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.



Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War

Initial leftist protests in Barcelona, 1936On a blazing hot day in July, 1936, some of the opening shots of the what could become the Spanish Civil War were fired in Barcelona. While the rest of the country was already in severe unrest over the sacking of General Franco from the government and the strife between the Republicans (who supported the crown and the old guard) and the Nationalists (mostly fascists with ties to the Nazis, who lionized the cruel Franco), Barcelona and the Catalan province were a world apart--as they always are. Their struggle made allies of would-be foes in the rest of the country--and presented striking examples of the sorts of high-flown idealism and brass-knuckle pragmatics that so quickly fuse and morph into genocide.

In the end, the Spanish Civil War was an extremely bloody conflict. Just under 400,000 Spaniards lost their lives in the fighting, show trials, and gang-style killings; another 100,000 or so were "disappeared" in subsequent years under Franco's regime. The war split the country into factions that are still present today--although many of those national factions were strangely only minor players in the opening weeks of the war in Barcelona.

Back then, the city was divided into two economic--and geographic--strata: the poor, gathered in neighborhoors on either side of Las Ramblas (a.k.a. La Rambla), one of the main thoroughfares from the port; and the well-to-do, ensconced in mansions up the hill in Tibidabo. No neighborhood was so ripe for conflict, so loaded with the poor, and such a powder keg of leftist idealism as Raval, one of the most tightly packed slums in town. When civility finally broke, the poor poured out of these narrow streets and up the hill, eager for revolution.

Barcelona in ruins as the war came to a close.The initial dust-up was between the CNT (that is, Confederación Nacional del Trabado, an anarchist group that had taken up the cause of the poor in the city as a justification for its anti-goverment crusades) and the Republican forces, trying to hold onto the last gasp of its crumbling, nineteenth-century power. And the Nationalists under Franco were waiting in the wings to exploit the inevitable conflict. Eventually, the CNT and the Republicans would join forces against Franco's henchmen to be on the losing side of the larger war.

The street battles were complicated by the fact that Barcelona was flooded with tourists in the summer of 1936 for the so-called "Popular Olympics," an alternative, international spectacle, created to protest the Olympics going on in Berlin under Nazi rule. Essentially, the Spanish Civil War began as a tourist spectable with thousands watching the increasingly bloody clashes from their hotel balconies and from tables in swanky cafes. Perhaps none was more taken up with the struggle than the British writer George Orwell.

In the initial skirmish, the CNT and their anarchist overlords won the day (but only temporarily). Barcelona was to become a leftist Paradise. (Or a Paradise as leftism was practiced in the early twentieth century, barely a generation after Marx.) Tipping was outlawed. All formal forms of Spanish address--like "usted," the more polite form for "you"--were frowned on. Restaurant and cafe barriers were taken down (there had existed a complicated system by which all tables were always reserved in the best places to avoid any riffraff). The city's many museums were opened to the public. The Communists were encouraged to set up a large, government-funded main office. And George Orwell became the de facto intellectual wellspring, sending out missives and statements from his posh suite at the Hotel Continental. (The former communist headquarters is now the site of the main, massive Apple store in town.)

Aerial view of Italian bombing runs over Barcelona.But Paradise it was not. Literally thousands of priests, clergy members, nuns, and monks were gunned down or disappeared by the anarchists. The economic unrest, never truly solved, began to divide the city again, weakening the CNT. The communists began to gain power. The anarchists sought help from the Republican troops from Madrid. Italians began bombing Barcelona. (Later, the fascists under Franco would point to the holes from shrapnel on buildings and claim it was from the CNT executing people in droves.) Communist allies in Russia began deserting the cause because of the allegiance of the Republican troops. At one point, both the Germans and the Russians were supporting the Nationalists under Franco in Catalan, despite Russia's allegiance with leftists in the rest of Spain and the two country's fighting each other elsewhere in Europe.

An executed nun, exhibited at the Montjuïc for crimes against the state.By 1937, the divisions were insurmountable. The Nationalists (or Fascists) got the upper hand. They killed most of the anarchists in power and even more of the clergy. They established totalitarian control over Barcelona. Orwell fled the country--his experiences led directly to his writing both ANIMAL FARM and 1984. And Barcelona descended into a dark pit of oppression and suppression. The infamous Castle Montjuïc, the place where the leftists had jailed and killed so many, became an even more aggressive torture-and-murder factory under the Nationalists and Franco. In many ways, the brunt of Franco's ire was always directed at Barcelona because neither the poor nor the rich in the city saw him as the natural, enlightened leader he imagined himself to be (gun in hand, of course).

Lines blurred. Allegiances were unpredictable. The sides were murky. World War II, in the offing, would present easier delineations. In Spain, your friend today was your betrayer tomorrow--and your mourner the next day. There wer so many sides, so many factions, so many disputes. Even today, the Spanish Civil War remains a tale difficult to tell. Because of government propoganda under Franco (and even in the years thereafter), it's often been said that the Spanish know the least about their own dark times. Most of the best chroniclers of the Spanish Civil War are British historians. There are English, French, and German tours today to take visitors to the sites of Barcelona's dark story. There are no like tours in Spanish.

You might consider this confusing history of Barcelona in the early to middle twentieth century not only the background for the novel we're reading but as an actual mirror of its events. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is not an allegory, and yet. . . . Is Fumero Franco? Hardly. And yet. . . . Is Fermín an anarchist? Hardly. And yet. . . . Is Daniel lost in the maze of ridiculously complicated Spanish politics, a story still being unraveled? Most definitely.


Norway During World War II

Nazi brass entering Oslo, 1940.The Germans invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, on the pretext that the country was about to be bullied or even overrun by British and French forces. Yes, these two countries did see Norway as a strategic stopping place from which they could open up a northern German front. But Norway and Great Britain had been on tenuous terms for decades. London had recently demanded that Norway take part in the German blockade and that the massive Norwegian merchant marine be requisitioned for British service to tote supplies. In March, 1940, Great Britain drew up plans for an invasion of Norway, mostly to cut off the German trafficking in Swedish iron ore, but also to draw Germany away from France in the hopes of starting a northern front. The British set April 5th as the date for mining four strategic harbors in Norway, the French requested a delay of three days, and the Germans pounced.

Germans burning a Norwegian village, 1940.They began a blitzkrieg campaign and under its cover sailed right into Oslofjord. The Norwegian military was able to sink the main German ship carrying infantry and command controls, as well as scuff up a few other vessels--but such moves were mostly to delay the Germans long enough that the king and parliamentary leaders could flee. Other ports--Stavenger, Trondheim--offered almost no resistance. French and British troops did land on April 14th in an attempt to take back the country; they were roundly defeated by an increased German troop presence--and left the country for good on May 2nd. Within three days, all formal resistance in southern Norway had come to a halt. However, guerilla warfare kept flaming up in the north--and was not fully extinguished until June 10th. Because of this, Norway is the country that resisted the Germans the longest, a day over two months, a source of current pride in Norway.

The ineffectual Norwegian government-in-exile took up residence in London (through complicated diplomatic maneuvering) and the Germans set up the Nasjonal Samling (National Gathering Party) to rule from Oslo with almost 300,000 troops garrisoned throughout the country. Resistance in Norway (known as the Milorg, containing about 40,000 sabateurs and espionage agents) began to gather steam almost immediately. Despite the seemingly poor showing by the government and its official forces to withstand the Nazi invasion, the people of Norway proved quite resilient. By 1942, there was a sophisticated system of underground communications throughout the country that allowed for news to be widely and quickly dispatched. This network also brought about countless acts of passive resistance, including teacher strikes, sick-ins, and labor slow-downs. There were also outright acts of sabotage.

The largest act came when Milorg was able to thwart German plans to build a nuclear program in Norway. Berlin had hoped to make Norway a haven for the creation of still-new and very dangerous nuclear weapons. The facilities could be far away from the Fatherland. But the Milorg was able to disrupt supplies of crucial deuterium (or heavy water) through targeted sabotage. Specific facilities were bombed. A ferry transporting railway cars of deuterium was sunk in Lake Tinnsjø. (The Germans denied any heavy water in the cars. However, a barrel was extracted from the lake in 2005 and did contain deuterium.)

In response to such fierce resistance, the Germans established a few internment camps on Norwegian soil, almost solely for the containment and execution of political prisoners. Most of the camps were modified, existing prisons. They became well-known for torture, particularly attempts to get information out of captured Milorg fighters.

One of the strangest fates befell Norwegian women. Because of their Aryan looks, many thousand were forced to become birth mothers for German soldiers in the hopes of bearing more Master Race babies for the Reich under the rubric of the Lebensborn program. True, some complied willingly, perhaps a survival strategy; others were raped and held captive. After the war, these women were treated harshly by both the reinstalled goverment and the local population: they were forced into the abandonned German camps and they were labeled tyskertøser ("whores of the Germans"), their children, naziyngel ("Nazi spawn"). Most were eventually deported to Germany, never to return. The most famous of the naziyngel is Anna-Frid Lyngstad, one of the two female singers in the Swedish pop group Abba.

Antisemitism in Oslo, 1941.Norwegian Jews suffered a different fate. There were a little more than 2200 Jews scattered throughout the country (mainly in Oslo and Trondheim) when the Germans invaded. A small concentration camp was built in the far north, near Falstad. Here, 150 Jews were murdered, most in mass graves. However, the vast majority of the Jews captured and deported were sent to Auschwitz. In all, at least 765 Norwegian Jews were murdered. Many of the deportations happened because Nazi sympathizers turned in individuals or families. Most of the remaining Jews slipped across the border into Sweden and either blended with the more ethnically diverse populations among the officially neutral Swedes or set sail for the West. By mid-1942, there were no known Jews in Norway. Twenty-three Norwegian Jews survived Auschwitz.

The village of Kirkenes burning in 1945.When the Germans finally withdrew, after the Russian liberation, they left behind a scarred land. Norway's GDP was reduced by over forty-five per cent, the largest drop of any occupied country. The Germans also carried out a scorched-earth policy, burning vast swaths of forests, blowing up villages, and obliterating the infrastructure. Many Norwegians had survived the war by slipping over the porous border into Sweden. Over 42,000 returned with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Even today, the scars of war can be felt throughout Norway. It was one of the founding countries of NATO. It now maintains a large army for defense. And its population is well known for intense frugality, almost austerity.


Ondaatje and Colonialism

University English departments across North American and Europe went through spasms of change during the 1980s. Gone were the genteel groups of musty scholars who argued about the derivation of words or the formal unity of well-studied texts. Instead, departments became roiled in a series of -isms: feminism, Marxism, the new historicism, African American studies, Chicano studies, and even so-called queer studies. Scholars staked out political and social territories and began to interpret the classics through the lens of labor, capital, gender, sexual orientation, and the like.

As you can imagine, the tweedy dons were none too pleased. But their kind was already passing into the haze of emeritus positions. So too did the estabilished canon: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Yeats. That collection of classics seemed to dwindle to insignificance in the face of so many "rediscovered" novels and poems from the Harlem Renaissance, the antebellum south, or the countryside of Ireland.

One movement found a way to reinvigorate studies of the old canon of literature while keeping the new lens on literary studies. It began with the likes of Edward Said at Columbia, scholars who sought to look at the West's literature through the filter of what became known as "colonialism": that is, the profound movement in the West to conquer and own the world, the spread of its economic principles across the globe, the clash of its culture with others, both at home and afar.

What happened: cultures knocked up against each other and competing voices proliferated. So classic texts--Shakespeare's tragedies, Hawthorne's romances, T. S. Eliot's poems--came to be seen as multi-voiced. That is, they contained voices of the dominant culture as well as voices of the oppressed, a social or political unconscious "underneath" the words (as it were). Think of some of the books we've read. For example, "My Antonia" seems to include both the dominant culture's male-oriented vision of the American Midwest, as well as a sly, feminist critique of Jim Burden and his overly romantic soul, both of these "voices" competing for air in the novel. "Huck Finn" includes both the voice of the dominant, white South and of the African-American experience, buried under (and even in) Huck's words.

In other words, power slips through the fingers of those who hold it. In the cracks, other voices emerge, sometimes simultaneously with the dominant social structure's codes, mores, ethics, and assumptions.

Soon, certain postmodern authors began to play self-consciously with multiple-voiced narratives: they tried to set up texts that could escape their own grip. One of the best at this complicated task is the Sri Lankan-born, Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. Through a series of poetic, open-ended memoirs and novels ("Coming Through Slaugher," "The English Patient"), he has attempted to trace the colonial impact on narrative itself, to show the competing voices that arise when a dominant power structure is laid over an indigenous culture.

We can talk more about this at book group--and probably will--but I ask you to think about "The Cat's Table" as a chorus of voices, all connected to Michael, the narrator, but also connected to the larger power play of Ceylon, its colonization by Great Britain, its liberation as Sri Lanka, and its struggle to become a modern country in the mold of its Western colonizers.

Think about the overlayering of voices that must arise when a more powerful culture is draped over an established culture. Think about the African American experience in the slave-holding south. Think about the Protestantization of Catholic Ireland. Think about the coming shift, not in the dominant straight culture, but in gay culture as same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land. Think about the ways women in corporate American must learn to speak in more than one voice. In other words, think about both the capital and debt of colonialism.


Space and CANADA

Among the forms of human expression, writing has the most trouble representing space--not only the boundaries between things but also the sense of emptiness, airiness, openness. Breathing room, if you will.

By contrast, painting is a spatial medium by definition. At its most basic, it presents a window, a framed opening onto an alternate world. Look at this gorgeous fresco by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence from the 1420s. It presents one of the first times figures are arranged in a defined spatial context; it thus became something of an ignition wire for Michelangelo and da Vinci, indeed for the Renaissance as a whole.

The figures are not static, immovable, serene, as they are in this earlier Duccio canvas to the right. The Madonna is fairly flat, immobile, calm; Jesus is almost weightless, no strain on her arms at all, almost levetating in her lap. But in Masaccio's vision, Jesus is extending his hand, the disciples are clotted willy-nilly around him, Peter is seen to the right and left, gathering some miraculous coins from a fish and giving them to the assessor on the other side. (This is a rare instance of a representation of Matthew 17:24-27--thanks to Jill Shallcross for that interpretation.) The disciples are put in perspective, arranged in a scene, made to exist in the world as if they have mass. (They don't--they're flat paint on a cold wall.) Duccio's figures float. Masaccio's are tied to the ground.

That all said, a novel has only the frame and the glass, no painting beyond the glass, no scene at hand. There are only the words, bound on the page. It's as if a writer taps the glass in a window repeatedly and says "look at this." You look at the glass (the words) and you're supposed to see the alternate world--when the glass and the frame are truly all. The rest must be made in your imagination.

So writing has spatial problems that film and painting and sculpture and theater and even music do not. Writing can become airless, tight, constricted--under glass, as it were. (Music, in fact, may be the ultimate spatial medium because its raison d'être is the gap between the notes. Without the gaps, the notes would all sound at once, a big blat of sound. In other words, music is about the silence between the notes. But that's a philosophical discussion, best saved for another day.)

Richard Ford is a master of space. CANADA feels as if it has air, has openness, despite the dread at every turn. In fact, its sense of space may be one of the keys to keeping the dread "doable" for us readers. Think of that great scene in chapter 33, when the Parsons have been arrested and Rudy comes to the house. Berner makes him a burned, still-frozen steak; Dell dances with him in the living room. The whole scene is dripping with dread. And yet it's easy to read, goes down quickly. You don't bog down in the fear. Instead, you almost skim along through the words--or on the glass.

Indeed, CANADA is about space on many levels: the blank openness of Saskatchewan and Montana, the space between the twins Dell and Berner, the spaces inside Dell's consciousness. I'd like us to think about space and the novel: how does Ford do it so successfully? And what does space mean for the novel?


Pilgrimage: Going Out and In

Almost all the world's religions value pilgrimages to holy sites: for example, davening at the ruins of the temple's Western Wall in Jerusalem, walking the long road to the bones of St. James at Santiago de Compostela, undertaking the Hajj to the al-Haram mosque, or planning simple, family outings to Shinto shrines in the verdant countryside of Japan.

It's all founded on an old concept: the deepening of holiness or divinity or spirituality or some otherness in a specific, geographic location. It's as if you can pinpoint God on a map. "Here." Or if not God, then some emissary of God's presence, as in the virgin at Lourdes.

As such, pilgrimage involves map-making: real, physical steps to the manifestation of the divine. If the divine is localized, you need to know how to find it. Some geographers believe the mapmaking impulse is actually predicated on religious pilgrimage.

Religious scholars claim the oldest command of holiness is "Come here." The oracle sits at Delphi, the Buddha sits over Hong Kong--and your job is to get there. Religious duty, then, involves moving toward the divine in a specifically spatial context. To wit, the basic rubric of Torah, the so-called "Old Testament," is "come." Jerusalem is to be the localized presence of God, a city that calls to others, the place where the sacrifices are made to appease God's wrath, where the priests beg for forgiveness. If this is where humans meet God, you'd better get there. In the Hebrew text, almost all journeys to Jerusalem involve some concept of "up," as if Jerusalem is at the height of an arduous ascent--that is, a pilgrimage, even on mundane market days.

All that said, the basic format of pilgrimage changed with the coming of that renegade Jewish sect known as Christianity. The basic religious command was powerfully altered from "come" to "go." If God indwells each believer, then your job becomes moving out of the religious circle and into the world. "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel," Jesus said. It's one of the most radical revisions of religion ever made. His emphasis is no longer on coming to a specific site. Your job is to take God into the unknown. You don't go to God; you carry God to others.

Islam followed that Christian paradigm but also held onto  the older notion of localized religious sites. Even Christianity eventually faltered, despite its founder's best intents. Bones and grails and shrouds became pockets of divinity; Rome morphed into another Mecca. To muddle matters more, many traditional "come here" religions became imbued with the burgeoning spirit of "go" in the more easily traversed, modernizing world: the Dali Lama comes to New York, the ultra-orthodox plant synagogues in the wilds of Litchfield county.

For our purposes, that confusion between "come" and "go" that now pervades many of the world's religions also changed the nature of pilgrimage. It caused the focus to shift from the end of the journey to the journey itself. As you "go," you have to begin to align yourself with your goal. The inside has to come to match the outside, "go" to line up with "come" (and "come" to "go"--but that's a much more complicated notion, that the site of holiness begins to morph to match your coming).

Pilgrimage itself then becomes a process of alignment. It's not enough to go and hear the oracle, to march around the Kaaba, to listen to the hermit in his cave. Two things have to come into closer and closer harmonization: the pilgrim and the object of the pilgrimage. Suddenly, as you walk St. James way to Compestelo, it's no longer about there; it's about getting there.

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