet at another of needing to atone for his father's 'crime'), or of his sense that, having failed 'Sampo', he has forfeited the right or ability to atone: I felt a lack of resolution for this on a psychological, or maybe a cultural, level. 

We all agreed that it was a very sad book, and although we had not found it an easy read, Ann said to the agreement of others that she was glad she had read it.

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

Monday, September 18, 2023

Reading group: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Prior to this discussion, I and my writing friends had absolutely loved and admired this Booker-shortlisted novella. Set in the 80s in small-town Ireland, it concerns one of the notorious Magdalene laundries, those Irish institutions run by the Catholic Church, in which 'fallen women' - unmarried girls getting pregnant, or just being flirtatious or 'too' pretty - were, until as recently as 1996, incarcerated and treated with cruelty and even violence. As far as we were concerned, the book is beautifully written and extremely moving. I expected a similar reaction from the reading group.

Everyone in the reading group did agree that it was extremely well written if somewhat conventional in style, and, as Clare (who had suggested the book) said, vivid in its depiction of the small-town community and its culture of secrecy and constraint. All appeared, like me and my writing colleagues, to have read it in a sitting. However, I was surprised that everyone in the group beside me and John had some quibble or other, sometimes quite radical.

The novella centres on the figure of Bill Furlong, the town's coal merchant, and chiefly takes his third-person viewpoint. Brought up in the big house of a Protestant widow after her unmarried maid became pregnant with him, Furlong is now married and focussed on providing for and nurturing the talents of his five daughters who attend the Catholic school, 'the only good school in town', and take music lessons at the convent next door to the school. He has never found out who his father was, but supposes that it must have been one of the many middle-class visitors to the big house.

Christmas is approaching, and there are large orders of coal, and Furlong must make a delivery to the convent. The nuns at the convent run a laundry - well used and appreciated by the town's businesses and hospital - as well as what is understood to be a training school for young women. Little is known about the latter - at least in Furlong's understanding - and various rumours surround it, some saying it is a place for girls of low character to be punished and reformed, others that it is a mother-and-baby home for 'common' girls and that the nuns make good money out of having their babies adopted.

Furlong hasn't in the past liked to believe any of those rumours, and indeed has shown little interest, but one evening in the recent past he arrived too early with a coal delivery, and with no one to meet him, wandered into a garden and a chapel, where he encountered clearly browbeaten girls on their knees scrubbing. One girl dared to stand and begged him to take her to the river, where she could end her life, and when he refused, to take her home with him. The shocked Furlong refused once more, before they were interrupted by one of the nuns. Leaving, he noted things that one might associate with a prison: a padlock on an outside door, the way the nun locked the door behind her just to come out to pay him, and jagged glass embedded in the inner garden wall. At home, Eileen, his wife, told him to drop it, forget it, think of their own girls. Furlong couldn't see what their own girls have to do with it, although he did wonder, What if one of their own were in such trouble?

As Christmas approaches Furlong is feeling a vague existential unease, but he is a practical man, not having been given to speculation or making connections, and can't pinpoint the cause of his feeling. He takes his load to the convent, rising before dawn. He unbolts the coalhouse door and finds a young girl crouched inside, barefoot and weak and coal-blackened, the excrement on the floor showing that she has been there for longer than just one night. He takes her, stumbling, to the convent door, and as they wait there she asks him if he'll ask the nuns about her baby who has been taken away from her. The Mother Superior exclaims at the girl's foolishness in getting herself trapped in the coalhouse while 'playing', and insists Furlong comes in for a cup of tea.

Furlong's mother is long dead - she died when he was a teenager - but the farmhand Ned, on whom he relied as he grew, is still living at the big house, and Furlong, having heard he isn't well, decides to pay him a Christmas visit. He finds Ned isn't there, but in hospital, and the girl who answers the door assumes he is a relative of Ned's, saying she can see the family likeness. And a light is suddenly shone on the matter of Furlong's paternity.

Christmas Eve arrives. When Furlong goes to pay for his mens' Christmas dinner at the local cafe, the female cafe owner makes clear she knows about what she calls his 'run-in' with the Mother Superior, and warns him that the nuns 'have a finger in every pie'. He should watch what he says about what goes on up there, she says, as he could damage his daughters' chances at the school.

His work for the year done, he wanders through the town. He thinks of the extent of Mrs Wilson's kindness in saving his mother from the convent, so much greater, we are now to understand, when the father was none of her of circle but her farmhand. He thinks of how he refused the girl who asked him to take her to the river, and how he failed to ask about the coalhouse girl's baby as she had asked him to, and 'how he'd gone on, like a hypocrite, to Mass'. He keeps walking and goes on up to the convent, passing through the open gates to the coalhouse. He pulls back the bolt, and, as he clearly suspects, the same barefoot girl is imprisoned once more inside.

The book ends as Furlong is walking with her back through the town towards home, people staring or avoiding them. Ahead of him is all the trouble for his family that this will cause, but Furlong has done the thing that, if he hadn't, he would have regretted for the rest of his life.

Introducing the book, Clare said that she felt that Furlong had been used as a device in order to write about the Magdalene laundries. This statement left me taken aback, since the focus of the novella is not the Magdalene laundries as a subject in itself, but Furlong's psychological journey in relation to them. Later, Doug or Mark, or both, would say they felt unsatisfied that the novella ends where it does, that the real interest would be the consequences of Furlong's arriving home with the girl from the convent. Doug did agree however when I said that the interest of the novella was not so much what happens, but Furlong's psychological and moral progression (from lack of interest and identification with the goings-on in the laundry, to an understanding of his own early situation and the need to pay back the kindness that was done to him and his mother). Doug said he wasn't sure he found it convincing that Furlong, a practical, non-thinking man, would understand so quickly over his cup of tea with the Mother Superior that she was lying about the girl in the coalhouse, or that it was in character that he should consequently make a wilful point of hanging on when she tries to get rid of him. Or indeed that he would return to the convent to rescue the girl. Again, however, Doug agreed when I said that what alerts Furlong on the first occasion is a realisation that the Mother Superior, in asking significantly about his daughters' studies at the school and the convent, is making a veiled threat (to prevent him from talking about the coalhouse incident), and that it is the revelation about Ned and the consequent extent of the kindness that had been done his mother that prompts his final action.

Thinking back now, it occurs to me that the problem was that our group is very used to discussing novels (we don't do short stories), but this very short novella, written by an author who has only ever written in the two short prose fiction forms (short stories and novellas), uses very much a short-story mode, that is, the mode of glancing implication. It is never actually spelled out that Furlong has either of these revelations. The most that is replicated of Furlong's realisation about Ned is 'It took a stranger to come out with things'. This narrative mode of implication, it seems to me, is very potent in conveying the atmosphere and tenor of a society where things are indeed not stated, where secrecy and blind-eye turning are the norm, and truths thus easily buried. To Furlong, the implications of his own past having been buried, the connections are not obvious, but arrive subtly, 'stoking his mind'.

Someone said they felt Furlong was a bit of a cypher, not fully developed, which shocked me, since the substance of the book is basically Furlong's psyche, and Mark said that he felt the most underdeveloped character was Furlong's wife Eileen. I can only think that such criticisms come from a desire for the more objective, detailed and wide-ranging character depiction novels can provide, but which in my view is not the province of the shorter form. This novella too is internal; everything is filtered through Furlong's interiority, and Eileen appears only as she does in Furlong's thoughts.

Someone said, 'But this is only one person!'' (being rescued from the convent), implying, I think, that the book didn't address the real (and real-life) problem of so many young women and their babies being virtually disappeared. This left me dumbfounded, as, as far as I am concerned, the force of fiction is indeed that it can address the universal via the emotional impact of the particular, which to me this novella does indeed do.

Someone wondered why the author had chosen a male protagonist (presumably for such a female-orientated subject), until the rest of the group decided that a woman would never have been in a position to do what Furlong did. Ann said she found the novel anachronistic. It is set in the 80s, she said, but felt like the 50s (it was noted that semi-rural Ireland in the 80s was indeed like the 50s: witness the fact that the Magdalene laundries closed only in 1996), yet there is a reference to crows picking at takeaway pizza boxes: pizza takeaways would not have arrived in Ireland by the 80s. As a result, she said, she lost all faith in the book and didn't want to go on reading. Clare added that Furlong was anachronistically feminist in that when the Mother Superior suggests he must be disappointed that none of his children is male, he stands up for women. At the time of the discussion I found myself convinced by this, but having looked again at what he actually says - 'Sure didn't I take my own mother's name' and 'What have I against girls...? My own mother was a girl once' - I'd say that this is based in his realisation of what is going on in the convent, and how narrowly he and his mother escaped that fate. The burgeoning feminism implied seems to me a legitimate and believable response to his realisation. Sexism was of course dominant in the 80s, but it does not seem to me unbelievable that such extraordinary circumstance could prompt a man's developing feminist consciousness, even in small-town Ireland at that time. It seems to me that, rather than simply using a male character to facilitate a plot, as was suggested, the author's project is specifically to chart this growing male consciousness, and that this is indeed the novella's dynamic strength.

Finally, Doug said to my shock that he was surprised that the book had won all the prizes it had.

On the evening of our discussion I was suffering with shingles and was feeling pretty low, but I don't think it was just that that left me feeling a bit helpless to argue. Rather, I think, it was sheer surprise at these criticisms of a book that I - and John - had found frankly stunning.

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

Reading group: Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Another discussion I need to cast my mind way back to.

In general as a group we discuss contemporary novels, but Ann suggested that it might be interesting to read a children's classic for a change, and we plumped for Alice in Wonderland.

I think all of us had seen the Disney film, and all except Mark had read the book as children. I had the Ward Lock copy my mother bought me when I was five, unillustrated apart from a colour frontispiece depicting the Mad Hatter's tea party, and defaced with my own five-year-old drawings and scrawlings. Ann had an old inherited copy with the famous Tenniel illustrations (one of which above), but she had also bought the Annotated Alice, so was able to talk about the background to the book and the circumstances of its writing. It was written in 1865 for the children of the Dean of Oxford by the Oxford mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, who originally illustrated the book himself. 

The first thing we said was that we were surprised to find there were events in the book we hadn't remembered. Neither Ann nor I had at all remembered the Lobster Quadrille  (in which all the sea creatures dance on the shore), and I think maybe Clare hadn't either. I hadn't remembered the puppy that appears from nowhere and which Alice chases into the wood, and I hadn't really remembered the incident when her neck grows so long her head emerges over the tops of the trees. We wondered if this were due to the influence of the film, but couldn't really say. 

The book, we realised on this reading, is a stunningly prescient portrayal of the workings of the dreaming mind, pre-dating Freud. The surreal plot, famously, operates by dream logic (the whole thing is Alice's dream), with characters including Alice herself morphing or, like the Cheshire Cat, disappearing and reappearing. There is a riff on the subject of time, which is of course distorted in dreams - at the Mad Hatter's tea party it is always six o'clock, and his watch shows the day of the month but not the time.  Characters operate madly inverted or false logic: according to the Pigeon, the fact that serpents eat eggs and that Alice has tasted eggs proves she's a serpent, and the Frog-Footman sitting on the outside of the door he is manning tells her there's no point in her knocking and being expected to be admitted, as he isn't inside to let her in. There is punning and play on word association, leading to confusion: 

'Mine is a long a sad tale!'' said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing.

'It is a long tail, certainly,'' said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail.

The Mock Turtle tells Alice that when he was little they went to school in the sea and that they called their master, an old Turtle, Tortoise:

'Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn't one?' Alice asked.

'We called him Tortoise because he taught us,'' said the Mock Turtle a little angrily; 'really you are very dull!'

There is a concrete poem with diminishing typography, taking the shape of a mouse's tail, and there are tongue-in-cheek parodies of Victorian nursery rhymes: "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!/How I wonder what you're at!"

Throughout, Alice challenges the false logic of the characters, and the book amounts (among other things) to a take-down of the sentimentality with which Victorian children were regarded, and the irrational strictures placed on them. 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'' asks the Mad Hatter, and Alice is supposed to answer when there isn't in fact any answer. "I think you might do something better with your time,'' Alice chides him, "than wasting it in riddles that have no answer." As Ann commented, Alice is a very feisty female protagonist, unusual in Victorian books for children.

Mark, who had never read the book but only seen the film, was very impressed by the book's verbal cleverness and liked it very much. John and Doug, however, were I'm afraid left cold by it, John saying that he knew it so well he could hardly judge it, but found it rather flat compared to the vividness of the film. (He read my unillustrated copy.). He wasn't as impressed as Mark by the verbal play, saying that it was only the same as that he would make with our own children - at which he was reminded that this is of course a book written, in similar circumstances, for three particular children.  However, it has of course subsequently become part of the mental landscapes of generations of children worldwide, and has entered our language - we talk of 'going down a rabbit hole' and of people grinning like a Cheshire Cat - its name even taken for a neurological disorder*, so acute is it in its psychology.

*Alice in wonderland syndrome, a disorder of distorted perception and altered body image.

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