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.



Two Enduring Plots

It's been said that there are only two plots: love and death.

The first is more properly called "comedy." Although we might think of the love plot as nothing but modern romance, the heavy breathing of passion at first sight, the comic plot is in fact a tad more complicated. Here's the most important thing about it: comedy ends at a place where some sort of new social order is created or an upright, old form of the social order is restored.

Since the Middle Ages, that order is most often symbolized by marriage. Take the movie "Pretty Woman." (Please.) Yes, the two characters fall in love; yes, there are some laughs along the way; but more importantly, the two leads end up bound together, a new social order formed for them both at the end of the movie. For her, she's recovering from her personal hurts (and her career choices, I suppose). For him, he's learned to enjoy life rather than just make money. New social orders. And they're in love--breaking old social taboos. Thus, we see him at the end off to meet her with a rose in his teeth, ready to woo her in the old-fashioned way. Marriage presumably follows.

Put another way, in comedy everything works out. In Shakespeare's comedies, people end up married, despite cross-dressing. In Victorian novels, the couples end up both married and rich. In American sit coms, people learn something duly trite about "getting along with each other" or "parents' knowing best." In American movies, it all boils down to knowing yourself (a k a, loving yourself) more than you did before. Voilà, a new social order.

By contrast, I had a professor in grad school who called tragedy "truncated comedy." (The term comes from the title of a play by the Chilean playwright Alejandro Flores). It's not that tragedy is sad by nature (HAMLET has many ridiculously funny parts, as do most of Henry James' snarky novels). Rather, tragedy is comedy that doesn't work out to its "natural" end, usually because of an intervening death (or something that looks like death, such as Catherine Sloper's willed entombment in WASHINGTON SQUARE).

In classical formulations, that moment of tragedy is brought about because the hero or heroine--the lead, the main character, what have you--has some distinct character flaw, whether real or percieved. Lear is brought down by a vain desire for obvious affection; Oedipus, by impetuous anger; Hamlet, by infuriating passivity; and Emma Bovary, by her questioning mind. (We could debate a long time whether Flaubert believes Emma's flaw is real or percieved as such by social convention.)

All that said, we've lately lost this notion of tragedy. The plots of the modern ones--that is, those written after the nineteenth century--usually don't pivot on a character flaw. Instead, they work themselves out by various distortions of the basic "love plot" in comedy. A character wants to love--but can't, won't, didn't, wouldn't, shouldn't, etc. Many trace this disappearance of traditional tragedy to an important shift in religion. The gods don't smite as much anymore. Thus, one could argue that there is only one plot left in literature: love (a k a, comedy).

In the twentieth century in the West, half the population saw the death of the gods and the other became more fervently religious in a gin-up-the-emotions sort of way. Yes, there are small exceptions here and there. But in the end, with some people's becoming less religious and others' becoming more emotional in their religion (God is not hurling thunderbolts to back up thou-shalt-nots but softly lisping thou-shalts if the believer will but listen), we lost tragedy and ended up with endless versions of comedy--or perhaps more accurately, with a form of tragedy that's no longer grand, having to do with absolutes and eternals, but is instead "merely" a corruption of domesticated comedy. Ironic, no?

Tragedy is no longer truncated comedy. It's a distortion of comedy. These distortions can be external to the characters--consider "Schindler's List" or "Sophie's Choice." In both cases, the Holocaust, of course, is the external factor--Schindler wanted to love his fellow humans but could only do so much; Sophie was forced to make a horrid choice that disrupted the basic bonds of love.

Or those distortions may be internal. Consider the lack of basic humanity in movies like "American Beauty" or "The Ice Storm." In these cases, there's no deep and abiding flaw that wrecks society (or as in the case of Oedipus and Hamlet, wrecks an illegitimate social order). Instead, the distortions are all about the characters' loving too little or loving the wrong things too much--both corruptions of the basic comic plot.

Which is where ENDURING LOVE comes into play. The distortions come fast and thick, even in the first few sentences.

As you read the book, occasionally go back and read the first two or three paragraphs. Look carefully at how certain distortions are already in play. We'll want to talk more about these when we meet next.

But until then, here's Billy Collins' irreverant and wonderful take on how to write about the two basic plots of literature in the modern age:


from "Questions About Angels" (Quill/William Morrow, 1991)

My favorite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a pot of cold tea.

Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.

Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.

I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.

After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.

Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.


Love and Morality

In many ways, Ian McEwan's ENDURING LOVE is a morality play, one even pretty close to the medieval roots of morality plays. Back then, these dramas were made up of a handful of characters, each standing in for a distinct perspective or virtue. The plot involved some sort of temptation and the counsels of the various virtues, all wrestling out right from wrong, often against a background of "love" (whether divine or human). The central character learns to do the right thing because of a love for God or his fellow humans or his spouse or some such.

Love. Many consider it the basis of ethics in Western thought. Love draws you out of yourself. Love leads you to noble acts. Love leads you to selflessness. Love inspires you to care about your fellow humans. Love enlarges your capacity for wisdom. And so forth.

Of course, we'll talk more about these things in reference to the novel; but I thought it would be interesting for you to watch a clip of McEwan being interviewed by Richard Dawkins. Here, McEwan repeatedly touches on the subject of ethics, of how humans should treat each other--and the "question" of love. I think you'll see a tension in the video between Dawkins' rather tightly-held certainty and McEwan's embrace of nuance, despite holding to the same principles as Dawkins.

This is a raw, unedited video; but it offers you a glimpse into McEwan himself--not only his thought but his "way of being" in the world. (As always, we have a low bandwidth for our site, so let the video load a bit before you launch into it. It's about 35 minutes long.)



Spinning Yeats

In many ways, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is an answer, or perhaps a counterbalance, to William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming," one of the seminal poems in English in the twentieth century. Bits and pieces of "The Second Coming" get referenced in several places in McCann's novel.

Here's Yeats' poem in full:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I'd like to start our discussion here, with Yeats' poem of terror and fear, the nightmare of some "rough beast . . . slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem," written at the end of World War I and as the Irish were undergoing horrible, national repressions.

If you look on page 325 of McCann's novel, you'll see the resounding answer to Yeats at the end of the third paragraph: "Things don't fall apart."

Or to put it another way, to quote the novel again: "The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough" (page 349).


Spinning The City

As you know by now, LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is forthrightly a novel of the city, of New York City, a Walt-Whitmanesque catalogue of the voices filling an urban space that, as Judge Soderberg says in "Part of the Parts," is "uninterested in history." "[New York] assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief" (page 247).

As the book goes on to say, "[New York] wasn't like London, where every corner had a historical figure carved out of stone, a war memorial here, a leader's bust there. [Judge Soderberg] could only really pinpoint a dozen true statues around New York City--most of them in Central Park, along the Literary Walk, and who in the world went to Central Park these days? A man would need a phalanx of tanks just to pass Sir Walter Scott. On other famous street corners, Broadway or Wall Street or around Gracie Square, nobody felt a need to lay claim to history. Why bother? You couldn't eat a statue. You couldn't screw a monument" (page 248).

We live in the country, of course. Rurally. With breathing room. Many of us have chosen to leave New York City (or perhaps some other city) to live up here, in what Faulkner called "the cold air, the iron New England dark."

And yet. The city calls. We go in. We see it. We're glad to see it as it's coming toward us in the windshield or from the window of the train. We're also glad to see it moving away in the rearview mirror.

As you think about this novel, consider these other voices about the city:

Just as language no longer has anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connection with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle. Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian poet, 1903.

Today's city appears impregnable. However, it is the most vulnerable structure ever conceived by man. Martin Oppenheimer, American lawyer, specialist in labor relations, 1969.

The city is a fact of nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel, or an ant heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city, and in turn, urban forms condition mind. Lewis Mumford, American architectural critic, 1938.

The country only has charms for those not obliged to be there. Édouard Manet, French painter, 1860.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn't changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman. John Berger, British cultural critic, 1987.

The American city should be a collection of communities where every member has a right to belong. It should be a place where each of us can find the satisfaction and warmth which come from being a member of the community of man. Lyndon Baines Johnson, American politician and president, 1965.

The cities of America are inexpressibly tedious. The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere; their 'Hub,' as they call it, is the paradise of prigs. Chicago is a sort of monster shop, full of bustles and bores. Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry. Baltimore is amusing for a week, but Philadelphia is dreadfully provincial; and though one can dine in New York, one could not dwell there. Oscar Wilde, British author and gadabout, 1887.

Indeed the metropolis is a complete cyclopedia, where every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable. Pierce Egan, British journalist and sportswriter, 1821.

A hick town is one where there is no place to go where you shouldn't go. Alexander Wolcott, American critic, member of the Algonquin Round Table, 1935.



The title of McCann's novel is taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," a long, 197-line poem about war, love, the past, and even the future. Here's the quote, as it's found in the poem's final, fourteen lines:

. . . .  Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.


Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day;
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.


Mother-Age (for mine I knew not) help me as when life begun:
Rift the hills, and roll the waters, flash the lightnings, weigh the Sun.


O, I see the crescent promise of my spirit hath not set.
Ancient founts of inspiration well thro' all my fancy yet.


Howsoever these things be, a long farewell to Locksley Hall!
Now for me the woods may wither, now for me the roof-tree fall.


Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.


Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow;
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.

Admittedly, it's a tough poem--about a soldier in an unnamed war who pauses in a long march, sending his troops ahead as he engages in a complex, interior monologue.

His march has taken him near Locksley Hall, a place he loved as a child and where he first fell in love. As he lingers amid the chaos of war, he tries to come to terms with his own past--and eventually finds himself adrift in the murky waters of his own sexism and racism before finally imagining a future utopia, largely predicated on Europe vanquishing "the Orient" and born of wars where (in a strange bit of prophecy for the 1830s) air-born navies fight it out in the skies. By the end of his monologue, his wish, as you can see in the bit above, is for his cherished Locksley Hall to be obliterated.

The poem is among Tennyson's masterpieces: dense, trying, exasperting, oddly childlike, and full of contradictions, ranking up there with his most significant work: "In Memoriam A. H. H." Tennyson was a man of his time, invested in the dream of nineteenth-century progress, always doubting it, finding his religious faith shaken by Darwin and new geological findings, hanging on to the church despite not wanting to, defending England to the last, yet knowing that he was a man out of step with his beloved country, a throw-back to another era who could not survive outside a patronage system that ran counter to the mercantile spirit of the day.

I may bring copies of "Locksley Hall" to our group meeting this week--but I fear we won't have time to tackle such a clever poem. If you'd like, we can think about setting aside a meeting in the future to discuss it--and its relation to Colum McCann's novel.