Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath

We gathered on a Thursday evening in South Edinburgh to tackle one of the most feted books in American literature, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. To the disappointment of one of our number this wasn’t a Star Trek sequel, but a story of the Great Depression, of the exodus from the dust bowls of Oklahoma and neighbouring states to California in search of fruit picking in the promised land. Clearly, this had timely echoes in current economic migration within Europe.

The proposer had not read much American literature, with the exception of Steinbeck and Hemingway (covered elsewhere in our blogs). He noted that Steinbeck was a great literary figure, winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, and found this book well worthy of the accolades. There was digression to talk of Steinbeck’s fascination with Camelot, encapsulated in a posthumous publication, ‘The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”. Is there a connection? Maybe this exists in the depiction of ‘noble peasants’ within The Grapes of Wrath.

Our proposer noted that Steinbeck was anti-business, anti authoritarian, and this wasn’t exactly surprising given his body of work and this book in particular. The book was widely acclaimed when it came out, yet criticised by some as an inaccurate socialist polemic, for example by the California Farmers Association. In passing, we noted that those who instigated the original clearances in Oklahoma seemed to somehow escape with lesser censure. Maintaining the anti-authoritarian posture, Steinbeck shows how the authorities supported the farmers against the immigrants. However there is reference to the ability to get relief and the setting up of Federal camps. It was suggested that the unsympathetic portrayal of business and authority was largely accurate, and one could draw parallels with the use of illegal workers now, although the practices depicted were legal in 1939. Sanora Babb, whose notes from employment within the Farm Security Administration were used by Steinbeck, would add support to the Steinbeck thesis. Her own, consequent book wasn’t published until 2004, having been gazumped by the Steinbeck novel in 1939.

Another member found the book harrowing, relentless, employing a style of writing which reflects the relentless pressure on the immigrants. The only uplifting factor in the book is the indomitable human spirit of the migrant workers. Steinbeck juxtaposed the story of the Joad family and their co-travelers with the overall historical descriptions of the Great Depression as a very clever structural component. He highlighted the gap between the American dream and the American reality.

The next speaker went further. It is just too long and relentless. There was a lack of light and shade, the text lost its pace, and sometimes went flat. He had read it firstly as a youth, then finding it boring, but now appreciated it more. Nevertheless, he did not join in the generally favourable criticism, even now.

Inevitably, the major issues are universal and pertinent today. Today, Western Europe is regarded by some as new land of milk and honey, but nevertheless there are food banks and illegal worker exploitation as noted above. (Strangely as I write this note after a long dry spell there are stories of a lack of migrant workers to pick fruit, post Brexit referendum, and the gaps are not being filled by the local population.) Having said that, there is considerable social buffering in comparison with the 1930s and allegedly the gap between rich and poor may be decreasing, although that probably depends on how you interpret the statistics. In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants were treated almost as a sub-human species; is that the case in the UK or Europe today? One suggested that the Brexit referendum result was caused by illogical fear and panic rather than rational debate based on sound arguments put forward by politicians (Surely not! –  Ed.). If alive today, Steinbeck would still find ample subject matter for some new books.

So, in this text, the California farmers don’t get a good press. What of the depiction of the migrants themselves? In general, not all migrants are noble, law-abiding and upstanding citizens, are they? Some are good, some bad, as with any section of population. One questioned the lack of aspiration of the migrants; perhaps they should raise their horizons? Are they ‘losers’ to quote the current US president? Au contraire, many migrants to the UK are highly educated and aspiring and many sectors of the economy, such as the high technology business, and public service, such as the NHS, are very dependent on such citizens. OK, there is some mention of aspirations to study vehicle maintenance but no real practical effort to fulfill these aims. Ah yes, said another, but this a polemic, not a balanced argument. It is quite justifiable to argue case with considerable bias. In some countries, revolutions occurred; here, there are references to the formation of labour movements, strikes etc., but these are peripheral to the main threads.

“Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”

There is an emphasis on family, and on the mother figure, Ma Joad, who holds the family together with such emphasis. Religion is a target of the book, it is implied that religion is a thing of the past, explicitly stated for Jim Casy. The references to religion are quite controversial.

“Maybe there ain’t no sin, there ain’t no virtue… It’s just what people does… Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice … And that’s all any man’s got a right to say…”.

Can they, should the California farmers feed the world? Should fruit picking not be mechanized? Progress is the elephant in the room and to what extent is a job a job for life?  The Steinbeck solution is, arguably, unworkable, you cannot turn Californian land over to small peasant farmers and feed the country. A car salesman is also portrayed as dishonest; there is a reference to taking a rotten and a god half cucumber and joining then together with a matchstick. Is there no such person as an honest salesman or benevolent farmer?  Again, one emphasised that this book is a polemic and therefore one shouldn’t expect balance or unbiased thinking. This contributor loved the sentimentality of the narrative, he felt empathy with people who work on the land, the gnarled sons of the soil, the salt of the earth, romanticised and self-indulgent. This was absolutely justified in this opinion.

Was there an absence of humour, was the subject too serious for humour? There were occasional passages that raised a smile, as when Tom tricked the driver, The Indian half breed regretted he wasn’t a whole breed as he missed benefits. One called it a misery memoir – that word ‘relentless’ cropped up again.

As the evening drew on, the talk turned to the possible soundtrack of the book, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Lonnie Donnegan, Merle Haggard, …

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee …. We like livin’ right, and bein’ free..”

Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie (the Oklahoma poet!), …

“The highway is alive tonight, Where it’s headed everybody knows, I’m sitting down here in the campfire light, With the ghost of old Tom Joad”

Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Country Music – right wing, south of the Mason Dixon line. Poor white music, three chords and the turn.

“Won’t you get hip to this timely tip, When you make that California trip, Get your kicks on Route sixty six”

To conclude, most thought the novel worthy of the ‘great’ accolade, but this was not the unanimous view. Those who could make the comparison thought this his best book. Is he a good writer? One called the descriptive passages excellent, with dialogue that made the characters believable. Opinion was always divided. An absent colleague was in no doubt, describing the work as a masterful piece of literature. The story romped on, leaving the reader desperate to find out what happens next. The ending was controversial but interpreted as hope for the future and of inbred humanity through Rose of Sharon….hoping for a child but giving her milk to a dying stranger at the end.

… and we missed the England – Belgium game…..

Smith, Ali: Autumn

Ali Smith was born in 1962, in Inverness. She studied English at the University of Aberdeen and then enrolled for a PhD at the University of Cambridge (1985 to 1990) but started writing plays and consequently did not complete her degree.  Some of her plays were staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Cambridge Footlights. She came to Edinburgh and worked as a lecturer of Scottish, English and American literature at the University of Strathclyde. Now she lives in Cambridge, writes novels and publishes articles in The Guardian, The Scotsman, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement. 

Published in 2016, this is her 8th novel. It’s the story of a life-long friendship between a woman and a much older man. The friendship begins when Elisabeth, a child of eight, meets a senior neighbor uDaniel Gluck. They get talking, and the conversation will last until he dies at the age of 101 in an old peoples’ home. It’s a book that is somewhat unsettling, and often divided the opinions of our members.

An over-arching idea emerging from the book is the non-linearity of time. This reminded us of a novella by Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat, which we read last month. Of course, time proceeds relentlessly. It ticks by and we grow older and wiser, and the book certainly deals with aging and learning as they relate to the human condition. In the physical sense (notwithstanding Einstein!) time is linear and therefore can be measured with a clock.  We use the clock to regulate our lives. But memory doesn’t work like that. It jumps about. We frequently time-travel in our imagination. Certain episodes are recalled: some tragic and some comedic events stand out, and certain things become confused. We remember low points and highlights – they come to us in flashbacks, and that’s how this novel is structured.…yes, it can be confusing, dream-like, chaotic and with frequent digressions.  Does it matter?  It matters not in art, poetry or music, but perhaps in a novel it does matter. Does a novel need narrative drive to sustain interest? Half of us confessed to having read the book twice in an effort to trace the story.

Sometimes the text reads as poetry. The EU referendum has just taken place and Elisabeth (or is it Ali) says:

All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.

This passage, and more that follow, has the rhythm and power of poetry, and exposes the raw nerve of divided contemporary Britain. The New Yor Times called the book the “First Great Brexit Novel”.

Smith doesn’t pull her punches. She uses digressions (flashbacks) to tilt at bureaucracy, the establishment and ‘normality’. Elisabeth’s efforts to get her passport photo approved by the Post Office are comical, but the episode is part of her attack on the hopelessness of the individual in the face of overblown bureaucracy. Likewise, we may smile at the encounter with the medical receptionist. These sections refer to the middle part of life when we are forced to comply to ludicrous norms. And there are the sinister scenes at the metallic fence: we don’t actually know what the fence is for. Is it a detention centre for illegal refugees?   Or a metaphorical fence, standing for one of the many we come across in everyday life. One member took a historical view and saw it as a reference to the Enclosure Acts 1700–1801. The question of immigration is here, reinforced by Daniel’s past as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Smith saves the best until nearly the end when she launches a crusade against the art establishment of the 1960s, exposing the male domination of the pop-art scene and the rejection of the real-life artist Pauline Boty (who turns out to have been one of Daniel’s girl-friends).  You don’t have to be a feminist to believe that women’s talents have been ignored by the all-controlling male establishment. And Boty’s work is the visual analogue to Smith’s literary style – both are collage. However, Smith is widely accepted as a creative writer whilst Boty, back in the 60s, was overlooked as a creative painter because only men were assumed to hold such talent.

The first chapter is possibly the most perplexing part of the book: it’s the end of the story but placed at the beginning. But what does it mean? Has Gluck arrived in heaven? Is it rebirth? Or is it a dream of re-kindled youth that he’s having in old age? This part is highly imaginative and makes riveting reading. In fact, the whole book is a tour de force of imagination – and the subject matter is a rare portrayal of a relationship between an older man and a younger woman in which the male is not a potential sexual predator.

One or two members felt the author was trying too hard to show how clever she can be. There are lots of literary allusions –  the opening sentence echoes Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and there are references to John Keats’s To Autumn and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.  Ovid, Shakespeare, Blake and Huxley are in there too.

Almost all of us grimaced at the awful puns – for example the ‘patient smile’ of the medical receptionist.

One of our members, who couldn’t attend has sent written comments that summarise the book very well:

….it’s less a classic novel than a poetic and political entertainment, and indeed a sort of crazy hymn to life. It conveys very effectively the feeling of things just happening, and the scope and variety of a human life – through the vast age of Daniel. The interplay between Daniel and Elizabeth is moving – as indeed is E’s relationship to her mother.

Autumn is the first of four seasonal ‘state of the nation’ novels promised by the author. Some of us have already ordered Winter for our summer reading, and one or two may be eagerly awaiting Spring and Summer.  Perhaps Summer will come before Spring. But others will steer clear.  It will be interesting to see whether the author can sustain the energy levels required to complete the set.

Spark, Muriel: The Driver’s Seat and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

After some long books, we had two short (but major) novels to read this month. Muriel Spark was recently placed by a Times survey in the eighth position among the top fifty British writers of the 20th century. This is her centenary year, celebrated at the National Library of Scotland by an exhibition, The International Style of Muriel Spark (until 13 May 2018), which some of the group had visited. (There will also be a dramatisation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by David Harrower, at the Donmar Warehouse, London from 4 June to 28 July.)

The proposer gave a full and informative account of Spark’s life and career. Born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 in a liberal-minded family, the daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish father and an English mother, she attended the fee-paying James Gillespie’s School. Not wanting to go to university, she taught English and worked as a secretary before marrying Sidney Oswald Spark, 13 years her senior, with whom she moved to Southern Rhodesia. Her marriage was an unhappy one, as were her relations with her one son, but although she left her husband, she was obliged by the war to stay in Rhodesia until 1944. Returning to Britain, she worked as administrator and editor at the Poetry Society in London (where she was involved in some fierce rows). It was only in 1951 that she made her debut as a fiction writer, winning the Observer short story prize for her story ‘The Seraph and the Zambezi’. Thereafter she produced a steady stream of highly acclaimed novels, moving first to New York and then to Tuscany, where she lived with her friend Penelope Jardine until 2008. She had converted to Catholicism in her 30s (there was later a lot of discussion of her religious position in relation to the Calvinism of her childhood). She was an obsessive hoarder of documents, many of them now in the National Library. Fond of cats, she liked to compare herself to a cat.

There were written comments from three members of the group who had to be absent, including a detailed discussion of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (PMJB) – these are integrated into the account that follows.

PMJB is the most famous of Spark’s novels (largely because of the film version with Maggie Smith), but The Driver’s Seat (DS) was reportedly her own favourite. Inevitably the discussion centred on PMJB, which was much better known – though some members were reading it for the first time, having previously seen the film (Maggie Smith version).

Everyone agreed about the quality of Spark’s writing, its brevity, unexpectedness, the brilliant, often cynical turns of  phrase – you feel you are in good hands when you start one of her novels. As one member said, ‘a confident, poised writer at the height of her powers’. Spark saw herself as a poet (the word is on her gravestone), won a poetry prize at the age of 14, and continued to write poetry – her prose shows a poet’s sense of language. There was some discussion as to whether it came across as spontaneous writing; this was the impression it left with some readers – as if she wrote quickly and didn’t revise – but others felt that we were dealing with a more deliberate strategy, as seen in certain types of repetition, or in the highly worked ending of DS.

Both novels also showed a very personal way of dealing with time. In both there are repeated ‘flash-forwards’ to an ending which is more dramatic, or violent, or tragic than the early scenes. Spark is not so much aiming to create suspense as to suggest, (especially in PMJB) the impact of passing time. In DS this treatment of time raises troubling questions about free will and determinism – it was suggested that the end, with its repetition of ‘fear and pity, pity and fear’, is an echo of classical tragedy, where fate and action are intertwined.

The discuss of PMJB inevitably centred on the figure of Miss Brodie , ‘an intriguing mixture of free thinking and convention’ and the puzzles she sets the reader. Impressions were inevitably influenced by the memory of Maggie Smith’s brilliant performance in the 1969 film (about which Muriel Spark is said to have had mixed feelings)  On the one hand she is a force of life, set against the stifling Calvinist atmosphere of a certain Edinburgh (as represented by the well-named Miss Gaunt); she fascinates her girls, opens up their minds to history, art and literature (in her own idiosyncratic way), marking some of them for life. But in exerting such a strong influence on them, in trying for instance to make Jenny her surrogate lover for Teddy Lloyd, she can be seen as a malevolent figure, perhaps Satanic – and she herself insists on her link with the double-faced Deacon Brodie, rebel and reprobate. It was remarked that she is in a line of teacher figures in literature, which also includes figures in Alan Bennett’s The History Man and the film Dead Poets’ Society. Several of the group remembered similarly charismatic teachers from their schooldays. In the words of one of us, heaven help us if we have teachers like this!’

If Jean Brodie is Satan, she is also Christ, betrayed by one of her disciples. Why does Sandy betray her mentor? There were several suggestions: envy (the desire to cut down the tallest poppy), religious feeling (like Muriel Spark, Sandy is converted to Catholicism), perhaps politics. It was noted that we get always a child’s-eye vision of the teacher, a subject of fascination, a mystery. The author doesn’t tell us what to think.

An important aspect of the book was the depiction of Edinburgh in the 30s, and more generally of inter-war Europe. Edinburgh is depicted – yet again – as a place of contradictions, douce but also harsh; there was some doubt about whether Miss Brodie’s walk through the Old Town, with its depiction of poverty, hardship and menace, was really integrated into the book. Another point of difference was whether this could be called a feminist novel – certainly it showed the constraints weighing on women at the time (no married women allowed to teach, for instance), but was Miss Brodie a feminist heroine?

One question occupied many of us: the relation between the novel and Muriel Spark’s own experience. In the discussion there were quite a few reminiscences of school days. The Marcia Blaine School for Girls is obviously based on James Gillespie’s School , and we know that Miss Brodie is modelled on Spark’s teacher Christina Kay, though in several respects she is different – younger, an admirer of Hitler etc. For an account of Miss Kay, see the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2008) – the forthcoming second edition will also contain an entry for Muriel Spark.

On The Driver’s Seat, opinion was more divided. It was seen as ‘mad’ and ‘chaotic’, but also fascinating. The proposer indicated that the story was based on a newspaper account of a real incident in Italy. It is like a detective story, though in Spark’s words not a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘whydunnit’ in which the end is foreshadowed throughout the story but never really explained. We noticed that the heroine Lise is unfailingly seen from the outside, with no direct access to her thoughts and feelings – just her words and actions, her facial expressions and body movements. Clues are scattered around – maddeningly, for some – and the final murder is announced well in advance; it becomes clear that, with her outlandish costume and disconcerting behaviour, Lise wants to make herself a murder victim – but why? The book’s title raises the question of control and direction – is Lise in the driver’s seat? Or if not her, who? The novel seems to suggest a wild, unpredictable world waiting to engulf ‘normaility’.  But in spite of the sinister tone and the improbable story, most of us enjoyed it, the deadpan and funny description of the absurdity of character and action. Like all Spark’s novels it is short, and repays rereading.

Apart from Edinburgh reminiscences, discussion stuck pretty much to the texts – clearly a good choice for the programme. One critical note – to be conveyed to the publisher? – the unsuitable covers for both the novels in the Penguin editions – as in their current Simenon series, a taste for pictures of headless women. Better go for the centenary Muriel Spark edition produced by Birlinn of Edinburgh.

Stendhal: The Red and the Black

Le Rouge et le Noir was Stendhal’s first novel, written in 1830. It provides a rare insight into French life in a period of political turmoil following Napoleon’s abdication, known as the Bourbon Restoration (1815-1830). The Bourbons, Louis XVIII and Charles X, were on the throne as constitutional monarchs, and although France prospered, the country was politically, religiously and socially divided between the royalists and those who had supported the Napoleonic Revolution.  The few newspapers of the time were controlled by the government; but in Paris political factions met at dinner parties and in the numerous cafés and bars on the boulevards. Paris buzzed, but not always in a good way.

The plot follows the life of Julien Sorel, a village boy and son of a carpenter. He is clever; he can recite Latin texts from the Bible by heart and does so rather often. His intellectual skills are recognised and thus he advances through society, first becoming the tutor to the children of the local mayor Monsieur de Rênal. But when Rênal discovers Julian is having an affair with Madame de Rênal, Julian moves to a seminary. He is not happy there; he finds it dull and his fellow scholars do not take to him. However, the seminary director, Abbé Pirard, is greatly impressed by Julien’s abilities, and arranges for him to join the staff of a wealthy Parisian diplomat, Monsieur de la Mole. He becomes Monsieur de la Mole’s private secretary and is entrusted with important tasks including letter-writing and the handling of the family estate. However, he is always an outsider, belonging to a lower class. Socially he is out of his depth and has to keep quiet about his admiration of Napoleon because the family and their high-class friends are royalists. He finds it hard to adjust but nevertheless has a sexual adventure with the headstrong young daughter, Matilde. She becomes pregnant, and the couple wish to marry; but the father is furious, and at first refuses to give his consent. Julian is still a young man (early 20s) and he agonises with his emotional attachments both to his earlier love, Madame de Rênal, and to Matilde. He is apparently unhinged, and he shoots Madame de Rênal in church, but fails to kill her. For this he is executed by guillotine.

One of our members had the original French version, much thumbed, another had Roger Gard’s translation, but most had G.K. Scott Moncrieff’s. We made brief comparisons, but there was much of real substance to discuss and we didn’t dwell on this. My version (Wordsworth Classics) has an excellent Introduction by Moya Longstaffe but I didn’t read it until writing this blog. In fact, it’s clear that the book is one which repays research, and indeed it has often attracted scholars. We book-group folk approached the book as humble readers, most of us had not read it before.  ‘Let’s make a start’ said the proposer, ‘but wait: we have a longish email from one of our members who has been rushed to Tasmania to attend a family wedding’:

I found this a fascinating book, of great scope and depth. Perhaps the book started from a desire to write a Voltaire type satire about French society at all levels – rural, Church, and Parisian society. But the intriguing characters that emerge and the detailed analysis of the shifts and turns of their mental state make it so much more than that. The two main female characters are very well done. Sorel himself is pretty unappealing – self-centred, ambitious, hypocritical, struggling to have genuine feelings for others – but the story is so well told that the reader follows his exploits always with interest and sometimes with sympathy. There’s an appealing sense of adventure about many episodes, particularly those involving ladders and bedrooms!

 It is unusual to have a novel that is so bang up to date in its political context – its a ‘Chronicle of 1830’ – and you get a good sense of the times and all the factions and plotting as France struggles to move on from the Revolution and Napoleon. There is a strong underlying thread of nostalgia for the Revolution and also for Napoleon, to whose exploits Stendhal owed so much of his career. I found it difficult to be sure if Stendhal is in Julian’s camp on Napoleon or identifies with the more ambivalent voices. You might expect anyone who had been on the disastrous Russian Campaign to detest Napoleon and his unnecessary  wars, but plenty of the soldiers (but not so many citizens) remained loyal fans of Napoleon to the end. I guess that emerging nostalgia leads finally to the Second Republic and the Second Empire.

 I see it suggested that the title might refer to Church versus Army (the Hussars had some red or scarlet uniforms, but of course most French uniforms were blue) or it might refer to the secular versus the religious. I don’t think it matters what he intended – it’s a richly evocative title, with both colours symbolic of many contrasting aspects of life.

We didn’t all agree with this impression of Julian, which does however match in tone most descriptions and reviews we have come across, where he is ‘an ambitious young social climber in a cruel, monarchical society’. Our proposer, on the other hand, defends Julian in an email as follows:

My take is that Julian is only 22 when he dies. He starts the book as young and cut off from “civilisation “. Every piece of progress demands courage and his friendship with the retired army man helps him. When he makes the first move with Mme de Reynal it is clear he is testing his courage. This is a central theme.

I agreed whole-heartedly. We might ask the question, how would we ourselves have behaved in Julian’s circumstances?  Even today, clever village boys and girls living in rural surroundings anywhere in the world need a bit of help from a wise grown-up if they are to be self-fulfilled. And, to succeed, they need to go away. Julian’s humble origins meant he might never become a military officer even though he was an admirer of Napoleon and his military campaigns. A career in the church seemed like a good idea, given his interest and ability in Latin.  And if he had been a social climber he would have handled himself much better. At the end, he didn’t need to go to the guillotine. Aided by his lovers, he could have easily saved himself and must have seen that. As our proposer wrote in his reply to our in-Tasmania member:

So often he could have played his hand better [if he was just self centred]. Most obviously he should have cited Mme Reynal and Matilde for the trial and claimed Crime of Passion. He instead did not ask to see Reynal and yet realised he really loved her. He tried to sort out Matilde’s life with that of the child after his death. Note how realistic he was when facing his decision to sacrifice himself for their honour. In court he chose to speak and addressed the jury on the basis of a class vendetta. Thus he sealed his fate but this was calculated because he could see things being OK if he died, but not if he lived. It is so interesting to see him develop as a man and gradually cast aside the artifices he had relied on.

Yes, we all know young men (less often women) with savant-like skills (language, music, art, science) who are poor at managing their affairs. Julien is one of those. Stendhal wasn’t, he was a witty, man-about-town. But some of Julien’s characters and incidents may have been drawn directly from his own life. Like Julian, he engaged in sexual adventure and tried to understand the nature of love, writing a non-fictional work about it (De L’Amour in 1822). Both fell in love with an aristocratic girl called Matilde (or Métilde). Both went to Paris as young men and felt socially inferior. And Stendhal also learned to recite the New Testament by heart.

Stendhal is known today as a pioneer of literary realism, presenting and analysing everyday events unembellished by romantic overtones. Much of this book is about what Julien is thinking, introspection, indecision, especially in relation to love (his name Sorel is a palindrome of L’Eros). In navigating the mental labyrinth, he is sometimes guided by what his hero Napoleon may have done – he thinks that amorous affairs are like military campaigns. And he isn’t sure whether or not he is in love. Distinctions between infatuation, desire, love and lust cannot easily be made. But once he’s made up his mind, his actions are immediate and often dramatic (for example, the poignant scenes of Julien climbing into the bedroom of a lover using a ladder that is conveniently placed in the shrubbery nearby).  The author does not of course describe the intimate details. We get this sort of language instead:  ‘when she had no longer anything to refuse him, she thrust him from her, with genuine indignation, and then flung herself into his arms’. Our own mind minds can work on this as we choose. Feminists seem to have appreciated Stendhal’s work. Simon de Beauvoir liked Stendhal’s tendency ‘to say things like it really is’. Here is an extract from a recent scholarly article on the subject (Scott, 2008):

Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Stendhal ou le romanesque du vrai’ occupies a privileged position as the fifth of five literary essays located towards the end of a section devoted to myths of femininity, which closes the first volume of (her 1949 book) Le Deuxième Sexe. Stendhal is introduced by Beauvoir as an exception to the rule according to which male authors …. traditionally represent women as passive Others rather than active Subjects within their work.

Stendhal was not much appreciated in his own time, the romantic period. The Red and the Black presents a deeply unattractive picture of France – it satirizes and offends, it deals with taboo subjects. Even recently, Justino Alves Bastos, commander of the Third Army during the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état ordered the burning of all ‘subversive books’ which, astonishingly to us, included The Red and the Black (he must have been a well-read commander). The final chapter called Exit Julien was NOT considered to be a happy ending, not endearing itself to the book-buying bourgeoisie. He was however appreciated by several influential writers in the decades following his death: Hippolyte Thaine, Freidrich Nietzche and Tolstoy. He was labeled France’s last great psychologist by Nietzche. The young Tolstoy was especially fond of him. Generally though, Stendhal’s reputation did not develop until the 20th Century; now he is considered to rank alongside Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas in any list of the greatest French novelists.

Some parts of the story do seem implausible. Why would a person with such good literary skills copy someone else’s love-letters rather than write his own? His behaviour towards the end of the novel stretches credibility – his final demise is almost a suicide. Throughout, Stendhal is irritatingly obscure. Obscure is evidently one of the author’s affectations. For example, what does the book’s title mean? Red might refer to blood, military uniform, passion or the Phrygian cap, the headwear of Marianne, symbol of the revolution. Black is presumed to represent clerical dress, or perhaps the frequent mental state of Julien. Red and black are the colours on the roulette wheel, and Julien was a risk taker. Like black and white, the match red and black represents contrast, divergence, the colour of hearts and spades the playing cards. So the title works at many levels. But what about the dedication he writes ‘to the favoured few’. Who are the few? Perhaps he realised that those who truly appreciated his story would be just a few, at least in his own generation. It doesn’t really matter.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed this book, perhaps for our own different reasons. For some, appeal came from the psychological insights during character development, for others the rich prose which so nicely and delicately represents complex human emotions, for others the historical content and the admiration of Stendhal’s creative imagination.

Stendhal’s grave is in Paris. He specified the epitaph and wanted a marble slab shaped like a playing card. The epitaph is ‘He lived, he wrote, he loved’. In Latin of course.


Scott, M (2008) Irish Journal of French Studies 8, 55-71, downloadable from

Shriver, Lionel: The Mandibles, a family 2029-2047

Lionel Shriver is a libertarian southern Democrat, born in 1957, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Realising herself to be a ‘tomboy’ she felt uncomfortable with her ‘girly’ name, Margaret Ann, and so she changed to Lionel. She has a BA and MFA from Columbia University. She describes herself as an expat, having lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and now mostly in London.  The upside of being an expat, she explains, is that “I live in a larger world, emotionally, politically, and intellectually”.  Rather little can be found of her private life, except that she is a keen cyclist and is married to a jazz drummer. Interesting insights into her character and views can be read in Bomb magazine: where she is described as ferociously intelligent, uncompromising, independent, opinionated, driven, scorchingly funny, contrary, passionate.

This is her 12th novel.  The most well-known was her seventh, about a school shooting, called We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was awarded the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, and became a movie in 2011. She is also a successful journalist, writing for the New York Times and the Guardian. She would legalise all drugs and stay out of foreign wars. She is critical of government, noting that in the USA there are 170,000 pages of Federal Regulations and it costs 6 trillion dollars annually to enforce them. This quote gives a flavor of her work: “In an era of weaponised sensitivity participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity that many are apt to bow out”. And also “to progress is merely to go forward and you can go forward into a pit”.

Turning now to the book itself: the year is 2029. The author tells the story of a family living in the USA, where the economy has collapsed. The national debt has risen to an unsustainable level, and the dollar is all but worthless. The Federal Government sends the army to people’s homes, looking for gold to confiscate, including small items like wedding rings. Some go to extraordinary lengths to hide gold items of great sentimental value, but there are harsh penalties for those who are caught. The financial crisis afflicts the whole western world, and to restore stability the International Monetary Fund, supported by countries including Putin’s Russia and super-rich China, has recently launched a new currency unit, the bancor. The US refuses to use it, and makes the bancor illegal in America – possession constitutes treason. How rapidly America has changed: by 2027 the US President is currently a Latino and the first language is Spanish.

The story follows the fortunes of a Manhattan family, the Mandibles. Great grandfather Douglas Mandible sits on a fortune made long ago but is now a sprightly 97-year-old and has shown no signs of passing the family wealth to children and grandchildren. Now it’s too late: the president ‘resets’ the national debt, treasury bonds become void, and the family fortune is wiped out. The family includes his dementia-impaired wife, and his daughter Enola who lugs around a paper-copy of her latest book. One family member is a therapist, one works in a homeless shelter and one is an economics professor. But the economist loses his job because funds for universities are not what they were and his particular flavour of economics is considered inappropriate for the times. As the economy crashes out of control, crime soars, looting is commonplace, people lose their homes and there is a food and water crisis. Property rights evaporate and fourteen Mandibles end up in one small house. Desperate measures are required to survive: grandson Willing is good at stealing whilst the 17-year old Savanna becomes a successful prostitute. No questions are asked.

Through skillful use of dialogue the author’s views on global economics are articulated. Flows of money and social behaviour are collectively a good example of a complex system that can go wildly out of control. We are reminded “Money is emotional… worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods, and services, because they have faith in it. Economics is closer to religion than science.”

The plot itself moves rather slowly. When things seem completely desperate the novel fast-forwards to 2047, and we see that things have reached a new and rather more tolerable quasi-stable state.  Law and order are restored. The currency is now a new dollar linked to the bancor. Citizens are given a cranially-implanted chip that records their financial transactions so that tax can be accurately levied. Not everyone is chipped: there is an outside world, where people are un-chipped and live a simple pastoral life. This appeals to Willing, who tests the widespread belief that crossing the border to join the un-chipped world will trigger an explosion in one’s head.  And there is another border – a fence between US and Mexico to keep out the illegal American immigrants.

What did we make of the tale? We spent much time discussing whether it could actually happen. We decided it could, although we struggled with the economic theory. None of us are economists, but between us we reached an adequate grasp. There seem to be four possible ways in which our society might conceivably collapse: economic Armageddon, spread of a deadly virus, revolution against the government and climate change, or any combination of the four. The book reminds us that we need to take care, our civilisation is much more fragile than most people realise.

Is the book anti-American? Yes, it is. In the book, the US in no longer a supreme power, the American dream has evaporated and there is little hope of a full recovery. Almost all the characters are behaving badly – Shriver has said she likes to craft hard-to-love characters.  No one is a hero although Willing comes close to being the protagonist. In fact the character development is rather weak, as in most science fiction. But this isn’t really science fiction – it is a new genre, rather like a book we read some months ago, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, which dealt with another kind of crisis and was also set in the near future but this time in France.

We agreed that the story is highly topical. It was written well before Trump became the US president and just before the Brexit vote. Both of these turns of events persuade us that our liberal Western democracies have become inherently unstable – practically anything is possible – something which few people are prepared to accept or even discuss. The thought of dystopia inevitably disturbs and undermines our very existence. Yet our nations are increasingly polarised, moving towards what one Mandible describes near the end of the book: “Government becomes a pricey, clumsy, inefficient mechanism for transferring wealth from people who do something to people who don’t, and from the young to the old — which is the wrong direction.”

Some said the book contains humour but others were unconvinced. There are distant cousins called Goog and Bing, named after search engines. Ho ho. Why is the family called Mandible?  Presumably because they are examples of greedy consumers. The ‘joke’ is that they are the ones that will always suffer most in a financial meltdown, and others may laugh at their humiliation. An example of shadenfreude, presumably.  Above all, Shriver likes to shock, and in doing so there isn’t much room for humour.

We agreed it is an interesting book, but the interest comes mostly in thinking about and discussing the shocking issues raised. Yes, we might all have to face an economic Armageddon. Be prepared.

Szalay, David: All That Man Is

The proposer began by referring to two members of the group not present who had sent messages implying that they had found this book boring, perhaps not persevering to the conclusion.  On the other hand, it had reached the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and received glowing reviews in the press.  In fact, the proposer had found the book while browsing a list of recommended new novels for 2016 several months previously. Rather than a set of short stories about different characters, he saw the book development as that of ‘Everyman’, a continuous development of a single and often chastening life experience.

The others who were present had not found the book boring, although one reader expressed the view that it was more like a collection of short stories, and he would have preferred more unified plot development in a novel.  Others liked the way that the book’s structure was more thematic than plot-driven.  The proposer revealed that in an interview published in The Guardian, Szalay had revealed that the book began as a single short story, and he later had the idea of expanding it to be about disparate men at different stages of their lives in different parts of Europe.  One member of the group remarked that having started with expectations of a more conventional novel, he adjusted quickly to what he saw as more a series of portraits than stories.  He felt the social situations of the characters were well delineated, and the drifting nature of the narratives reminded him of Murakami’s writing.  All the men (there are nine principal protagonists in the book, and one re-appears in the last story) were ‘outsiders’, not well-adjusted to society or relationships.  In this respect he was reminded of other European novels such as Camus’ ‘L’Etranger’ and Barbusse’s ‘Hell’.

Some of us were quickly drawn into the book because the first story resonated so strongly with our own experiences of inter-railing as young men.  It was noted that Simon, the protagonist of this first section, was referred to as the grandson of Tony in the final part of the book. However, this seemed only a perfunctory gesture towards the conventional unity of a novel’s narrative. (Another is Murray’s glimpse of what might well be the character Aleksandr’s yacht).  We did see many links between the characters however –  for example the proposer suggested that Aleksandr, with his business empire, could be James twenty years on.  Also most of the men were failures – even the ‘successful’ ones – and the book was strongly tinged with melancholy overall.  As a general observation, we felt that the characters illustrated a predominantly male inclination to focus on ‘things’ (status, career, money, sex) rather than relationships, and so they suffered the consequences.

Some of the characters had redeeming features – for example Balazs begins to interact sympathetically with the prostitute Emma rather than simply lusting for her, and in general one felt sympathy for the characters’ troubles.  An exception was the tabloid journalist Kristian.  It was pointed out that he has no moment of revelation or change or failure to deal with.  He doesn’t come unstuck, unlike the other characters, and instead it is his victim, the government minister, who engages our sympathies.  There was some parallel here with Karel’s story.  We feel sorry for his girlfriend, rather than for Karel.  James, too, is one character who exhibits a faint inkling of what he is missing in not paying attention to his son at the end of his story.  Karel is another who may – it’s not clear – emerge from his selfish bubble.  Others – like Kristian or Aleksandr – seem irredeemable.

The women in the novel were minor characters, but cleverly delineated in such a way that the reader could understand and sympathise with them, even though the male characters with whom they interact generally could not.  This was best demonstrated in Karel’s story, in his brutish response to his girlfriend’s revelation.  It was also interestingly evident in the exchange between James and Paulette in Part Six:

James: “Love,” he says, “It messes everything up, doesn’t it?”

Paulette: “Isn’t love the whole point?”

James: “The whole point of what?”

Paulette: “Of life.”

Many of these men have weak emotional bonds, and this is what is tragic.  Their failure to seek or cherish love means that there is no glue to bind them to society.  One reader pointed out that humans are stronger and better together – that this is even a biological imperative, an aid to survival.

“Carpe Diem” was also a key theme.  It’s introduced in the first story, when Simon is reading Henry  James. (“Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.”)  Throughout the book characters have flashes of intense experience of the present moment.  Even Murray, the most abject of all the losers in the novel, has a moment of euphoria looking at the light on the sea near the end of his story.  The last story, seeing life from the perspective of a man in his seventies experiencing health problems, ties up the threads of this theme.  Tony can now see how short life is, and how essential it is to live in the moment.

We enjoyed the moments of humour in what is predominantly a somewhat depressing book.  Bernard’s sexual encounters in Cyprus, and Murray’s visit to the fortune-teller were particularly funny – although not without pathos.  We also discussed the theme of responsibility – it was pointed out that the earlier characters have no responsibilities, but then things start to pile up on the later characters.

To conclude: ‘All That Man Is’ is not – in spite of its title – all that man is, unless you have a very cynical view.  The absence of love is the common trait of these particular men; they are more focused on their activity in life than on relationships and they suffer accordingly.

Shakespeare, William: Hamlet

We began with a brief discussion of different productions of Hamlet that we had seen – acknowledging that we were talking about a text designed for performance rather than private reading.  However, it was noted that one literary critic remarked that Shakespeare was for reading, not watching.  Comparisons were drawn between various interpreters of the main role – David Tenant, Derek Jacobi. Lawrence Olivier, and we looked forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch if we could. The proposer said that it was the 1964 Russian film adaptation, directed by Grigori Kozintsev that had first captured his imagination, and that the play became one of his favourite books as an adolescent.  Coming back to the play carrying a few more years, he still finds it powerful and fascinating emotionally, but has some reservations about his earlier enthusiasm.  We speculated on whether the angst-ridden hero was a figure more likely to appeal to more angst-prone younger audiences and readers.

We had read the play in different editions, and moved on to discuss the academic ‘industry’ devoted to producing a ‘definitive’ text.  Quarto 2 is considered by Arden as the nearest to the version Shakespeare would have produced on stage, but it is likely that he kept tinkering with it.  Editors can pick and choose their favourite versions of the lines, or transpose them between Hamlet and Horatio for example.  A fullest version would take up to five hours to stage.  (The 242 minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation was mentioned in this context).  Sometimes we noted that actors had ‘gabbled’ in productions we’d seen in order to get so much of the text in.

We moved on to discuss the central character of the play.  Hamlet has become a complex symbol for all kinds of things over the centuries – for example a byword for dithering and hesitation.

The critic Terry Eagleton said jokingly that Shakespeare would appear to be familiar with the works of Freud and Marx.  (In, presumably, an even lighter vein, it was proposed that Hibs footballers were all Hamlets, unable to put the finishing touch to their manoeuvres.)

Hamlet, like life itself, is full of ambiguities, and we wondered about what Shakespeare might have suggested to his main player, Burbage, to either clarify or leave more open what some lines might be taken to mean.  One of our group mentioned Peter Hall’s 2009 book ‘Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players’ as being very illuminating about how Shakespeare might have wanted his work performed.  Another book was also praised as giving insight into the historical context of Shakespeare’s work and life: ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ by James Shapiro.  (A year that included the writing of Hamlet).

We discussed the language of the characters  – for example the language used by Claudius seemed very forced and artificial.  It was suggested that this was because he was consciously ‘playing the role’ of king.  We noted that Hamlet has more words to speak than any other Shakespearian character.  In spite of this plethora of “Words, words, words” (as Hamlet himself says), it was remarked by one reader that frequently the characters fail to understand each other.  One of us indeed saw some of the characters as being on the autistic spectrum, especially Ophelia.  The critic L.C. Knights argued that Shakespeare’s plays are about themes, not real people – although he himself also falls into the approach of earlier critics like Bradley of analysing the characters.   We also felt that the plot seemed of much less interest to Shakespeare than the philosophical content, and the musings on life and death of Hamlet in particular.  Indeed, the plot’s culmination in the fight between Hamlet and Laertes showed a cavalier disregard for plausibility.  There were also some discrepancies in the treatment of the ghost – he is presented as ‘real’, but then why can Hamlet hear him and Gertrude cannot?  One could only assume that these were unimportant issues for Shakespeare.

Horatio and the Gravedigger were seen by some as the only likeable characters in the play.  Hamlet himself was defended as ‘likeable’ by one of our group, but dismissed as essentially ‘frustrating’ by another.  Another among us found him an unpleasant individual, a ditherer, and considered his treatment of Ophelia appalling.  He said he met people like Hamlet all the time.  We wondered uncomfortably who he had in mind.

One of our readers brought up the debt Shakespeare owed to his sources – an earlier version of the story was popular in the 1580s and 1590s, perhaps written by Thomas Kyd, although no printed version survives.  This itself derived from earlier Scandinavian sources.  Shakespeare’s version, however brilliant and original in many ways, does arrive circuitously at the conventional endpoint of the revenge tragedy genre, which it shares with the tragedies of ancient Greece – i.e. pretty much everyone has to end up dead.

We discussed how a key theme of the play is the conflict between a pagan concept of revenge and the Christian concept of forgiveness.  Hamlet wants his revenge on Claudius to go beyond the grave – he won’t kill him while he’s praying, because he wants to send him to Hell.

A question was raised as to whether or not Elizabethans would understand Shakespeare relatively easily, as we might understand, say, The Archers.  Groundlings would have enjoyed knockabout humour and sword fights more than the subtleties of the language presumably.  Many references that are now obscure however would have been much more accessible to contemporary audiences. On the other hand, it was suggested, much of the difficulty of Elizabethan language falls away when delivered by a skillful actor.  One reader commented on how Shakespeare’s language is so concise that any attempt at explication always entails the use of far more words than he used himself.  There is a beautiful precision about his use of words, and this is evidenced by the extent to which his phrases have passed into common use – or gone ‘viral’ in contemporary parlance!

We moved on to discuss how Hamlet, in common with Shakespeare’s other plays, is reinterpreted in different places at different times.  For example there was an Eastern European view of the play as highly political, all about the difficulty of acting effectively against a repressive regime.  The proposer drew attention to historicist approaches to Shakespeare’s plays, with Elizabeth being near end of her life, and the possibility of James coming to the throne – a ruler from another country.  Also mentioned were more recent feminist approaches to Shakespeare, in their turn influenced by Freudianism. 

Finally, one of our group mentioned a visit to Girvan Library, where he failed to find any work by Shakespeare.  We wondered if knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was in danger of fading away, and if schools were moving more and more towards the study of exclusively modern literature.  The proposer was congratulated for his ‘bravery’ in bringing Hamlet into our midst.  We had enjoyed re-reading it and discussing it, although we felt that perhaps after four hundred and odd years most things that could be said about it had already been said!