We haven't read many real classics for this reading group, and our usual lit-crit mode of discussion seemed hardly appropriate for a book (suggested by John) that is considered a staple of the Western canon, and indeed one of the most influential books of all time. Published in 1759 and the most famous of Voltaire's works, it is the picaresque tale of an ingenue, Candide, who has been schooled by his tutor Pangloss in the Leibnitzian philosophy of Optimism - the idea that, since God made this world He must have sufficient reason for its shortcomings, and that therefore it is 'the best of all possible worlds'. Ejected from the comfort of his royal home after being found paying sexual attention to the princess of the castle, Guneconde, Candide embarks on a series of travels and adventures that open his eyes to the horrors of the world and turn him against such a philosophy. An attack thus on Optimism, the book is a satirical takedown of all the established institutions and belief systems of society, most notably organised religion, but many others, including rank, the army, money systems and slavery.
Some of us had already read it, others hadn't; Doug had read it in the original French for A-level. John was pleased to revisit its biting and sometimes laugh-out-loud comedy; Jenny, who hadn't read it before said she was very glad that she now had, although she wouldn't have appreciated it properly had her edition not had an explanatory Introduction that also delineated the real-life historical events to which the novel was referring. Everyone said, however, how pertinent the satire nevertheless is to the present day, and everyone had enjoyed it. We relished reading the phrases coined in this novel that have become common currency, such as pour encourager des autres (the satirical reference here is to the 1757 court-martial and execution of Admiral Byng for failing to prevent the French from capturing a British stronghold on Minorca) and 'cultivating one's garden' (which Candide and his companions decide is the only sensible alternative to trying to make sense of a cruel, mad world). We did find that it took a bit of reading, that although it is a short work it seemed longer, which I thought was partly due to the picaresque form, which strings events out in a linear fashion (and, I find, makes it easy to forget them). Ann commented that since the book had actually been banned after its (secret) publication, one wonders how many people actually got to read it at the time, which makes it all the more impressive that it has had such an impact (which goes to show, perhaps, not just its wit and profundity, but also the unintended consequences of banning books, or maybe the power of reading elites, or both).
Crossing to Safety
There seem to be two schools of thought about Wallace Stegner, who founded the creative writing school at Stanford University (1946) and taught many well-known American novelists. One is that he himself is somewhat minor as a novelist, and another is that he is in fact one of the greatest American writers and unjustly overlooked, partly or mainly because he is a novelist of the American west (rather than the fashionable east coast) with an environmentalist stress on landscape. Perhaps as a result of this schism no one in our group had heard of him, I think, apart from Mark who a few years ago had read this, Stegner's final novel, and remembered enjoying it. Acknowledged to be semi-autobiographical, it is the story of the lifelong friendship between two couples, narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally, and Sid and Charity Lang. The novel begins in 1972 near the end of this journey, with Larry and Sally waking in the Vermont compound where over many years they spent summers hosted by Charity and her family, and where Charity is now clearly dying. Then in flashback we follow the story from the beginning in 1938, as Larry and Sally arrive in Wisconsin for Larry to begin teaching in the English Department at the university, where Sid is already on the staff. It is Charity who immediately befriends the new couple, swiftly visiting Sally in their basement flat, the pregnancies of both women forming an instant bond between them. It is clear from the start that Charity is a woman of force. Although Larry and Sally are much poorer and lack the family connections the Langs enjoy, the Langs are very keen to take them under their wing and to form a close friendship with them, quickly inviting them to dinner and then constantly arriving on their doorstep to whisk them away to picnics etc., and the Morgans are clearly flattered. The Langs then spend many years helping the Morgans out both socially and financially.
Very soon there is no doubt that Charity is controlling. She is determined that she and Sid will have a prominent role in Wisconsin academia. Larry rapidly achieves success as a short story writer for prestigious magazines and soon also gets his first novel accepted for publication, but although eventually Charity will enthusiastically engineer a publishing job for Larry through a family connection, bent on an academic career for Sid, she discourages Sid from the writing he would like to do and thus ultimately destroys his prospects as a writer. An incident in which she is particularly controlling is one that will end in tragedy for Sally and Larry. On one of their stays in Vermont, the two couples take a walking trip with a packhorse (leaving their children behind with the hired carers). It begins with an embarrassing confrontation when, just as they are due to set off, Charity demeans Sid by publicly insisting that he unpack and repack to be sure that the matches he said he packed are really in there. Once they set out she insists that the four walk by the compass, leading them into bogs and other impediments. By the end of the trip, Sally has come down with polio, which will disable her for life, and, although it is not stated, there is a between-the-lines implication that Charity's behaviour is responsible. Now, in 1972, it will turn out, Charity has orchestrated a scenario for her own death in which she has commanded everyone to be present - although in fact Larry and Sally have not seen her for some years - and has even drawn up a list of women of her own choice as potential marriage partners for Sid after she is gone.
Objectively for the reader therefore Charity is something of a monster. In her Introduction to the 2013 Penguin edition, Jane Smiley states that '...it is clear early in the novel that Charity rubs Larry the wrong way, and that probably the two of them would never be friends without Sid ... and Sally, who loves Charity.' However, most of us in the group felt that there was much more narrative ambivalence towards Charity than this implies. Larry is initially almost, if not quite, as bowled over by her as Sally: 'All right. I admitted it: a charming woman, a woman we couldn't help liking on sight. She raised the pulse and the spirits, she made Madison a different town, she brought life and anticipation and excitement into a year we had been expecting to endure stoically.' The 'all right' and the 'I admitted it' do indicate some prior doubts, but the rest of the statement serves to sweep them away. As the novel progresses, Charity is revealed as more and more controlling; meanwhile, there is more and more insistence on the fact that the Morgans loved Charity, and the dichotomy becomes stronger. Several admiring critics have seen this as a subtle portrayal of the paradoxical complications of friendship, but it did not strike most of us in our group like that: most of us found it simply inconsistent and were left with a strong sense of disingenuousness, and consequently the sense that Larry was prepared to swallow any flaws for what Charity could offer him and Sally (the social and financial 'safety' of the title perhaps). Most strongly betraying disingenuousness and insincerity, perhaps, however, is the prose: two or three people in our group commented that there appears to be to be no authorial irony in the depiction of Larry - narrator and author seem very close - and for much of the narration there is a telling coyness and sentimentality. He describes the Vermont compound:
A happy, orderly, lively corner of Eden, as hushed as a hospital at quiet times, jumping with activity as soon as the social bell sounded ... Sid over the barbecue, Lyle and I over the firewood; Aunt Emily, Aunt Heather, and the hired girls over the smaller children...
a passage that goes on for several pages.
Some of us found it hard to understand why otherwise Larry and Sally would have anything more to do with the other pair after the first dinner party, when Charity uses a police whistle to marshal people into dances and songs, and when, much worse, there is antisemitism in the air as a clearly uneasy Jewish couple, who do not know the dances and songs, are made out to be ungracious, jealous and downright wet blankets.
But no, after the party the Morgans and Langs walk together wrapped in the burnooses provided by the Langs and 'fell into a four-ply laughing hug, we were so glad to know one another and so glad that the trillion chances in the universe had brought us to the same university at the same time', a sentiment later cemented in the fact that, once their daughter is born very soon after, Larry and Sally call her after the other two, Lang. And it is hard to see past one of the early, establishing sentences of the novel, describing Charity's compound:
There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.
But then it is Larry himself who seems most strongly to express the antisemitic attitude. 'And there sat the impossible Erlichs.' he says, 'smiling and smiling, with their useless book open on their laps and their mouths shut, hating what they envied.' He describes the atmosphere after the pair, the Erlichs, have summarily left the party in angry disgrace:
Altogether a lovely scene. I felt guilty and triumphant. There we were, still in the warmth and light and grace of that room, while those who didn't belong, those who hated and envied, those who were offensive to Athena, went out into the chilly darkness. I knew how they felt, and I hated it for their sakes. But I also knew how I felt. I felt wonderful. [My bolds.]
'I hated it for their sakes,' he says, and 'I knew how they felt', but one would hope for a stronger self-condemnation, and the passage is in any case haloed by his earlier reaction to the Erlichs. Marvin Erlich, he says, is
...one of the high-crotch, baggy-tweed contingent ... loading his pipe and scattering tobacco crumbs all over my desk... I had reacted to him as if he were ragweed, and I was not especially happy to see him now... His wife (I reconstruct this without charity, small c) gave us a smile that I thought curiously flat in so plump a face. It struck me then, and strikes me again now, how instantly mutual dislike can make itself evident. Or was I only reacting to their indifference? They did not appear to value me, so the hell with them.
Post 1972, narrator Larry does wonder more generously how the Erlichs, among others, fared in life, but in the light of this quite vividly portrayed distaste, the later sentiment and the above comment on his own lack of charity do seem disingenuous. And the last sentence of the last-quoted paragraph indeed strikes me as particularly self-centred. Now, as he recounts the party incident, he muses: 'Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way,' but then immediately lets himself off the hook: 'but I don't think so.'
For me there is a lot of disingenuousness and self-centredness surrounding the issue of the comparative literary fates of Larry and Sid. Narrator Larry portrays himself as sympathetic to Sid's difficulty and embarrassed about his own success in comparison with Sid's failure, but the narrative stress on his own success and on the admiration of others, including Charity and Sid, seems to me to belie this. One of Larry's short stories is accepted by the prestigious Atlantic. On a walk on the same day, Sid reveals that as an undergraduate he published poems in small (lesser) magazines, and Larry asks him to recite one:
But he won't... He would be overcome with embarrassment to expose them to a real writer, one with the Atlantic's letter in his pocket.
While we can take this as a replication of Sid's attitude - ie Larry assumes that Sid thinks of him as the real writer of the two, and indeed goes on to protest and tell Sid that he shouldn't let outside pressures stop him writing - for the whole of this book there is the sense for this reader that that's Larry's view too, so his sympathy with Sid's dashed promise came across to me as disingenuous and patronising, and his bashfulness about his own success as humblebrag.
John was shocked too by the self-centredness, finding it even in the first chapter, which others of us, including me, hadn't. Larry rises early, before Sally, and walks in the compound, relishing the surroundings: '...a road I have walked hundreds of times, a lovely lost tunnel through the trees, busy this morning with birds and little shy rustling things, my favourite road anywhere.' Looking back in the context of the whole novel, however, I can see what John's bullshit detector lit on:
We didn't come back to Battell Pond this time for pleasure... But I can't feel sombre now... Quite the reverse. I wonder if I have ever felt more alive, more competent in my mind and more at ease with myself and the world.
In other words, it's not really about nature, about the beautiful surroundings, or his disabled wife lying asleep back in the lodge, helpless should she wake, or the sombre reason for their visit, it's all about him.
John was shocked too by the sexism. When Larry's first novel is accepted for publication he throws an impromptu party to celebrate. During the evening, Sally, heavily pregnant, indeed about to give birth, has to retire to the bedroom of their basement flat, while beyond the wall Larry relishes being kissed by two women: 'I am flooded with a Turkish [!] feeling of being surrounded by desirable, affectionate women... More kisses. Smooch, mm.' (Though of course, true to form, he denies there is anything sexual in it: 'both delightful, charming sisters I wish I had'). Larry is quite happy to have Sally, whose face he says is the picture he wants to carry beyond the grave (or words to that effect - I can't find the quote), spend her whole time typing and editing his manuscripts before she is disabled. Narrator Larry says:
Nowadays, people might wonder how my marriage lasted. It lasted fine. It throve, partly because I was as industrious as an ant-eater in a termite mound and wouldn't have noticed anything short of a walkout, but more because Sally was completely supportive and never thought of herself as a neglected wife - 'thesis widows', we used to call them in graduate school.
There is acknowledgement here of course of the outdated patriarchy of the situation, but the tone is complacent and somewhat offhand ('It lasted fine'). (And there is of course complete ignorance of unraised consciousness, along with self-justifaction, in the excuse that 'Sally never thought of herself as a neglected wife'.) This is one of the very few comments on their marriage, and most in our group agreed that Sally is nothing more than a cipher in the novel.
People wondered why, in a semi-autobiographical novel, the author should have made the non-autobiographical choice to make the narrator's wife disabled, noting that it sent her to the sidelines of the action. We never get any sense of any involvement of Larry with her care (they employ a woman for that) even though at the end of the novel Larry is able to bask in Sid's congratulation for carrying the burden. In one scene, Larry holds her up to watch a procession she is excited by. 'Anything she was enchanted by she was entitled to', he says, but then there is laughable stress on the discomfort it's causing him:
My feet were getting cold, and were punctured by the gravel embedded in the roof ... 'Sure you're not cold?' [he asks her] ...then her hand went up and down my back, pressing the cold cloth of my pajamas to my skin. 'But you are! You're freezing!'
Others remarked on the constant references to servants, including the girl employed full-time to look after their baby, as 'our girl' or 'the girl'. Clare pointed out in disgust that at one point one of the nanny helpers is compared to a cow. Someone noted that there is nothing in the novel of the Morgans' years with a growing child (we never ever get to know Lang). The attitude to children and childcare was to me laughably shocking. John picked out the fact that Larry, trying to hug Sally over her pregnant bump, refers to the baby as an 'intruder', and the attitude is carried over once the baby is born. Taking a sailing trip on the lake, the two couples are caught in squally weather and the boat overturns. Although their lives seem to be in danger, there is not one thought of the baby at home with the minder, and once Larry and Sally arrive home they refuse to take the baby screaming for its long overdue breast feed and demand that the minder girl holding her pour them a steaming bath:
Ellen came out of the bathroom with Lang purple-faced and unappeasable on her shoulder. We crowded past them into the steam and shut the door.
Once Sally does take Lang, there is a certain distaste in Larry's attitude to her:
Burly, fat-faced, obviously overnourished at Sally's expense, she did not get my sympathy.
One period in the later past life of Larry and Sally that is dwelt on in detail is the year they spend with the Langs in Florence on Guggenheim Fellowships, once their daughter has departed for university. While narrator Larry states that the four were excitedly and humbly aware of their luck and keen to learn, John, agreed with by others, couldn't help feeling that they were in fact horribly pleased with themselves for being there, the prose being particularly coy in this section, this paragraph perhaps encapsulating an underlying arrogance and patronisation:
While buying gas [at Gubbio], [we] heard a passionate crie de coeur from the girl who manned the pump. She said she was trapped in this medieval prison of a town. She turned her lips inside out when we protested that it was the most picturesque town we had ever seen... if we had wanted a maid, a driver, a cook, a sarta, a concubine, a faithful follower until the first better opportunity showed, we could have had that girl for a thousand lire a day ...We regretted afterwards that we hadn't asked her. It would have been interesting to see her expression when she found herself expected to stand respectfully before the Della Robbia lunettes in the Pazzi chapel, or asked to wait with the car outside Santa Maria Novella.
'We were once again four in Eden', he says, a reference back to an earlier and apparently unironically self-aggrandising comment about the four in Vermont:
Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God's plan, and one I recommend to Him next time He makes a world.
Mark, who in spite of enjoying the book in the past found he couldn't even read it this time around, defended it however from criticisms of sexism and snobbery by saying that it was of its time, and suggested that it was no more sexist than Updike or Roth. Most in the group didn't find that any excuse. The book was first published in 1987 when many writers were writing with very different atitudes. Ann commented rightly that these things often overlap in the development of artistic trends, and we agreed that it was in fact an old-fashioned book for its time in terms of both attitudes and prose style.
Clare was irritated by the constant lists of plants, which struck her not so much as appreciation of nature as showing off a knowledge of taxonomy. I noted that, although Stegner has been lauded as a writer of the American landscape, there has also been objection to the fact that he overlooks completely the role of Native Americans in its history. The only references to Native Americans in this book are at the moment when the young Larry, arriving for the first time at the Vermont compound, comes upon Charity's mother reading Hiawatha to a group of children, and the couple of occasions when Larry makes a jokey stereotype parody of Native American speech which made me distinctly uncomfortable. Most people were also irritated (and bored) by the way the characters constantly quoted, sometimes at length, from poetry, and some thought it pretentious (on the part of both the characters and the author).
However, although we so thoroughly demolished this book, Ann, John and I had to say that we were fascinated by it, Ann because the situation with Charity's family echoed some of her own American family history, John because the attitudes of the two couples reminded him of the parental distance and snobbery of his own childhood, and he and I because we simply couldn't believe it and kept looking for the savage irony we expected but didn't find.
Jenny had been quiet all this time and she now spoke up, saying that she had enjoyed the book and that she found our criticisms totally unnecessary and indeed 'sour'. She thought it completely wrong that we brought the author into our discussions, and didn't just attend to the story, which she thought was a really good one - the story of how two couples ended up being friends for so many years. Mark replied that it was potentially a really good story, and an unusual one, but that we hadn't liked the treatment. Jenny however would not be moved. She strongly disagreed that there was no irony in the narration, and, apparently disgusted with us, said we would just have to agree to disagree on that.
The Summer Book
All of us present enjoyed reading Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. A short book, it's the semi-autobiographical portrayal of life for a young girl, Sophia (who in real life was Jansson's niece), and her grandmother (in reality Jansson's mother) on the tiny isolated Finnish island they occupy with Sophia's father during the summer. Ann, who had suggested the book, said that she was very engaged by the relationship - two rather crotchety yet utterly bonded characters delineated movingly yet without a hint of sentimentality, often with humour. Everyone strongly agreed. The book is episodic, with chapters devoted to isolated incidents - the grandmother losing her false teeth, the visit of one of Sophia's friends, a night that Sophia tries camping, a storm - but overall is the sense of summer swelling and then fading. Overall too, is the sense of death - Sophia's mother is dead, and there is much of the grandmother's failing physicality - but this runs alongside a sense of the richness of life and nature. The thing that impressed me - and Doug - most was the prose, which seems very simple but somehow manages to create a striking vividness and an evocative atmosphere, so that the island with its teeming life and seasonally changing nature lingers in the mind. We were never sure whether the book is meant to portray a single summer or several consecutive summers - Sophia appears to become older, more sophisticated in her speech, but then later to regress - but this didn't really seem to matter, as the whole thing has a dreamlike quality with the magical logic of dreams.
Mark was perhaps the least enthusiastic, feeling that the episodic nature of the book hardly qualified it as a novel. The rest of us had no problem with this, and my feeling was that there was no need to label the book. Whatever it was, we enjoyed it.
The Mountains Sing
Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Clare suggested this internationally bestselling debut novel written in English by a celebrated Vietnamese poet. A family saga narrated alternately by a grandmother and her present-day granddaughter, it deals with four generations of the Tran family, and depicts the extreme trauma they experience through the French occupation in the twenties, the barbaric practices of the Communist land reforms, the American involvement in the second Indochinese War, and the continuing legacy of the use by the Americans of Agent Orange. During this time, grandmother Dieu Lan sees her father beheaded, is forced to flee from her farm with her children and loses her grown children to the damaging conflict in the south.
This was subject matter that, on the intellectual level, alerted the interest of all of us, and Clare, introducing the book, declared her appreciation of the fact that the book addresses a viewpoint and experience that has so far had little attention in accounts of this history, a point with which we all agreed. However, although she appreciated the lyrical descriptions, she found the narration plodding, and therefore not in fact all that engaging. We all felt the same. In fact, I didn't find the descriptive passages as lyrical as Clare did, but rather cliched and clumsy and thus alienating rather than engaging. All felt that the characters were hard to engage with as they never came to life. As Ann pointed out, they were ciphers, each created to illustrate a particular aspect of Vietnamese history. Someone also commented that the book was sentimental.
It was clear to us that it had been a dynamic political choice to write the book in English, as those who need most to hear its message are America and the West. We felt it a shame therefore that because of this lack of emotional involvement with the characters, we engaged only intellectually with the message, since the real potential political power of fiction is in its ability to make readers identify with a message on an emotional level. Mark - who wasn't at the meeting - also pointed out later that it was sometimes hard in any case to grasp the history, since there was no differentiation between the two alternating voices, and sometimes he got muddled about what had happened when. It was also his cynical view that the book's huge success is down to American guilt about Vietnam, a guilt which indeed preceded its publication, and thus paved the way for its reception.