Wednesday, December 09, 2009


The work under discussion was Chekhov’s last play “The Cherry Orchard” (1904), the first time the group had discussed a play. The proposer (an established writer) said that he had picked the play largely because he had been trying his hand at writing a full-length play, and Chekhov was considered a master of the craft. Chekhov was unusual in being a major success in two literary forms – the short story as well as the play.

The play had not been performed in English until 1934. There had been many interesting productions since, such as the 1978 version directed by Peter Hall, with a stellar cast including Ralph Richardson as Firs. Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley were amongst the actresses to have played Ranevskaya. Even Monty Python’s Flying Circus had, bizarrely, got in on the act.

The proposer had suggested that readers would need at least two readings to get to grips with the play, and he himself was uncovering yet further meanings after the fifth reading! Indeed all had found the second reading much more rewarding, not least because they spent less time flicking back to sort out who was speaking given the confusion of Russian names.

And the play received an unambiguous thumbs-up. “My favourite dramatist! Subtle, low key expressions of emotion.” “Really enjoyed it – how it catches the Russian psyche and the paradoxes in Russian society as it undergoes a great upheaval”. “What an enormous amount contained in such a small compass!” “Complex, oblique, resonant, poignant, ironic”. And - decisively - “what a pleasure to have a reason to buy another copy of Chekhov’s works, as an old girlfriend went off with my last one!”

Only minor reservations were expressed. The characters were distinct Russian “types”, and a stage production would have to avoid exaggerating them. Some of the dialogue was a bit stilted, and the comic characters a little overdone (although that might work well on stage). There were also some rather clumsy slabs of exposition of the past of certain characters.

So what was it all about? What about Trofimov’s strictures on the state of Russian society, often sounding like a Communist Party Manifesto: “The huge majority of the intelligentsia do nothing…they treat peasants like animals…the workers eat disgusting food… sleep, without pillows, thirty or forty to a room…” Was it a prediction of the Russian Revolution?

Not so, after some debate, was our conclusion: Chekhov was accurately, and memorably, describing Russian society as it was. He included the economic activity (eg Lopakhin’s efforts and the English investment in Pishchik’s white clay) that was to give Russia the highest growth rate of any European country before the First World War. The Russian Revolution was not, as the Marxists would have it, an inevitable product of economic and social forces. It was an example of the contingent in history, with the First World War being the biggest contingent factor. And indeed the Red Army had come very close to military defeat. What Chekhov was really doing was reflecting on the human condition and how some people adapt and others don’t: it was about ordinary lives, not great revolutionaries.

A major theme was time, and more specifically the challenge of change, at both a personal and a social level. Thus, at the level of personal change, Ranevskaya, Gayev and Anya have to come to terms with the loss of their wealth and status, their cherry orchard. For most of the play Ranevskaya in particular has been in denial about this, and indeed in recent years she has been in flight from all the tragedies of her life. Only at the end is she – and Gayev and Anya - able to move forward more positively. As Gayev cheerfully says: “Before the cherry orchard was sold, we were all worried, we were suffering, and then, once the matter was finally and irrevocably settled, we all calmed down, we even cheered up…” Or as Trofimov puts it: “To live in the present we must first redeem our past, finish with it, and we can redeem it only by suffering…”

Chekhov also paints a wider picture of social change. There is the decline of the whole landowning class, the impact of serf emancipation, and the rise of Lopakhin (the businessman from the serf family). There are the town dwellers interested in buying dachas and the rise of a new type of servant on-the-make in Yasha, contrasted with Firs the traditional servant.

Love is another theme, although most of the love is not reciprocated. The only two relationships that are in any sense successful are that of Anya and Trofimov (and how long is that going to last given his eccentricity?) and that of Ranevskaya and her rascal lover. Indeed wasn’t Ranevskaya the only character in a sexual relationship? Hmmm, well, some doubts about Anya and Trofimov sneaking off to the river– remember how coy a dramatist had to be then!

Chekhov makes fine use of symbolism to deepen his themes and create resonance. The cherry orchard itself is a dominant and protean symbol, and the noise of trees being felled off-stage at the end is one of the most poignant moments in theatre. In addition to representing their wealth, the orchard is explicitly identified with Russia (“All Russia is our orchard”); with the past – the souls of dead serfs and serf-owners; with happiness; and with the youth of Gayev and Ranevskaya (she thinks she sees their mother in the shape of a tree). Is the emphasis on it flowering despite the frost the idea of moving forward despite adversity? The white colour of the blossom – with connotations such as innocence or virginity – is repeatedly stressed.

The bunch of keys at Varya’s waist – taken off and thrown at Lopakhin –symbolises not just ownership of the house but her chastity, which is offered to Lopakhin, but not in the end accepted. The “distant sound of a string breaking, as if in the sky", which happens twice, most notably at the end, must also have a symbolic purpose. Its purpose is suggested first by the sound “having preceded the troubles” and secondly by the stage direction “a dying, melancholy sound” followed by the sound of the axe.

Some of the characters also take on a symbolic role. Firs symbolises the past of the landowning classes. At one level leaving Firs locked in the house at the end can be seen as another example of carelessness by the family towards their retainers; at the symbolic level it could be seen as their acceptance of the need to move on.

Anya, by contrast is identified as the future, as the hope of the family. She has moved on from the past: “Why don’t I love the cherry orchard as I used to?” and is the most positive of all at the end: “We shall plant a new cherry orchard…and, Mama, you shall smile!”

But there was plenty of debate about other characters. What to make of Charlotta? She is herself unclear: “where I’m from and who I am – I don’t know”. Given her fairground background, she is outside the social norms of the others. And what is the role of her magic? Is this just another way of escaping from reality for the family? Is there an echo of “The Tempest” – Shakespeare’s last play? And why is Chekhov at such pains to stress her man’s peaked cap, her gun, her imagined conversation with a female “beau idéal”?

“Well, of course” weighed in our resident Freudian “Chekhov is going as far as he dare to portray her as a l*****n!” This had them rolling in the aisles. “So if she’s a l*****n why does she take out half a cucumber and chew on it then??!”

(Well, I say, this was hotting up! Time to open another bottle of this tasty 2005 and stop worrying about how to spell all these pesky names…)

What did we make of Trofimov? He was given the two best speeches in the play, showing great analytical gifts. But he was very tactless: for example, on leaving Lobakhin, the self-made man, all he can do is advise him to stop waving his hands around. He was young and optimistic, but preternaturally aged. He gave speeches on the importance of hard work while doing nothing himself (other than, by the end, a little translation). He considered himself too superior to fall in love. Whatever did Anya see in him? Was he simply the type of the eternal student, or was he too intended to have some more symbolic role? Ranevskaya makes a telling comment: “You’re boldly solving all the important questions, but isn’t that because you are young, because you haven’t had time to suffer…”

There was less doubt about Yasha: he was a man of appetite, an unpleasant man on the make. He smells of food, he finishes the champagne (and knows it is not good), he ignores his mother, he exploits the affections of Dunyasha, he rushes to pick up the gold coins. But Gayev, generally portrayed as a billiards-obsessed fool, sees through him, and regularly sends him away complaining about his smell.

“And what then about the famous scene in which Lobakhin fails to propose to Varya ? This is sometimes interpreted as the product of a combination of accidents, but surely it was implausible that someone as wordlywise as Lobakhin would be deflected if he really wanted to propose? Was he not being pressed by Ranevskaya and really rather indifferent ?”

“Well exactly – the problem is that he is really in love with Ranevskaya! And so are Trofimov and Pishchik … in the sense of being entranced by her, maybe not in the sense of intending a physical relationship with a much older woman.” (Well, I don’t know about that, thought your scribe, trying to combine writing down this exciting new insight with a calming gulp of claret, what if Joanna Lumley is playing her?) “Well if that’s right why does Lopakhin turf her out of her house?” “Because she’s going back to her lover in Paris.” “But does he know that?...”

The discussion now moved to Chekhov’s stagecraft. It was remarkable how much depth lay beneath each of the characters – you saw just the tip of the iceberg, but Chekhov had worked out the whole of the iceberg for each one. They said little, but there was a very large sub-text. This aspect of Chekhov – which had been said to influence the method style of acting - had particularly attracted the proposer. To try to achieve such depth for the characters in his own work the proposer had written a long monologue for each, little of which survived into the play as text.

Chekhov had also worked out in detail how each character related to every other character, and no character was simply neutral to another. This was a complex web of relationships to sustain. It was illuminating to read the play focussing on just one of the characters, and observe how subtly, in what depth and how consistently they were portrayed. All the characters offered superb scope to an actor or actress.

Chekhov went further in terms of prescriptive stage directions than was considered normal in the theatre. This may partly reflect the difficulties he had with Stanislavky, the director of the first production, who insisted on treating the play as a tragedy. In this play he also followed a pattern common to him of having four acts with a few months passing during the time of the play – thus following the “unity of place” but not of time.

But in what sense was the play a “comedy”, as Chekhov stated on the title page? While there were amusing aspects to the play, it was not a comedy in the conventional sense (nor a tragedy). The word was perhaps used more in the broad sense of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” or Balzac’s “La Comédie Humaine”.

And reflecting ironically on the comedy of human life would fit well with our feeling that this was a work by a man who knew he was near the end of his life: it has that sense of perspective and poignancy. In our discussion of Marquez in 2006 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”.

And Chekhov in “The Cherry Orchard” could be added to that list as a great artist at the end of his life giving us his own reflections on time, change, and love.

The conversation drifted on, veering from Chekhov to malt versus grain whisky, and then veering off (don’t ask me how, I was savouring the claret, not taking notes) to the subject of bow ties, and who could tie one these days. “Indeed, I saw someone in a gents at a function take off his clip bow-tie, and replace it with an untied real bow tie in which he could look cool after dinner…how about that?”

How about that reflection on change indeed, but finally your reporter took his leave of the proposer’s elegant West End establishment and gingerly descended the stairs.

And what should there be standing in the hall? A cherry tree, in full bloom. Shedding a little blossom.

Well I never!! How about that for stage management?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Introducing the novella “Metamorphosis” (published in 1915 – one of the few stories to be published in Kafka’s lifetime) and the novel “The Trial” (published posthumously in 1925), the proposer said that he had only recently developed an interest in Kafka. This had started when he had bought a copy of “Metamorphosis” at the airport in Prague, and had found it fascinating.

Kafka had had an unhappy childhood in Prague, with a domineering father. Indeed a 47 page letter of protest that he had penned to his father could be found on the internet. (“You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking…”). He had given the letter to his mother who had never handed it over to his father.

Kafka had suffered from “clinical depression and social anxiety” throughout his life. He had tried chemistry at university, and then switched to law, in which he qualified. He had mainly worked in the insurance industry. He had died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40.

Amongst his influences he counted Dickens and Knut Hamsun. Kafka in turn is said to have influenced Samuel Beckett, Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of whom were writers recently discussed by the group.

The discussion that followed addressed both books together, with the bulk of the comments being about “The Trial”.

So what were they all about? One member had started by trying to interpret “The Trial” as a religious allegory, but soon moved to the “s**t happens” school of interpretation. Both books were about the unpredictable change that could suddenly hit people trying to lead ordered lives in a random world. This was strikingly conveyed by the great opening sentences:

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect….” and

“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Joseph K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong…”.

The issue then posed was how the characters managed to deal with these climactic changes – not too successfully in either case. Some of his other short stories had a similar structure.

Another reader felt that the “court” in “The Trial” was really that of the community. Joseph K was notably high-handed and arrogant in his dealings with the rest of society, and never managed to change this style of behaviour despite his trial. Yet the other accused he met were notably much more humble and submissive in their response to their trial, and perhaps that was why they lasted longer. And if society judges you unacceptably arrogant, the most you could hope for was indeed a suspension of sentence, not an acquittal.

Some members were surprised to revisit “The Trial” and find it not really the prophetic denunciation of totalitarianism and overweening state power that they thought they remembered, and that the book is commonly held to be. It seemed to be more about the individual psyche and private neuroses than about the state of society.

Anxiety and uneasy guilt permeated “The Trial”. It had a dream-like (or perhaps nightmare) logic, as witnessed by the implausibility of Joseph finding the whippers in a room in the bank, and them still being there the next day when he opened the door again. Equally dreamlike was how he would go through a door in someone’s apartment suddenly to find a court meeting. Only the sudden violent ending seemed, inconsistently, to break out of this dream-like mode. In this vein one reader had detected early on suggestions that the court and its apparatus were a product of Joseph’s own imagination. And was it not common to find delusion linked to depression?

For another the story was not a dream – it was a metaphor for being alienated from society. Being rejected by a father generated a sense of others criticising or attacking us. It was a parable. But, hold on, didn’t his colleagues respect K. and get on well with him?

The animal world played a role in the books – obviously with the giant insect (in German literally "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice") in “Metamorphosis” - but also in the last lines of “The Trial” as K. is killed:

“ ‘Like a dog!’ he said. It was as if the shame would outlive him.”

Did this identification with animals reflect another neurosis – a sense of low self-esteem and self-abasement?

At least K. – despite his inner turmoil, and his mental anguish– did not commit suicide at the end as his killers tried to encourage him to do him. That was an achievement of a sort.

Our resident Freudian noted that a marked trait of Joseph K. was his sexually aggressive behaviour, for example in relation to Fraulein Burstner and Leni. (Together with his arrogance, this made him the opposite of what we understand Kafka was like in real life). The priest upbraids him for looking too much to women for help. Was one of the private neuroses the sense that sexual activity would be punished, the myth that sex would lead to death? Was this the nameless crime? (We know that Kafka started work on “The Trial” just after his engagement with Felice had been broken off by what he felt was a “court” of friends and relations).

Even Gregor Samsa seems troubled by sex, trying desperately to hold on to the picture of the pin-up on the wall. The ending of “Metamorphosis” (and the ending lines of the books seem as carefully crafted as the openings) is “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter was the first to rise and stretch her young body.” Gregor’s family have prospered as he has declined, and his sister, unlike him, is successfully moving into sexual maturity.

Or is it Kafka’s role as an author that leads him into a sense of alienation, of difference, from the rest of society? His role as an artist was clearly in conflict with his role as a son and insurance employee. Was K. not on trial for failing to conform? And didn’t Gregor also fail to conform in spectacular fashion? But then there was little to suggest that either Gregor or Joseph K. were conceived of as authors (at most, Joseph K. is said to have a little knowledge of art history).

Or perhaps it was Kafka’s Jewishness that underlies his characters’ alienation from society? Again, there was nothing in either book to suggest that the characters were conceived as specifically Jewish.

But hold on - tempting as it was – in going into Kafka’s biography to “explain” the books, were we not lapsing into the old fallacy of confusing the author and the book?

What then about going into the “parable” told by the priest in “The Trial” to explain the book? What was the point of that? At one level the lengthy (and boring) discussion of the meaning of the parable between K. and the priest was satire – satire of nit-picking scriptural exegesis, and further “Bleak House” style satire of the legal system. But what of the central idea of the parable – that everyone had their own door into salvation, but failed to get past their own gatekeeper? Was it that our internal self blocked us from a full life? By guilt and anxiety, by the superego?

The door was clearly an important symbol for Kafka (and our resident Freudian of course found it easy to suggest a symbolic meaning). As well as the door in the parable, “The Trial” had several other scenes where there were unexpected results of going through doors, including the scene in the artist’s room where Kafka went out of his way to stress there were two doors! In “The Castle” K. fails to get through the door into the castle, and in “Metamorphosis” Gregor finds it very difficult to get through the door of his room once transformed.

(Cor blimey! All very perplexing, at least to this correspondent, who was already perspiring at the thought of having to make some sense of this bizarre discussion).

An additional problem in trying to elucidate the meaning of the books – if there were any meaning other than what was on the tin – was that we found we were using four or five different translations of the original German, and a few textual comparisons left us in doubt of ever pinning down subtle word connotations in any translated text.

We also looked at the historic and cultural context of the books, which might help to elucidate their meaning. Prague was at that time in the benevolent Hapsburg Empire. There was little in the way of anti-semitism or state brutality to protest about. The outbreak of the First World War More seemed to be a more relevant factor in the historical context for Kafka.

A relatively short distance away in Vienna, there was a remarkable grouping of mainly Jewish intellectuals and artists. Freud, for example, had published six major works by 1913, and it might therefore not be unreasonable to detect his influence in Kafka’s work.

Surrealism (and both of Kafka’s works had a surreal quality) did not emerge as a movement until the twenties. On the other hand, its predecessor Dadaism, which rejected conventional art forms, began with the First World War, and it might be reasonable to see Kafka as loosely associated with it. However, if one needed to pigeon-hole Kakfa, it was simplest to see him as part of the modernist movement in literature which reached its height between 1900 and the mid 1920s.

“But isn’t this typical of modernism – everyone who reads the book has a quite different interpretation of it? Isn’t that a fatal weakness of such literature?” “Well, yes, it was a weakness, but also a strength: a strength in that it allowed every significant twentieth century ‘ism’ – from Marxism to Magic Realism – to claim Kafka as their own!”

Leaving aside the still unresolved question of their meaning, how did we rate the books? “Metamorphosis” was beautifully constructed, and a classic of its kind. But “The Trial” had proved more of a trial for some. “Went on and on – hate to think how long it would have been if he had ever finished it. And I’m not sure he could ever have finished it.” “It didn’t stand up as well as I hoped to a re-reading – didn’t really engage me intellectually or emotionally”. “These paragraphs that went on for pages were very irritating – a bad habit picked up from Hamsun and passed on to Beckett”.

On the other hand, many of the weaknesses of The Trial might simply reflect the problems Max Brod faced in trying to edit an unfinished manuscript. And it was certainly a very intriguing novel for a Book Group to discuss.

So was Kafka really worth his place in the canon? One reader saw “The Trial” as one of the first novels to deal not with conventional plot but with an individual facing an absurd world, as in Sartre’s “La Nausée” or Camus’ “L’Étranger”. And both books were remarkable products of the imagination.

But perhaps he owned his popularity partly to timing. He had been published at a time when he could be seen to embody the avant-garde. And now he was seen retrospectively – rightly or wrongly - as the author who had predicted the arbitrary abuses of state power; as the artist who, like the canary in the coal-mine, was the first to sense what was developing around him.

All a bit too complicated for your correspondent, and I put down my pen in mute protest. After all we could have been reading Katie Price instead. I was just nodding off, when I caught the following snippet:

“I know what it’s like to be a K. and have everyone disapproving of you” sallied forth one member, relaxing on his descent from the dizzying intellectual heights. “I’m always being disapproved of, what I do, what I say, what I wear…. and I don’t know why. I’m sensitive, and I pick up others’ negative reactions...

“And I’m also a member of a persecuted minority, because I’m left-handed…”

“Err, a persecuted minority….” your reporter woke up and rashly interjected…. “were there ever pogroms of the left-handed?”

“Not quite” responded another Mollydooker, “but all the bullying by teachers, all this stuff about “right” for the right and “sinister” for the left…..”

Well, only one word for this discussion: … Kafkaesque.

But don’t ask me what that means.

* * *

Later that evening, a hunch took me to Googling, and a few seconds later an amazing fact was revealed:

....................Kafka was left-handed!!!

So there you have it.

A brand new literary theory, which with a modicum of development will I am sure explain the whole corpus of Kafka’s work.

You read it here first.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Introducing “Great Expectations” (1861) the proposer drew attention to the key facts of Dickens’ biography. These included the formative years he spent as a child in a boot-blacking factory while the rest of his family were in the debtors’ prison, and his early years as a law court reporter. This novel was the second last complete novel Dickens was to write. The episodic method of original publication could be detected in the book, but the proposer did not feel it harmed the novel. For the proposer, this novel, even when little was happening, was simply scintillating – in its descriptions, which evoked the very texture of what was being described, its subtle humour, its characters, and in so many different ways. But perhaps Dickens was an acquired taste - how did the wider group feel?

Slightly more than half of the group were in the pro-Dickens camp. “My favourite author after Shakespeare, whom I read again and again”. “Coming back to the novel again after a long period I found more layers in it than I expected - simply superb”. “It was all intelligent design”. “I particularly love the humour”. “Above all I love the texture of his writing – the freshness and vitality of the language, the originality of the similes and metaphors, the brilliance of perception on every page”.

A substantial minority tendency – several of whom had bad memories of Dickens being force-fed to them at school – was less enthused. Some disliked the dated language. They felt the novel rambled, particularly in the middle section, eg in the passages about the Pocket family and the extraneous scenes about plays (but wait a minute, interjected the majority tendency, this is an unusually compact and disciplined novel for Dickens!). It was dark in every sense – both descriptively and in the dysfunctional relationships it portrayed.

One – although a fan of other nineteenth century novelists – had disliked Dickens as a young reader. He had liked him a bit more this time, but still found fault with the sentimentality, the characters being portrayed as caricatures, and the implausibility of the plots. Give him a cooler, more rational author! Indeed, he ventured to suggest (hot-foot from an audience with the Emperor Alex, no doubt coincidentally) that Dickens’ faults might be characteristically English! And was it not telling that Scott had outsold Dickens in the nineteenth century (half the novels sold in the nineteenth century being by Scott), and must have had a bigger international reputation?

Daggers drawn and we were off. Have you forgotten about Dickens’ fame in America? That Tolstoy quoted him as a major influence? That Marx said: “Dickens issued to the world more political and social truths than have been issued by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”. And Scott was writing earlier with fewer competitors.

Sentimentality? Well, suggested one, much of the “sentimentality” revolved around the figure of Joe, and Pip’s feelings really comprised guilt mixed with nostalgia for life in the forge. But most readers did find sentimentality, and sentimentality was by no means a feature of all Victorian novelists. The problem was that Dickens lost his sense of humour when writing in sentimental vein. And there were some surprisingly brutal comments from Pip about old people needing to die – wasn’t violence the flip-side of sentimentality, as could be witnessed in American culture?

More political incorrectness! Whatever next?

Well the next thing was a dog running into the room with a strange sort of plastic light shade round its neck. It nosed through the legs of the group but no-one seemed to notice except your correspondent. Was I imagining this? How much of that el cheapo red had I had? But back to note-taking…

Too many implausible coincidences for the minority report! But, hold on, were they so implausible when you think that Jaggers was the fulcrum of the plot, bringing the protagonists together? Modern authors also used coincidences as plot devices – for example Ian Fleming. And the book was certainly a fine illustration of how one chance event – Pip meeting the convict on the marshes – could determine the whole course of a life.

And when were the events set? The proposer resolved this by pointing out that Dickens had left a manuscript note of dates for planning the novel. This suggested that Magwitch was born in 1760 and Miss Haversham in 1764, and the opening scenes of the novel set in 1803.

And what age was Pip meant to be when he recounted his tale? Some felt he was telling the tale just after his final encounter with Estella – for no reference was made to any subsequent events. Others, however, felt that the nostalgic, almost elegiac, tone suggested this was the work of a man near the end of his life.

Dickens’ heroes and heroines were normally cardboard cut-outs, with his great characters being the comic minor players, defined by some memorable trait or phrase (such as Pip’s sister being “on the rampage”). However, Pip and Estella were more interesting than most. Pip was very rare amongst Dickens’ characters in undergoing a transformation of character through experience. (Well, if these characters are interesting, how boring must his other heroes and heroines be, observed one). But there was agreement that Magwitch and Miss Havisham were great characters, and most found the minor characters such as Pumblechook highly amusing. Miss Havisham was a deliberately fantastical character (suffering, in Pip’s words, from a monstrous “vanity of sorrow”).

One of the main themes of the novel was that of identity. Miss Havisham wanted to forge Estella’s identity as a man-hater, just as Magwitch wanted to turn Pip into a gentleman. Both these representatives of an older generation wanted to live vicariously through the younger. Orphans - lacking identity – abounded. Wemmick explicitly had two identities – the heartless one for the law office, and the other for home. Clothes were often the expression of attempts to find a new identity, most amusingly in Pip’s scenes with Trabb the Tailor (and wasn’t Trabb’s boy one of the funniest of Dickens’ creations, particularly in the scene where he humiliated the rich returning Pip?). And even the apparently irrelevant scenes with Wopsle at the theatre showed another country dweller trying to find an urban identity, while Mrs Pocket showed someone who had sought the enhanced identity of a title.

And what about Jaggers? There was much amusement at the satire on his legalistic mode of conversation and on his coaching witnesses, part of the wider attack on the legal establishment in the novel. Particularly fine was the dinner scene in which he – and Wemmick – displayed to Pip just the tiniest amount of humanity. And were we to assume that his human nature was displayed more fully in a relationship with his housekeeper – she of the thick wrists and wild temperament – which Victorian mores could not allow Dickens to portray directly?

The majority tendency were fans of Dickens’ descriptive writing. Imagery of marshes, mists and the dark decay of London haunted the novel. Mist was deployed as a symbol to convey both a sense of mystery about the past and of uncertainty about the future. Dickens’ later novels such as “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend” were similarly powerful in their use of dark brooding imagery.

Dickens could be seen as the poet of urban squalor. Although he portrayed it as horrible, he also conveyed a sense of fascination, and it was difficult even nowadays to see parts of London without seeing it through his eyes as “Dickensian”. One of his devices for creating atmosphere was to depict things – buildings, trees or furniture for example – as people. Thus:

“ Mr Jaggers’s room was … a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it…”

At the same time as he anthropomorphised things, he would depict his comic characters, particularly his caricatures, as things – for example describing Webbit’s face as a post box.

(And there was the dog with the plastic cone round its neck running round the room again… why could no-one else see him?)

Dickens was the great Victorian novelist of the city (while Hardy was the great Victorian novelist of the countryside). People had flooded into the cities with the Industrial Revolution, and there was a need for artists to provide them with ways of feeling about, seeing, and interpreting urban life. Dickens’ fondness for endings that showed unexpected family links between characters could be seen as responding to the sense of isolation that people felt in the amorphous mass of the city.

So what of the ending of this novel? What did we make of Pip’s behaviour? Arguably he had only done two good things in his life: helping Magwitch (out of fear) and helping Herbert (partly out of a patronising misunderstanding of his capability). On the other hand, he had finally gone back to accept the moral compass provided by the lowly born Joe (a gentleman in the moral not the financial sense) and Biddy. And he had been shamefully manipulated. Well, yes - but wasn’t rushing back to propose to Biddy having ignored her for years just another example of his presumption?

Was Pip a broken man at the end? For some yes, and Estella was a broken woman. For others they had both learnt and were simply sadder and wiser. They had been purged of snobbery in Pip’s case and heartlessness in Estella’s (“sorted out by Bentley Drummle” in one member’s inimitable phrase). We reached agreement on the formula that they were broken but not ruined.

Was Dickens right to change the ending at Bulwer Lytton’s suggestion? For some suggesting reconciliation with Estella put a sentimental gloss on what would have been a fairly hard-edged conclusion. For others the new ending was famously ambiguous. Others wondered if it really mattered – there were other novels such as “The Return of the Native” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” which worked well with alternative endings.

So – challenged the minority tendency – was Dickens really much read these days? Well, you could find copies of all his novels in the bookshops, which was more than could be said for many famous modern authors. And think of the large number of his characters, such as Mr Micawber, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham or Oliver Twist who had become household names embodying certain types of human behaviour. The endless television dramatisations no doubt also contributed to keeping him in people’s minds.

Dickens lent himself to television, suggested one, because he wrote his scenes in dramatic form. Unfortunately, however, television tended to take the drama but miss out the humour. And what a great sense of humour! Just imagine what, for example, Dickens would have made of a Book Group solemnly discussing his work when a dog with a gigantic plastic collar round its neck was running between their legs…

(So I hadn’t imagined it! What a relief! A tumbler of negus for me, please!)

Soon the assembled company was spilling out into the autumn night, with the minority tendency conceding to the majority tendency that the book had at least been more enjoyable than they had feared. Not that anything said had made either party change its mind…

Thursday, September 03, 2009


"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" was published in 1974, after many rejections and more than four years of re-drafting supported and encouraged by Pirsig’s editor James Landis at William Morrow and Co. It went on to become an enormous international success, translated into many languages and described by the press as ‘the most widely read philosophy book ever’.

In common with the majority of the book group members who attended the discussion, the proposer had first read the book in the decade when it first came out. All agreed that it had profoundly affected their thinking at the time, and that many of the book’s themes and ideas had become assimilated into their own ways of thinking. Of the two readers who had read the book for the first time only recently, one was equally enthusiastic, while the other, although still positive, had more reservations.

There was some initial discussion about how best to define the book. It reads in some respects like a novel, and in other respects like a philosophical tract. The author’s own introductory note states explicitly that ‘it must be regarded in its essence as fact’. We agreed that the ‘road novel’ structure was essentially a vehicle (to mix metaphors) for a philosophical and psychological journey.

Our first lay-by on our own journey through the book was a discussion about teaching in higher education. This was sparked by the fact that there were several academics in the room, and Pirsig devotes quite substantial parts of his book to a critique of North American university and college education. The narrator’s own experiments as a teacher – for example the withholding of grades – had resonance for some, and there was also some sympathy for his position as a difficult outsider trying to make a complacent system wake up to its own blind assumptions. We commented on the current use of one of Pirsig’s key words ‘Quality’ in the jargon of contemporary British education-speak. Perhaps Phaedrus’s battles have to be re-fought in every generation.

Before re-mounting our hogs, we kicked around how even research students might be pre-conditioned by their national cultures into seeking to be told what to do, or wanting to go off at obscure tangents. We speculated as to whether innovative thought declined with age, discussed how students questioned teachers’ established paradigms, and discovered that no-one in the room had a degree in Philosophy.

Our band of Uneasy Riders set off again on the highway we had left briefly. We discussed the relationship at the centre of the narrative between the narrator and his son Chris. Everyone felt that in spite of our enforced identification with the first-person voice, our sympathies were much more with Chris. It turns out that this is very much what Pirsig intended. In the 25th Anniversary edition of the book which some of us had, Pirsig clarified his intentions regarding the way the narrative ends, and in respect of the narrator. Phaedrus is not the threatening ‘ghost’ that the narrator portrays, but – in spite of his earlier destructiveness - a positive part of the narrator’s personality which he must accept and re-embrace in order to establish again the connection with his son that has been lost. One reader pointed out the relationship of this new ‘I’ in the last two chapters to the concept of the Japanese number ‘mu’ discussed earlier in the book. That is to say, the narrator must cease to think of himself as either his earlier ‘Phaedrus’ self or his new self, but must ‘unask the question’ and see himself as a whole.

Having thundered noisily along this main highway, we turned into various byways, for some more leisurely meandering:

Did Pirsig write the book primarily for himself, or for his audience? There was clearly an urgent need for personal catharsis, but also more mixed motives such as a desire for revenge on his antagonists in higher education.

To what extent was the book of its time? Other works of the era that dealt with society’s efforts to make people conform by means of medical treatment were brought up for comparison, such as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Was contemporary post-hippie western society less hung-up about conformity?

How insightful was the book into the people met ‘on the way’? Positive remarks were made about the vivid characters glimpsed, such as the mechanic Bill of the ‘photographic mind’ school, with all his tools lying in a clutter. The perceptive remarks on the difference between ‘coastal people’ and ‘inland people’ were also admired.

The treatment of women in the book was remarked upon – they were largely absent, and Sylvia was to some degree set up as a straightforward anti-technology patsy to be knocked down. Apparently the real Sylvia complained that she got some pretty bad lines in the book! Was it a ‘man’s book’?

One reader commented that the book’s philosophical approach to fixing practical problems had inspired him with the patience to discover – in the face of a 140 page instruction manual – how to delete a programme from his digital TV recorder.

At last we reached a road house, where among slops of beer we ended up in discussion of the size and weight of the various editions we had bought, agreed on the superiority of the 1970s cover design over the 25th Anniversary edition’s faux-hippie graphics, and concluded that we had enjoyed a thoroughly stimulating ride with Mr Pirsig.

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Monday, August 03, 2009


The 30th of July found the Monthly Book Group in exceptionally boisterous form, as they had their annual outing to the seaside. Was it the holiday spirit? Was it the ozone from the Portie shore? Or was it the effect of “Brave New World”? Whatever it was, they zipped around through space and time with reckless abandon.

Kicking off the seaside sports, the proposer said a Radio 4 discussion had stimulated his choice of book. What fun to read a book not read since his teenage years! Huxley, born in 1894, had come from a family of both scientific and literary renown. He went to school at Eton. He had lost his mother when he was 14, a traumatic event perhaps reflected in the treatment of Linda’s death in the book. In 1911 he had developed a serious eye illness, which was to affect him to various degrees throughout his life. An immediate effect was that he could not study medicine as he wished, but instead read English at Balliol. Another was that could not serve in the First World War. He had spent time working as a farm labourer at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell during the war, where he met his first wife.

However, his first proper job was as a schoolteacher teaching French at Eton, where he taught, amongst others, George Orwell, but he could not control pupils and gave it up after a year. He had published his first book of poetry in 1916, and throughout his life was to publish poetry, short stories, novels, travel books and drama, as well as philosophy and biography. He worked for a time in the 1920s in the Teesside chemical factory of Brunner and Mond, and was struck forcibly by its large-scale organisation. He wrote “Brave New World” in 1931 and it was published in 1932. In 1937 he left Britain, concerned by developments in Europe, to live in California. In the latter part of his life he became particularly interested in mysticism and in psychedelic drugs (with “The Doors of Perception” (1954) providing a name for Jim Morrison’s band). Part of his interest in drugs seemed to relate to the colour sensations stimulated in one with poor sight. He also wrote a utopian book in “Island” (1962). He died on the 22nd of November 1963, the same day as John Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, after requesting injections of LSD on his deathbed.

Did “Brave New World” really work as a novel? The plot was weak and there was little character development – was it indeed a novel? But perhaps one should not use “novel” as a value word, and argue about whether it was one – the question was whether it was a good book. There was no set of necessary and sufficient criteria for something being a novel – no essence. And science fiction had developed as a sub-genre of the novel, as had the dystopia.

Novel or not, the ending produced one of the most striking literary descriptions of suicide – perhaps the most striking.

A reader of “Crome Yellow” and “Point Counter Point” noted that these novels had distinct weaknesses because of their limitation to upper-class English life (but wait a minute, what about Evelyn Waugh? – don’t you have to write about the class you know?), their structure of many sub-plots without a main plot or central character, and an unnecessary prosy philosophising. However, in “Brave New World” Huxley escaped the English upper classes, and, although there were characteristic weaknesses of shifting the central character mid-story and philosophising towards the end, these were limited in the overall context. But “Brave New World” certainly did not have the gripping narrative drive of Orwell’s “1984”.

Well, did it work as science fiction? This question put our scientists into hyperdrive. He made much of television, helicopters, zips and Vitamin D, for example, but all were known or discussed in the 1920s. So Huxley was alert to the latest trends – but not totally visionary. Much more original was his vision of the chemical treatment of embryos to structure society, reinforced by sleep-teaching (“hypnopaedia”). This probably reflected his family’s expertise in biochemistry, though he had not anticipated current developments in genetics.

But, hold on, given the extensive satire about Henry Ford, was it not odd that the motor car did not feature as a means of transport? And that there was little sense of capitalism or of the ownership of possessions.

He certainly hadn’t foreseen the computer, nor the impact that the internet and its information flow would have on the ability of totalitarian societies to control their citizens. Although old books had been repressed, there was nothing of the systematic repression of information to be found in 1984. He also foresaw a society utilising technological advances, but in which further scientific enquiry had been rendered redundant and all originality stifled.

On the other hand, surely you should not judge the value of science fiction on its accuracy as a predictor? Science fiction was a work of the imagination, illuminating possibilities implicit in the present. “Dune” (Frank Herbert 1965) was a fine example of science fiction at its best.

Okay, how did it work as a dystopia? The trouble was that Huxley’s brave new world did not seem too dystopic. It was very different to the horror of Orwell's'1984' world. No violent repression. No executions. No poverty. Everyone happy in their assigned role. Little or no unhappiness. An island for dissenting alphas. All that free love with youthful, pneumatic beta pluses. And all that endless supply of psychotropic soma. In many ways it was more pleasant than the world of the Savage.

Ah well, Huxley had later made clear that he was positing a system in which totalitarians maintained control not by force (in the fashion of Stalin) but by manipulating the governed into consenting to be governed by them. “Government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.” (“Brave New World Revisited” 1958).

This was a different model to that of '1984', but in principle an equally sinister one, and one that might prove more durable. As Huxley wrote to Orwell:

"Within the next generation I believe that the world's leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience."

Well, yes, but it still does not seem sufficiently unpleasant to validate his thesis. Huxley’s protests that happiness alone was not enough did not sound totally heartfelt. He sets up a dialectic, but never reaches a synthesis, a middle way. Indeed there was no real conflict. And Huxley had later acknowledged that he had been ambivalent about the brave new world he had imagined.

It was perhaps not surprising that the world of 1931 saw Huxley write a famous dystopia – given the the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of the First World War, the Crash of 1929, emerging fascism, and science apparently running out of control while religious faith was disappearing. Huxley’s other early novels show a sense of lost direction and uncertainty – as in Yeats’ famous lines:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

So…not much of a novel, not outstanding as a prediction of the course of science, not a particularly unpleasant dystopia and not a fully thought through philosophy. Did it really deserve to be such a renowned book in 2009?

On balance we felt it did. It was outstanding as a playful creation of the imagination. It was full of wit, ranging from playing on the names of communists for leading characters such as the pneumatic Lenina, using Henry Ford as the basis of a new religion, making fidelity immoral and reference to the family obscene, inventing garments such as pink zippicamiknicks, and weaving Shakespeare and the Tempest into the plot. It created a convincing and provocative alternative world. And it did persuasively convey serious messages about the dangers to freedom of genetic and psychological manipulation.

Following this high-octane discussion, your correspondent paused to rest, refuel on grape-based soma, and furtively scan a dictionary for the meaning of “dystopia” (a form of indigestion?).

Having rather overdosed on the soma in the best Huxley style, the rest of this record consists only of the fragments of the soaring philosophical discussion I can recall:

“a clear, engaging, simple style of writing. Very easy to follow apart from all these disjointed bits of conversations at the end of Chapter 3. Had to read them four times to understand them…"

“ I can understand his idea of the soma orgies. It reminds me of what I feel in the crowd when H…….n score a goal..."

“ we thought we invented sex in the sixties, but reading Huxley’s novels you see that they thought they invented sex in the twenties..."

“but when do H…….n ever do that? and do they ever get a crowd?"

“ no they didn’t, not in the twenties"

“often I sit next to women in planes who spend the whole journey reading 'Hello!' magazine. Isn’t that just soma?"

“yes they did – it was the jazz age”

“…well, at least they’re not in court with the Revenue suing to wind them up like H….s”

“aren’t there lots of drugs to help you reach utopia today – slimming pills, tanning studios, drugs to take before exams…”

“well they didn’t in Edinburgh”

“ and I thought you were a liberal…”

“Orwell claimed to be looking forward 35 years whereas Huxley was looking forward 600 years. Perhaps the invention of soma to control the populace is still to arrive”

“ it won’t do for Huxley to claim that he was shocked by American consumerism and easy morals, and thought drugs such as soma are a terrible thing, for all he writes about is sex and then he upsticks to live in America and do drugs….no consistent philosophy there…”

“when Huxley experimented with drugs many people believed that – at least in moderation - psychedelic drugs were not harmful. You wouldn’t think that now"

“but we already have soma. Isn’t living on benefit and alcohol in front of TV just like keeping the lower classes happy on soma…”

“well sex didn’t reach Edinburgh in the sixties either”

“ if you’re an alpha can you enjoy free love with all the other classes? I liked the outfits of the deltas…alphas only seem to want to do it with betas, and alphas only seem to be male –was Huxley being sexist?..."

“ oh yes, you might. We’ve become so politically correct about disapproving of drugs. Legalise them and crime will drop dramatically. Much of the repression of drugs round the world was the result of pressure from American Prohibitionists”

“ Talk about Hello!” magazine – what about beer and football?”

“well, you do have to be careful. I was out walking in Amsterdam recently, just looking around, as one does, when I came across a little cafe…I ordered my usual 'carrot' cake, as I know how to handle myself in these places, but soon staggered out to be violently sick…”

“you’d have thought Huxley who came from Hampshire would have known how to spell ‘Bordon’"

“you’ve forgotten about Marx’s fling with the Headmistress of Eton, she sounded pretty alpha...”

You get the picture – a typical Monthly Book Group jaunt to the seaside. I tried but failed to pour myself another glass of soma. Fortunately my neighbour pointed out that this was because the top was still on the bottle.

“it must have been the carrots”…

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Introducing the book, the proposer – like Pepys an adminstrator of substance - said that he had first chosen it to read because he had undertaken a very interesting conducted tour in London. The excellent guide had made several references to the Tomalin book in the course of the tour, and he had therefore chosen to read it.

He had been pleased with his choice, as he thought the book was absolutely remarkable, and very difficult to put down. It painted a fascinating picture of Pepys, of the historical times and politics, and of London. It was an impressive piece of research to fill in the gaps and put the diaries in context. It was written in an appropriate language to convey the impression of Pepys the man. She conveyed remarkable insights into Pepys’ colourful life, his strengths and weaknesses, and his energy and ability.

It was difficult at first to believe that someone could rise from such humble beginnings to go to Cambridge and then into a position of great power. But the more you read, the more credible it became. (And, pointed out one, Pepys had made the most of family connections to advance himself). The book was laced with humour, particularly in the descriptions of his “personal” life. Given how compelling the book was, it was perhaps surprising that a number of people had been critical of elements of her interpretation of the diaries.

Trying initially to relate the text to the maps of London was not easy, but the book was written in a fashion that encouraged you to make these connections and read on. The latter part of the book, dealing with the post-diary part of Pepys’ life, was less convincing, but, taken as a whole, it was one of the best reads he had had.

So did you identify with Pepys as an administrator, or indeed in other ways, was the less than innocent query of another member? Well, not really – Pepys had more the qualities of a politician than an administrator – and, no, he did not identify with his penchant for peccadilloes! Pepys did have the administrator’s eye for detail, but he was also marked out by extraordinary energy (not all of which went into his work), by great oratory, and skill in wheeling and dealing, qualities more commonly associated with politicians. (And he was too polite to suggest that –at the current time of a Daily Telegraph witch-hunt over MPs' expenses - Pepys’ taste for lining his pockets with bribes might also be perceived as a political trait).

So what did others make of it? All had found the book a compelling read, with lots of juicy material culled from the diaries, an engrossing account of remarkable historical times, and an intriguing character study. “Enjoyed enormously” was a representative verdict. But all felt inhibited in assessing the book (a rare event), because no-one had read the original diaries in full.

One had found his edition of the diaries boring on a number of failed attempts to get through them, but now realised that his 1825 edition had omitted all the racy and interesting material (the diaries were only published in full in 1970). Another – noting that Claire Tomalin was a journalist by trade, and associating that profession with not letting the facts get in the way of a good story– had wanted to check some of her assertions against the original text of the diaries. But time had defeated him.

One who had enjoyed the book entered the reservation that Tomalin’s tone was rather censorious, and that she tended to judge people against the standards of the twenty first century, particularly in relation to how males treated females. Pepys was portrayed as a manipulative, bullying, groping pest, but was he simply a man of his times? This was only a question of tone – she tended to wag her finger at Pepys.

On the other hand, another felt that as a female author she was inevitably more sensitive to the feelings of his wife and the other female characters, and to get the female perspective was part of the value of the book. She normally wrote biographies about women rather than men, and could have made more of his treatment of his wife, but tried to be even-handed. Indeed she could be congratulated for resisting the temptation to be judgemental on many occasions.

However, another who had read two other biographies by Claire Tomalin (those of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy) had detected the same judgemental tone in those other books, and it had become more marked in her later work. In this book, which was easily the best of the three he had read, she often “let the facts speak for themselves”, but selected them in such a way as to suggest the judgement. More broadly, there were common elements in all three books: very well written; easy to read, with a maximum length of 400 pages; no original research but self-confidently asserted interpretation of character and motive; no acknowledgment in the text (as opposed to the bibliography) of the existence of the work of other biographers, who might have different views; and an Olympian tone as she rubbed the acts of her characters through her moral sieve and scrutinised their shortcomings.

Reading this book with little knowledge of Pepys it had seemed totally convincing, but reading her book on Hardy with knowledge of the other biographies it had seemed relatively second rate. It was therefore no real surprise to hear that some Pepys experts were less than happy with some of her interpretations.

One with a detailed knowledge of the history of the period wondered whether people had found the fragmentary comments on the background history adequate. Would it not have been better to have had a more detailed and serious commentary? The book – and no doubt Pepys’ diaries themselves – also exaggerated the importance of Pepys’ role in a historical context.

Well, it all depended what sort of biography you wanted, a question which was a bit like how you liked your tea. If you wanted original research, a discussion of the views of others and the full historical background, you were looking at the 800+ pages type of biography (or more – the Berlioz biography discussed March 2007 had clocked in at over 700 pages for only the first volume of a 3 volume biography). And such texts normally read much less fluently. There was a role for popular, accessible biography such as this alongside more scholarly works.

Many felt that the historical context had really come alive in their imaginations because of the way Pepys had interacted with the main players - how he could describe, for example, a conversation with the king – in a way that previous history education had failed to come to life. And they would have found a more detailed exposition boring. But others, who liked their tea strong, would have preferred a more substantial and serious account of the history.

But what then of her conclusion that the diary carries Pepys as a writer “to the highest point, alongside Bunyan, Milton, Chaucer, Dickens and Proust”? Was that not, based on what she quoted of the diaries, absurd? Was she not confusing the uniqueness of his diaries with their literary quality? His attempts to write more serious work later in his life revealed his limitations as a writer. And if the purpose of the book was to promote the diaries, why did she not quote more extensively from them, instead of paraphrasing them all the time (except when they discussed sex)?

Well, yes, you did toca her jupes there, but was she not simply getting carried away as she sought a rousing finale to her book? What she did bring out particularly clearly was how Pepys stood back from himself and ruthlessly scrutinised his own actions and motivations in his diaries. She certainly succeeded in making one wish to read the diaries.

And how to compare fiction and biography? A main purpose of reading was to get outside our own view of the world. In fiction you were only getting the view of the novelist, but in biography – particularly one based on such detailed and compelling diaries – you were entering the world of a real person. So in that sense it was more authentic, and could be very powerful. In that context one member put in a strong recommendation for reading Nella Last’s Second World War Diaries.

There was general agreement that the last section of Tomalin’s book, written without the benefit of the diaries, was perhaps inevitably weaker. And she seemed to accept without debate Pepys’ explanation of failing eyesight for giving up the diaries, when in fact his eyesight did not fail in the end, and there might have been many other factors at work in his decision to quit the diaries.

Also relatively undiscussed was the fact that Pepys stayed a “nonjuror” loyal to King James after the arrival of William and Mary, at very considerable cost to himself and his career. How did this square with Tomalin’s picture earlier in the book of the venal, self-serving, turncoat Pepys?

It did not match up at all. Perhaps if any of us wrote a detailed diary of our youth that confessed to all our worst behaviour and worst thoughts, all dishonesty and all peccadilloes, it would be difficult to square it with any subsequent acts of goodness. And taking “commissions” was probably pretty standard behaviour at the time, not the sign of hopeless moral turpitude that we judged it by 21st century standards. Oh dear, the picture of Pepys was beginning to blur at the edges….

So what, in conclusion, was the purpose of the book? For one the importance of the book was how it portrayed Pepys as a very early example of a man treating himself as an object of scientific analysis, warts and all, at a time of rising interest in scientific discovery.

For another her achievement was to make the diaries accessible to a large public, and to make Pepys and his family very engrossing people. She had shown them to be timeless.

And for another she had brought the whole historical period to life.

Which is more or less where we came in.

Naturally the high moral tone of this discussion could not be sustained, and at this point (not being Pepys) your correspondent closed his book, studiously ignoring the conversation…. which rolled round such issues as the quality of wine in the seventeenth century… the import of golf clubs… the quality of Pepys’ philandering… whether they washed or not in the seventeenth century (yes they must have, because his wife refused to wash in revenge for his dalliance with Deb)…

Just as I nodded off I thought I heard someone say that he had stayed overnight in a room in Magdalene College in Cambridge, and been told to find his breakfast in the old hymn chest in the corner of the room. He duly fished out his cornflakes and milk in the morning, to find that the chest bore the name of Samuel Pepys. Perhaps this was the closest we were to get to Pepys….

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Monday, June 29, 2009


The discussion was of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1874) and “Tamara Drewe” (2007) by Posy Simmonds. The Simmonds graphic novel is set in the present but loosely draws on the plot of the Hardy novel.

An innovation introduced at the beginning of the meeting was a photo-call for the web-site, not, mercifully of the Monthly Book Group members, but of their varied editions of the Hardy novel. Some members were sporting the latest editions, complete with 74 page critical appendices and peppered with learned footnotes. Another had a copy stamped as the property of an Education Authority, from which he inferred he had taught the book, although he had no memory of doing so. And one produced an 1889 “New and Cheaper Edition”, replete with advertisements for “Rowlands’ Macassar Oil” and “Whelpton’s Pills” (was he really that old?).

Introducing the discussion the proposer noted that Hardy had published the first instalment of “Far from the Madding Crowd” in January 1874 when he was 33. The novel was remarkably complex, mature and poised for one of that age.

This was the golden age of novel - the age of the great Victorian novel. Dickens had died only four years earlier. George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” was also published in book form in 1874. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” was published in instalments between 1873 and 1877.

It was Hardy’s 4th published novel, and his first major success. Hardy was returning to Dorset after some years in London as an architect, and searching for a style of novel that would bring him commercial success. The traditional pastoral form in the arts involved an idealised world of shepherds and nymphs. Hardy’s slight novel “Under the Greenwood Tree” (subtitled “A rural painting of the Dutch school”) had more or less conformed to that ideal. However, despite its title (from Gray’s Elegy) this pastoral novel presented us with a real shepherd and real sheep, and all that meant in economic terms, and only in minor aspects was it idealised. One could see his tragic vision beginning to emerge in this novel.

Nevertheless it was a sunny novel by Hardy’s standards (only two characters dying and one ending up in prison!) – and reflected a happy period in his life with his engagement to his first wife. It was a long way in tone from “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, those two great howls of rage about the human condition. Hardy created many fine female characters, and Bathsheba was a particularly brilliant creation.

The proposer continued that one of the reasons Hardy intrigued him was that he had been both a major Victorian novelist and a major twentieth century poet (publishing eight books of poetry between 1898 and 1928). Donald Davie, a formidable critic of poetry, wrote a book in 1973 contending that Hardy, rather than Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, had for good or ill been the most far-reaching influence on British poetry in the previous fifty years. The proposer could not think of any other literary figure who had had a comparable impact in different literary forms in different eras. Hardy’s life was an intriguing one, and the best biography remained that by Michael Millgate.

Hardy, who had always wanted to be a poet, had suggested that he gave up the novel because of public reaction to Tess and Jude. But perhaps the reality was that he had exhausted his contribution to the novel with these two remarkable works. The fact that he was at heart a poet might explain some of the distinctive features of his novels. This was not so much in the prose style, as in the intensity of imagination that brought alive his characters, plots and scenes, and brought alive the natural world which was the backdrop of the novels.

He was a very visual novelist, which might be one of the reasons his works had so often been turned into films. (Sotto voce murmurings about the attractions of Julie Christie in the 1967 film of the novel, which were to rumble on all evening, became more audible at this stage).

In terms of the tradition of the novel, Hardy was heavily indebted in this novel to the early works of George Eliot, in particular “Adam Bede” (1859) and “The Mill on the Floss” (1860), although the two novelists were to develop in very different ways. In terms of Hardy’s own influence it was intriguing that an early (1914) work of D. H. Lawrence was a study of Thomas Hardy (even if much of it turned into an exposition of Lawrence’s own philosophy).

The proposer (turning to sip from a distinctly credit crunch wine) said that in his experience people either really liked Hardy’s novels or really disliked them. If they disliked them it was generally because of the gloominess, the use of coincidence and the way in which the characters failed to control their own lives. (Some of those who disliked the novels liked the poetry, however – such as F. R. Leavis, and even Hardy’s latest biographer, Claire Tomalin, who seemed less than enthusiastic about many of the novels).

Putting this theory to the test at a member’s suggestion, a straw poll found one or two of those present falling between the really liked/really disliked extremes, while the majority were on the really liked side (and thus bang went the proposer’s theory).

One fan, who had seen the film on his first date with his wife, had read the book in tandem with listening to an audio version – an in depth experience he particularly recommended. Another did not in the least find it the depressing experience he had feared with a Hardy novel. He found it very good, and relished the period flavour, in a society in which people were not good at expressing their emotions, and the period scenes such as the sheep-shearing. “Loved it” was the most common phrase used by these fans of the book.

And wasn’t love the major theme of the book? Taking Bathsheba as the central figure, the novel explored love as conquest (Troy for Bathsheba), love as infatuation and passion (Bathsheba for Troy), love as obsession (Boldwood for Bathsheba), and love as steadfast devotion (Oak for Bathsheba). And how cunningly the plotting pulled these elements together, with the reader being drawn irresistibly along by the narrative, hoping that Gabriel and Bathsheba would eventually marry.

But, challenged one, was Bathsheba really made happy by her marriage to Oak at the end? Even if Bathsheba had retained a degree of control by, in effect, proposing to Oak, she was settling for second or third best. She did not love Oak, and at the end of the novel she was said to smile seldom these days. Others, however, felt that she had realised that love as companionship was the best long-term basis for a relationship, and come to value Oak’s qualities.

Another way to look at it was that Hardy had portrayed Bathsheba as a complex and contrary character, who would be more than capable of holding several conflicting opinions on such a matter simultaneously.

As a Victorian novel, the mores of the time – in which, for example, a proposition of marriage had to precede a date – gave the framework for the novel. But, suggested one, the two finest characters – Bathsheba and Troy – transcended the bounds of conventional society. This point, noted another, chimed with the views of D. H. Lawrence – that so many Hardy characters “burst” (like the poppy or the phoenix) out of the confines of society, into individuality. For Lawrence, this self-realization led directly to their tragedy. Troy was a free radical, an outsider (as was Bathsheba to a lesser extent) and he was the catalyst for much of the plot to unfold.

Troy, according to Hardy, was someone who lived in the present, with no real concept of future or past (but, suggested one, perhaps most young men were like that?) Was he the stereotypical bounder? He reminded one of Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. And what was his motive for wanting to marry Bathsheba, and then show little commitment to the marriage? Was it again his inability to think ahead?

But Troy was not wholly bereft of finer feelings – didn’t he feel guilt at Fanny’s death? Indeed were we not to credit him with really loving Fanny? Some would, but others saw in his display of guilt at her death yet another short-lived emotion, adopted partly to hurt Bathsheba. And for them his irritation at her for going to the wrong church was of a piece with his weakness and selfish egotism.

These divisions of opinion suggested that Hardy had again created a character of life-like complexity.

The portrayal of Boldwood’s obsession for Bathsheba was equally compelling, but there were doubts about how convincing it was for such a man to have lived so long untroubled by interest in the opposite sex.

Not so Hardy himself, who was fascinated by relations between the sexes and spent most of his life falling in and out of love with a succession of women (a trait of his he satirised in “The Well-Beloved”). Indeed he appeared to have propositioned the illustrator of “Far from the Madding Crowd” – Helen Paterson – on first meeting her, despite both being engaged, and with the effect that she would never illustrate another of his novels.

Indeed, one had liked the eroticism of the novel, which had slipped under the moral radar of the Victorians. What eroticism, replied another, polishing his glasses? Well, the sword scene. And, added another, the voyeuristic scenes at the beginning. And wasn’t there some dominance/submissiveness interplay as she took on the role of Oak’s employer? Not to mention, leapt in another, Bathsheba riding her horse in the “masculine” way, tossing her head back as she did so.

Well, phew! Your correspondent had missed all this, and gratefully accepted the offer of a glass of the credit crunch wine from the proposer.

But they hadn’t finished yet…What about Hardy’s choice of names for his characters? “Gabriel Oak” was obviously a steadfast guardian angel, and “Troy” no doubt named because he laid siege to Bathsheba. So what could be the significance of “Bathsheba”? “Bathsheba”, replied our walking Wikipedia “was the biblical wife of Uriah who was seduced and made pregnant by David after he saw her in her bath…”. After that we did not even need to discuss the significance of “Fanny Robin” as a name …

Goodness gracious, bet they didn’t cover all that in the grumbling appendix!

Moving on, as I gulped the indifferent wine, Hardy’s language came in for praise as well – “an incredible gift of language, so fluent I thought he must be Irish” –as did the considerable humour in the novel.

The evocation of the natural world throughout the calendar year was outstanding – most memorably in the poetic storm scene, which you could read and re-read indefinitely – and seemed to be an integral part of Hardy’s vision of humanity. And the symbolic scene in which Troy entranced Bathsheba with his swordsmanship was one of the most powerful to be found in the English novel. One who had read the book aged seventeen still clearly remembered the storm and swordplay scenes long after he had forgotten many other novels read in the interim.

So unconditional love for the book? Well, no. The novel wore too readily on it sleeve its intention to preserve in aspic a dying way of rural life. Some signs of the book being written in episodic fashion for its original magazine format were still evident. And in this novel he seemed to be trying too hard to imitate the early George Eliot in a number of respects: the overly long scenes with the comic chorus of rustic characters; the arch, home-spun philosophising; and the detailed slabs of analysis of his characters as they were introduced. Hardy was to drop these elements in his later work.

And what about the role of coincidence in Hardy’s novels – though less prominent in this one – which annoyed many readers? Couldn’t it be seen as his dramatising of the role of the accidental – the black swans – in life? Whole lives changing because of one very minor event? One who used to be annoyed by Hardy’s use of coincidence when younger found it less irritating now. At one stage he had thought that chance played little role in the outcomes of life – if something did not happen in one particular way, it would probably soon happen in another way.

You mean – if one wife did not come along at that moment, another one much the same would soon after? Well –for example he had thought that if Hitler had not survived the First World War, someone else would have started the Second World War for similar reasons, given the underlying historic, economic and political drivers. But now he was less sure that was the case, and so Hardy’s vision was now for him less unrealistic.

Nevertheless, suggested one, despite Hardy’s use of quasi-spiritual figures in some of his poetry, there was no reason to look for a formal metaphysical philosophy in his novels. His vision was of human life as fragile in the face of an indifferent universe and inhuman social rules, and in which people could be brought down by random chance. Such as sending a Valentine. But, responded another, that act was the product of Bathsheba’s capricious personality….

At which point the proposer moved the discussion on to “Tamara Drewe”. Bathsheba had sent a “gorgeously illuminated” Valentine card to Boldwood, with a wax seal embossed “marry me”. But the equivalent Valentine in Tamara Drewe was a text message saying “I want to give you the biggest shagging of your life”. And it was sent to three different men!

Posy Simmonds was born in 1945 and studied at the Sorbonne and in London before joining The Guardian as an illustrator in 1972. She started a Guardian comic strip in 1979 that led to the publication of several books. She then turned her hand to children’s books, before returning to The Guardian with “Gemma Bovary”, published in book form in 1999. It was similar in concept to “Tamara Drewe”, but less subtle in its relationship to its nineteenth century predecessor. “Tamara Drewe” had also first appeared in the Guardian between 2002 and 2004.

Simmonds loosely followed the plot of “Far from the Madding Crowd” in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, but her sensibility was very different. She was a social satirist rather than a tragedian, an Austen rather than a Hardy. Many of her funniest moments – and she was deliciously funny - were when she mischievously contrasted what happened in 1874 with what happened in 2006. The Valentine was a good example. And instead of Bathsheba swooning over a soldier, Tamara swoons over a boy band drummer. Social security claimants replace farm labourers. A fully working agricultural economy has been replaced by one in which a novelists’ retreat is one of the few things to flourish. Fanny’s death from hunger and childbirth is replaced by Jody’s death from glue-sniffing.

And while Tamara gets involved with three lovers similar to those of Bathsheba, she does not need to waste time waiting for propositions of marriage but leaps straight into bed as she wishes. Posy also has a bit of fun with her characters’ names (though not as much as Hardy) with a “Sergeant” standing in for Troy, a “Cobb” standing in for Oak, a “Drewe” for the illustrator’s heroine, and a “Hardiman” as her novelist.

For a graphic novel there was an unusual amount of text, including first person narratives, which allowed her to give a lot of depth to her story. She had an uncanny knack of being able to capture a character, a mood, or a thought with a drawing – and this was a different dimension to what a conventional novelist could offer.

Some of her themes were similar to those of Hardy. One was relationships between men and women (and in her case she could be explicit about sex). Another was rural society and how people related to the countryside (Nicholas’ death at the feet of the cattle is fitting for one with no real sympathy for the countryside). The same themes are present in “Gemma Bovary”.

But her overall story and characters were different from Hardy’s and weak compared to his: her strength lay in satire rather than in plotting and character development.

“Great fun”, “Very refreshing”, “Wonderful – they’ll be reading this in 100 years time” were some of the comments. It was remarkable how she could capture someone’s feelings or attitudes by sketching their face. She had caught precisely the popular/intelligent novelist preening himself in front of an audience of adoring women, with the diligent wife who had let herself go.

But there were a few reservations. It could be a bit painful reading Posy – she could be quite vicious, and it came too close to home for some Guardian-reading academics. While Hardy shows sympathy for all his characters, Simmonds has little sympathy for many of them.

And while the text was good, the drawing was better, and maybe less text and more drawing would have been a more effective balance. Some found the combination of text, boxes and drawings a little confusing to read. And one indeed complained that the book was too large for easy reading in bed, while others relished the lavishly produced book.

While Simmonds had based herself on a novel written by a man, there were some touches that were distinctively those of a female writer. One was at the beginning, when Beth is deliberately put off going to the party by a subtle put-down about her clothing. Another was her emphasis on how sexual allure is created by a woman – in this case Tamara’s nose job - rather than natural, a theme that recurs in “Gemma Bovary”. And while Hardy sees vanity as a female trait, this novel shows it as a male trait in Nick Hardiman the novelist.

A few owned up to reading other graphic novels (but it was never clarified whether they read them in bed or not) and there were recommendations for “Maus” (1980-91) - the anthropomorphic account of a Polish Jew’s struggle to survive the Holocaust; “Watchmen” (1986-87) – the critique of the American cult of the superhero; “The Sandman” (1989-96) about the Lord of Dreams; and of course for Hergé’s Tintin books.

Probably the graphic novel would be considered as a standard artistic genre in years to come – was it not normal for new genres, such as the novel and the film, to gain great popularity long before they gained academic respectability?

Your amanuensis cadged another wine (funny how it was tasting better after a few) to disguise my amusement at this enthusiasm for comics, and let the conversation drift over my head… Posy had a wonderful ear for teenage slang, garnered, she had told the Edinburgh Book Festival, by listening carefully on bus journeys... Didn’t the academic look like Bill Bryson and the novelist look like Ian McEwan?... and so they burbled gently on…

Meanwhile I was weighing much more serious questions of literary criticism, such as whether Tamara was more attractive than Bathsheba ….hmmm, too difficult…

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Introducing the evening and our guest, the host said that it was a very special event for the Monthly Book Group. It was the first time a book of poetry had been discussed, and the first meeting where we had been honoured to have the author of the book present – in this case an internationally known and highly regarded poet.

Valerie Gillies was a longstanding friend of the host. She was born in Canada, grew up in Scotland, and studied at Edinburgh University. A Commonwealth Scholarship had allowed her to continue her studies at Mysore University in India. She had been writing poetry since she was fourteen and had been a freelance writer since 1971. She was well known as the River Poet who followed the Tweed and the Tay from source to sea. She was the winner of several prestigious awards and had held several writing fellowships across Scotland.

Valerie had written several books of poetry including Each Bright Eye, Bed of Stone, Tweed Journey, The Chanters Tune, The Ringing Rock and The Lightning Tree and a book of non-fiction Men and Beasts with photographer Rebecca Marr. Her subjects were wide and varied. She had written about cities, towns, castles, houses, people, rivers, animals, fish, birds, insects, guns, medical matters, her family, natural phenomena and, of course, springs and wells. Her poetry was to be found etched onto plaques and stones throughout Scotland.

She had been appointed the poet laureate for Edinburgh, the first female Edinburgh “Makar”, in 2005 and her official poems include The Balm Well, A Place Apart about the quiet room at Marie Curie Centre and To Edinburgh for the official opening of the new Council’s Headquarters. She taught creative writing in schools, colleges and hospitals. Valerie was also well known for her collaborative achievements in the visual arts and music, and was editor of the interactive Poetry Map of Scotland.

Valerie was married to Professor William Gillies, Professor of Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, and two of their children were pursuing careers in the decorative arts. The “Spring Teller”, the subject of discussion with the Group, was written over a period of three years from 2005 and was Valerie’s most recent work. Her beautiful poems covered wells and springs throughout Scotland, plus one or two in Ireland and even in Wales, India and Crete. Her descriptions were of the locations of the wells and springs, and their topography, history, traditions, healing properties, and wildlife. Also discussed were visitors to the wells, local people and efforts to unblock ancient wells.

Valerie had been a neighbour for many years, and indeed had composed many of her poems in a summer-house adjoining his garden, which he hoped indicated they had proved good neighbours.

Indeed so, agreed the lady herself (who could perhaps say little else about the state of neighbourly relations, thought your eagle-eyed correspondent, whose suspicions were aroused when it later transpired she had penned a poem entitled “Berserk in Morningside”…)

Mrs Gillies said she traced her fascination with wells and springs back to her grandfather, who had taken her as a child on a mystery tour to an Angus glen. There he had filled a lemonade bottle from a spring and said “there, that’s the water I dreamt of every night in the trenches…”

It was particularly apt that the Book Group was meeting on the last day of April, because there was a tradition of visiting wells to celebrate them on the first day of May, or on the first Sunday of May. We speculated on why such traditions and our fascination with water might exist. The month of May associated with the Virgin? The fact that we were ourselves largely composed of water? The positive ions produced by flowing water – but wells did not flow (ah not so, we were told, a well is an enclosed spring in which the water moves – not a stagnant pool). Our uterine beginnings in water? Water as part of fertility rituals?

A clue, suggested Valerie, was given by archaeologists, who had not found remains earlier than Roman in Scottish wells. Such Roman remains had included whole breastplates of armour. So perhaps the tradition of honouring wells had started with the Roman tradition of equipping the deceased for their journey to the next world.

Whatever the origins, it had become customary to “silver the well”. This was of course done with silver coin, and – if that could not be afforded – a small white pebble was used (an example was shown to us by the poet). This tradition had been debased both literally and metaphorically these days by the throwing in of one or two pence coins.

But not everything was developing for the worse. There was a growth of interest in well-visiting in some parts of Scotland, for example in the Black Isle. This applied particularly to “clootie wells” (rag wells) where a piece of clothing from a sick person was hung up by the well, with the hope that as the cloot decayed so would the illness. (We were advised against placing the sort of non-decaying garments known to be favoured by Monthly Book Group members, such as shell-suits, polythene bags etc, as they might prolong the illness).

This growth in interest might reflect the general growth of interest in Scotland in archaic traditions, as well as in alternative medicine. And there was certainly evidence that the favouring of certain wells for particular illnesses was soundly based scientifically on their particular chemical properties, such as the chalybeate wells for anaemia, a well that was a cure for “dry–eye”… and so on. The Balm Well at Liberton was famous for producing a tarry oil that was good for the complexion and skin complaints, and had been much used by everyone in Scotland including royalty in past centuries.

And the poet took particular pride in the fact that some of her poems had helped to revivify interest in historic wells or springs that had been blocked off, perhaps for health and safety reasons. One example was St Anthony’s Well on Arthur’s Seat, where there was now a chance it would be restored.

How did she go about writing her poems? The Ordnance Survey “Explorer” maps, large enough to show wells and springs, were an important part of her kit. Also important – for finding wells and springs that had been covered up – was a set of dowsing rods. Dowsing rods definitely worked, and could easily be bought via the web (or indeed made from coathangers).

A sceptical scientist in the group picked up her set of dowsing rods, held them out, and was astounded when they twitched towards a large pool of brown liquid in front of him, contained in a pint glass. And he continued this experiment – with the same results - periodically throughout the evening.

Her normal method was to record her impressions in some notes and sketches, then later write a poem in pencil, and finally type it up. She wrote little prose, as prose offered an infinity of choice of word, whereas the rhythmic structure of poetry forced the writer towards the right word.

Poetic influences? Some favourites were Michael Longley, Sorley MacLean, and John Clare.

We then moved on to inviting Valerie to read – and discuss - our favourite poems from the book. These included:

“Munlochy”, a sinister poem about a spooky clootie well;

“Queen Mary’s Bath-house” and “Spring, Tinto Hill” – where the traditional rhyme and metrical structure found favour;

“The Wellhead”, a political poem addressed to the Scottish Parliament about the lack of history teaching in Scottish schools;

“Samuel Rutherford”, which recounted the tale of a famous divine who, when a boy, had fallen into a deep well. When those who had gone for help returned they found him safe by the side of the well. He told them he had been rescued by an Angel.

The poet herself put forward the poem “The Butter Well” in the Lowthers, about a well which had been used in butter-making.

We noted how interesting it was to hear the rhythms conveyed by the poet herself reading aloud, and discussed the impact of unconventional metrical structures.

We then ranged more widely, discussing the use of poetry in cancer care, and hearing from the proposer two particularly poignant poems from the collection “The Lightning Tree”. We heard of an indentation in a bank manager’s lawn which had turned out to cover the gaping chasm of a thirty foot well – was this a portent of the credit crunch?

We established that the poet was next undertaking a poetry-writing project in America, listening to their birds in their woods; and we then insisted she signed our copies of “The Spring Teller”.

Then at last she was free from the clutches of the Monthly Book Group, and could retreat. Perhaps to the safety of her summer-house, to pen “Berserk in Morningside Revisited”.

Meanwhile the members of the Group spilled out into the street, led by the no longer sceptical scientist, convinced that his dowsing rods would soon lead us to a public house…

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Saturday, April 11, 2009


Unusually, the proposer was absent attending a celebration in Belgium. However, he did manage to send an introduction to the book, praising it as an exploration of courage, the nature of manhood, self-realisation and personal values. Of relevance to subsequent discussion, he noted that Steven Crane was born after the American Civil War in 1871, and had no personal experience of armed conflict. The Red Badge of Courage (RBC) was written in 1895 between "Maggie, a Girl of the Streets" (1893) and "The Open Boat" (1897), about a shipwreck. The Red Badge of Courage was his most famous work, by some margin, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential American novels. Unfortunately Crane suffered from ill health throughout his life, and died from TB in 1900, when only 28 years old.

The discussion was lively. No one present had direct experience of armed conflict,with many born in the post-WWII baby boom, and therefore in a similar situation to Crane, born six years after the American Civil War. Similarly, it was difficult to understand fully the impact of the book on 1890’s America from a perspective more than a century into the future. One member tried to draw an analogy between RBC and the recent success of ‘The Black Watch’ by Gregory Burke, but most thought this was stretched.

The first point of discussion was the description of conflict, bearing in mind the inexperience of both author and reviewers. All but one (‘not authentic’) thought that the description had an air of realism, and was particularly strong in representing the ‘fog of war’, the inability of the participant to comprehend or act on the whole conflict, fighting their own personal battle with no knowledge of strategic imperatives, if they exist. There was praise for the description of ‘blood and gore', of a face shattered by a musket ball, of mental breakdown, and of the protracted act of dying of the tall solider.

For example, consider the passage, “Another had the gray seal of death already upon his face. His lips were curled in hard lines and his teeth were clinched. His hands were bloody from where he had pressed them upon his wound. He seemed to be awaiting the moment when he should pitch headlong. He stalked like the specter of a soldier, his eyes burning with the power of a stare into the unknown.”

Attention was drawn to the Homeric references at the start of the book, and the descriptions of suffering after the first battle. One could see parallels being drawn between the imagined and real conflict, presaging the experience of the 1914-18 conflict in Europe. Yet, the book was still ambiguous at the end as one was not sure whether war was rather being depicted as a necessary evil to ensure the testing of the mettle of the protagonists.

Was the description of the battle too erudite for the assumed narrator, and ordinary foot soldier? Certainly some thought this detracted from the authenticity. On the other hand, much of the book was written from diaries and other sources so the author had access to first-person descriptions. It was mentioned that the Civil War occurred soon after the development of photography, and probably the author had access to the many photographs (Brady, Cook et al.). Apparently this was the fourth war to be photographed after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the Crimean War (1854–1856) and Indian Rebellion of 1857. More generally, we discussed whether personal experience was necessary to write great novels; the general consensus was against this view and there were certainly many counter examples. Yet there was a sense that Crane was living vicariously an experience which he had been denied through birth and ill health. Certainly his wide travel as a reporter revealed a taste for adventure.

Next, the discussion centred on the intended audience. Was this a male viewpoint, intended for a male audience? In general, the consensus was that this was probably so in 1895, although it might now attract a wider audience. Was it intended to shock? Again the general consensus was affirmative, although the motivation was in dispute. Some thought it was written partly as an anti-war tome, but most thought not, thinking the emphasis on the baptism of fire or coming of age as the recruit eventually passes the test outweighed any description of the pointlessness of the conflict. A substantial minority thought that the book had been written with some cynicism, by a writer more anxious to establish his reputation than to say something important about the nature of personal experience or the nature of war. As evidence, they cited the rapidly shifting subjects of interest, and the fact that ‘Maggie’ had received poor criticism. Further, they suggested that the use of the American Civil War, rather than some other conflict, helped to boost the author’s reputation and sales as the audience had a thirst for books about the conflict.

This brings up the next issue, whether the book was really about the American Civil War. (Chancellorsville was mentioned as a possible battle). The group were fairly sure that this was about war, or indeed the passage to manhood, and the topic was generic rather than specific. To support that view, there are many characters specified as ‘the youth’, the ‘tall soldier’, the ‘loud soldier’, the ‘tattered soldier’ etc, so this emphasises the Everyman nature of the book. (Of course some characters like the youth are also named by third parties.) Throughout the book there is no mention of context or purpose. In the passages in which the tattered man asks Henry where he has been hit, his lack of a wound is possibly a metaphor both for his trial by ordeal that is still to come, but also of Crane’s lack of personal experience. Developing this view one thought that war was only a metaphor, and that the book was about any rite of passage through strife. Reference was made to conflicts in the playground at primary school!

In conclusion, the majority view was of a book on the experience of conflict, which defines a man; about war, not for or against war but a realistic depiction; a book with no historical context or political agenda, intended for as wide an audience as possible, but primarily a male audience. All agreed the book was very well written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. They congratulated the absent proposer on a good choice.

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