Sunday, December 30, 2012


This book wins my award for the most alluring title of all our books so far. Yes, time is a kind of ocean in which we all drown, metaphorically speaking. Of course, George Mackay Brown is an author who uses metaphors and symbols beautifully, as befits a poet. To quote from one of his poems:

In the fire of images

Gladly I put my hand.

The proposer of this book was very familiar with the author’s work through the poems, short stories and novels.  Only one other member of our group had read the book before. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) spent most of his years on Orkney, in Stromness, suffering poverty in his early life and then illness (tuberculosis, bronchial problems, depression and finally bowel cancer). His poor health barred him from the army at the start of World War II. He worked as a journalist on the Orkney Herald.  He was a student in Edinburgh, frequenting the bars of Rose Street and meeting other writers. There he formed a relationship with a woman, Stella Cartwright, described as "The Muse in Rose Street".  However, he never married.

He was a troubled soul, as judged from his work, his life and the available photographs. He turned to alcohol but he was never an alcoholic. His fondness of beer is nicely expressed: drink, he said ‘flushed my veins with happiness...washed away all cares and shyness and worries’. Most of us can relate to that. His work was widely recognised in Scotland, and he was awarded the OBE in 1976. Beside the Ocean of Time was the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, and was nominated for the Booker Prize.

The writing, in one sense (the best sense) is naïve: he seldom uses big words or elaborate sentences, and the plots are never complex. In this book the chapters are for the most part short stories relating the dreams of a child. However, the child becomes a man and a poet; the chapters finally connect to make a coherent tale of a man’s life. Many elements are clearly autobiographical.

The child is Thorfinn Ragnarson. He lives on an imagined island in Orkney called Norbay. The first sentence is ‘Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson’. He’s a sleepy fellow, and a dreamer.  Most chapters begin with a mundane scene of island life; pretty soon the boy falls asleep and dreams of a historical event in which he is a character. In the first story we are sailing down the Volga to confront the Cossack army, in the second we are at Bannockburn. The boy always wakes and the chapter ends as the real world is brought back. The stories are strung together to make an Orcadian chronology. It’s a simple and effective format, and the book is in a style like no other we could think of although we made comparisons with Under Milk Wood, Silver Darlings, Sunset Song.

Parts of the book have a magical quality, like the scene of the seal-people dancing, and the beautiful seal-girl crouching at the shore; she has lost her seal skin, having left it on the rock with seven limpets. What can this be all about? He takes her home, he marries her, she’s strangely addicted to sea food; they have children with scaly hands, then she leaves. Then he wakes up. It was another one of those dreams. She was a selkie, the mythical creature in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish and Scottish folklore.

The wheel of time moves slowly in Norbay, not much happens. Mostly we read of island folk living close to nature and going about their daily lives. But there are intrusions, some in dreams like the Viking Invaders and the Press-Gang; and some real, relating to social change in the years leading to the Second World War.  There is the intrusion of alcohol (the social cleavage between the ‘inn-folk’ and the ‘kirk-folk’); various outsiders come, most notably the lovely young woman who arrives unannounced and stays with the new Minister in the manse, causing the islanders to gossip: should they report the matter as misconduct to the General Assembly? She rides a horse along the tops of the cliffs, wildly. Then, one day the mysterious girl departs, saying to the young Thorfinn ‘You, poet, wait for me. I’ll come back some day. Never forget’. Three strange men, also unannounced, arrive in 1937 and proceed to set up their tripod and instruments in the wheat fields to survey the land. They are attacked by a local woman and their equipment is kicked over. Intrusions are to be resisted.

Towards the end of the book we are transported to more modern times and the pace quickens: now, Thorfinn is a young man and we are on the brink of World War II. The mood is dark. The island is being requisitioned as a military base, in fact an aerodrome to provide protection for the naval base (a naval base really existed on Hoy from 1945 to 1957 and there were indeed aerodromes). Well, that explains the three men who were conducting the survey. The island has never known such a thing, as people, supplies and materials are brought in. It’s the climax, the final intrusion; we witness the destruction of a primitive island society by massive modern technology.  He cannot stand this cataclysm and he leaves as bulldozers and machinery concrete over the fields to make a mile-long airstrip.  In the final chapter, years later, we return to the island and everything is different; there are unexpected twists and turns that bring closure to the plot. I won’t tell you what happens.

 It was an easy read, light relief after Salman Rushdie! We all enjoyed this book. There is a strong sense of place. We see the shaping of the man by the place and people, and the historical dream-stories remind us that it has always been that way. The final destruction of the land, as the hand of man replaces productive fields with impervious concrete is the ecological metaphor for our time. Amen.

Having no serious disagreement on the quality and meaning of the book, we finished our discussion rather early. Our host tempted us with oat cakes and there was talk of Orkney Whiskey. The conversation turned to ‘what’s wrong with Scottish rugby’ to which the reply was ‘the same as what’s wrong with Scottish football’. We stepped out into the cold night of Morningside, under a full moon and a sharp frost, and made our way home.


The proposer indicated that Salman Rushdie was no stranger. He was born in 1947 and this prompted him to write Midnight's Children. The proposer had  a copy of this book autographed and  dedicated to him as a member of the 1947 club .The proposer had told Rushdie he had been  conceived in Calcutta during the Raj even though  born late and in Edinburgh .

Rushdie’s father was a rich lawyer /business man who changed his name to Rushdie after the great Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain. He was a Bombay wallah and after early education he sent Salman to Rugby School and thence to Kings Cambridge  to read History .Then Rushdie joined an advertising agency dreaming up “That will do nicely”   for American Express , “Naughty but nice”    for cream cakes and “Irresistible” for Aero chocolate .In the evenings he wrote a first book [a failure ] and then in 1981 Midnight's Children which won the Booker Prize and the later Best of Bookers. This won lots of Awards and opened the way for many other talented Indian Authors, eg Vikran Seths A Suitable Boy .

After Shame a book set in Pakistan he went on to Satanic Verses .At some time it was always going to provoke Muslim ire but he doubtless did not expect the Fatwah.

Then in hiding he wrote The Moor's Last Sigh. This was an important matter for us to recognise in our discussion. The proposer  met him when he appeared in 1995 in London and Edinburgh to launch the book. Security is a familiar fact now but 17 years ago it was interesting to give one’s details in advance, be searched on arrival and then see that 10% of the audience was looking at the rest of the audience not at Rushdie. He looked in the flesh less ugly than  expected. The goggle eyes are probably made more obvious by TV studios. Also he was charming.

The proposer had not read Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s recently published book about his life in hiding after the Fatwah .There was no index so he could not see in the book shop what Rushdie  had to say about The Moor. Finally in 1995 the proposer went with his wife to India for the first time and later in the year to Granada. The Red Forts in Delhi and Agra are not too different from the Alhambra .Also they saw the spice markets and warehouses in Cochin and the Synagogue with its blue tiles .It follows that this is more than just a literary  choice for the proposer.

 The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.

Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class

because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.

Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.

 Aurora is a  complex character and , in many ways the emotional centre of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”

Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text over it.

But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”

Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he has a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals.  The comparison was made with Oscar in The Tin Drum, previously discussed by the Group.

Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group.

Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfil itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhy are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.

Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.

Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life. Rushdie of course at the time of writing the book was in hiding, a form of captivity, to avoid the same fate as Scheherazade.

Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi who perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.

The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten  while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.

 As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.”  The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain.

Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigour in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.

Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, the Group found it disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, the middle section of Rushdie’s novel makes only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slipped (or were slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically. It was also argued by some in the Group that those without a good knowledge of the history of the period both in Bombay and wider India would struggle with the narrative.

To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.

It is not easy to counter this defence in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to take a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies centre stage. Then he is dropped from the book. The Group found the episode unsatisfying; further, we would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only half-heartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.

Others disagreed, enjoying the stories of Adam and other personages who blazed briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expired.

Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood.

In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.


The overall reaction to the book was positive. It brought out the complexity and diversity of Indian society and history. It was a rich, extensive, humorous and complex story that was very enjoyable to read. There were reservations  ( see above) expressed by some of our number. The virtuosity and exuberance were entertaining and admirable but sometimes descended into showing off, stylistic confusion and incoherence.  Against this it was also pointed out that those writing in English but brought up outside England were able to call upon a wider range and background in their works, eg Kipling and Paul Scott in earlier times and Rushdie, Seth, Zadie Smith and others .


Fielding is Bal Thakeray the founder of Shiv Sena see ayodhia  riots  and theBombay riots


“give up such delusive  Esperance you rotter “

Sarah “ a large full bodied  girl waiting like an undiscovered  continent, for Abrahams vessel to sail into her harbour”

Laurel and Hardon


The proposer first came across Llosa’s writing when visiting Miraflores, an upmarket neighbourhood of Lima, the capital of Llosa’s native country, Peru, and the setting for the opening section of ‘The Bad Girl’.  The assistant in a bookshop recommended Llosa as an introduction to Peruvian literature.  The proposer had subsequently read a number of his books, but found this to be ‘by far’ the most accessible.  It was also more overtly international in its content and sphere of action than some of the others, which contained, for his tastes, rather more than he wanted about Peruvian history and politics.

‘The Bad Girl’ has been compared with last month’s book ‘Madame Bovary’, by Llosa himself as well as others.  However, the group felt that the comparison was rather stretched.  Like Madame Bovary, the bad girl is seeking escape from her circumstances in pursuit of a flawed ideal.  But Madame Bovary’s ideal is romantic, whereas the bad girl’s is financial: the ‘high life’ at any emotional cost.  A similarity does exist however in that each of them pays a heavy price for their ‘escape’.  We felt that Llosa was less judgemental about his characters however, and both the narrator Ricardo and the subject of his obsession, the bad girl, are treated sympathetically.  The even-handedness of Llosa’s account of the bad girl was evidenced by the range of opinions about her in our group.  Some saw her primarily as a victim, others as a selfish predator.  She had elements of the classic ‘femme fatale’ of noir fiction and film, using her looks and charm ruthlessly to get what she wanted, and not hesitating to break up families and embark on bigamy.  As for Ricardo, we noted that he too had a fascination with the exotic – represented in his case both by the bad girl herself and by the attraction of life in Paris.  Like her, he is following his dream, although he is considerably more timid, and only at the very end of the story is it implied that he will produce the work of literature (the book itself) which will transcend his role as a humble translator of the words of others.

We agreed that the book was a superbly ‘easy read’, being very linear in structure and engaging in its content. Because of the range of characters and locations, each chapter felt like a new short story, although continuing the main thread of the narrative.  There was one reader who felt that sometimes we got too much circumstantial detail about Ricardo’s daily life, and another who thought background research had been a little too overtly displayed.  However, these were minor objections. We discussed whether it would make a good film, which raised the question of how the highly explicit sex scenes would be handled.  It was agreed that these were not pornographic, since the writing did not seem calculated to titillate.  It was pointed out that in today’s cinema, explicit sex scenes had become widely accepted.  There was also some discussion of the portrayal of the bad girl as a woman with a deep need to be dominated, as demonstrated by her acquiescence in the degrading treatment meted out by Fukuda.  Equally disturbing was her comment when Ricardo, for the only time in his life, hits her: “You’re learning how to treat women, Ricardito.”  A comparison was drawn (not in terms of literary merit!) with the current best-seller of the moment, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which takes as its premise a female’s need for submission and rough treatment.  As mere men, we felt disqualified from drawing any conclusions from this, and moved on.

Returning to the qualities of the book in general, discussion ranged over characterisation and structure.  One reader thought that it was a very engaging love story, which was two-way and not a one-sided obsession.  Someone else pointed out that the bad girl was frequently trying to escape Ricardo, and that he was, until the end, the one who sought her out and ‘gatecrashed her party’.

The explication of the initial mystery of the bad girl’s origins was felt to be very satisfyingly delivered in the later part of the book.  Her father was in fact only one of a number of vivid minor characters who came on stage for sections of the book before disappearing forever.  One of the most enigmatic of these was Yilal, the boy who wouldn’t speak.  There was a feeling that his role in the story was rather tangential, but he at least demonstrated that the bad girl was capable of one altruistic relationship.  In some measure it was felt that the coming and going of minor characters left readers with quite a few loose ends, although this could well have been intentional.

Although the book seemed squarely aimed at an international readership, one of us pointed out that there was a continuous strain of political reference in the story, most notably with the account of what happened to Ricardo’s friend Paúl, and with the observations of Ricardo’s uncle on the decline of Peruvian idealism and democracy.  It was noted that Llosa himself was very active in politics, and in fact ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990.

Finally, in the light of Llosa’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, there was some discussion of the qualities necessary to attain this distinction.  Among the requirements were universality, prolific output, longevity, and, no doubt, consistency with various political considerations at the time of the committee’s deliberations.

From the Nobel Prize we meandered to J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming first adult novel, Scottish independence, Catalan independence, whether ‘the further south you go in Europe the worse it gets’ (economically!) and, finally, whether Richard the Second had been unfairly treated by historians.  By now we had really lost our thread, the bottles of wine and beer were depleted, and so we slunk away into the night.


The proposer began our discussion with an account of Flaubert’s background, with particular regard to matters bearing on the novel, which was first published in serial form in 1856.  The book had taken him five years to write, and was set in a part of Normandy that was familiar to him.  The action occurs in the period 1827-46.  It is one of the best-known nineteenth century French novels and counts many eminent writers among its admirers, including Henry James (who wrote “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment”) and, more recently, Mario Vargas Llosa.  The eminent critic James Wood  remarked that “novelists should thank Flaubert as poets should thank Spring” because “he established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible”.

The group acknowledged that Flaubert seemed to be revolutionary in his attention to detail and his deployment of a style of narration that anticipated the Joycean “stream of consciousness”.  But in spite of this capacity for getting inside his characters’ heads, the group felt that he was contemptuous of their bourgeois attitudes and essentially pessimistic and misanthropic.  We had all struggled to find sympathy with either Charles or Emma Bovary, and wondered if Flaubert himself had any sympathy for them, despite his famous remark “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”.  We wondered if this lack of sympathy resulted from him being a self-confessed reformed romantic, whereas she never fully understands the falseness of such a world view.

One reader remarked that he had missed any humour in the novel, although the proposer commented that in his case he had found humour that he had missed when he first read the book at the age of sixteen.  He cited the satire on the slow speech mannerisms of rural folk, and Madame Bovary’s visit to the curate.  The figure of the apothecary Homais had comic elements, but it was remarked by the proposer that he felt the focus on Madame Bovary herself tended to squeeze the life out of the other characters.

We turned to discussion of the book’s themes.  We couldn’t come up with any novels of an earlier date that portrayed an adulterous marriage in such detail. Was the novel ground-breaking in this respect as well as in its realist style of writing?  We couldn’t be sure, but we thought so.  There was some discussion of its contemporary reception as immoral, and comparison with later frank treatments of sexuality that got into trouble with self-appointed moral authorities, such as Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.  However, ‘Madame Bovary’ was in fact anything but an apology for adultery.  It contains the observation that adultery ends up in the same banality as an unsuccessful marriage, and punishes the adulterous protagonist with a slow and painful death.

We discussed the quality of the various translations we had read.  One reader had been put off while reading one otherwise good translation by a number of modern Americanisms which he felt disrupted the nineteenth century European ambience of the story.  The proposer pointed out the similarities in the life of one of the book’s best-known translators – Eleanor Marx-Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx – with the life of Emma Bovary herself, notably her suicide by swallowing poison.  The usefulness or otherwise of notes and indexing was considered, and it was felt that they drew attention to many contemporary allusions that we would otherwise miss.  For one member of our group, the detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century rural life that the book portrayed was its chief pleasure.

A few structural oddities in the book were brought up.  For example an unidentified “we” begins the narration but subsequently disappears in favour of a generalised omniscient narrative voice, albeit one close to the inner thoughts and feelings of Emma Bovary in particular.  Another oddity identified by one reader was the failure of Madame Bovary’s affectionate father to show any further interest in his daughter once she had married.  For him, this was not credible, but another member of the group pointed out the insularity of life at the time, and the difficulty of making journeys in rural France in those days.

Finally, in spite of its undeniable historical importance and influence on other writers, did ‘Madame Bovary’ stand up as worth reading for a contemporary readership?  The response was a rather muted ‘yes’ from the group.  Certainly for this reader, the experience of a first reading of a classic text that had long been on his “must read one day” list was one of indifference to the fate of the characters, and a sense of having somehow missed the point.  Although others in the group had enjoyed the book more, even the proposer declined to champion the work as a masterpiece.