Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 3/17/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Amitav Ghosh, THE GLASS PALACE (2000)



Friday, 4/7/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Paula Whyman, YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER (2016)

Friday, 4/28/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

David Szalay, ALL THAT MAN IS (2016)

Friday, 5/19/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Alexander Weinstein, CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD (2016)

Friday, 6/9/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Francesca Marciano, THE OTHER LANGUAGE (2014)


Friday, 8/11/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)



Friday, 9/15/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), first half

Friday, 9/29/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), second half

Friday, 10/20/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Damian Wilkins, MAX GATE (2016)

Friday, 11/10/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1891)

Friday, 12/8/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Christopher Nicholson, WINTER (2016)


The Garden in VILLETTE

It's hard to miss the symbolism: Lucy Snowe, a reclusive and reticent narrator, is drawn to a garden and its secret alley behind what was once a convent, now a school where girls plan their sexual escapades.

The root of this garden in VILLETTE probably isn't the garden of Eden, although that image lies far back behind it. Instead, it's the medieval notion of a hortus conclusus, a walled garden, a secret place, and perhaps an attempt to find a little bit of Eden in this world.

The notion of a hortus conclusus probably got started with the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. In the Renaissance, Mary is most often placed indoors to receive Gabriel's news that she will give birth to Jesus. But early representations usually placed her outdoors, most often in a small enclosed space like this:

Yes, there she is, in a garden like Eden. Mary, whose son will save the world, is the new hope, placed in a site that reminds us of humanity's original sin. But there are several other reasons for her placement. Mary's purity is stressed, since she is set apart from the world in this walled space. Often, her domesticity is highlighted as she spins, knits, or does other household crafts. And her fertility is emphasized, since she's surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. Indeed, some mystics went so far as to indentify Mary herself (or a least her uterus) as the ultimate hortus conclusus.

By the late Middle Ages, the hortus conclusus most often had a fountain at the center, sometimes with four walkways that divided it into four quadrants. It had also become a very social place--or more specifically, a place where women gathered to do household tasks or just enjoy each other's company. Again, it's hard to miss the symbolism: in a culture obsessed with virginity, women have the most freedom in a walled space that contains its (their?) fertility. Here's a scene by an anonymous German painter, der Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins. While it venerates the Virgin, it also looks like a common day out in the garden for her and her staff. Notice the presence of a couple of men who clearly pose no threat, even if they are wooing the ladies.

By the 1400s, the ideal of the hortus conclusus was found throughout European culture. Indeed, the inner cloister in an abbey or a convent (like this one at Senanque in southern France) is itself modeled on the hortus conclusus. If you consider that the hortus conclusus was itself a symbol of Mary's virginity, then you can see the full iconography: monks, themselves celibate, walking the cloisters that border the garden without ever entering it.

Perhaps one of the most famous representations of the hortus conclusus is the tapestry cycle now in the Cluny in Paris, now called "The Lady and the Unicorn." These images have been resistant to interpretation. There is still much debate about what they mean. They may be fully secular in nature, a knightly romance tale come to thread--or they may be a complex allegory of Mary's virginity and her ability to capture the elusive and unique unicorn in her garden, perhaps a reference to Christ. But there is no debate that was depicted is a hortus conclusus.

All this said, a hortus conclusus is a secret place where women meet in safety and where the very threats to their safety are expressed (for example, both a place to preserve women from rape and to institutionalize their status as inferior beings in need of protection). It is itself associated with both frustrated and expressed sexuality.

And in case you think the hortus conclusus has fallen out of modern discourse, here's a contemporary work of art by Hans Rüngeler (born in 1957) called, in fact, "Hortus Conclusus."



Is Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre?

The C. B. Richmond chalk portrait of Charlotte Brontë, done in 1850 (three years after JANE EYRE--here, she's thirty-four)I don’t know if you’ve been following this story, but it seems an Italian investigative journalist in New York may have solved the mystery of who Elena Ferrante is. Click here for the latest op-ed on the story from the NYTimes.

This op-ed is a great piece for us right now. It’s relatively easy to read an author’s life back into her or his work. But it’s something of a deception, if not a bald logic fault, particularly for works written in the Romantic Era (around 1800) and following. (If you want to read the original article that broke the story, it’s here.)

A powerfully imaginative work—what we would consider a great work of literature—has one significant hallmark: it creates a world unto itself. It so encapsulates experience and indeed the essence of what it is to be human that it makes its own rules, creates its own time, and spins a fabric of reality to suit itself. The author’s life is finally (and at best) tangential to the work.

Sure, every author starts with “what they know.” But great authors move quickly out and away into a vast canvas of imaginative strokes. Twain grew up near the Mississippi River and worked as a river pilot in his teenage years--but these are only small starting points for the unbelievably complex novel that Huck Finn narrates. Huck's very voice is not Twain's but an amalgam of white Southern and African-American dialects.

Notice, too, how we don’t make the same autobiographical move with painters. “Picasso painted this nose because his mother’s nose was. . . .” Or choreographers. “Mark Morris made this dance en pointe because his father once said. . . .” It seems absurd, right? It is so with books, too.

What’s more, you can always find what you’re looking for. In a long novel, you can surely find things that are replicated from an author’s life. In fact, I’ll be willing to bet you could read any novel and find things that are replicated from my life. “In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooks cannot have a small dog because she’s so near-sighted—and I notice that Mark always wears glasses.” Absurd, no? But the point is that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—and doing so may not in the end make a compelling, logical case for interpretation. 

Such an idea is particularly crucial for JANE EYRE. It’s tempting to read Charlotte Brontë into the book. And in some ways we sure can. In fact, in the second half of the novel, the impulse to read her life into the book will prove almost overwhelming with the introduction of one central character.

But for now, the larger “problem” beyond mere details remains the fictional world she made, a world of fury and frustration, one that in many ways does not reflect the peaceful, sometimes pastoral, and often quite happy life Charlotte lived. Of course she was unhappy at times. We all are. But her frequent, extended visits with friends around England, her devotion to her family, her education in Belgium, her high times in London, and the aching sadness she felt over the deaths of her mother and four siblings are all things apart from the great novel she wrote. The case of a Polish/German immigrant Jewish translator writing the novels we call “Ferrante’s” shows that a powerful imagination is capable of creating its own world.

The first page of the fair copy of the JANE EYRE manuscript


The Brontës

As we start our five-month (!) tour of everything Brontë, I thought we might look at the lay of the land--and the women who lived on it.

As you probably know, the Brontës lived most of their lives in the parsonage at Haworth, up on the northwestern section of the Yorkshire moors. The name "Haworth" probably means something like "hawthorne enclosure"--and gives you some idea of the landscape in which it is set. However, there has long been the myth that the town was merely a remote village in a forbidding landscape. Juliet Barker in her gigantic, 1000-page, beautifully researched biography of the family has gone to some lengths to prove that Haworth was certainly no more remote than many other small towns in England and was in fact an agricultural center for the region, complete with many shops, local crafts, a fairly prosperous church, and even a dissenter congregation (a mix of Methodists and Baptists) at the other end of town. Although the family did have to walk to the rails, they were well served with easy connections even down to London. Here's a picture of the parsonage where the three writing sisters grew up:

Note the close proximity of the graveyard. The house has since had a wing addition to the far side and now houses the Brontë museum. The church where their father, Patrick Brontë, preached was damaged, torn down, and rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, although some parts of the original tower and foundational elements remain.

Here is a street of modern-day Haworth. Almost all of these structures were extant when the Brontë sisters were alive. You'll see it's a small but rather attractive farming town.

The so-called "Brontë myth," instigated by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray during Charlotte's lifetime and in full swing even today, demands the story that the sisters lived in bleak isolation with little access to the real world (that is, London). Given that Haworth had shops and markets, given that it had fairly good rail connections (for the time), given that Charlotte eventually became the most famous woman in England (after the queen) and the toast of high-society parties across London, and given that both Charlotte and Emily got a fairly advanced education abroad in Brussels, the myth has to work hard to stay relevant. No, the sisters were not Oxford dons or urban intellectuals. But they were not quite the country bumpkins they are still made out to be today, even by the Haworth tourist industry.

That said, the moors did beckon, particularly for Emily, but for Charlotte as well. They were a place of great if austere beauty, particularly in the spring.

We tend to see the moors through the lens of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And no doubt, they're a frosty, damp place. But we should also remember that Emily Brontë's poetry celebrated the moors for their wild aesthetics, their abundant flowers, and their endless skies. And yes, their snowy, soggy landscape in the winter.


As to the Brontë sisters themselves, there's only one fully verified image, painted by their wastrel of a brother, Branwell. He fancied himself an artist although alcohol and perhaps laudanum took their toll early on. He painted this portrait of the four of them, then he painted himself out and put a pillar or chimney in his place. The painting has since been restored so you can see a ghostly image of Branwell in the center. The sisters are, left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. As you may know, they first published under male pseudonyms. So perhaps we should say, left to right, we see Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell.

Recently, a disputed photograph of the sisters has made the rounds. Found in France, it shows three women in almost operatic costume, typical of early nineteenth-century traveling clothes. Many biographers and scholars now accept the photograph as authentic. Some still do not, including some of the best scholars as well as some of the guardians of the lucrative Brontë myth/tourist industry. I'm not enough of a scholar to vouch for or against its authenticity. It purports to show, left to right, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

Finally, there is one portrait of Charlotte, sketched in 1850 by George Richmond after she became famous for JANE EYRE. She's about thirty-four here. All her siblings are dead. Branwell died of conditions related to alcoholism at 31 in 1848; Emily, of consumption at 30 a few months later; and Anne, of consumption at 29 about six months later. (Two older sisters died years before.) Although not a vain person by any means, Charlotte liked this portrait enough to hang it up in her home when she married her father's curate, George Nichols, in the last year of her life. I see the knowing gaze of a witty if prim survivor. (She, too, would pass early, in 1855 at 38, most likely from dehydration and malnutrition caused by extreme morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum.)



Because this novel is so involved with European Jewish culture, I thought it might be helpful to define a few words in the text:

1. Ba'al Shem Tov. In Hebrew, the name means something like "The Master Of The Good Name." It's the honorific title given to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700 - 1760), a Ukranian mystic who is considered the founder of the strict, ulttra-orthodox sect of Hasidism, often associated with beaver fur hats and long black coats, ring curls at the ears (called "peyos" [pay-us]) and unwavering adherence to Sabbath and festival laws. Almost all the Jews in THE LAST OF THE JUST are Hasidic--as indeed were so many who were burned in the Holocaust, partly because they were so obviously recognizable on the street because of their distinctive clothing. Hasids are not only very strict but also extremely mystical, some of the most profound users of the kabbalah, a magical/mystical interpretation of Jewish scriptures. Indeed, one of the most interesting things is that the novel itself has the mystical tone of kabbalah--which gives it almost a fairy-tale or folklore quality, particularly as it moves into the German sections.

2. Levy (or Levi). According to Judaic tradition, anyone with the last name of Levy (or Levi) is a member of the ancient tribe of Levi, one of the original twelve tribes of Hebrew culture as delineated in Torah, the tribe from which the temple priests were chosen. By the way, those with the last name of Cohen are considered actual descendents of those priests ("cohen" just means "priest" in Hebrew)--and indeed, genetic studies have shown a very narrow field of variation among Cohens, a mark that they are indeed some sort of cohesive group even today.

3. Midrash. Jewish theology is actually an interlocking system of interpretive schematics. In a nutshell, Torah is the "law" (a combination of legal rules and early history) Moses received from God, the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called "the Pentateuch" (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Tanakh is what Christians call "the Old Testament," in Jewish thought itself considered a commentary on Torah. The Talmud is a commentary on Tanakh, a collection of the sayings, teachings, and interpretations of thousands of rabbis over the centuries. Many young men in Hebrew schools today study Talmud, not Tanakh or Torah. And the Midrash is a commentary on the Torah and Talmud. Thus, the Midrash is a commentary on a commentary on a commentary of Mosaic law. And thus, Jewish theology is an interlinking set of commentaries, a vast jigsaw puzzle of interpretations.

4. Mitzvah. Technically, the Hebrew word means "commandment," a reference to one of the many laws God gave Moses. However, it has come to mean something like "blessing." You do something as a mitzvah--that is, as a blessing because you're fulfilling one of God's laws. If you feed the hungry, someone might say, "Such a mitzvah!" Visiting your parents is a mitzvah.

5. Ta'anith (or taanit) This is a commentary specifically on Jewish feast days (Passover, Yom Kippur, etc.), considered part of Talmud.

6. Tsedokeh (or tzedakah). A Hebrew word meaning "righteousness" or perhaps "justice." However, in modern usage, it's now come to mean "charity"--but not what you might think. Rather, it's an obligatory charity--for example, in Jewish theology, feeding the hungry is not considered an act of volitional charity (like putting money in a church offering) but instead an act of tzedakah, an obligation, like helping your family out when they are in trouble.

And one more thing: as the novel moves into the German sections, there's much written about hats and wigs. Hasidic men must keep their heads covered at all times to show reverence to God. Indeed, most men wear a yarmulke (the skull cap sometimes also called a "kepah" [kee-pah]) as well as a more traditional black round fur hat or a black fedora. Women, by contrast, shave their heads after marriage and wear a wig (called a sheitel [shy-tul]). They do this to conform to Torah law which claims that a woman's hair is a mark of beauty--and so women should not appear attractive to other men once they have been married. Thus, women cover their hair by setting a wig over their hair--or simply shave their heads so the wigs fit better. Some rabbis also claim women must shave their heads so they will not appear too attractive and distract their husbands from studying Torah, Talmud, or other sacred texts.


MRS. ENGELS: A Historical Primer

This one's a historical novel. Honestly, we don't read too much historical fiction. But as such, it's full of realpolitik figures and events. Yes, some of it goes down in the background. Here's a key set.

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883). Although we think of him today as an economist (developing an alternative system to capitalism), he mostly thought of himself as a philosopher and a historian (he went to college at Bonn to study law). Although Prussian, his preoccupation was instead with English society, particularly the kind of dog-eat-child capitalism Dickens depicted. In fact, Marx's life work was not so much an "alternate" system to the economic engine of capitalism but instead a critique of it. Marx saw capitalism as the necessary step before the final revolution in which labor (the proletariat, the working classes) would come to control their own destiny without an overlord, ownership class. But it's that little word which you might have missed--"necessary"--which caused (and still causes) so many problems. It indicates that there's a set, determined sequence of events, one following the other in an established order. It's all fated (as it were, despite Marx's atheism), all laid out. Even today among his followers, his most contentious point was and is that notion of what's termed "historical determinism"--that is, certain historical forces (for example, society in distinct classes like the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) will inevitably result in foreseen historic changes (the development of a state in which workers, not capitalists, control the economic levers). It's that fatalism, almost Calvinistic, that has proven so controversial; for it allows all sorts of abuses in the name of its greater good (as elsewhere, religious zealots can massacre thousands, even millions in the name of bringing about some future world order/peace they see in the offing). In the end, Marx's greatest achievement was that he changed the way we see our world, no matter what else we think about his theories. His works teach us to see the world symbolically--that is, what happens in the world is the surface expression (a metaphor, perhaps) of deeper processes that remain just out of sight. Think even now of the way people talk about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and other presidential candidates: as if they are nodes that point to larger, underlying problems or forces that the enlightened can see. We do it so much, it now seems natural. It wasn't before Marx. Today, we interpret history as a complex interplay of symbol systems. The rise of Nazism was because . . . as exemplified by. . . .  The fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire was because . . . as exemplified by. . . .  We sometimes even see history as inevitable, a bow to Marx's notion of historical determinism. In the end--and this may be the really revolutionary bit--Marx read history as Freud read the psyche: as a story, a plot, with a beginning, a middle, and (here's the rub) an end. And it's impossible to see history as anything but a symbolically charged story after him. We now routinely, almost naturally make a narrative out of events--and out of ourselves--not just from the events themselves but using those events as metaphors of deeper, unseen forces at play. In so many ways, Marx and Freud created the modern world. As I've said dozens of times in our group, we live in the wreckage of the nineteenth century.

Frederick Engels (1820 - 1895). In many ways, Engels is the spark that got the Marx/Engels partnership off the ground, both by financing Marx through periods of his life and by providing a necessary kick into political activism, not just philosophy. Together, of course, they wrote "The Communist Manifesto," perhaps the single most important piece of writing to come out of the nineteenth century. We still bob in its wake. Engels was indeed the son of a wealthy German family. He met Marx for the first time in 1842, on his way to the family factories in Manchester. Neither initially liked the other. Marx thought Engels a bit of a dandy. And perhaps he was. By all accounts, he was a rather spoiled child who was indeed radicalized by his time spent overseeing the Manchester mills his family partly owned. And the woman who radicalized him, by all accounts, was one of the Burns sisters. How he met these two remains a bit of a mystery. Gavin McCrea fills in some of the details in his novel to make a fuller story but we do know that Mary Burns led him around the Irish ghettos of Manchester, deepening and changing his notions of economics and the historical forces at play on labor and the working classes. He and Mary were together almost twenty years, until her death in 1863. In many ways, her insights prompted him to write his seminal work, "The Condition of the Working Class in England." Although he didn't yet have a working theory of revolution and its future state, he predicted a grim industrial nightmare for the West. His absences in MRS. ENGELS that so bedevil Mary early on are not necessarily just trips home. He is becoming further radicalized in Paris clubs and Brussels associations. And he is beginning to collaborate more fully with Marx, his first publisher. Engels himself saw a historical spirit, a world destiny, that would eventually find its way into Marx's writings. Engels also first makes the claim that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce," a claim Marx himself would pick up and make famous. Engels indeed supported Marx in the 1870s as the older scholar was finishing up his magnum opus, "Das Kapital." Marx died with the work unfinished. Engels edited the second and third volumes into shape and then compiled the remainder into what is now seen as a large appendix to the work.

Lydia "Lizzie" Burns (1827 - 1878). In truth, we know next to nothing about her except that she was Engels' consort after the death of her sister, Mary, his former consort. McCrea himself in an interview says she "floats through drawing rooms" in the historical record without leaving much of a trace. For the record, Engels was not opposed to marriage as an institution--he felt that the current economic system stymied its natural development. However, he did marry Lizzie in the last minutes of her life, mostly to satisfy her final wishes which were rooted in her Catholicism. But while they were hale and healthy, they both snubbed convention and apparently reveled in being an unmarried pair in London society, in some ways like George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, contemporaries of Burns and Engels. After her death, Engels wrote, "My wife was a real child of the Irish proletariat and her passionate devotion to the class in which she was born was worth much more to me--and helped me more in times of stress--than all the elegance of an educated, artistic middle-class bluestocking."

The Paris Commune (1871). Any attempt to write about the commune in this short space will prove silly. Suffice it to say, France had been in political turmoil for years, besieged both by bad politics after Napoleon Bonaparte's death and its wily neighbors who had designs on its territory. After Louis-Phillipe Napoleon had himself installed as Emperor Napoleon III of the so-called "Second Empire" in 1852, some stability came to the country but only at the cost of rather repressive social structures. In fact, France was little more than a very chic capital surrounded by poverty and blight. And well-armed Prussia was a constant thorn in its side. War broke out between the two--eventually France was defeated at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. However, that didn't end things. After the emperor and empress fled Paris, a new national government was founded, based largely on the city's more radical politicians. Prussia marched on toward Paris and began a four-month, brutal siege. After complicated political machinations, including the disarming of the French army but not the far more politically radical National Guard, a commune was founded in Paris on 18 March 1871, a radicalized form of government that Marx called "the dictatorship of the proletariat." It was rank idealism, an attempt to institute social justice almost by fiat, to solve the problems of the slums with intellectuals in control. In "The Civil War in France," Marx wrote: "Working men's Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators' history has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them." But it was not to last. The commune collapsed two months later because of internal squabbling between communists (thus, the word we use today) and anarchists, as well as external pressures, including some from the United States. But it was the first truly leftist government established in the West, at first a great signal that Marx and Engels were right, then later a glaring statement of their shortcomings. Is liberty inevitable? Is it the same for everyone? Still, even today, red flags from the Paris Commune adorn Lenin's tomb. It's not a mistake that the novel is set during this frenzied time.