Upcoming Discussions

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)



Friday, 1/12/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 1/26/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 2/9/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Friday, 2/23/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.



Ferrante and Woolf

In the second chapter of Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, the great Bloomsbury writer turns to a concern that proves quite pressing for Ferrante as well: anger. (If you'd like to read--or reread--the first discussion about Woolf and her collection of essays on our blog, click here.)

Home from her wanderings around the fictional Oxbridge, Woolf decides to investigate further her "swarm of questions"--that is, "[w]hy did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction?"

She heads off to the shelves of the British Museum to do some hard research, only to be confronted by an avalanche of titles. "Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year?" And all, as she points out, were written by men: "agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M. A. degree, men who have taken no degree, men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women."

It's important to remember the time--1929--but also important to note her rising anger, indeed her sarcasm. "Women do not write books about men--a fact that I could not help welcoming with relief."

Her anger, she claims, is caused necessarily not by the profusion of titles but the anger of these very writers, particularly their incessant tone, all about "the inferiority of women." Each writer "was laboring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote."

She then asks how anger can be the dominant tone of men when they discuss women. By all acounts, those men are on top of the social structure. What's to beef about? She first claims that anger is naturally "the attendant sprite on power." In other words, power uses anger as its means and its justification.

But then she presses further--and claims that women function largely as a mirror for men. Men need to see themselves when they look at women--and not only see themselves, but see themselves as bigger than they are. Women are a distorting mirror that allows men to maintain their power--and so women reap the anger that comes with the insecurity of the men's knowing those very women have helped create a world of illusion, a world that flatters these same men, a world that aggrandizes them for no other reason than that they gaze into that mirror. "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size."

So we return to the question of women and the male gaze that we first noted in Brookner's HOTEL DU LAC--but in this case, the woman as the aid and abettor of male vanity with an ability to create a society-wide delusion that is in constant need of reinforcement through anger.

Which brings us to Ferrante's ferocious novel. How is Olga's anger a reflection of Mario's power? Does the anger only spring from him? Or from other places? Clearly, that anger is ridiculously destructive in the novel--but how is it finally "solved"? Because it is "solved"--you must admit: the novel ends up at a much better place than the darkness to which it descends at its middle.

And how does Virginia Woolf's fictionalized self escape this anger in A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN? At the end of the second essay, she discusses a bequest of 500 pounds a year from her dowager aunt, a bequest which allows her to live on her own, without the need of external support. With money in hand, she "need not hate any man; he cannot hurt [her]."

Hurt. We're back to anger--and violence. And thus we're back to Ferrante and her raw novel, so very full of hurt? But why? And to what end?


Brookner on Brookner

As you may know, Anita Brookner is a doggedly private person. She rarely grants interviews and even less frequently talks about her works.

She considers herself an academic first and foremost, an art historian, an authority on eighteenth-century painting. She taught at and was eventually promoted to being a Reader at the Courtauld Institute, held the Slade professorship at Cambridge, and is a fellow at both King's College London and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. She did not begin publishing novels until her early 50s. (She had already written book-length academic studies, including ones on Ingres, Watteau, and Greuze.) HOTEL DU LAC was written fairly early on in the spate of novels, while she was still in her mid-50s. (She has written twenty-four novels.)

That said, in 2009, just before the publication of her last novel to date, she did grant an interview to the "Telegraph." I think the interviewer does a great job of capturing Brookner--or as well as anyone could. She's an illusive, elusive figure.

But one thing before we get to the interview: I ask you to remember that authors are not authorities on their own works. Texts slip away from authors because of the slippery nature of words themselves, because of the nature of linguistic construction. Novels and such are not nodes of psychology in need of analysts. In the end, it tells us little that William Faulkner had an affair in Hollywood or that F. Scott Fitzgerald had to contend with a mad Zelda. It may make the authors more colorful but their texts glide by, elide, and even occlude any biographical intent. Harold Bloom famously contended that authors are always in a struggle with their writerly forebears. But in many ways, an author is always in a struggle with her or his own text. Which shall be known, me or it?

That all said and with a grain of salt in tow, you can follow this link here to the interview. It is as evasive as one of Brookner's novels.


Edith Hope's Room

As I told you, these next five books all deal with women and space in some way: spatial arrangements, rooms, houses, homes, prisons, open spaces, closed spaces, open doors, closed doors. (Those latter two are things Edith Hope doesn't recognize until much too late in Brookner's small, powerful novel.)

There are several overt references to Virginia Woolf in HOTEL DU LAC--and many discreet ones. Of course, Edith herself thinks she resembles the great Bloomsbury writer--although we may doubt Edith's thoughts about herself since Mrs. Pusey thinks she looks more like Princess Anne. (To doubt Edith or not to doubt her--that is one of the novel's great questions.)

Woolf began her own thoughts for A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN after being invited in October, 1928, to offer two lectures on "women and fiction" at Newnham and Girton Colleges, both women's constituent colleges of Cambridge. (Girton became co-ed in 1977.) Over the next year, the lectures morphed into six chapters of a book on women and writing.

Although Woolf was certainly concerned with space, with that famed "room" in her essays, she was equally concerned about the economics of writing. Within the first paragraph of the first essay in the book, she writes, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (emphasis added).

In truth, the first essay in Woolf's book is about two meals, a luncheon served at Oxbridge, a fictional stand-in for Cambridge, and a dinner at Fernham, clearly a made-up women's college along the lines of Newnham or Girton.

Here's how it happens: Woolf begins by inventing a fictional protagonist--"Mary Barton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, or any name you please"--who wanders through the colleges, her mind at work on the problem of women and fiction. Lazing by a riverbank, this protagonist hooks a thought on her mind's line, "the sort of fish that a food fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating."

She refuses to tell her reader the thought. She also refuses to toss it back and instead gets up to stroll the lawns--where she is instantly shooed off the grass by a wildly gesticulating "man's figure," by an old Beadle who insists that the dons and professors are free to walk on the turf but that women must stick to the paths.

Her caught thought summarily disappears. She wanders on, thinking about Milton, wondering about his writing process, the thoughts he lost and found along the way. She thinks she'll check out the Milton manuscripts in the library--and is waved off at the door by another man. This one informs her that ladies may only visit "if accompanied by a Fellow of the College."

Dispirited, she walks past the church and hears the great organ lurching into a hymn. This time, she doesn't even try to gain admittance.

But all is not lost. She finally makes her way to a sumptuous luncheon at the college, a many-coursed affair, glorious and old-fashioned, including "flanks of a doe" and "partridges . . . with all their retinue of sauces and salads," white and red wine flowing so freely that they lit a "subtle and subterranean glow" down her spine. As Woolf puts it, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." (Indeed!)

At this luncheon, the protagonist imagines the kings and princes of past days, pouring gold on the land, founding colleges like this one--and still able to give meals like this one. "And when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come, still the same flow of gold and silver went on. . . . Hence, the libraries and laboratories, the observatories, the splendid equipment of costly and delicate instruments which now stands on glass shelves where centuries ago the grasses waved and the swine rootled."

After lunch and after seeing the curious sight of a cat without a tail, the protagonist wanders on to the women's college, meets her friend, and together they are treated later in the day to an unsatisfactory, mundane dinner at the women's college, the beef "suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market." Things go from bad to worse. "Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed around."

The protagonist cannot help but ponder history and its effect on the present: "What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?"

Of course not. And here comes what Woolf calls "the snag." The women of old may not have had money to bequeath their daughters and granddaughters (and thus did not leave them rooms of their own), but those older women did have the children in the first place. The space they created in some sense was their modern daughters. Had they been making money in the past, the protagonist and her friend might not exist today. As Woolf writes, "Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children--no human being could stand it."

In the end, the protagonist (and perhaps by default Woolf--although perhaps not) cannot undo the snag but can only ponder "how unpleasant it is to be locked out . . . and how it is worse to be locked in."

Which brings us to Edith Hope, our novel's protagonist: "locked out" and "locked in." That seems to be her fate. Or is it?


A Follow-Up To Trollope's THE WARDEN

Wow, we had a great discussion yesterday on a rather slim book. It's hard to make much of a novel where the leading character's stated motivation is "the sheer love of quiet." Still, I think we began to tease out those ambiguities, like the ones about self-renunciation--or the strange dilemma of a musician who loves quiet (?) more than anything else and (so?) plays a shadow cello as a nervous twitch.

Anyway, two interrelated things came up that I wanted to address further.

First, Benjamin Disraeli:

He was prime minister twice--from February to December, 1868; and again from February, 1874, to April, 1880. While his family was originally Jewish, his father early on sent him to a school run by a parson and had him baptized in the Anglican church at twelve. Disraeli himself was sometimes a rather ardent church-goer in his life. The family had been in England for centuries (at least since the late 1400s)--and were themselves unclear if they had originally come from Italy or Portugal, forced out of one or the other during one of the many anti-Jewish pogroms of the Middle Ages.

Second, anti-Semitism in Europe:

This is a complex, fraught, sad, and very long tale. Anti-Jewish pogroms were common, if not incessant, in Europe from at least the 1200s onwards. There are many hair-raising moments long before the Third Reich--such as the Vatican's purging all Jews out of Rome but keeping a handful in a virtual prison because of the belief that Christ would not come back if there were no Jews left to found a renewed Israel.

If you want to explore more about this topic, you might start with Albert Lindemann, ESAU'S TEARS: MODERN ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE RISE OF THE JEWS. Lindemann goes way too far in his conjectures, and his conclusions are a tad baffling, if not outright rambling, but his history is straight on and precise. For the landmark study of the "final solution" as well as the strains of history that led up to it, you might try Lucy Dawidowicz's THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS, 1933 - 1945. This is to date the definitive history. If you have the stomach for it, you might read the chilling tale of the United States, Great Britain, and their combined response to the Holocaust in David Wyman's THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS. It is a heavily-researched bit of history on the exact responses from the two war departments and their various heads of state. It is NOT a happy read--but I believe a necessary one for anyone interested in the full scope of American history. Finally, for a much better story, one that sees a glimmer of hope in a historical moment, take a look at Maria Rosa Menocal's THE ORNAMENT OF THE WORLD: HOW MUSLIMS, JEWS, AND CHRISTIANS CREATED A CULTURE OF TOLERANCE IN MEDIEVAL SPAIN. This book was all the rage in Spain--and in Europe--several years back; it even got good play on this side of the pond. It's a very hopeful tale about a moment of cultural collusion between these three cultures in southern Spain. Many others have told this tale already; Menocal does it with the most grace and beauty.


The Chronicles of Barsetshire

The novel we're reading now is actually the first one in a six-novel series Trollope wrote, all often lumped together as the "chronicles of Barsetshire." These novels are







Trollope is often considered the "British Balzac," partly because of his careful, realistic delineation of his own time and partly because he was so damn prolific: at least 49 novels (more have come to light recently), at least 5 volumes of travel writing, many volumes of short stories, several novellas, a couple of books on literary criticism, a couple of plays, two biographies (of Cicero and Lord Palmerstone), and an autobiography. Much of this while holding down a full-time job in the post office!

The Barsetshire novels are often used as a test case for what happened to Trollope as a writer. He began writing relatively late in life--or "late" in the Victorian age. THE WARDEN is an early production, his fourth novel, written when he was forty. Over the course of the Barsetshire six, Trollope's skill increases dramatically, his scope broadens, and his narrative voice becomes more secure. In other words, one can read the Barsetshire novels as a record of the growth of his artistic imagination.

While the Barsetshire novels have proved his most enduring, he did write another six-volume series, starting in 1864 and continuing through 1879: the Palliser novels, a set of novels about politics and the houses of Parliament, so named for their central character, Plantagenet Palliser, a hard-nosed, hard-working, no-nonsense, socially-maladjusted politician who begins as the heir apparent to the dukedom of Omnium, falls into a very unhappy marriage that lasts through five of the six novels, and eventually goes on to become a "coalition" Prime Minister when neither the Whigs nor the Tories can form a government. Interestingly, Plantagenet Palliser first arises as a minor character in the Barsetshire novels, in THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON, where he has an unsuccessful dalliance with Archdeacon Grantly's daughter.

While it's tempting to see the Barsetshire novels as "about the church" and the Palliser novels as "about the state," it's actually more accurate to see the first set as "about the country" and the second as "about the city."

In his own day, the Palliser novels made Trollope a wealthy man. They proved so popular that they became a cultural touchstone, alluded to in ANNA KARENINA and lovingly invoked by George Eliot. However, it is the six Barsetshire novels that have had the longest run, the most popular novels Trollope wrote, not in his own day, but over the course of time.