Book Club Update: Moby-Dick Contains Multitudes

moby-dick-penguinMy book club met last night for the first of two sessions on Moby-Dick. For this one we read only about half way through, so a lot of our discussion either began or ended with some variation on “I wonder where this goes.” Does the novel as a whole uphold Ishmael’s endearing open-mindedness – or, for that matter, does Ishmael himself continue in the same tolerant spirit he initially shows towards Queequeg’s “Pagan” predilections? Does Ahab’s single-minded quest for the white whale turn out to be in any way noble, or is this model of ruthless heroism thoroughly undermined? When we finally see Moby-Dick for ourselves, what picture do we get, to put up against those described in Chapters 55-57? How far can — or should — we read the novel symbolically or allegorically? What theory of fiction makes sense of the novel’s extraordinary blend of realism and prophesy, concrete detail and metaphorical reach — what kind of book is it? Will there ever be an important woman character (we’re guessing not), how far is women’s absence part of what, for some, has defined its story as great and universal, and what does that mean about the American literary tradition or cultural imagination?  What is it about this book, anyway, that accounts for its having been invested with so much cultural significance? And so on.

We’re pretty unlikely to answer these questions in a really substantial, much less very original, way over a couple of dinners. (However, if you want to talk about seafaring, there are worse times and places to do it than at Shuck Seafood on a foggy Maritime night. The food was so good and the atmosphere and service so pleasant we might do our follow-up Moby-Dick meeting there too!) I’m not going to hazard any answers here now, either. What I wanted to comment on at this point is just a feature of our Moby-Dick discussion that seemed to me different than some, maybe most, of our other bookish conversations. I can’t remember another book in which it wasn’t so much general opinions that differed but the specifics that won or lost us as individual readers. One of us, for instance, particularly loved the details about New Bedford and Nantucket life but was impatient with the “digressions” that impeded the story of the Pequod’s voyage; one (the scientist) was fascinated by the taxonomies of the “Cetology” chapter and Melville’s obvious interest in replacing (or maybe supplementing) myths about sea monsters with whatever facts could be gleaned, often at great cost, about actual whales; one was won over by the humor, such as the good-cop bad-cop scene with Peleg and Bildad in Chapter 16; one (you’ll never guess which) kept bringing up some guy called Carlyle. Moby-Dick offered every one of us something to fascinate or frustrate, and while there was some overlap (interest in Ishmael’s narrative voice, for instance — though again, some of us loved it while others were impatient with it), it sometimes seemed as if we’d all been reading different versions of the novel. (We all brought literally different editions, but that’s a separate issue.)

moby-dick-penguin-4This dispersed effect no doubt stems from the book’s chaotic-seeming and inclusive structure, which has led critics to call it things like an “intellectual chowder” or a “magnificent mess” (that’s Nathan Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick). It seems to be built on a premise of embracing capaciousness: it includes everything Melville finds interesting or significant to his subject, rather than pursuing an aesthetic of elegant perfection. This blotchiness could easily be seen as a fault. (I’d love to know what, if anything, Henry James said about Moby-Dick, given his dismissive view of Middlemarch‘s formal construction. No golden bowl here — more an ungainly pitcher!) It’s certainly risky: surely no self-respecting MFA instructor would dare encourage anyone to write such a book! But I think our group’s diverse responses point to one aspect of the book’s greatness: there was something in it for — and against — all of us. It’s not one thing: it’s all kinds of things (though it’s not everything, though Philbrick’s little book suggests he might think so).  The challenge for a first-time reader is dealing with the bits that don’t immediately suit: we all admitted to having skimmed one part or another, but, again, not usually the same parts. Listening to people pointing out the aspects that most interested them made me want to reread: it made me aware, not just of the book’s mulititudinousness, but of my own limitations (which, in the context of Moby-Dick, are many). That can be off-putting, but it’s part of Melville’s magic to have made it inspiring instead.

“Boldly Launched” — On My First Reading of Moby-Dick


Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities.

When I wrote about Madame Bovary here a couple of years ago, I commented that reading a very famous novel for the first time is

like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.

That certainly applies in this case too — more so, perhaps, because I think Moby-Dick has a larger presence in the popular imagination than Madame Bovary. And not just the things everyone “knows” about it (the white whale! Captain Ahab! “Call me Ishmael”!) but the book itself, which is a kind of legendary object, so deep and vast that reading it (or so you’d think) is itself a kind of fantastical quest.

So, once again, I find myself reading something that I already knew a lot about, and in the process discovering how little I really knew about it. So far, anyway, the surprise factor is much greater with Moby-Dick than it was with Madame Bovary (which really was the perfection of the sort of thing I expected it to be). I didn’t really know what Moby-Dick would actually sound like, and I especially had no idea (I don’t know why, but I really didn’t) that Moby-Dick would be so much fun. I also thought it would be much longer! I ended up getting the Penguin Classics edition — a choice I’m very happy with, as the font is very readable and the notes are helpful but not overwhelming — and it’s under 700 pages, which for someone who reads Vanity FairMiddlemarch, and Bleak House regularly is not scary at all.

moby-dick-penguin-2I decided against the highly- recommended Norton Critical edition because I wanted to approach this first reading not as a chore to be done diligently but as a reading experience to be, well, experienced! No doubt I will finish the novel without having plumbed its depths, and if I weren’t enjoying Melville’s prose so much first-hand, I might have changed my mind (and in fact I do have a copy of the Norton out from the library, ready to turn to if the need arises). I feel like Herman and I are doing pretty well so far, however.

One reason for that, I’m quite sure, is that I’ve read Carlyle, which makes a lot of the wackier features of Moby-Dick (its rapid changes of register, from the prophetic to the bathetic; its elliptical allusions; its delight in the grotesque and the absurd; its insistence that everything — everything — is not just literal but symbolic) seem, if not necessarily reasonable and explicable, at least familiar. Here’s one of many examples of a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in Sartor Resartus:

Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! the great God absolute! The centre and circumstance of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

All it needs is some more capital letters and it could be part of the unfolding of the Clothes Philosophy — or at any rate some kind of appendix to it.

moby-dick-penguin-3I know from experience that not every reader finds Carlylean prose exhilarating, but I do: I have ever since I read The French Revolution as an unsuspecting undergraduate. What I loved about The French Revolution then (before I knew anything at all about Carlyle) was that it exuded the conviction that its writing absolutely mattered — that it was about something hugely important and written in a style meant to convey and to reproduce that significance. It was daring and unconventional because it had to be. I get the same feeling from Moby-Dick. Even when it’s going along a bit more quietly than in the passage I quoted, it has the humming energy of a book with something (many things!) it really, really wants to say, and to say in a memorable way. It doesn’t feel artful, if that means constructed to create an aesthetic effect: it feels spiritual — meaning not religious in any doctrinal way but about the spirit, about what matters, what drives us, what scares us, what means something to us. It’s exciting! I’d really rather quote from it (or read it aloud) than write about it!

That said, so far I can’t disagree with the contemporary opinion I’ve read that the book is an “intellectual chowder.” Up to the half-way point I’ve reached (Chapter 60) there has certainly been (off and on) a forward-moving narrative — I hesitate to call it a “plot” when really all that’s happened, in terms of events, is that Ishmael and Queequeg have met, signed on to the Pequod and been at sea for a while, including one “lowering” of the boats. That through-line is enough, but barely enough, to give some coherence to what is otherwise rather a jumble of anecdote, sea lore, nautical trivia, character sketches, and poetic outbursts. I like the divisions into short chapters, though: that helps each of those ingredients have a certain distinctness, and also mostly prevents them from feeling like digressions, because they are so clearly puzzle pieces. In fact, a metaphor that might work as well as the chowder one is patchwork: I wonder if anyone has worked up a theory of Moby-Dick as literary quilting.

moby-dick-penguin-4I doubt it, because something else that’s hard to miss even on a first reading is just how very masculine the book is. I don’t recall that any women have even had any speaking parts at all in the novel so far — though I may be forgetting something, perhaps from back at the Spouter Inn. Certainly at sea it’s a man’s world. What does that mean for the oft-invoked universality of the novel’s mythos? Coincidentally, we’re watching Season 2 of The Affair, and last night’s episode featured a long scene between Noah and his therapist (played by Cynthia Nixon, which kept confusing me — why is Noah talking to Miranda?) in which Noah expounds a theory of greatness founded on abandoning ties — isn’t it more important to do (write) something great than to respect constraints like family and fidelity? What does it matter if other people suffer through your pursuit of greatness, especially if you achieve it? Obviously, in his case there’s a lot of wishful self-justification at work there, but what struck me was how much power that myth of greatness at any cost still has … when it’s a man talking, anyway. Not that Ahab (who is the most single-minded one in Moby-Dick) comes across as great; if he’s heroic, he is dangerously so, and presumably one thing the rest of the novel does is explore what is noble and what is disastrous about his quest for the white whale. (“And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”)

I’m reading Moby-Dick because my book club chose it; we’re meeting next week to discuss the first 60 chapters, so I’m going to set it aside for other reading in the meantime so as not to muddle the conversation. I’ve already discovered that the fragmented structure makes putting it down and picking it up again easier than with books whose plots are more intricately woven (which is not to say that there aren’t continuities and patterns unifying Moby-Dick, particularly metaphorical ones). I’m really glad we did choose it: the suggestion was quite unexpected, and I was kind of skeptical about it when it was made, but now I’m grateful to have been giving that extra push. One more thing I’ll be able to cross off my ‘Humiliation’ list! (Maybe next I can suggest we read Ulysses … )

Dubious Comfort: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn


There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

Early in Quartet in Autumn, Letty — one of the novel’s quartet of main characters — reflects on her past as an “unashamed reader of novels”: “she had come to realize,” we’re told, “that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatsoever to the writers of modern fiction.” They are of great interest, of course, to Barbara Pym, who could be considered the patron saint of all such overlooked and underestimated women.

Quartet in Autumn actually balances our attention between two more in Pym’s panoply of spinsters and two — what to call them? what is the male equivalent of a ‘spinster’? That we don’t really have one is suggestive of the ways in which aging alone is different for women than it is for men. Still, terminology aside, the characters have a lot in common besides having worked for many years in the same office (that we never learn anything about where they work or what they actually do becomes one of the novel’s tragi-comic aspects). Though one of the men is a widower, now they are all equal in their mutual isolation, and if that sounds like a paradox (how can they be so alone if they’re all together so much?), I think that’s one of Pym’s points: that simply sharing time and space, even over many years, does not in itself create meaningful connections between disparate people. And yet by the end of the book, which is certainly one of the gloomier Pym novels I’ve read, the connection between them has become something just slightly more than any of them thought or expected, and therein lies what small comfort a book about aging, retiring, losing one’s strength and faculties, and dying unmourned can offer.

I thought Pym was especially good — meaning both funny and painful — about retirement, which for many working people surely seems as much a looming threat as an anticipated promise. When Letty and Marcia retire, they are not replaced: “indeed,” we’re told, “the whole department was being phased out,” which raises discouraging questions for them about the value of the work they’ve done for all those years, and even about the reality of their entire working lives:

It seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been.

This gives her, understandably, a “sensation of nothingness” that is hard to overcome despite the opportunity retirement affords “to do all those things she had always wanted to do” — “unspecified” things that turn out not to be all that fulfilling after all, and which hardly take up all the time she now has. Her first day of retirement is “as tiring as a working day” from the very effort to occupy herself, including during “a period between tea and supper which she did not remember as having existed before.” Perhaps because retirement is much in the air at my own workplace, with similar non-replacement policies raising questions both practical and principled, personal and existential, for all of us, her experience seemed particularly poignant to me: I know how much it can hurt someone to get the message the institution they have devoted themselves to can treat them as an expensive redundancy, someone to be urged out and happily done without.

Sad as the novel’s premise is — it is, indeed, autumnal, with its focus on unwelcome but inevitable changes in all facets of its characters’ lives — it is somehow never, or never completely, melancholy: Pym is too funny for that. There’s the saga of the misfit milk bottle, for instance, which I won’t spoil by relating — it’s not so much that I would ruin any suspense about it as that I could never capture quite why it is so daftly comical, but also so spot on about human nature. Alexander McCall Smith is quite right, in his introduction, to say that “we all have something that is the equivalent of that symbolic milk bottle.” It’s a smaller-scale comedy here than we get in Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up (which is the earlier book club choice that led us here), but it’s also kinder: wry, rather than bitter. Though Pym gives us one truly depressing story about ending up alone, she softens the blow by helping us realize that even in age there are choices, and as long as you have a little life left in you, there are still “infinite possibilities for change.” The novel ends up feeling like a calming cup of tea on an otherwise bad day: it can’t really fix anything, but in its own way, it is bracing.

Dogs and Cats

alexisI’m back! It has been quite a week, and I still have work to do to finish up the term, but I can see my way through it now — and really, it hasn’t been that bad compared to terms when I’ve had more or bigger classes and no teaching assistants. Still, it feels good to have everything under control, and thus to be able to contemplate the stacks of books around my desk with anticipation rather than anxiety or guilt. Hang in there, Isabel: you’re next! (Egad, was it really a whole month ago that I started The Portrait of a Lady?)

The one book I have managed to get to the end of recently is Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, which was my book club’s latest selection. Usually we try to follow some kind of link from one book to the next, but we settled on Fifteen Dogs a bit randomly because a few people had heard about and thought it sounded interesting. A few days after we chose it, it won the Giller Prize, so that seemed like validation! (Coincidentally, it did turn out to resemble Ending Up in one respect: all of its main characters end up the same way Amis’s do.)

I didn’t like Fifteen Dogs. The premise was initially interesting, and I have nothing in principle against adapting old forms (in this case, the apologue) for contemporary use. But Alexis’s choice to write the book in stiltedly formal diction as if to recreate the form’s antiquity really didn’t work for me: to my ear, it just sounded artificial, and it kept me from ever feeling anything about the dogs. Perhaps that was the intent: to keep it intellectual, to give it the (supposed) objectivity of a philosophical exercise. Or perhaps (and equally likely) I just wasn’t the right reader for the book, as at least one other member of my book club said it made her cry.

Was I unmoved by Fifteen Dogs because I’m a cat person and have never been particularly comfortable around dogs, which usually strike me as loud, messy, and intrusive? I wondered about that a lot while I was reading Alexis’s book. I wan’t convinced by his dogs as either dogs or dogs-with-human-consciousness, but I thought that might be because I don’t have an intimate knowledge of what he repeatedly calls “the canine.” I think Alexis does manage not to simply anthropomorphize his dogs once they can think and talk — he works hard to keep them still dog-like (as he understands that) and then to animate the strange hybrid his thought experiment has created. (There’s a pretty funny bit about a dog watching a movie who, despite being otherwise pretty interested in it, gets frustrated that he can’t smell anything in it.)

alexis2But it turned out that although I am the only person in my book club who doesn’t own (and love) dogs, most of the others also didn’t like the book much. One was offended by it because she loves dogs and thought the book showed Alexis doesn’t actually like them: his version of them is negatively selective, uncharitable, she proposed. The nobility of the dog who waits years for his owner to come back struck a chord with some of the others (though why this dog, in spite of his grasp of human language and motives, never figures out that she has died did bother us). We all agreed with the one who cried that the last dog’s death was very pathetic — but she recently lost her own dog, so she thought she might have also been emotionally vulnerable. I was the only one who had gotten both distracted and annoyed by the weirdly specific allusions to Victorian novels (if you were going to train your preternaturally talented dog to recite just one 19th-century novel, would you choose Vanity Fair? and what is it exactly that makes Mansfield Park the pooch’s preferred Austen?). In general, the complaint was simply that it wasn’t very engaging, though as is often the case, as we talked we found it getting more interesting, at least theoretically: why does the acquisition of language so immediately cause such a deep rift? what is it about poets that makes them both outcasts and – or so Alexis proposes – the only ones likely to find happiness? We had a little fun going through the poems, too, looking for the hidden dog names that we’d missed the first time.

Their tepid response to Fifteen Dogs notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that I was surrounded by dog lovers, and the book prompted some impassioned discussion of their dogs, which naturally made me feel both left out and a bit defensive. I have met some individual dogs over the years that I’m fine with, and every once in a while I think it might be nice to be met with panting enthusiasm when I come home from work, but really, if getting a pet were an option for me, I’d absolutely get a cat, not a dog. As a child, I longed for a cat above all things, but my father and both siblings are allergic, so it always seemed like an impossible dream. Then on Christmas Day in 1977, a mysterious basket was delivered that seemed to be making a sad mewling noise — and inside was an absolutely beautiful seal point Siamese kitten. This very old and sadly discolored photo shows us on our very first day together:

scan0001 (2)

I was at once completely in love and completely petrified! And I was deep into my Mary, Queen of Scots phase, so I named him “Bothwell,” an aristocratic title he quickly grew into:


Bothwell was a truly splendid cat: smart, elegant, expressive, loyal. In retrospect, I wasn’t the greatest owner: I didn’t clean out the litter box as often as I should have, and sometimes I just dumped new food in without cleaning out his bowl. But he was definitely mine — or, since cats do tend to resist being possessed, he was definitely my friend more than anyone else’s. I spent many hours reading in my comfy chair with him curled on my lap, and when I wasn’t in the chair, he kept it warm for me:


When I moved into my first apartment, the hardest part was not being able to bring him with me; I was at Cornell when he died, and though it had been a few years at that point since I’d lived with him, I felt completely bereft.


My husband is allergic to cats; I wouldn’t be surprised if my children were too. So it seems unlikely I’ll ever get another one: I’m back where I was long ago, dreaming of the perfect feline companion!

After reading Fifteen Dogs, I thought my book club might want to try a different dog book, so I looked around for possibilities and there are lots of them. In the end, we went a different way (in fact, we went back to Kingsley Amis to find our thread, and chose Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Beautiful Visit). But my search got me wondering what the great cat novels are. I got a number of good suggestions on Twitter including May Sarton’s The Fur Person, Takashi Haraide’s The Guest Cat, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, and Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat. Maybe I can talk all those dog lovers into reading one of these soon: fair’s fair! In the meantime, it’s probably time I read “The Cat That Walked By Himself.”

Update: I realized right after I published this that I have posted about cats once before: see here for my daughter’s memorable poem CATS.

Amis and Spenser and Scandal, Oh My!

amisIt seems like too long since I wrote a detailed, thoughtful book post. Sadly, that’s not about to change! My activities for the past week or so have just been too miscellaneous, including my reading. I can’t really blame Joseph Anton, as I mostly turn to that late in the evening when I might otherwise be watching TV. I am starting to wonder how much longer I will persist with it, though, because I’m starting to feel a bit bogged down in it. After all these hours we’re barely a year past the fatwa: much as the whole situation engages and enrages me, there’s a fair bit of repetition in the day-to-day details, and I’m not sure if there are any more big twists to come. (I feel petty for saying that! I don’t mean to underestimate the outrage and personal devastation involved. But there’s definitely a blow-by-blow quality to the account of it all at this point.)

The slump in my extra-curricular reading is really more a function of being generally busy, though. It’s a point in the term when a lot is going on at once, and when marking essays takes over what would otherwise be class prep time, which in turn moves class prep into what would be reading time. We also had some things to do for family and fun last week: a chamber music concert on Wednesday, the fundraising “Coffee House” and auction at Maddie’s school on Friday, and then the Christmas craft fair on Saturday, which Maddie now accompanies me to. Considering what hermits we mostly are, this seemed like a lot of social activity in a hurry!

To top it all off, my book group met yesterday to discuss Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. What a nasty little book it is! But it’s pretty funny, which is of course a particularly uncomfortable combination. We had chosen it as our follow-up to Elegy for Iris but for me at least Elegy for Iris (though infinitely sadder, because, after all, it’s not fiction) was a much more humane book. Ending Up did prompt some intense discussion, but less of the book (which none of us particularly liked) and more of the general topics of aging and death. Ending Up certainly does not indulge in any sentiment about either!

I was startled to realize that as of this month my book club has been meeting for five years! Our membership has shifted around a bit since our first session on Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, but not by much, and I think we have developed a good personal rapport as well as a satisfying standard of discussion. A lot of my initial skepticism about book clubs has been worn away by the experience, mostly because we are all enthusiastic readers and everyone is committed to actually talking about the books: our meetings have never been just excuses for socializing. I have come to really enjoy hearing such a range of opinions and observations about everything we read. I do still feel frustrated sometimes by the scattershot nature of the discussion. I’m reminded every time, in fact, just how much managerial work goes into even the most wide-ranging seminar discussion, where questions are usually pursued to specific examples and at least provisional conclusions before a change of topics. Nobody’s in charge at our book club meetings, and it would be terrible for the overall dynamic if anybody were. For me in particular, too, it’s been a good thing to practice not being in control and going with the flow! We just have to give each other room, and bring things up again if we are still puzzling over them. I often write the books up here, too, which gives me a chance to put my own thoughts in better order.

15dogsNobody wanted to read more Kingsley Amis, and in fact none of the threads we followed from Ending Up (our usual method for picking our next book) took us to a choice we could agree on. (I’m a bit sorry nobody seconded me on Elizabeth Jane Howard — I might try her on my own anyway.) So we’re taking a bit of a leap outside the box and reading Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs for our next meeting. It strikes me as the kind of book that could go horribly wrong if the philosophy is too facile — plus I’ve always been more of a cat person! But what’s a book club for if not to push me outside my comfort zone sometimes.

I also managed to read two Spenser novels this weekend. They go so fast! The first was Cheap Shot — the first I’ve read by Ace Atkins, who took over the series when Robert B. Parker died. I was dubious going into it, and once in a while I thought there was a line that lacked the usual Parker pith, but generally I was impressed at how smoothly it went, and at how little difference I detected when I followed it up with Sixkill, one of Parker’s own last offerings. I can’t decide if that reflects well or badly on either author. To be so imitable suggests, perhaps, that Parker was more style than substance, and there’s no doubt that both his plots and his prose are extremely … consistent. I have always thought his formula supports a lot of really interesting and subversive ideas, though. I’ve written about him once or twice here before and have often been tempted to give him the full Dick Francis treatment. One of these days …

Finally, I have been watching Scandal, which is really very bad but addictive in the way that high melodrama and ridiculous conspiracies can be. The overacting! The gratuitous blood-splattering torture scenes with drill bits! The astonishingly cynical perspective on politics and politicians! It makes me yearn for The West Wing, which I may have to watch all over again just to counteract the horrors of Scandal with some fast-talking (if slick) idealism. I miss Josh and Toby! I miss MI-5 too, which was similarly absurd in many respects but both tidier in its plots and much better acted. Compared to ScandalMI-5 looks almost subtle! But Scandal is a perfect treadmill show, and it’s not bad for Friday nights, either, when I’ve had enough of taking things seriously.

Things may be picking up on the bookish front. Ending Up reminded me of Amsterdam, which I read way back in the days Before Blogging and so barely remember — so I’ve started rereading that. It’s quick enough, but also smart enough, that there may well be a proper blog post in it. In the meantime, it feels good to clear away all these miscellaneous pieces that have been cluttering up my head.

“Encircled by Invisible Emotion”: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer


This kind of companionship had far more value to Morgan than their few, fumbling physical encounters. Sex could be forgotten, or made into something that it wasn’t, but feelings were much harder to erase. There had been moments, from their time in Alexandria, when they had simply sat together talking quietly, or smoking cigarettes in brotherly contentment, when he’d felt that they were removed from other people. Paired off. And it had come to him then that there might be many men like them, in the past as well as the present, who had been together in a similar uncelebrated way, encircled by invisible emotion.

My book club chose Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer to follow Howards End. Not only did I enjoy Howards End so much that I liked the idea of hanging around with Forster a bit longer (which is also why I reread A Room With a View), but I’ve been curious about Arctic Summer since I read Steve’s review in Open Letters Weekly, and got even more interested when it made the Stevereads “Best of 2014: Fiction” list.

I enjoyed Arctic Summer quite a bit — though maybe “enjoyed” is the wrong word, as it’s such a low-key, melancholy novel. Unlike Steve, who has always already read everything else (in this case, specifically the Forster biographies on which Galgut’s novel is heavily dependent), I knew little about Forster the man before I started, and now I feel that I have gotten to know him pretty well. I like him, too, though I think there’s a side of him I might like even better than the somewhat mopish, solitary man we mostly see here, where we hardly ever spend time with him when he’s actually having fun. “On a surface level, he was quite sociable,” we’re told at one point, “seeing a great many people and acquitting himself well in company, but an essential part of him had become deeply withdrawn, hardly noticing the outside world.” It’s that withdrawn man, steeped in reticence, who is Galgut’s main character, not (or only very rarely) the man who holds his own (just for instance) in conversation with the Woolfs and their friends at Monks House. That his reserve is in many respects a necessity only makes it more poignant: Galgut’s muted tone nicely matches the emphasis he puts on the emotional costs, to a man as hesitant and sensitive as Forster, of a life so shrouded in secrecy.

It’s that “surface level,” I guess, so much more confident, assertive, and optimistic, that comes across in Howards End or A Room with a View, or in The Art of Fiction or the radio broadcasts Zadie Smith discusses in her wonderful essay “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” Because this is the Forster I knew, I was surprised to find Arctic Summer so sadly yearning. “Only connect” seems a more wishful (or wistful) credo here — but connection is certainly what Galgut’s Forster longs for. He does achieve it, but only equivocally, in both of the two friendships that dominate the novel: with his Indian friend Masood, to whom A Passage to India is ultimately dedicated, and his Egyptian friend Mohammed, with whom he comes closest to the kind of intimacy he most desires (“To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong that sometimes it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken”). His final affirmation is also equivocal, hardly a happy ending but not unhappy either: “I have loved. That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

Mark Athitakis has a really smart, eloquent review of Arctic Summer in the Barnes and Noble Review in which he discusses the relationship between Galgut’s novel and A Passage to India:

Misunderstanding, prejudice, and power are the lenses through which Galgut tries to position a sexually repressed Forster, introduced in 1912 making his first trip to India. Though he’d written four novels attuned to the relationships of men and women, he struggled to apply his plea to “only connect” to his own life. His homosexuality was unspeakable: “He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority. But via Galgut, unspoken lusts abound within him, especially for Masood, a young Muslim he met as a Latin tutor in London six years earlier. The opening pages capture the first stirrings of that repression becoming unlocked. The sentences are thick with heat and lust, felt by a man fit to burst.

That Forster — Morgan as his friends call him — will be liberated over the course of the novel isn’t in doubt. The tension within Arctic Summer is how much, and how that urge for sexual liberation was sublimated into the novel. To the second point, Galgut cannily invests picayune details from Passage into his own novel and invests them with a sensual weight: help with a collar stay, for instance, or Masood’s observation of Forster’s “pinko-gray” skin. But the novel’s engine is Morgan’s broader anxieties.

It has been too long since I read Passage for me to add anything to Mark’s analysis, though now of course I want to reread it, partly to complement Arctic Summer, partly to test Mark’s comment that Passage “is showing signs of age.” (I read The Jewel in the Crown not that long ago, however, and got intermittently confused by recollections of it that surfaced during discussions of Passage. Parts of Arctic Summer also reminded me of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, particularly the descriptions of Bapu Sahib’s chaotic household.)

passageBecause I couldn’t sustain a properly intertextual reading, what I found myself thinking about the most with Arctic Summer was the question of genre. In his original OLW review, Steve describes it as a “mildly inert reading experience” because of “the novel’s curiously timid approach to its own novelhood.” He concludes with dissatisfaction, but clearly reconsidered by the time he was assembling his ‘best of’ list. Maybe because I didn’t have the “two great templates” mentally to hand, I didn’t find Arctic Summer thin in the way he describes, but I agree that, interesting and touching as I found it as biography, it doesn’t ever really take off as a novel, so I ended up wondering what is really gained, or lost, or intended, in rendering Forster’s life story in fiction in this way. If it doesn’t break any new ground (and I have to take Steve’s word for it that it “virtually never strays from Furbank’s biography in its details”), and it doesn’t do anything striking formally or artistically (though it is certainly well written and crafted) — is it really just taking Forster’s story and making it more accessible, more digestible? Is it the novelistic equivalent of a docu-drama or a re-enactment?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, especially since I’m someone who is (evidently!) much more likely to read about someone’s life in a novel than in a full-fledged biography. (The opposite is true of my husband, who very much enjoyed Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan but has repeatedly declined offers of David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk.) But somehow in this case I was left fretting about whether reading fiction in lieu of fact was such a good idea: Arctic Summer seems so much like straight-up biography that I might be misled into believing things about Forster that weren’t really true.

What kind of concern is this, though? It’s not something that bothers me at all about Wolf Hall, where surely the odds are much greater that I’m getting a Cromwell wholly unlike the man who actually lived. Wolf Hall is “historical fiction”: is it just the longer expanse of time between us and its subject that changes the terms on which we read it? I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether Mantel did her research: it does, and she did. Wolf Hall is anything but timid as a novel: is that what makes me feel differently about it? You couldn’t read it and forget you were getting an artistically-shaped treatment: maybe it’s Arctic Summer‘s semblance of transparency that provokes this line of questioning. Just by being a novel, though, it’s setting aside its claims to be telling the truth. Furbank’s biography, which is also, inevitably, made up (because, as we all know, narratives must always be imposed on chaotic, amorphous reality, or carved out of it) probably presents itself much more authoritatively. In retelling Forster’s story as a story, maybe that’s Galgut’s signal contribution: a reminder that however scrupulous we are about the facts, the result will always in some sense be fiction.

“Ordinary corrupt human love”: Graham Greene, The End of the Affair


I’m tired and I don’t want any more pain. I want Maurice. I want ordinary corrupt human love. Dear God, you know I want to want Your pain, but I don’t want it now. Take it away for a while and give it me another time.

My local book club met Tuesday night to discuss Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. We chose this novel as the follow-up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: as I’ve explained here before, we pick a thread to follow from one book to the next, which in this case was adultery. (The last time we read Graham Greene we had followed a “depressing novels about priests” thread from Such Is My Beloved to The Power and the Glory.)

Quite by coincidence, because I had forgotten that they had often been compared, I started Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder just before I had to turn to The End of the Affair. (Or was it a coincidence? Perhaps it was all part of some grand design by the great publisher in the sky!) The connection came back to me as I was reading and writing about Beha’s novel, though, thanks especially to Nicole’s comparative discussion at Book Riot, so inevitably I was thinking a lot about Sophie and and Charlie as I read about Sarah and Bendrix. As Nicole very adeptly explains, the two novels are indeed strikingly similar in structure, but reading them feels very different: Beha’s has a (somewhat deceptive) colloquial clarity to it, and (I thought) a lot more emotional detachment, especially, and paradoxically, where Sophie’s religious experiences are concerned, while Greene’s is more overtly written, more conspicuously literary, as well as emotionally intense — to the point of claustrophobia.

At the purely subjective level of taste, I preferred Greene’s: I enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Bendrix’s palpable bitterness, and the twisty self-justifying but also self-loathing ways he tells his story. I was fascinated to learn that Greene tried this experiment in first-person narration because he’d been reading Great Expectations: apparently he felt he hadn’t really pulled it off:

Dickens had somehow miraculously varied his tone, but when I tried to analyze his success, I felt like a colourblind man trying intellectually to distinguish one colour from another. For my book there were two shades of the same colour —  obsessive love and obsessive hate; Mr. Parkis, the private detective, and his boy were my attempt to introduce two more tones, the humorous and the pathetic.

I can’t think of a novel I would be less inclined to compare to The End of the Affair than Great Expectations if I were approaching it thematically, but it’s interesting to think of it, as Greene apparently did, as a technical problem he was unable to solve. One thing Dickens does that perhaps he didn’t adequately consider was use retrospective narration to add a layer of painful self-knowledge over top of Pip’s obsessive love. The End of the Affair is told retrospectively (except for Sarah’s diary), but all that does is infuse the love story with that “obsessive hate.” Imagine the novel told in a way that really reflects the religious conversion that the ending points us towards: wouldn’t that complete or perfect the narrative by returning Bendrix, and thus us, to love, by way of forgiveness? It’s impossible to imagine any Dickens novel, much less Great Expectations, stuck in hatred the way Bendrix is: even Miss Havisham is brought to repentance, after all. As for “the humorous and the pathetic,” well, I agree with Greene that he doesn’t quite achieve either (at all, never mind to Dickens’s level), but it’s hardly a fair contest.

Anyway, I liked reading Greene better for the style and the emotional intensity … but I also found myself thinking back on Sophie Wilder (and bringing it up during our discussion) because there were things about The End of the Affair that left me dissatisfied, too, in ways that Beha’s novel helped me understand. I was particularly frustrated by Sarah’s “conversion.” Having protested Beha’s failure to explain Sophie’s conversion in more depth, I found I objected to Sarah’s on different grounds: it didn’t seem religious at all! She has no epiphany, no spiritual revelation, no breakthrough. She just makes a deal with a deity she only kinda sorta believes in, and then feels coerced into keeping up her end of the bargain. It seemed so pragmatic — and hardly inspiring, as it boils down to “I’ll be good if you grant me my wish” — which rather neatly sums up negative clichés about Catholicism.

That moment is only the beginning of Sarah’s newly-defined life, of course: does her contract with God lead her into genuine faith? She spends a lot of time doubting and arguing, as in the bit I chose for my epigraph (which nicely captures the central conflict between human and divine love, fought in the novel over the territory of the human body). But she does seem to find something like peace eventually, and of course once she dies she’s apparently capable of working miracles. There’s little saintly about her during her life, as far as we know, or as far as Bendrix will admit (“She was a good woman,” says Father Crompton: “She was nothing of the sort,” retorts Bendrix irritably) but being a saint doesn’t necessarily require that: as Father Crompton replies in his turn, “There’s nothing we can do some of the saints haven’t done before us.” But it didn’t seem that Sarah was working towards doing good, not the way Sophie is when she cares for her dying father -in-law. Still, struggle and debate are compatible with belief, and Greene did well precisely at conveying faith as something to be achieved through effort, not simply succumbed to or carried along by.beha

That said, I certainly didn’t see why Bendrix came round (or is on the verge of coming round) to it in the end. Greene apparently said he wanted to box him into a corner so he couldn’t help but accept the religious explanations. Here too I end up giving Beha the edge: both novelists play metafictionally with novelist / God comparisons and make room for ambiguity about the ultimate source of structure and meaning, but in offering the resolution I thought I wanted (“all right, have it your way. I believe you live and that He exists”), Greene frustrated me in a different way, because his ending felt both manipulative and reluctant. If your conversion is really a reluctant concession, what’s the thrill in that, especially if you haven’t in fact earned it by winning the argument against coincidence or rationalism? Beha at least seems to be saying “make up your own mind.”

We had a pretty lively discussion of The End of the Affair over our book club dinner. There, of course, the immediate comparison was to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, since I was the only one who’d read Sophie Wilder, and plenty of interest came out of that, particularly around the affair itself and what it meant to the characters, as well as the overall treatment of sexuality and desire in the novel (we thought poor Henry seemed not altogether unlike Clifford, for instance). We were intrigued by the war setting, and by the possibility that the blast that leads to Sarah’s deal with God might itself be interpreted as some kind of divine intervention. By and large we thought the ending of the novel was unsatisfying because the crucial interventions that build up to the “Sarah is a miracle-working saint in Heaven” theory seemed ad hoc: there’s the mother ex machina, for instance, who appears on the scene just in time to save Bendrix from himself. We were all fond of Parkis, which made me think we should maybe try some Dickens one day (or some Trollope — isn’t Parkis a bit like Bozzle in He Knew He Was Right?). We were also intrigued by the discussions of the novelist’s craft, and from this we picked up on the mentions of Forster and decided that should be the thread to our next book. Though Maurice would have been a cute choice (because that’s Bendrix’s name), we settled on Howards End, which I am very pleased about as it has long been near the top of my Humiliation list.