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Friday, 10/16/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 11/13/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 12/11/2015, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Timur Vermes, LOOK WHO'S BACK (2015)




Friday, 1/8/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part one

Friday, 1/22/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part two

Friday, 2/5/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part three

Friday, 2/19/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

George Eliot, DANIEL DERONDA (1876), part four


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Haruki Murakami, KAFKA ON THE SHORE (2005)

Friday, 4/8/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Elena Ferrante, THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD (2014)

Friday, 4/29/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Henry James, THE SPOILS OF POYNTON (1896)

Friday, 5/20/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE (2012)

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Friday, 8/19/2016, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.



True Taisho

A Taisho printOn page 675, the three sisters are discussing how and why Peter Jansen would have bought the properties and allowed the families to live on the land for so long. Fuyue claims it all makes no sense. "A company's main motive is profit making, isn't it?"

Harue and Natsue respond with a bit about Taisho Romanticism:

"You can't imagine what it was like," [Natsue says,] "when there was some Taisho romanticism in the air, before the country became so militaristic." 

"Taisho romanticism would mean nothing to a Westerner," [Fuyue responds.] "They wouldn't even know what the Taisho period is."

"Oh, you just don't know. Westerners too were much more romantic back then."

It's a complicated point that takes into account Japan's history in the early part of the twentieth century.

Emperor TaishoThe Taisho period is named for Emporer Taisho, a sickly, weak man who held the imperial seat from 1912 until his death at the end of 1926. Because he was physically unable to handle much work, the reins of power slowly slipped out of his and the oligarchs' hands, coming more and more to rest in the Diet, the Japanese legislature. The preceding period (the Meiji Period) and the following period (the Showa Period) were marked by an aggressive militarism. By contrast, the Taisho period was one of relative calm.

The sisters' claim that the West was somehow "more romantic back then" is patently absurd. The West was in the middle of World War I. True, Japan sided with the allies and so won some unprecedented peace on the international front during those years. But the Russian and Chinese revolutions roiled Japan and its foreign policy, leading directly to the warmongering that culiminated in World War II.

And yes, Japan was sliding more toward a modern democracy as control fell away to the Diet.

A Western woman in a Taisho kimono and obi (sash)But the famed romanticism of that period is mostly seen as a constructed ruse, a palliative, a flimsy illusion. Inflation was at run-away levels. Westerners were moving into Japan, even buying up vast tracks of land in unforeseen numbers. The national debt soared. Student unrest--particularly communists, seen as another "Western" influence--was at an all-time high.

A Taisho schoolgirlNevertheless, the Japanese even today have a hankering for the period. Entire festivals still feature young women parading down the street in Taisho fabrics. They look back in fondness on Taisho schoolgirls, so innocent and young. On Taisho geishas, the height of their craft. On Taisho architecture, so delicate and spare.

Those buildings weren't made to last. And they didn't. In 1923, the 7.9 Kando earthquake, centered just off the coast near Tokyo, devastated the countryside, destorying ports and entire towns, killing over 140,000, and causing unsanitary conditions that allowed a typhoid epidemic to kill tens of thousands more. Japan could be said to have never recovered from the earthquake--until late in the 1930s.

And by then, of course, it was too late. That vaunted Taisho romanticism is partly what allowed Hirohito to rise to new heights of power. 


True Karuizawa

As you know by now, much of the action of A TRUE NOVEL takes place in and around Karuizawa, a popular weekend destination for those wishing to escape the excessive summer heat and humidity in Tokyo, much like Litchfield county is for those in New York City. Karuizawa lies in the Nagano prefecture, a little over 100 miles west-northwest from Tokyo. Karuizawa also lies near the very center of the main island of Japan. The town is dominated by its views of Mount Asama, a fairly active volcano that has erupted often in modern history, as recently as 2009. Asama is still categorized by the Japanese Meteorological Agency as a Rank A volcano--that is, more eruptions are imminent.

Mount AsamaThe central shopping district of Karuizawa--its "ginza"--is lined with old-school shops, many of them fostering nostalgia for a "lost" Japan. Fine ceramic tea cups, bits of antique lace, and even rice paddy shoes can be found among the stalls. In fact, many Japanese still consider Karuizawa to be an oasis from modernism, as opposed to other locales nearby in Nagano which include many industrial towns and some collapsed agrarian enclaves, no longer viable.

Karuizawa's ginza.

That said, Karuizawa has been repeatedly rebuilt until much of it looks about like a tourist town in the United States--say, Estes Park, Colorado, or Woodstock, Vermont. As you can see by this photo, there's been a concerted effort over the years to "Westernize" the town, adding architectural features that look distinctly disjunctive in a place that celebrates its connection of an older, lost Japan.

Karuizawa was "discovered" in the nineteenth-century by Christian missionaries, as they moved out from Tokyo into the countryside. They themselves set up small chapels and homes here to seek a cooling climate from the beastly summer weather of Tokyo. Soon, Western bankers and merchants followed, building more lavish homes, many of them in the style of Swiss chalets or American Western "cabins." The grandeur of these residences contrasted sharply with the poorer, more downscale surrounding towns.

 After World War II, any Western ownership (but perhaps not its influence) waned considerably. Today, the area has been revitalized as wealthy Japanese families purchase land to build newer, even grander homes or as development groups buy up sets of home to tear them down for upscale condominium developments.

Here's a vacation home for sale today in Karuizawa.

Even the Prince Hotel has undergone a renaissance. It has now sprawled out into several, large, luxury hotels. They cater to the the winter sports crowd who come for the new ski runs in the area. In fact, Karuizawa has morphed into an all-year resort.

One of the Prince Hotels

And yet it remains what it has been for over a century: an odd amalgam of West and East, a representative of the way Japanese culture can assimilate foreign ideas and concepts. Take, for example, this shot from the edge of town.



Crimson Petals

The title of Michael Faber's novel, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1847, a smaller part of his satiric work, The Princess.

That longer poem concerns a heroic princess who swears off men and founds a women's university where men cannot enter. Her betrothed does indeed gain access with his friends, all disguised as women. They are discovered and escape--but then fight a battle for the women and are severely injured. The Princess nurses them back to health and returns to the world of men by finally marrying her betrothed. The larger poem is the basis of Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera, Princess Ida.

But for now, here's the smaller poem itself that lends its line to Faber's title:


Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;

Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;

Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:

The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.


Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,

And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.


Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,

And all thy heart lies open unto me.


Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves

A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.


Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,

And slips into the bosom of the lake:

So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip

Into my bosom and be lost in me.


Danae is the women who Zeus rapes by falling on her as a shower of gold. Her son by that union is Perseus, a legendary hero.

The poem is well-known for its subtle but very evident erotic . . . no, pornographic images. Ahem.

It's also been set to music by quite a few. Here's Paul Mealor's version:


Ferrante: Fiction and Autobiography

Ferrante's novels about Naples force us into a corner: how much is autobiography? After all, her (or his) identity remains a secret. We know nothing about the writer who pens under the name Elena Ferrante. What if "Elena Ferrante" really is her name and she's just reclusive? No matter: we're left with the novels themselves--which force us into the corner of intention and interpretation (I would argue, by design).

On the one hand, we can read the novels as (lightly) veiled autobiographies. In fact, we might even think they're "truer" than a more standard novel since we know next to nothing about the author. After all, she has claimed in an email interview that she had a friend like Lila.

What's more, the author wants us to move in the direction of seeing the novels as autobiography. For example, the criticism of Elena Greco's novel in THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY is exactly the sort of criticism that could be directed at the very book in your hands: obsessively personal, vulgar, unfair, too revelatory, too easily based on the character's own life, etc. With hints like these, we're tempted to read the author into the novel in the very absence of said author.

On the other hand, we're also tempted to divorce the novels from the author. Elena Greco cannot be Ferrante, whose actual first novel bears little resemblance to the novel that Elena Greco has written. And if Ferrante were married into a public, intellectual family in Italy as Elena Greco is, we'd certainly know who she is. So perhaps the novel in your hands has nothing to do with Ferrante's identity.

Here's where it gets tricky. Those two poles--"it's about the author" and "it's not about the author"--are in fact the poles that hold up the interpretive debate about any piece of art: literature, painting, sculpture, music, and even architecture.

When I went off to college in the late '70s, the dominant critical theory was called the "new criticism," popularized by certain English professors at Vanderbilt and Cambridge. The main tenet was, to put it baldly, that the artist's life had nothing to do with the work created. In fact, even the historical context of the work didn't matter. Instead, you are confronted with a poem, a painting, a piece of drama in your own moment--right now. You don't have access to the past moment's the author lived. You can't know them. You can't even construct them. To do so is to engage in what was called the "intentional fallacy." How can you know what an author intended? You can do little more than guess. You only have your current moment. It's all that matters in understanding the piece before you. (Thus, new critical professors would pass out Shakespearean sonnets and Bob Dylan songs together because both are "ahistorical" works of art.)

But such a stance seems too rigid, too bound by its theory. Don't we need to know something about English-European relations to understand Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Don't we need to know something about the Civil War to read Emily Dickinson's poems?

Yes to both. But with reservations. It can all go too far. Does it matter that Henry James was a closeted homosexual when you read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY? Does it matter that Faulkner was a drunk when you read his novels?

I would say "no" to  both. Yet nuance is important. Does Beethoven's deafness alter our understanding of the last symphonies? Yes and no. Does Rembrandt's use of his wife and children in his paintings deepen our understanding of the works? Yes and no. Does Eudora Welty's left-wing politics alter the discussion of her short stories? Yes and no.

Where do you draw the line? Can you read Virginia Woolf without reading her biography? Absolutely. Do her personal struggles show up in her novels? Absolutely. Does knowing about them make the novels clearer? Here I would add a controversial "no." In fact, reading Woolf's novels through her own depression throws out a dreaded red herring. MRS. DALLOWAY is not a veiled suicide wish. It is a complex and befuddling piece of art about how we experience the passing of time.

Art both escapes its creator and remains enmired with her or him. It's a muddle that Ferrante is forcing us to experience at every turn. 


Portraits in the Portrait

As Isabel Archer moves from England to the Continent, the middle third of this magnificent novel is very much taken up with Italian art. Some scenes become almost Renaissance tableaux; others have direct references to paintings and sculpture. I thought I'd take a minute an elucidate a few of the more important references. The page numbers here are those in the Penguin edition we're using, the reprint of the 1882 one-volume Macmillan edition.

1. Chapter 20, page 219. "You may see her; but you will not be struck with her being happy. She has looked as solemn, these three days, as a Cimabue Madonna!" And Mrs. Touchett rang for the servant.

Cimabue Madonna di CasteldifliorentoHere, Mrs. Touchett and Madame Merle are discussing Isabel's sudden and extravagant fortune at the death of Mr. Touchett. Cimabue was a Florentine painter of the middle and late 1200s, a little bit before Dante. Cimabue strode the line between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance (Vasari claimed he was Giotto's teacher) by adapting Byzantine art to his Italian surroundings. His Madonnas almost always had, as above, a blissed-out Byzantine stare, very other-worldly and calm (as opposed to the more active and "of this world" Christ child in the painting). Mrs. Touchett's reference to Cimabue begins the long stretch in the novel that concerns both Isabel's restlessness and her increasing "serenity." Of course, at this point in the book, Isabel is also a Madonna of sorts: a virtuous (and in nineteenth-century parlance, virginal) woman.

2. Chapter 23, page 258.  "But she [Madame Merle] talked of all things with remarkable vividness of memory--she remembered the right-hand angel in the large Perugino and the position of the hands of the Saint Elizabeth in the picture next to it. . . ."

Perugino, Assumption of the VirginAlbertinelli, The Virgin and Saint Elizabeth

The discussion here is about Madame Merle's rather bored but sophisticated take on Italian art: she doesn't want to go to the Uffizi anymore but she can talk about the art in very good terms. In other words, art has ceased to be an object of gaze and has instead become an object of interpretation. It's hard to know exactly which Perugino James had in mind since they've been endlessly moved around the Uffizi. The canvas above is as good as any to illustrate the busy-ness, the movement, the mood of the Italian master--a work of genius that hardly deserves a flip of the hand, as it apparently does for Madame Merle. However, note in the second canvas, the Albertinelli, one of the more important paintings of Renaissance art, how the two women meet: their close intimacy, their relative positions. They appear equal--but the Virgin (on the left) would be the far "higher" one in the spiritual pyramid. Perhaps this is a direct comment on the novel--but on which pair of women?

3. Chapter 24, page 271. "Indeed, I can show you her [Mrs. Touchett's] portrait in a fresco of Ghirlandaio's. I hope you don't object to my speaking that way of your aunt, eh?"

Ghirlandaio, Birth of Saint Mary in Santa Maria Novella in FlorenceWe'd be hard pressed to figure out which of Ghirlandaio's many frescos Osmond has in mind, but this one in a central Florentine church will do to show his vision. Ghirlandaio was known for letting us peek into private space--and particularly women's private space. Here, we have the miraculous birth of the virgin Mary painted as an event for a community of women. The angelic presence is actually a series of statues in the cornice above (art looking at art?). Yes, it is a Renaissance scene, almost of daily life among the well-off and fortunate. But it is more importantly a typically Ghirlandaio perspective: a private and communal experience of and for women. Perhaps that explains Osmond's sneer.

4. Chapter 28, page 315.  "Isabel saw no more of her attributive victim for the next twenty-four hours, but on the second day after the visit to the opera, she encountered him [Lord Warburton] in the gallery of the Capitol, where he was standing before the lion of the collection, the statue of the Dying Gladiator."

We now know this statue is more properly called a "dying Gaul," not a gladiator--that is, one of the "under classes" that served the Mediterranean empires for centuries. It's a Roman marble copy of a lost, Greek, bronze original. The wounded, slumped-over Gaul is rendered quite lifelike, particularly the wound in the lower part of his chest and the look of pain on his face. He is dying on his shield, a noble move. But it's also a very sensual statue, brazenly naked, hauntingly beautiful, sexual but morose, ecstatic but indolent. He is, well, spent. Is this a comment on Warburton? On Isabel? On her thoughts about him? On his thoughts about himself? Or on the novel as a whole?

5. Chapter 37, page 389.  "Why, she [Pansy] had the style of a little princess; if you couldn't see it you had no eye. It was not modern, it was not conscious, it would produce no impression in Broadway; the small, serious damsel in her stiff little dress only looked like an Infanta of Velasquez."

Here's one of Velasquez' many portraits of the Spanish royal children--particularly of the "infanta" Maria Margarita whom he painted over and over again. These portraits are notoriously sumptuous, almost to an extreme, an over-abundance of fabric and texture, the cherubic skin glowing from within. Lovely. But it's also important to note that Pansy is nineteen at this point in the book. The girl in this portrait? About five.