Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley
Warning: plot spoil. Our discussion of this book, suggested by Clare, centred on whether or not it works as a thriller, and therefore
it was inevitable that right from the start we should talk about its workings, including the handling of revelation and the ending.
Since Jane Smiley is renowned as a literary and Pullitzer prizewinning chronicler of family relations, most of us expected this book,
her only thriller, to be a superior literary and psychological example of the genre, but for all but two of our group it was a
Set at the beginning of the eighties, it opens as early-thirties librarian Alice Ellis is interviewed by a detective about the horrific
scene she has just discovered when visiting the flat of her friend Susan, absent in the Adirondacks, to water the plants: the bodies
of Susan's partner Denny and Craig, Denny's adopted brother who lives with them, slumped in easy chairs and shot through the head.
Denny and Craig are members of a once almost successful pop group with whom Alice and Susan moved from the Midwest to New York
ten years earlier, old school and university friends seeking fame and fortune (and inevitably disappointed). Other members of the group
eventually come under suspicion for the murder: Noah Mast, whose wife Rya, it will turn out, has been having an affair with Craig,
and Ray Reschley who has sold the two men a large amount of cocaine but failed to get his money from them and is inevitably under
pressure from his dealers. But then there are the unknown number of people to whom Susan and Denny lent the keys to their
apartment and the unknown number of times they may have been copied...
A promising enough scenario, but for me it instantly failed to deliver, and by the time of the meeting I had managed to read only
50 pages, so tedious did I find the book (although I did force myself to finish it afterwards in order to write this up). The whole thing
is seen through the eyes of the musing Alice, a clear authorial intention to make this thriller psychological, but she - along with all of
the group - is so lacking in affect that right from the start I was unconvinced by the psychology and there was a consequent lack of
tension to engage me in the plot. After her interview with the detective, Alice goes to Ray's apartment for dinner where Noah and Rya
have also arrived, and is greeted at the door by Rya with, ' "Isn't it amazing?"
' "We're just shocked," said Rya, whose blond hair was wound on top of her head. If she unpinned it, it would fall down in a
single shining mass, Alice knew. The only sense of expertise she ever got about Rya was when the other woman was arranging
her hair or choosing clothes. "Just shocked, shocked. I can't express it."
"Astonished. Dumbfounded," suggested Noah.
"Noah is shocked, too. Believe me. He teases to cover up."
"Floored. Taken aback."
"Don't make us laugh, Noah." '
Ray arrives with takeout food which both the group and the author relish in a way I found unintentionally laughable in the situation,
Rya 'moaning over the mo-shu pork, the oysters with straw mushrooms, the gong-bao chicken with charred red peppers and cashews,
the sizzling rice soup, the shrimp toast.'
If this is intended, as the
New York Times Reviewer would have it, as the affectless 'cool' cultivated by thirties-something New Yorkers, I simply don't buy it.
The murder of members of a longtime friendship group is surely the very thing to break through that 'cool', however disaffected
the members may have become with each other. And although Rya's behaviour is commented on by her husband Noah as 'odd',
it doesn't, in the hindsight allowed by the later knowledge that one of the murdered men was her (generally) secret lover, seem
to me likely, however affected, or indeed much different from the almost indifferent behaviour of the others. (Alice has to wonder
as they eat 'if the others were thinking constantly of Denny and Craig and Susan, as she was'). And if the general indifference
(which makes for unlikeable characters I simply can't get interested in) is intended as an authorial manipulation to bring all of the
characters under the reader's suspicion, it doesn't work for me, because only a few pages in I guessed correctly that Susan, Denny's
partner, had committed the murder. Clare and Jenny, the two members of our group present who had liked the book, asked me how I had known.
To begin with, Susan is glaringly significant as the only one not around, officially away when the murder takes place and therefore
the only one who, if she did commit the murder, covered her tracks. Secondly, one of Susan's main characteristics is her neatness
and organisation, and the murders are strikingly neat: both men sitting in their places and nothing in the room disturbed. Most
importantly, when she returns and is told of the murder, although the one most likely in conventional terms to break down,
she acts with the greatest cool and least affect of all.
Jenny objected that often in thrillers the most likely person turns out not to have done it, and I did briefly consider that this
was a double-bluff on the part of the author, but there were other things that signalled to me that the author was simply not in command
of the thriller mode. When Alice gets back after the meal to her flat she opens her bedroom door and is startled to find Susan, returned,
in her bed (which indeed signals a kind of sneakiness and unpredictability on the part of Susan, and strongly links her, associatively
and thematically, with the danger of duplicate keys - not to mention the giveaway fact of her having gone on her return to Alice's flat
and not to her own where the murders have taken place). This means it must fall to (the unsuspecting) Alice, there and then, to tell her
about the murder of her partner (though rather unconvincinly she puts it off for as long as possible). Alice gets into bed
with Susan and snuggles up to her: 'And then, when Alice had her securely in her arms, she told her. After a minute or two, Susan
disengaged herself and got up, went into the bathroom and closed the door.' During the subsequent silence from the bathroom,
Alice falls asleep (which again doesn't seem all that likely: wouldn't she be on edge, wondering and worrying about her friend?), waking later to find Susan 'moving about like a mother in Alice's room', tidying up: 'Always well groomed, she was
even more so now.' The narration presents this as unremarkable: 'If [Alice] expected wailing, she should not have, for Susan was not
that way' and 'How typical of Susan, she thought, to face devastation with a cleanup.' However, this seemed to me a complete authorial
fudge. The most significant moment - for both thriller and psychological mode - would be the moment of telling and those moments
afterwards before Susan gets out of bed. How did she react in those moments? What expression was on her face? (The light
isn't off.) What happened to her eyes? Did they widen? Her mouth? Did her face twitch? What about her breathing? Did she gasp?
Did she make any sounds? In fact, she could have been made to have reactions that Alice and the reader could interpret as shock
and horror but which in hindsight would turn out to be the guilt of a murderer, thus putting the reader off the scent. Instead,
the author implies she had no facial reaction by telling us beforehand that Susan has a naturally calm and inexpressive face,
an inadequate and psychologically unconvincing explanation for a blank reaction to such news, and then glosses the moment in which
she is thus revealed as a cold bitch most likely to have committed the murder.
I stumbled too over a moment on the second page. The detective interviewing Alice asks her to confirm that while Susan was away
she was watering the plants (which is how she came upon the murders). She replies, ' "I was supposed to. I told Susan I would come every
three days." ' This supposed to immediately alerted me to the fact that she may not have done precisely as promised. This will eventually
turn out to be the case, and there is a reason for her not having done so that will be the crucial clue incriminating Susan, and which,
revealed in its true light at this stage, would give the game away from the start. However, it seemed to me unlikely that the detective
wouldn't pick up on this very obvious hint that all was not as it was supposed to be, as indeed he fails to do, and since we are locked
into the musing Alice's viewpoint, it seemed a glaring omission that we don't share knowledge of this reason. The clever thing for the
author to have done would be to reveal the reason but find an alternative explanation for it that seems to let Susan off the hook,
or indeed diverts attention away from her. Instead, the moment is glossed and left hanging, and it stuck out for me as a clumsily
planted and inadequately smoothed-over clue.
Susan's motive for the murder is over-signalled throughout and yet psychologically obscure, pummelled at the reader in long speechy
conversations between her and Alice over more relished exotic food, and amounting to nothing more than the fact that she couldn't bear
any longer to go on living with the overriding obsession of two men obsessed with the stardom they never managed to grasp and can't
believe they never will. ' "You've got to understand what it's like hearing the same conversations over and over for years... It hurt me.
It literally made my skin prickle and my heart pound." ' If we are to accept that this emotional state was intense enough to drive her
to murder we need a better, more dynamic insight into it, but as it is we need to take Susan's word for it. It seems to me that part of
the reason the author fails to tackle this dimension is that she has set Susan up as so self-contained that such extremity in her is
unlikely - not to mention the fact that crimes of passion don't tend to involve the kind of cold-blooded forward planning in which
Susan turns out to have engaged: obtaining the gun, learning how to use it and planning her alibi of absence. If, as in a conventional
thriller, we are not to need to be convinced on such a psychological level, then Susan needs to have some more obvious and easily
So the chief problem for me is that though this purports to be a psychological thriller, the psychology of the characters is
unconvincing or impossible to grasp, conveyed as it is through 'talky' speeches and narratorial 'telling' rather than properly dramatised
interaction - though I should say that neither Clare nor Jenny had a problem with this. Since Susan is portrayed as so affectless,
I found it impossible to understand why Alice has always been needy for her friendship (and is now guiltily glad of the opportunity
the murder gives her to spend more time with her). It's not enough for the narrator to tell me, on behalf of Alice, that 'No one was like
Susan, after all, no one thought about things as Susan did. Some quality of her mind was unique, attractive but indefinable,
inaccessible' since Susan never came across to me as attractively mysterious but tediously blank. Immediately after finding
the bodies, Alice meets a man with whom she becomes involved, a relationship involving a certain (if ambivalent) passion, and I
found it psychologically unconvincing that she can't tell him about the murders, as did John. (Alice's musing rationale - 'Henry
entering her present circle [would be] a complication of cruel proportions' - seemed to me merely authorial rationalisation for
avoiding narrative complications.)
As for the thriller/plot element, Alice seems to come to the realisation that Susan is the murderer instinctually (rather than through the
obvious clue planted at the start and the fact connected with it that should have told her the truth all along), and, on the psychological
level, her continuing attachment to Susan after this realisation - and indeed even greater sense of satisfaction in the new closeness she
imagines - seems unrealistic. When Susan eventually stalks Alice with a gun, there has been nothing planted beforehand to make us feel
that this was inevitable or psychologically realistic: it seems merely a manipulated plot twist, and Alice's escape through a window and
along a high ledge clinging to the building seems highly unlikely and smacks of nothing more than the insertion of a cliched cinema
trope for the sake of a possible film version.
Once again, on the thriller/plot level: John thought it highly unlikely that only one detective should be involved in a double murder,
as is the case, or that he should not make more effort to protect Alice from Susan if, as turns out, he suspected Susan all along (the lame
excuse he gives is lack of manpower). Even Jenny and Clare, the book's defenders, found it laughable that, after being told by him to get
her locks changed, Alice ends up abandoned by the locksmith and alone at night without a lock on her door or even the obvious
emergency expedient of a bolt.
Ann summed up the book succinctly: that normally in a thriller you can in retrospect trace a pattern of clues as they were
systematically planted, but that that wasn't possible with this novel, and that it didn't really work as either a thriller or a
Jenny however found the theme of faded dreams in this book socially realistic and compelling: she thought that there had been
a real social phenomenon in the seventies of people moving to the city expecting to find fame and fortune and by the eighties
The meeting had been sparsely attended, all of the men except John absent. Afterwards, I bumped into Trevor and Mark
separately, and both said they felt as I did about the book, Mark having managed only 100 pages, and both had guessed from very
near the beginning that Susan had committed the murders.
Goodbye to Berlin by Christpher Isherwood
I suggested this book as a classic I had never read even though I found brilliant the film Cabaret, which is based on a section
from it. Influenced by Isherwood's reputation as right wing and reactionary (prior to his rehabilitation as a gay writer in the 70s),
and understanding that the film took great licence with the book, I had never been attracted to read it, or any of his other work.
As I said to the group, I was delighted to find my prejudice overturned.
Based on Isherwood's own experiences in Berlin, but flagged in an author's foreword as fictional - 'readers are certainly not
entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical' - the book consists of six loosely linked sections, not all of them
following in chronological order, and spans the period from Autumn 1930 to Winter 1932-3 during which Berlin became transformed
by the rise of the Nazis, and its licentious underworld culture attracting young men like Isherwood was swept away. During the course
of the book, writer and English teacher 'Christopher Isherwood' settles into his new accommodation with his landlady Frl Schroeder,
once genteel but now down on her luck (other occupants include a prostitute and a female Nazi); meets and becomes friendly with
the garrulous and incorrigible nightclub singer (and unofficial prostitute) Sally Bowles (on whom the film Cabaret is centred); spends
a period on a Baltic island sharing a house with Englishman Peter and his young working-class German lover Otto; back in Berlin,
stays for a time with Otto and his family the Nowaks, and experiences the cramped conditions of the Berlin working classes;
becomes involved with the Landauers, the wealthy Jewish family whose eighteen-year-old daughter, Natalia, he teaches; and
finally, as SA men beat people up in the street, knows sadly that it is time for him to leave.
I said that I was hugely impressed by the quality of the prose and the insights into people and the way they are depicted -
the affectionate depiction, for instance, of the bossy but naive and ultimately vulnerable teenager Natalia. On their first meeting,
she makes Christopher tell her about the book he is writing (although he can see that she isn't really following his English):
When I had finished, she asked at once: 'And when will it be ready - how soon?' For she had taken possession of the story,
together with all my other affairs. I answered that I didn't know. I was lazy.
'You are lazy?' Natalia opened her eyes mockingly. 'So? Then I am sorry. I can't help you.'
The first and last sections of the book take the form of a diary and are indeed titled thus (Berlin Diary Autumn 1930
and Berlin Diary Winter 1932-3), and the second paragraph of the book is the narrator's famous statement:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite
and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, and fixed.
This is often taken as declaring a refusal to judge, but the point about a camera of course is that you can choose where to point it,
and not only is there implicit judgement in the cool way Isherwood depicts characters, letting them reveal themselves, the book is
a masterpiece of careful and telling selection. I said I loved the counterpointing that Isherwood thus creates: the two diary sections
framing the book with vividly and sadly contrasting pictures of Berlin; the counterpointing of the louche and money-grubbing Sally Bowles
and the pampered and naive Natalia, representatives of contrasting social milieux; and most importantly of all, that of the
good-hearted but politically naive Gentile Nowaks, vulnerable to Nazi propaganda, and the Jewish Landauers whose wealth and safety
is doomed. Such counterpointing creates of itself a judgement on the overall social and political situation. The fact that the
sections do not run entirely chronologically, and that as a consequence we discover that other events and friendships have been
running alongside the ones we have been focused on, creates a kind of yearning sense of missed connection which I found very
moving, and it seems to me that this, formally, is another comment on the social breakdown of the era. The endings of books are
of course of prime importance, and the fact that Isherwood ends with descriptions of the growing Nazi violence he witnesses,
however coolly he describes it, left me in no doubt about a fiercely left-wing authorial stance. The book was, after all, first
published by notably left-wing publisher John Lehmann, and it is known that Isherwood held in great importance Erich Maria
Remarque's anti-war and anti-establishment novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which we discussed
Everyone present agreed enthusiastically that the book was beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing, Mark in particular
saying that he read it at a gallop in a couple of sittings. People elaborated on the things I had said, and amazement was expressed
that Isherwood could have presented such a clear-eyed and politically acute picture of the rise of the Nazis, with even the mention of
concentration camps, so early on before the war, and that such a book should have been published as early as 1939. Everyone was
especially taken by the episode (near the end) picked out by Ann, where, as the Nazis take over the streets and the life of Berlin,
Christopher attends a boxinging match that the audience takes 'dead seriously', placing bets even though it is abundantly clear that
the match is fixed, so that Christopher comments: 'The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe
in anybody or anything'. Impressive too is the depiction
of the normalisation of Nazism in the minds of the populace, the muggings of suspected Jews presented by the narration with cool
yet savage irony as 'not, in itself, very remarkable; there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests',
and the harmless and even likeable landlady Frl Shroeder coming to talk 'reverently about "Der Fuhrer" to the porter's wife.'
Doug said that he did find something missing: a sense of the precise nature of Christopher's relationships with each of the other
young men in the book, as it was clear that, writing in the early 30s, Isherwood would have had to suppress any explicit homosexuality.
I quickly agreed, remembering that I'd had the same problem: for instance, when on the island of Reugen Otto abandons his lover Peter
each evening to go dancing with women and Christopher and Peter end up spending the time together at a cafe, does this mean that
Christopher is stepping in merely on the level of friendship, or in a more involved way? And, after the relationship between Peter
and Otto breaks down, what is the precise relationship between Christopher and Otto when Christopher moves into Otto's cramped
family home, and indeed shares his sleeping quarters? What indeed was his relationship with the nephew of the Landauers, Bernhard,
with whom he is fascinated but who seems ambivalently to hold him at arm's length? Mark thought it was obvious that all of the
relationships would have been physically sexual. I said, but even so, because of the suppression, we can't know the emotional level.
For instance, later Christopher is apparently wistfully arrested when someone mentions a Peter (who will turn out not be the same
Peter): does this mean he was unrequitedly in love with him, or not? As was agreed generally, it's a reading problem created by our
contemporary hindsight: at the time of publication readers would generally have accepted the surface representation of the
John said that he thought this suppression was closely linked to the camera conceit at the beginning. A photographer records,
and in the way he records interprets, but leaves himself out of the picture. The only way for the narrator to suppress his own
homosexual involvement with characters would be to excise himself from the story as active participant, and place himself in the role
of observer. This is indeed movingly codified on the first page where Christopher, newly arrived in his lodgings, listens to the young
men in the street below whistling up to their girls:
Their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad ... soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing,
so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the venetian blind to make sure
that it is not - as I know very well it could not possibly be - for me.
a statement of longing and exclusion that blew me over before I had hardly begun the book.
And then, to my surprise, Mark, who had stated the most robustly that he'd found the book a compulsive read, said that
nevertheless he did disagree with me about its left wing stance: he thought that it was after all fundamentally right wing and racist.
Christopher makes a conscious political point of getting to know the Landauers after hearing anti-Jewish sentiments expressed,
but Mark said that there is exoticism in the portrayal of Bernhard: with his Oriental furnishings and dressing gown Bernhard is
portrayed as mysteriously exotic. I objected that the exoticism was surely that of Bernhard himself and of the time, Orientalism
being a fashionable obsession of the 30s. I have to concede that Bernhard does come across as fundamentally unknowable,
ambiguously fascinating and repellent, but feel on reflection that that's a matter of suppressed homosexuality rather than racism,
since the attitude to the other Landauers is straightforward and affectionate. Mark pointed to the statement that a gang of
Nazi roughs 'manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians' as evidence of racial stereotyping on the part of Isherwood.
I read that, on the contrary, as Isherwood's ironical comment on racial stereotyping by the Nazis - note that these pedestrians
are not identified by the narration as Jews; they are people, not necessarily Jews, who because of certain physical characteristics
are assumed by the Nazis to be Jews. It's also significant that the passage comes at the very start of the section on the Landauers,
prefiguring the fate in store for them that will be a matter of great sadness.
For Mark I think Isherwood's position as a privileged upper-class young man slumming it with a family like the Nowaks as a matter of
curious writerly choice and observing the coming political storm from a position of safety (he can return to England while Bernhard
Landauer remains to suffer a horrific fate), weakens his observations. It is also a matter of recorded fact that Isherwood left England
for America with W H Auden just before the war, declaring to his publisher John Lehmann that Europe was no longer of concern to him,
a matter about which Lehmann was still writing bitterly in the late 80s, and which clearly fuelled the reputation that had put me off
However, it seems to me that irrespective of Isherwood's ultimate political stance, close attention to the text of Goodbye to Berlin
shows it to be a work of political acuity, humanity and integrity. The social status of author Isherwood and narrator Christopher cannot
to mind my detract from the searing nature of the depiction of the poverty-stricken boys who come from the countryside to the city
to seek unattainable work, and the cruel character of the city, the heart of political oppression:
...the city, which glowed so brightly and invitingly in the night sky above the plains, is cold and cruel and dead. Its warmth is an
illusion, a mirage of the winter desert. It will not receive these boys. It has nothing to give. The cold drives them out of its streets,
into the wood which is its cruel heart. And there they cower on benches, to starve and freeze, and dream of their faraway cottage
and the air of restrained longing and sadness infusing the whole creates a lament not just for oppressed homosexuality
but for oppressed humanity.
All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski
Everyone present loved this suggestion of Doug's, Walter Kempowski's 2006 novel set in 1945 East Prussia as the German army retreats
from the Russian advance and refugees begin to trickle and then pour from the occupied lands.
Sealed off from the growing chaos in their rundown rural mansion, the Georgenhof, the remains of an estate now largely sold off,
is the semi-aristocratic von Globig household: a dreamy young wife, Katharina, known as a beauty, whose army officer husband is away
in Italy requisitioning goods for the German army, her introspective twelve-year-old son, a spinster relative who acts as housekeeper,
and their few Polish and Ukrainian servants. Unaware of the military threat, and of the slyer threat from their envious Nazi neighbour,
Drygalski, the 'kind of deputy mayor' of the new housing estate across the road, the von Globigs merely watch curiously as the
processions of refugees pass the house, and make no preparations to leave. Their peace begins to be broken, however, by a series
of travellers who call at the house from out of the surrounding snow, and when Katharina is asked to harbour a particularly mysterious
stranger for one night, their fate is set.
Doug said - to murmurs of enthusiastic agreement - that he thought the book brilliant. It begins in a mode that at first seems
old-fashioned, with leisurely, objective and omniscient descriptions first of the house and then of each member of the household in turn
- a mode which does indeed recall the nineteenth-century world from which the von Globigs have failed to be woken. Yet there are
strange repetitions that do not belong to the polished, patrician prose of an earlier century: in the section concerning one character
we will be told a fact that we have already been told in an earlier section dealing with a different character, and in exactly the same
words, as though the fact is being introduced for the first time. There is too much of an overall air of authority to the prose for this
to be authorial clumsiness. As Doug said, the precise verbal repetition creates a sense of the fateful connections between the characters
- such as between the von Globigs and Drygalski - and, at the same time, of their psychic isolation from each other in the situation.
As the book proceeds, there is a growing musicality in the repetition, and the novel builds like a piece of music, moving in simple
prose through a dreamy tone towards nightmare as the chaos of war overtakes the von Globigs, and opening out to orchestrate a
huge cast of characters, the repetitions becoming sinister: Where would they all end up? ; Had it all been for nothing?
Previously to writing this novel, after coming across abandoned papers and photos revealing the unrecorded experience of German
people during the war, Kempowski had produced a monumental non-fiction work of witness, and this clearly informs All for Nothing.
What had seemed at the outset a conventional omniscient narration about one family becomes a magnificent piece of free indirect
discourse giving witness to whole populations devastated by war, moving from head to character's head and out again, breaking down
the stereotypes through which they see each other and showing us all of them - Nazi, Jew, German, Ukrainian, Pole - from every
perspective in all their flawed humanity.
The book is translated from the German by Anthea Bell, who also translated W G Sebald's Austerlitz
(which we also loved) . Once
again we were extremely impressed by the translation. In particular, as Ann pointed out, the handling of idioms is especially impressive,
easy on the English ear whilst never detracting from the German feel of the prose.
In a nutshell, we all loved it. There was one small doubt, which I think all of us shared: although the novel has something of the quality
of fable (rather than of the realist novel), we did find the ending, which I won't give away here, psychologically unconvincing and potentially
sentimental, though we forgave the book that for its overall magnificence.
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
After unanimous praise for our last book, there was unanimous dislike of this book,
apart perhaps from the view of Jenny who had suggested it, and who said she couldn't decide whether she liked it or not, and wavered
as she read it.
Set in millennial New York, it's the third-person account of one day in the life of twenty-eight-year-old multi-millionaire asset
manager Eric Packer as, accompanied by his 'chief of security', he is driven in his limousine across the city to get a haircut, moving slowly
through jammed traffic while his advisors, his 'chief of technology', his 'currency analyst', his 'chief of finance', his doctor, his
'chief of theory' wait at corners at appointed times and step in turn into the car for meetings. They are held up by a global protest,
a state presidential visit and a massive funeral, and Packer nips out of the car now and then for sexual liaisons and to speak to the wife
he has recently married as a financial deal, all the while trading in the yen in a way that will bring about a global and personal downfall.
Partway through the day it is reported that there is a threat to Packer's life, although there is such an overall air of disconnection that it is
not clear whether the threat is real. In any case, the way Packer behaves from this point on seems
guaranteed to push him in the face of such danger.
Well, it was hard for me to call up the events of the novel to write that synopsis, as quite frankly I really didn't care in the least
what happened during that day to Eric Packer, and was happy to forget it, and neither did anyone else (apart from Jenny). Clearly the
novel is about the alienation of capitalism (which we hardly found an original concept), and its death-wish, and Jenny pointed out that
Packer's pursuit of a haircut in the run-down area of the city where he grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances is an inchoate attempt
to reach back to life and the 'real'. He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut. Jenny said that this made
her at times sympathise with him as a man damaged by his own ambitions and the financial world that has sucked him in.
However, while this is clearly a premise of the novel, none of the rest of us saw the book as operating on the psychological level
that would elicit such sympathy. Packer seemed to us very much a cipher, and the whole thing is told from the outside in staccato,
distanced prose mimicking the lack of affect of a financial world. The result is that it is often, or mostly, impossible to work out Packer's
emotional state or motivations, so none of us could engage with him or the situation. Another effect was a (seemingly deliberate) loss of
significance at moments that should have resonated with significance. An interesting occurrence in the novel (interesting in retrospect)
is the fact that things begin to happen on the camera screen in Packer's car before they actually happen in real life - Packer sees himself
rubbing his chin on screen in the brief second before he does it - indicating the takeover of virtuality from reality. However, presumably
in an authorial attempt to illustrate the normalisation of such a horror, it is narrated so blandly and glossed over so quickly that it has
no emotional effect on the reader (us readers, at any rate). Fairly near the beginning, well before it is heard that there is a plot to kill
Packer, there is a first-person section, narrated by a Benno Levin and reporting that he has murdered someone unnamed. It was hard
to work out whether or not this was a deliberate authorial bid to give the game away and subvert conventional dramatic tension,
and it's an instance of the way we all felt we failed to get a grip on the novel. At this point in fact there is yet no hint of a plot
against Packer and the link with him personally is not obvious: is it therefore an authorial attempt not to give the game away? But
without that connection the piece seems to float disconnected (and confusing) from the rest of the narrative, and why else would
the piece be there? However, I for one had already failed to engage with Packer's fate, and the whole section dropped away from
my consciousness with little lasting significance. In addition, the piece itself is an essay in lack of significance: although the
narrator writes of his motives for the murder and of his anger, he does so analytically (and again in that staccato affectless
prose), and there is an air of futility: All through the day I became more convinced I could not do it [ie, commit the murder].
Then I did it. Now I have to remember why. And: So what is left that's worth the telling?
In conclusion we all agreed that it's all very well writing about alienation, futility and lack of significance, but you have to find a way
of doing so that doesn't alienate the reader and make the book itself seem futile and lacking in significance. On the whole, people got
the feeling that this was one of those books commissioned and rushed out as a millennial novel by a Great American Author, which did
not do justice to the talent we found in DeLillo's White Noise.
Through a last-minute change of venue, Doug failed to make the meeting, and when we called him later he said that he hadn't
particularly wanted to discuss the book anyway, as he hated it, it had bored him rigid, though he did think it remarkably prescient
in view of the 2008 crash.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Prompted by the immense success of the novels of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, in particular her linked Neopolitan novels,
and of course by the recent fuss around her apparent 'umasking', John suggested this stand-alone novel, and the rest of us, none
of whom had yet read Ferrante, jumped at the chance to read it.
However, not everyone in our group shared the popular opinion, and views of the book were sharply divided.
Suspecting that this would be the case, John avoided expressing his emotional reaction to the book, and concentrated on discussing
it in more neutral literary terms. A breathless first-person narration, it charts the emotional journey of Olga from the moment
her husband Mario announces that, through an 'absence of sense', he feels the need to leave, and walks out on her and their two young
children. As John said, the book is significantly titled: not only is Olga abandoned, thereafter she abandons herself, falling into the kind
of madness of the abandoned woman she witnessed in childhood and subsequently despised and dreaded, and consequently at
moments abandoning her children both physically and emotionally. As Jenny would point out later in the discussion, and as Olga
herself will realise later, it is not Mario but Olga who, as a result of his actions, suffers an 'absence of sense'. (Mario has in fact of
course gone off with another, younger woman.) Initially, before she comes to realise that Mario is never coming back, Olga makes
a point of being reasonable and understanding, a stance she has always previously taken. It is the way in fact that women are
traditionally supposed to behave, and is thus another kind of absence of sense.
Mark interjected that surely this was a hackneyed subject, but John stated that he thought that this novel was not simply telling
a hackneyed story, but was very much a political statement of the continuing trap of the institution of marriage for women. Having
once despised tragic heroines like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Olga is now haunted by the spirit of them (and, as she becomes
more unhinged, haunted more literally by the ghost of the abandoned woman of her childhood, the poverella). Having at eighteen
'considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes', and having indeed begun a career as a published writer, she has ended
up a mere wife, modulating herself for the lives of others, subsumed to the Family. John thought it no coincidence that the book that
most strongly haunts this novel, Anna Karenina, begins All happy families... He pointed out that, like that novel
(and in his opinion
most great novels), The Days of Abandonment begins with a sentence that gets right to the thematic point
: One April afternoon,
right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. (Note that reference to lunch, not only locating
Olga in the domestic that traps her and in which she will be left, but implying the familiar order and composure from which she
is now shaken.)
It now became clear that the three women present, Jenny, Clare and I, had found the book utterly emotionally engrossing - although
I had to confess that because I had read it at a huge compulsive rush I read it again, and the second time, without the tension of not
knowing what was going to happen, felt less emotionally engaged and more distanced from the character. On first reading, however,
all three of us had identified closely with Olga and her experience, and had found the portrayal searingly truthful. John and Mark,
however, the two men present, both said that they had wavered as they read it, sometimes liking the book and sometimes disliking it,
John saying that he found it sagged a little in the second half - a sensation I did have on my second reading. Mark seemed to come
down on the side of dislike, as he went on to be pretty critical. He repeated his view that the situation - a woman emotionally trapped
by marriage and motherhood - is outdated; he thought young women nowadays would be baffled by it. To begin with we found it
hard to answer that, except to say that nevertheless women of our generation who do identify with it are a significant enough
demographic not to be discounted and to account for Ferrante's huge popularity, and that in any case Italy is still a conservative
enough society for its theme to be still current there for younger women. But a main point made by this novel, as had been said,
is that that so-called outdated stereotype, which might baffle younger women, and which had indeed baffled the young Olga
herself, is not so easily sidestepped even now, a notion that we three strongly agreed with as a result of our own experience.
Clare said she was really interested in the meta-issue of Ferrante's anonymity and 'unmasking' (as far as I know, no one knows
for sure if the woman who has been fingered as the author behind the pen-name is really the author). In discussing Olga's state of
mind John had mentioned that there is a lot of excrement and urine in the book, and the fact that Olga is obsessed with sex,
in particular transgressive sex. None of this is gratuitous; all of it is an inevitable outcome of the situation and Olga's deteriorating
state of mind. Rejected so unexpectedly by her husband she is inevitably swamped by a sense of her hitherto unsuspected inadequacy:
has he found her sexually inadequate? Does his lover provide sexual satisfactions she hadn't? - questions that lead her unsuccessfully
and depressingly to abandon herself 'without love' and 'with pure ferocity' to transgressive sex with a neighbour, Caranno,
a practical stranger. Everything inevitably seems to her spoiled and poisoned - there is dog-shit on the pavement, a lizard
and ants invade the house - and Olga herself becomes the focus of loss of control, letting the house fall into chaos, running out
precipitously with the dog in her nightgown and needing herself to urinate and defecate in the woods. As one of her children falls
ill with a fever, and the dog simultaneously lies dying and leaking shit, she becomes convinced that she is secreting some sort of
poison that is affecting all around her. Such graphic material caused shock on the book's publication in 2002, which I consider a
telling comment on continuing perceptions of women (women are not supposed to be so earthy or to lose control), and on what
a female author is allowed to write. It is probably therefore significant that one suggestion has been that the author of the Ferrante
books is a man.
I said that one of the reasons I found the book so deeply and personally compelling was that it made me wonder why I hadn't
written about certain of my own experiences, and I realised it was because I don't write anonymously (although Elizabeth Baines is
a pen-name, people have long known who I am). I would love to go back to the days when I first started writing under a pen-name
and no one knew me: there was freedom then from my writing being judged through the lens of my real-life persona or vice versa.
Reading Ferrante's book made me realise that the better known I have become, the more difficult it has become to write about certain
experiences of my own in a way that could be interpreted as autobiographical.
Now there was a huge altercation. Mark seemed to think this fairly ridiculous. Surely when you write, he said, you don't write
for others but for yourself? Hadn't we read the Paris Review interviews in which so many writers say they write for themselves?
It is however a matter of degree and of negotiating between, on the one hand, the desire to express oneself and portray the truth
as you see it, and, on the other, the need to communicate and the context into which your writing must be published. But surely,
Mark said, it's fiction? He was right of course that it is a mistake to read fiction as autobiography, but the fact is that
there is a huge tendency to do so, and to identify the author with the protagonist.
Mark then criticised the translation of the book, citing the substitution of the American use of Fahrenheit for the European Celsius
(when Olga is taking her ill child's temperature) and the use of 'magnifying lens' which he thought should be 'magnifying glass'.
The rest of us found these trivial points in a book dealing so truthfully with searing issues, and hadn't even noticed them. I found
'magnifying lens' acceptable anyway, and in fact more resonant in a book about shifts in perception, and John said he thought
Fahrenheit was acceptable in a translation probably aimed at the American market. Mark criticised the prose, finding it lacking
in punctuation, especially in commas. I said, isn't this a function of the fact that the breathless style mimics Olga's slipping
state of mind, and isn't it actually explicitly addressed in the book: Olga reflects that as a young woman she despised the lack
of commas in those novels of tragic heroines, but abandoning herself to loss of control in her new situation, she embraces
a lack of commas. Mark said he knew this, but he still objected to the lack. (However, leafing through the book now I can't
actually find this lack; the book is in fact liberally sprinkled with commas - sometimes in place of full stops, indicating Olga's
sliding, uncontrolled state.) In direct contrast, the rest of us found the book extremely well-written, with style beautifully
suited to the situation. In fact, I said to the group, I don't believe that I would ever go to pieces in the way that Olga does in
that situation - I don't believe I'm like Olga - but I found that the way the book was written made me identify with her totally
on that first reading, and Clare and Jenny agreed.
From the meeting it looked as if our opinions of this book were divided along gender lines, but Doug, who hadn't been able to make
the meeting, had written that, 50 pages in, he was finding it 'captivating and harrowing in equal measure' and couldn't wait to find out
where it went next. And, conversely, Ann, who was also unable to be present, had written that she had found the translation clunky
and clumsy, and had 'just wanted to shake the protagonist', finding her 'too overwrought, incompetent, incapable'. Like Mark, Ann found
her 'just old fashioned in attitude and assumptions' and simply thought 'At last!' when Olga comes to realise that she has invested too
much of herself in her relationship and her role as a wife and mother. There is an agonising section where Olga is trapped in the house
with her ailing child and dying dog because she can't undo the lock she has had installed by workmen who made lewd lock-based
insinuations as they installed it. She is able to undo it only when the neighbour Caranno arrives outside the door. Ann thought this
an outrageously overdone metaphor, and John pretty much agreed with her, but none of the rest of us women did. While it does of
course operate on a symbolic level, I read it chiefly not as an authorial metaphor, but as a practical effect of Olga's state,
which I found realistic (ie she was simply in too much of a state to get the thing open before she relaxed, her situation creating
an emotional and physical block about it). Ann had also foreseen the ending of the book early on, but none of the rest of us
had done so, since we felt that the book was interrogating traditional paradigms rather than simply employing them.
And there was quite some amazement on the faces of us women at Ann's statement that if this is typical of the rest of Ferrante's
work she wouldn't be bothering with it.