Wednesday, November 08, 2006

25/10/06 “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The proposer of the book had first read Marquez when in South America. He had been amazed by "A Hundred years of Solitude", the most celebrated work of Marquez. Born and raised in Colombia, Marquez had worked as a foreign correspondent, allowing him to travel extensively in Europe. He was also a political activist, and a friend of Castro's, and had become very disenchanted with Colombia and South America. He now lived mainly in Mexico and the USA. His acceptance speech for his Nobel prize in 1982 had scorned South America for its dysfunctionality, in particular the tendency of its countries to get involved in wars.

Marquez was now 78, and had suffered from lymphatic cancer in recent years. This new book, published in 2004, might therefore be his last work of fiction, although a three volume autobiography was in preparation. The book picked up some characteristic Marquez themes, notably small South American towns, an obsession with death, and love gone wrong (but unusually did not include a military officer).

The Group responded very positively to the book. It had a beguiling simplicity, lyricism and beauty in its language, and the story was well told. The book was poised and poetic, and the central character - the old man of ninety - was very sympathetically drawn. The story was engaging and life-affirming - it did not end with the old man's death as might have been expected.

Despite its brevity and simplicity, the novella was rich in the complexity of its meanings. Much more emerged on a second reading. There were teasing statements such as that “morality was only a question of time” and that “in the end it is impossible not to become what others think you are”. What was the meaning of the lipstick-scrawled message on Delgadina’s mirror that “the tiger does not eat far away”? The madam suggested that someone dying might have written it. Was the tiger the grim reaper? And there was the intriguing introduction of the angora cat. Was that there only to illustrate the narrator’s difficulties in forming relationships, and to counterpoint the aging issue - or did it have some wider symbolic meaning?

There was the all-too-human humour - as when the narrator in a fit of sexual jealousy denounces Delgadina as a whore, whereas he would never have met her if she had not been. The richness of the descriptions - both of place and of age - stood out, for example the heightened lucidity of detail as the narrator expectantly and nervously made his way to his first appointment with Delgadina. (We debated in this context whether, as one ages and the senses deteriorate, patterns and colours make a correspondingly greater impact. And was life easier at ninety than at, say, seventy, because you worried less and were less easily shocked?)

Was this an erotic book? Only to a limited extent. The title seemed rather misleading, given the actual tenor of the book, and might be even more so in Spanish with the harsher words "putas tristes" for “melancholy whores”. Were we shocked by the book? No, although there might have been a public fuss if a similar story had been produced by a venerable Nobel Prize winning British author at the age of 78. We also understood that South American attitudes to prostitution were more tolerant than in Europe.

And was it "magic realism"? Marquez certainly used this approach in "A Hundred Years of Solitude", picking up his grandmother's habit of telling tall tales with a straight face. We noted that the practitioners of “magic realism” were quite disparate in their approach, and that Marquez did not go in for the distortion of the natural order that could be found in the work of Borges or Julio Cortazar. But after some debate we concluded that "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" was not really written in the “magic realism” mode.

The book contained echoes of many other works. It reminded one reader of "No-one writes to the Colonel" by Marquez himself, which had a similar simplicity and beauty (in both English and Spanish versions). For him, Marquez was at his best in his novellas and short stories, not in his more ambitious longer works. The opening quotation is taken from “House of the Sleeping Beauties”, by the Japanese author Kawabata, a story about an old man who has paid to spend a night, chaste but lecherous, in bed with a young woman drugged into insensibility. Others were reminded of "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd, with its hero Logan Mountstuart living in every decade of the twentieth century, and having a considerable interest in whores. Both books seemed partly inspired by the millennium, although the Marquez book had a timeless feel to its setting. Others thought of "Earthly Powers" by Anthony Burgess, with its notorious opening sentence. A quite different analogy - picking up a moral fable involving an old man redeemed by a child - was George Eliot‘s "Silas Marner", and another - picking up the idea of an adult fairy tale and the Kawabata title- might be “Sleeping Beauty”.

But what was the book really about? At the obvious level, it was a story about a man discovering love, as opposed to sex, for the first time in his old age. He had previously lived two separate lives in parallel - one of culture and journalism, and the other in brothels, where he had been “client of the year”. He had “never gone to bed with a woman he did not pay, and the few that were not in the profession I persuaded by argument or force to take money…” yet now he was “mad for love”. But it was not as simple as that. His relationships prior to Delgadina were not completely limited to sexual relationships. He had maintained good relationships with two former mistresses, and with Rosa Cabarcas, although he had not found a partner as such. And the love he had now found was hardly that of a rounded loving relationship: he was only able to relate to Delgadina when she was asleep, or possibly drugged. (We thought drugging might be apposite, given the Kawabata reference). He flees from the idea that he might live with Delgadina. This is a fairly dysfunctional, obsessive type of love.

Someone had described the book as “an elegy on aging”, but we felt the book was hardly elegiac in tone - that was too negative. The narrator is re-animated by his relationship with Delgadina - he gains new celebrity as a writer, and he starts to face up to the future with optimism. His ninetieth birthday column was “not the usual lament, but glorification of old age..”. One attractive theme of the book was that, even at a great age, it was possible to discover new things about oneself : “Thanks to her, I confronted my inner self for the first time as my ninetieth year went by”. Age was shown to be irrelevant to life. We were drawn into a lengthy discussion on the character of the unnamed ninety year old narrator, although we had to remind ourselves that Marquez was not necessarily aiming for great psychological realism in his characters, as they are essentially literary constructs allowing him to explore his themes.

More broadly, we noted that a number of great artists, if a minority, have been fortunate enough to produce a work at the end of their career which fittingly rounds off their life’s work. For example, Shakespeare’s “Final Plays” fall into that category, with their magical and uplifting exploration of issues of love and time. Thomas Hardy’s “The Well-Beloved”, at the end of his career as a novelist, gives his characteristically quirky take on the themes of love and time. We felt that in “Memories of my Melancholy Whores” - probably his last work of fiction - Marquez had produced his own meditation on time, aging and love. It was a deceptively slight but richly complex novella, which was a very worthy finale to the career of a great South American novelist.

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at:

Saturday, October 28, 2006

27/9/06 Dorian Gray (Wilde); Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson)

The proposer of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde had first encountered the book in France, when he had been so mesmerised that he had sought to translate it into French (and emulate it in lifestyle). Re-reading it many years later he found it more tedious. Whereas the language and wit had once entranced him, it now seemed heavier. Wilde could not resist being clever, and, although the epigrams still brought a smile, they conveyed little of substance, and distracted from the rest of the book. The lack of convincing characterisation was also a weakness

Nevertheless, it was an interesting comedy of manners, with some Gothic elements, which reflected Wilde's aesthetic philosophy of art and life. It was his only novel, his first serious work, and was first published in 1890. In the light of public controversy about its immorality, it was re-published in 1891 with an introduction, six new chapters and many other amendments. Amongst other things these changes eliminated nearly all the homosexual connotations, and introduced the James Vane character. Within five years Wilde would be in prison, and within ten years dead. Some critics had argued that the novel reflected Wilde's affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but that must be wrong, as that affair did not start until 1891.

Others who were re-reading the novel also found it had paled compared to reading it in their youth. Perhaps it was a young man’s book. It no longer seemed sophisticated. It was florid, and not as tight as Jekyll and Hyde – for example, in its endless descriptions of the jewels Gray had bought. But it was enlivened by the melodrama, for example getting rid of the body of Campbell and the opium-den scene.

By contrast, those reading “Dorian Gray” for the first time found plenty of interest and intrigue to commend it. It was deeply original, and had an enjoyable freshness. It was essentially a fable, a myth. Its central Faustian story - of the picture which took on Gray's sins and age - had great vividness and archetypal resonance. It had a film-like power, with real tension surrounding Dorian’s fear of his painting being discovered. It also had an excellent ending, with the crescendo of the knife being plunged into the painting. The enduring popularity of the book was shown by the fact that it had proved impossible to obtain the book in a second-hand hardback copy, and, indeed, one member of the group had resorted to reading the book on-line.

However, the novel's three elements - wit, decadence, and gothic melodrama - were not fully unified. Wilde was less interested in the secondary characters as people than in them as vehicles for his views (in the absence of an authorial voice). The book was also misogynist.

Which of the characters was based on Wilde himself? An obvious candidate was Lord Henry, with his cynical wit and his love for Gray. However, one of us had gone on to read Wilde's "De Profundis", and had noted the similarity between Wilde's recriminations to Bosie (Lord Douglas) and those of Basil (the artist) towards Gray in the latter part of the novel. Basil therefore reflected Wilde’s personality too (though we were unconvinced by a critic who saw the novel as a meditation on the relationship between the artist and life, and gave the epigrams of the introduction more philosophical weight than they could bear). Dorian's hedonism also reflected part of Wilde's outlook, and we concluded that different aspects of Wilde's personality were reflected in all three characters.

We debated whether it was a “moral” novel. The ostensible moral - that happiness could not be gained without virtue - reminded the proposer of Diderot. Some of us felt that Wilde had put this moral into the story for the benefit of his Victorian audience, and was more attracted by pure hedonism than the plot by itself suggested. The novel’s world was one of decadence where beauty excused all. Gray was able to live in great wealth without any purposeful activity. In this context it would have been interesting to read the novel in its original “less moral” version, and it was surprising that no publisher seemed to have republished the original text. Some felt that "Dorian Gray" suffered from the Victorian constraints on actually describing any of the debauchery that was central to the plot. On the other hand, the lack of any such restraint was arguably a flaw in "The Line of Beauty" by Alan Hollinghurst, a contemporary treatment of the theme of gay hedonistic pursuit of beauty.

We read "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson alongside Dorian Gray for purposes of comparison (and indeed they had been the subject of comparison after first publication).

Jekyll and Hyde was published five years earlier in 1885, prior to the publication of “Kidnapped” and Stevenson’s other best-known works. The proposer of Jekyll and Hyde pointed out that the first version of the story (which Stevenson said had come to him in a dream) had been thrown into the fire after his wife had been invited to give her criticism. She had encouraged him to bring out the "dualism" theme more clearly, which he does in a very explicit, rather didactic passage. It was interesting that Jekyll and Hyde were not completely different characters, as Jekyll admits he was already conscious of feelings and desires for the vices that Hyde indulged in.

He re-wrote the story in just three days, which may help to explain its pace and the unrelentingly oppressive, gothic atmosphere of the London setting – there was no beauty in this story. The atmosphere was such that it was unsurprising that the book was written just three years before the first of the Jack the Ripper murders. The description of London was partly based on Edinburgh, and Stevenson, despite his respectable background, had consorted with the working classes and prostitutes in his early Edinburgh days. Conan Doyle had also used his experience of Edinburgh in writing the Sherlock Holmes stories set in London. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been the great era of the short story, and it was intriguing that Stevenson, in particular with Jekyll and Hyde, and Doyle, were amongst the few still widely read today.

Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray had much in common. They shared the Faustian theme and the gothic approach. Both stories involved having an objective correlative for moral turpitude - an alter ego in one case, and a degrading picture in the other. Both stories were sufficiently powerful for their titles to have entered the language as metaphors.

However, the plot of Jekyll turned on science, whereas Gray turned on magic. Jekyll was tauter and better structured, but was less moving and had less depth. Dorian Gray went beyond the Faustian myth in a way that Jekyll did not. The former was a novella, but the latter a short story. Stevenson, like Wilde but even more so, seemed constrained by Victorian mores to give no description of the debauchery that Hyde is enjoying. (However, we were quite unconvinced by the attempt of one critic to find homosexuality hinted at in Jekyll and Hyde).

It was impossible for a modern reader to approach the story of Jekyll and Hyde without knowing the ending because the title had become a metaphor, and therefore you could miss the fact that the story had been a real page-turner for the original audience. Despite that, we felt the story was not so exceptionally good that it had become a byword in the language simply because of its intrinsic quality as a story. Rather, it had become the most famous short story in the English language because it was the perfect metaphor to express the fact that everyone has a darker side - a Hyde - within them. Jekyll and Hyde had also been filmed many times, although an advantage of the original story format was the marvellous vagueness about what Mr Hyde actually looked like. (However, it was odd that Hyde was described as smaller than Jekyll – would you not expect the evil version to be bigger?)

Noting Stevenson’s interest in science, we wondered if he had been influenced by any contemporary medical descriptions of bipolarity or schizophrenia. A more obvious source of his interest in dualism was his personal experience of revelling in Edinburgh low life. The dualism of man was also a theme in literature and ideas which went back as far as Plato – and included Calvinism. The story of Edinburgh's Deacon Brodie, which Stevenson wrote up separately, was another source, although the Deacon Brodie tale was not extraordinary –a “strange case” - in the way that Jekyll and Hyde was.

Finally, we discussed the fact that both books had originally disturbed their audiences, but were no longer disturbing today. Was this because of the Victorian language, or because post-Freud we now all accepted we had a Hyde within us, or because homosexuality was now so openly discussed? Another factor was that there was in Victorian times a moral consensus, based on religion, which did not apply in today's plural society. Dorian Gray’s hedonism was not going to disturb a contemporary audience, half of whom might readily subscribe to hedonism as a philosophy. Moreover, in today's society the visual media of film and television had taken over from the printed word much of the role of shocking and disturbing people.

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at:

Friday, October 06, 2006

30/8/06: "The City of Djinns" by William Dalrymple

“The City of Djinns” is a travel book about Delhi. The proposer of the book had always been interested in India, partly because of ancestors serving there in the army. As background to the discussion of the book he showed us a century-old album of photographs of Delhi, which we were able to contrast with a modern day album of Delhi photos taken by another member of the group.

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the award-winning “In Xanadu” when he was twenty-two. In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching the “City of Djinns”, his second book, which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. The book therefore ante-dated the recent surge in Indian economic growth. More recently he has published “White Mughals” to critical acclaim. He and his wife now divide their time between London and Delhi.

The majority found this book a beautifully observed and sympathetic portrait of the city, full of fascinating detail and eccentric characters. It proved the pleasure of exploring a limited area in depth rather than a wider area superficially. They liked the relaxed, affectionate, entertaining style, and the wealth of easily assimilated historical detail. It was also amusing (though not really funny in the Bryson manner). Some of his descriptions - we picked out those of rivers as goddesses (echoing Kim), of conversations, and of the death of Norah Nicholson - were particularly effective.

A minority took a different view - they found the style irritating, the view of India and its characters rose-tinted, and the structure lacking in proper background and context.

The structure of the book was unusual. Starting with a range of mildly comic characters whom Dalrymple and his wife met, and occasionally returning to them, the writer would start to delve into the history either of individuals or more commonly of buildings. The different historical layers of Delhi and wider Indian history would emerge, but they would not be recounted in a simple linear fashion : rather, he would circle round stories such as the Mutiny and Partition before covering them in detail. Perhaps he overdid the history somewhat, by the end grinding the reader down with the story of yet another civilization. The book was closer to a history book than a travel book (although all travel books contain an element of history), but was really sui generis.

For most of us, a particularly powerful technique was to find the remnants of the past in the present - whether in the buildings, or in characters washed up by the passage of time, such as Anglo-Indians betrayed by Partition, or someone who had known Lutyens when he worked in Delhi. His search for such living relics of history - such as his search for remaining eunuchs - brought the urgency of the detective adventure to the book. The cumulative effect of this technique was very powerful, revealing the city in four dimensions. For a minority, however, this anecdotal approach was irritating and self-indulgent, particularly if one did not start with any particular knowledge of India and its history.

For the most part, we found the book well-written and his style very easy to read. Some felt he sometimes tried too hard to use Indian imagery in his descriptions of the seasons - to say that the sun was as blonde as clarified butter, for example, was strained and jarring. We did not all find his portraits of local “characters” (as opposed to his historical portraits) satisfactory. Some thought they were unrealistic - for example in using quaint English such as “tip-top”, which Indian students in this country do not use. Those who have visited India, however, felt that this was accurate for the generation of Indians portrayed. A minority felt that the characters - whether Indian or British - were portrayed in a rather patronising way. Another criticism was that nothing of the poverty and disease of India was portrayed, and little said about the untouchables - however, India was a vast subject to deal with.

We moved on finally to a discussion of the wider historical issues raised by the book.
We noted, for example, that the Scots and Irish (there were large numbers in the East India Company) tended to be portrayed more sympathetically - as more open-minded and tolerant towards the Indians - than the English. Was this a bias in the writer? On balance we felt not. He was not anti-English, but was opposed to a certain type of Englishman - evangelical, xenophobic and bigoted. The book showed the British in India in the eighteenth century acting much more generously to native Indians than in the evangelical nineteenth century.

We also discussed whether the writer acknowledged the deaths caused by the British in India, and here most felt he faced up squarely to the issue, notably in relation to the Mutiny. Was the Mutiny the first plea for independence, or just a mutiny? We felt it was the latter, compounded by an unfortunate combination of circumstances and an incompetent military. Finally, it was suggested that Partition, because of the massive population shifts and slaughter that followed, was the greatest disaster of the British Empire.

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at:
26/6/06: “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling

Kim (Kipling’s masterpiece) came as a very pleasant surprise to those who came new to Kipling. It was a subtle, engaging, comic and moving tale of a young man’s development, set against a gorgeous backdrop of the teeming subcontinent. The novel showed great insight into India and its people, and contrary to reputation displayed no unpleasant imperialism.

The proposer (with many family connections with India, including being conceived in Calcutta!) felt Kim was a magnificent introduction to India. The book was poetic in its evocation of India. Kim was also about love - not just the love between Kim and his lama, but about a love of India. He felt that Kipling's biography shed interesting light on the novel, which was started in 1892 and finally published in book form in 1901. Kipling had been born in Bombay in 1865, and sent to school in England aged 5. He had not returned to India - to Lahore - until he was 16. He had then spent 8 years as a journalist in India, before marrying and moving to the USA and later England. He was the first English writer to gain the Nobel prize for literature.

Kipling’s absence from his parents for 11 formative years must have given the novel much of its artistic energy. This absence shed light on his portrayal of Kim as a streetwise orphan meeting a series of father figures. Kipling must have had to re-create his relationship with his father, Lockwood Kipling, and his father, who was a curator in a museum, was no doubt the model for the curator in Chapter One. It was intriguing that his father had provided the illustrations for the early editions of Kim. Kipling’s dual Indian/English upbringing was surely reflected in Kim’s ambivalence between the Indian and English worlds, and his endless questioning of his identity.

We all agreed that Kim, with its characteristic image of the roads streaming with humanity, provided a gloriously colourful picture of India. Against this vast, multi-coloured canvas was contrasted the detailed development of one individual soul, taking you right into the heart of a being. Kim’s search for identity in the foreign world of the English Sahib was reminiscent of Tom’s experience of an alien world in Jenkins’ “The Changeling”. The novel was multi-layered, mingling the picaresque, the pilgrimage, and the spy adventure, and creating a range of comic characters, such as the lama with his all too human foibles. We felt the prose was superb, although its fluency for the reader was reduced by the use of Indian dialect words and the archaic “thou” form. We compared “Kim” with Forster’s “A Passage to India”: whereas Forster took an outsider’s view of India and its mysteries, Kipling was much more of an insider, getting under the skin of India. Some of us felt that Kipling was in a number of respects more effective in conveying a sense of India.

We found nothing of the tub-thumping imperialist we had expected. He showed deep insight into and sympathy for a whole range of Indians, while often satirising white people. Indians were not shown to be inferior, or the “white man’s burden”. While he did not challenge the political objectives of the spies (dealing with a serious Russian threat to British India), he did contrast their world with the spiritual life. At most he made a few affectionate, arch generalisations about Indians which might run foul of the politically correct brigade a century later, but there was no justification for the overblown comments on imperialism from critics we had come across. If this was imperialism, it was of a very benign nature. It was interesting to hear that an Indian had said that, although Kipling was no longer taught in Indian schools, every educated Indian would have a couple of books by Kipling in his or her house.

We discussed, but did not reach consensus, on the significance of the plot structure of “Kim”. For some, the parallel stories of spy adventure and spiritual quest were not sufficiently integrated. Others felt that these were just two of the elements of Kim’s development, or that the plot structure was subordinate to the picaresque nature of the whole. A late Victorian audience would have a lot of interest in religious issues. Others felt that there was a deliberate tension between the spiritual and spy worlds. We did not agree with the view of one critic that the novel left open whether Kim would choose the spiritual or spy path. We felt that the father figure Kim would follow was definitely the spy Mahbub, not the spiritual lama. Perhaps the novel subtly portrayed a young man’s experience of a life option he was not yet ready to follow. Nor did we agree with the view of another critic that Kim had to experience Buddhist rejection of the world to be able to leave his childhood behind. We concluded that, like most works of art, the novel was capable of multiple interpretations.

Thereafter the discussion ranged more widely as the evening wore on and the refreshments wore in. Points of note included that the British nowadays were more interested in India than the Indians in Britain. It often took an outsider to capture accurately a society, and Kipling, the great chronicler of Empire, had an Irish background, as had Kim. Other than in exceptional times the British controlled their Indian Empire with only 40,000 people. The Indian army in the Second World War - a volunteer army - was no less than two and a half million strong. And finally we noted that the English language was one of the main British legacies to India, and the richness of Kipling’s prose must have influenced the modern generation of Indian novelists writing in English.

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at:
28/6/06: “Chronicles Vol 1” by Bob Dylan

This book generated an unusually diverse set of reactions, and an unusually long discussion.
For some, “Chronicles” displayed a master of the English language showing himself as proficient in prose as in verse. For others, the book was a boring failure, and for them it was bizarre that the book had won so many awards.

The proposer of the book, a self-confessed Dylan buff, saw Dylan as the greatest singer-songwriter of the second half of the twentieth century. He was, however, a divisive figure, who attracted fanaticism and hatred alike. Dylan had generated an enormous volume of critical literature, much of it from universities, that speculated about his influences, meaning and life. Having been through a bad phase - partly described in the book - of doubting his ability to play, and also having suffered illness, he had clearly become more comfortable with himself and his past. Departing from his usual reticence, he had taken the opportunity - in this book and in the Scorsese documentary - to set out his perspective and counter the endless speculation about his life and influences.

Dylan did not have an academic intellect, but his account of his life and influences showed that he picked things up very quickly. It was a primitive intelligence almost - he was a great primitive. He showed himself as a creative introvert struggling in a world of extroverts. And this book demonstrated his capacity to find the fascinating turn of phrase as readily in prose as in song. He hated the tag of the modern revolutionary, and in fact took a great interest in the past,. This showed in the echoes of earlier American writers such as Twain, Whitman and Kerouac in this book, or in his interest in the Civil War, or in his interest in the great blues and folk singers of the past. Above all, his carefully crafted chronicles demonstrated the creative process at work.

Some others had responded equally warmly to the book. They found many a brilliant turn of phrase, such as his comparison of John Wilkes Booth to Brutus. They enjoyed the explanation of his creative influences and the creative process. They liked his ability to evoke atmosphere, and his skill in using metaphor. They also enjoyed the period detail, such as the nuclear bomb practices in school.

However, some readers did not like the book at all. They found it very superficial. He pretentiously listed great artists as influences, but drew the tritest of conclusions from them. He would self-indulgently record mundane events, and list taxonomies of furniture, as if his mere presence invested them with significance. And for them the structure of the book was hopelessly confused.

Most readers were intrigued by the section of the book in which Dylan explained how he hated being seen as the leader of a protest movement, and hated his privacy being invaded by those who saw him in this role. Some were struck by his reaction against the introduction of him at a concert of “take him he’s yours” and wondered whether any other of the great icons had been seen as public property in quite the same way. Engaging as this humility was, some noted that in the later section about his sessions with Daniel Lanois, he seemed much more egotistical about claiming to have described great truths for the world. There was an odd combination of humility and arrogance in the book.

Dylan’s apparent recall of detail was remarkable. We debated whether he was blessed with a photographic memory, whether he was making up the apparently concrete details, or whether he had kept a journal. In any event, the immediacy with which he could summon up past years was very effective. Moreover, he seemed able to recreate his thinking and outlook at the different phases of his life, so that there was a different persona writing for each of the different episodes. The title "Chronicles" aptly captured this approach.

The structure chosen for the book - a series of different shots in time presented in a circular rather than linear manner - provoked wide differences of view. For those who did not like the book this structure was simply awful. Even for some Dylan fans the circularity and complete lack of references or even dates was the major weakness in the book. For others, including some non-Dylan fans, the circularity of structure, cleverly moving through time to end back at the beginning, was not very different to many modern novels. It helped to illuminate cause and effect in the creative process. Dylan had a similar approach to his songs as he argued the order of the verses did not matter.

Guileless as the book appeared, we felt there must be some shaping - or re-creation - of his image involved. He never criticised anyone, and this became irritating and implausible after a while. He went to great lengths to list all the writers he had come across in the libraries of his friends, without saying much of substance about what he took from them. We wondered if this was partly a response to academic speculation about his influences, but felt it also revealed the insecurity of the auto-didact. That being said, his years in New York had clearly served as a very valuable education in the university of life. On the subject of his influences it was pointed out that he seemed to have little or no knowledge of black music in his early formative years. But the most interesting insight into his influences was the role played by reading old newspaper cuttings in public libraries.

Surprisingly open as the book was, he was still enigmatic in some areas, starting with the complete lack of introduction or dedication for the book. We were surprised to be told that the "wife" he refers to in two different episodes was in fact two different wives (the second wife being revealed for the first time to Dylan scholars through the publication of this book). We also noted that he, presumably deliberately, never referred to the colour of any person he mentions.
We ended as we had begun with a wide range of contradictory views. This might be partly explained by the fact that the book assumed in the reader a wide knowledge of Dylan's life and works. However, while most of the non-Dylan fans were not fans of the book, this was not true of all of them, and while most of the Dylan fans were fans of the book, this was not true of all of them either.

There was some common ground. One of the two most interesting aspects of the book was Dylan's account of his dislike of the nature of his early fame. The other was the insight the book gave into the creative process as it actually happened. However, few could understand how the book had come to be nominated for a Nobel prize!

See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at:
31/5/06: "A Sweet Obscurity" by Patrick Gale

We felt "A Sweet Obscurity" is the work of a novelist capable of writing a major contemporary novel. Patrick Gale has strong powers of plotting and characterisation; a deceptively simple, lucid style of writing which is a pleasure to read; and sets his novels against a lyrically portrayed Cornwall. This is a richly textured novel, dealing with themes of childhood and the past, of city and country, in which the characters have to move from London to Cornwall to confront their problems and then move forward. Yet we felt it had some weaknesses in character and plot, and some limitations in its range. Those of us who knew "Rough Music", its predecessor, felt that "Rough Music" is closer to the major novel of which we feel Patrick Gale is capable. [Do not read further if you do not want to know the plot.]

What is the overall subject of "A Sweet Obscurity"? We were not too convinced by the answers offered by the critical quotations in the paperback edition. "An examination of the steps to which we will go to find somewhere we can go to call home" picks out only one aspect of one storyline. "A memorable study of a child" puts Dido centre stage in a novel where several characters are equally prominent : and where Eliza, if anyone, is primus inter pares. "The complexity of an extended family is the subject" was unconvincing, as was the tag "a rich comedy" for a novel which has comic scenes but is in no sense a comedy.

The consensus was that the novel was about the characters managing to confront their problems in the "sweet obscurity" of Cornwall (as opposed to the glitter of London), and all thereby managing to move on. Thus Eliza and Pearce move into a happy relationship; Julia accepts her past, moves on from her relationship and accepts motherhood; Giles recognises childhood abuse has stunted his emotional growth and decides to confront it; and Dido finds out and faces up to the problems which have been hidden from her.

Childhood is a central theme. Dido is a child shadowed by events in her mother's childhood; Pearce's life has been limited by filial duty; Giles remains child-like because of his abused childhood; Julia hides from her childhood, but then becomes capable of having a child; and Eliza has to return to the land of her childhood to find herself. Gale's Wessex-style Cornwall is the place where several of the characters have spent their childhood; and for many readers it must also be the romantic symbol of childhood holidays.

Some felt that the novel was limited in its range. The quality of emotional relationships was the overriding value, and other achievements did not really seem to matter. Giles is a second-rank singer; Eliza rejects an academic career; and Pearce gives up on a career as a vet to settle for being a none-too-successful farmer. The main characters are all middle-class, mostly with careers in the arts, and external events in the world hardly impinge on the novel. The emphasis on emotional relationships gave the novel something of an "aga saga" feel, and the one critical quotation we fully endorsed was that "A Sweet Obscurity sits on the boundary between serious fiction and popular romance ... occupying the position with a poise which suggests that that's exactly where he wants it to sit".

We felt that the plotting was compelling, although not quite rivalling the masterful architecture of "Rough Music". Some, however, felt that the middle section slowed too much, and that the introduction of cherubism, although an effective shock, seemed largely extraneous to the rest of the plot. The lost madrigal was a particularly cunning device, reinforcing the sense of the weight of time, and with its hidden verses counterpointing the themes of London and the country, of conventional and unconventional sex. The two dinner parties - both pivotal to the story - were intensely imagined.

We felt that it was bold of the novelist - an avowedly gay writer - to attempt a novel that dealt with heterosexual relationships, and relegated gay characters to minor (and somewhat satirized) roles. However, some of us felt that the interplay of the heterosexual relationships was not fully convincing.

The characters in "A Sweet Obscurity" provoked much debate - perhaps itself a tribute to Gale's power of characterisation. The consensus was that the female characters - Eliza and Julia - were the most convincing. Some felt that Giles was not totally convincing as a heterosexual character (an unintended ambiguity). Pearce was somewhat idealised, particularly when he took responsibility for burning the manuscript, although his unintentional provocation of his father's suicide was acutely drawn. Dido was engagingly portrayed, but some felt that she was implausibly knowing for a nine year old.

We all agreed that Patrick Gale's language is a pleasure. It is simple, easy-to-read, and without pretension. Yet it effortlessly conveys feelings, conversations, sights, smells, and idiosyncracies of character. He is always seeking to empathise and to define telling detail. He captures the feel of the countryside as easily as he captures the feel of metropolitan London or of academic Oxford.

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3/4/06 : “The Changeling” by Robin Jenkins

We felt that this was a first class novel, which merited wider recognition outside Scotland. Underneath the amiable, laconic style lay a vision of how aspiration and reality could differ widely, and of how character and events could intersect to bring tragedy despite the best of intentions. It was a very Scottish novel, not just in its portrayal of the contrasts of the slums and coastal beauty of Western Scotland, but in the bleak Calvinism of its perspective on life. [Do not read on if you do not want to know the plot]

The novel - involving a schoolteacher, Charlie Forbes, and a schoolboy, Tom Curdie, in the fifties - was set in a period when most of the Group themselves had been at school in Scotland. Some found the apparent lack of previous contact between the well-off Forbes children and the slum children to be implausible; others found it matched their own experience. One ex-teacher found the cynicism of the headmaster plausible but not the altruism of Forbes. However, for another, the plot of a teacher taking a poor child on holiday with his own children replicated his personal experience of what his headmaster father had done.

The suicide at the end of the book came as a shock to us all. There was a lively discussion of whether it was plausible that a boy of this age and with the tough personality portrayed would commit suicide. Some felt that it was out of character, or at least that the novelist had not shown enough of Tom's character. Others felt the novelist had successfully stressed that Tom's tough, taciturn independence was a coping mechanism for slum life, and had demonstrated how exposure to the Forbes family had fractured this carapace. One pointed to a contemporary example of a suicide at this age. However, without the intervention of events - the visit of Tom's friends Chick and Peerie, and then of his family - the tragedy would not have happened. The proposer of the book, reading it for the second time, had picked up several prefigurative uses of hanging imagery.

Tom's stealing was an important mechanism of the plot, and of the changing attitudes to Tom of members of the Forbes family. The middle-class view that stealing was completely unacceptable was a turning point, even if, it was pointed out, stealing was often common to both rich and poor children. Tom's use of stealing as a device to keep the Forbes family at bay later developed into an unsuccessful search for forgiveness and acceptance through a confession - could the Forbes really accept him as he was?

There was much debate about Charles and his failed role as good Samaritan (the role set out in the opening two paragraphs).We rejected the possibility that his apparent altruism was motivated simply by hopes of promotion - a more complex set of motives is portrayed. Intriguingly, Charles reaches a stage of apparent self-knowledge, and promises himself and his wife that he will henceforth be less ambitious. But far from leading to a happy resolution, this change of viewpoint helps to precipitate the tragedy.

We also noted the ambiguity of the title "The Changeling" - is Tom indeed the changeling, as cruelly described by Charles, when Charles himself was really the agent of change? - as well as its echo of the Middleton/Rowley Jacobean tragedy.

Although Charles' wife Mary seems, on the surface, to be portrayed quite affectionately, underneath we felt she was portrayed in a harsh light, lacking empathy for both Tom and her husband. The only character empathising fully with Tom is a child, Gillian - reflecting a theme echoed in The Cone-Gatherers (Jenkins' masterpiece which some members of the group had been inspired to read as well).

Stylistically we noted the pervasive authorial voice, often explaining characters' feelings. On balance we felt this was quite a successful technique. Language was used with great economy, but this non-lyrical style made it difficult to evoke the beauty of the West coast. On the other hand, the grimness of the Donaldson's Court slum was vividly evoked, with one member saying he would never forget the description of it as a place in which even the splendour of a tiger would be extinguished.

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30/3/06 : “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint Exupery
The Book Group started its first meeting with this unmistakably French - but highly individualistic - blend of narrative and meditation. We all agreed this had been a first class choice to start off the Book Group - a pleasantly short book with lots to debate.

Some debate was caused by the use of two different translations - the original 1939 Lewis Galantiere version, authorised by Saint-Exupery himself, and the 1995 version by William Rees. A brief comparison of the translations suggested to us that the flowing and somewhat flowery language of Galantiere seemed best suited to the evocative poetic parts of the text, while the concision of Rees dealt better with the meditation. Nevertheless, we were aware that "poetry is what gets lost in the translation". Interestingly, one of us complained about two or three political passages as being of poor judgement, which turned out to be passages omitted from the Rees version. This was because they had not appeared in the final French text, but had been included as contextual material for the benefit of American readers under pressure from Galantiere. We also did not agree with the translators that it would be unsatisfactory to stick with the French title "Terre des hommes" translated into English as, say, "Land of Men" .

We were agreed that the passages of storytelling were particularly powerful. In these the author recounted atmospheric tales of aviation, the desert and war in which individuals lived on the edge and found themselves through battling against the immensity and dangers of the natural world. All the episodes were intensely imagined and realised. One of the reasons the proposer of the book had been attracted to it was his experience of living in deserts, and he felt it also accurately portrayed the Arab character. One of the episodes involved a kind of "magic realism", similar to that seen in South American authors. The book was weaker in the middle section where it had a long section of meditation which was not leavened with narrative content.
More controversial were the meditative/philosophical sections, in which Saint-Exupery sought to extract the significance for life and self-realization of these extreme situations. Some felt that he identified much of great truth - for example the way in which people bond in the face of adversity. Others felt that his was a partial and upper class view, missing out the importance of male/female relationships, and patronising the masses - such as the Polish migrant workers discussed at the end, who did not have the opportunity for such heroism. We noted some influence of existentialism, for example in his discussion of what freedom meant for the freed slave. Some felt that Saint-Exupery was inconsistent in his philosophical positions, although others felt that this was irrelevant, as essentially he was writing a work of prose poetry, not of philosophy.

Some of us were familiar with Saint-Exupery’s work the Little Prince, ostensibly for children and said to be the most widely translated French book. We were intrigued that it started with the same story of the planewreck in the desert that is the dominant story in Wind, Sand and Stars. However, its philosophy - which this time does emphasise the importance of relationships - is put forward in the more easily digested format of a playful fable.

We concluded with a discussion of literary analogies in English for Saint-Exupery's work, though noting that if you picked it up without knowing the author you would soon assume it was French. We could find no close analogy. One introduction had compared him to Joseph Conrad, which was interesting in terms of the poetic prose comparison but, we felt, understated the philosophical content of Saint-Exupery and the narrative content of Conrad. A more apt analogy might be Wordsworth's Prelude, with its poetic blend of narration and meditation on the elemental.

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