Quiet American by
Doug had chosen this novel set in French-occupied fifties Vietnam,
concerning the relationship between Fowler, a seasoned and weary
British journalist and young American Pyle, rival for Fowler’s Vietnamese
mistress and whose work with the American Economic Aid Mission in
Vietnam is shrouded in secrecy, the book beginning with the mystery
of how Pyle has come to be found dead.
Introducing the book, Doug said how vivid he had found Greene’s
evocation of place, as in all his novels, and how much he admired
the depiction of the relationship and the way it stood for two opposing
moral viewpoints: idealism warped by blind opportunism on the side
of Pyle and cynical lack of commitment tempered by moral conscience
We all agreed that the prose was vivid, and the book, published
as long ago as 1955, prescient in its theme of American political
idealism and occupation. Most people gave the book the thumbs-up,
but Sarah and I, the only two women present, had found it hard to
engage with or care about and would have passed it off as a boys’
book had Jeanne (absent along with Don) not sent a message that
they had both loved it, and had John not said that, notwithstanding
the moral preoccupations of the book, he had found it something
of a barren thriller.
I said that, reading the book in the present time, I had found it
hard to take seriously because of the portrayal of the mistress
Phuong, central to the relationship between the two men, with its
somewhat phewy pong of sexism and racism.
Sarah pointed out that the book was of its time and Mark, arriving
late, agreed. I said that I know it’s sometimes hard to remember
the revelation that feminism was when it hit us in the seventies,
and how different attitudes were before that. However, I said, great
male writers transcend their own times, and you wouldn’t catch Flaubert
or Tolstoy making the same mistakes about women as Greene, who describes
Fowler, submitting at one point to possible drowning in a rice field,
as ‘like a woman who demands to be raped by her lover’.
As for what I’d called the racism, Trevor said, he thought that
the idea in the book that Phuong wanted cynically to get whatever
she could out of Fowler and Pyle was simply realistic: it is understandable
behaviour for all colonised peoples.
Sarah and I countered that what was racist was the fact that the
book gave Phuong no other dimension than this, and no inner life
whatever, but colluded with the baffled attitude of Fowler and Pyle
towards her, and Mark agreed.
There was a lot of argument about how we were meant to take the
character of Pyle, the 'quiet American'. Was he merely a cynical
manipulator, a cold-blooded government agent, or did he believe
the idealism he spouted at the start? Doug came down on the side
of the latter, but most of us simply didn’t know what to think,
and Sarah pointed out that Pyle is filtered through Fowler’s viewpoint
throughout, and so we have no insight beyond Fowler’s own ambivalence
towards Pyle. Trevor said that this was the point, and we did all
agree that although the book employs the thriller mode, it’s intended
as more than that, and as an examination of the moral and political
ambiguity which many thrillers eschew.
However, most of us felt that, rather than a satisfying ambiguity,
we were left with inconsistency. Mark pointed out that in the recent
film of the book Pyle is portrayed unequivocally as a manipulator
and indeed a liar, and while this simplifying adjustment may have
been dictated by the more objective demands of drama, we all felt
that it must be a improvement on an aspect of the book which even
the Greene fans had found unsatisfying.
In the end, even Greene fans among us agreed that this isn’t one
of his strongest books, but Trevor strenuously stuck to its defence
and said he thought it was cracking.
here to add your comments
Albert Camus (Penguin)
met at Jeanne and Don’s to discuss this classic 1942 French novel
– Don’s choice - narrated by a young French Algerian, Meursault,
whose downfall in a bourgeois society is that he cannot lie about
his emotions, even to save his own life.
Introducing the book, Don said that it was only possible to read
it in the light of the French Existentialist movement from which
it sprang, and most of our reactions bore this out.
Jeanne and I who had been stunned by the novel when we read it in
the sixties and seventies respectively now felt less satisfied by
it. Jeanne said that she now had no interest in Meursault with his
inability to care deeply about anything much (including the death
of his own mother and the crime of murder he commits) beyond the
sensual fulfilment of each moment as it comes (the last a classic
It was hard nowadays to accept the way that in the novel the actual
death of the Arab Algerian killed by Meursault is not an issue (only
Meursault’s attitude to it). The Arabs and women are in fact more
outside conventional society than Meursault himself, yet they get
short shrift from both Meursault and Camus. (Although, interestingly,
this is a point made as long ago as 1946 by Cyril Connolly in his
introduction to the first English edition.)
Sarah, who had not previously read the book, said that she too couldn’t
care about Meursault, and whether or not he was hanged at the end
for his crime. She had found unconvincing the scene in which the
murder takes place. Since Meursault specifically and characteristically
has no personal quarrel of his own with the Arab, the quarrel being
between the Arab and a somewhat casual acquaintance of Meursault’s,
and since in the moment Meursault shoots him the Arab is still lying
down on the beach and therefore no real physical threat, the killing
seemed to Sarah motiveless.
It became clear in the discussion of this that Sarah had read a
more modern Penguin translation than some of us. Less poetic and
metaphoric, a good deal more literal than the earlier translation,
it conveys with less emotive force the effect of the blazing sun
on Meursault in these moments - the uncompromising sun being in
this novel a metaphor for amoral truth.
However, even those of us with the earlier translation felt we had
had to make an effort to accept the existentialist terms of this,
rather than to give the incident post-existentialist and Freudian
Don indeed conceded that while Meursault’s great virtue is his adherence
to emotional truth in the face of bourgeois hypocrisy, he is in
effect a monster.
John however said that he remembers that in the sixties Meursault
was on the contrary considered no monster but a hero, a revolutionary
sensibility, in particular by young people, and that books like
The Outsider had contributed to the student revolutions of
The Afterword included in the latest Penguin edition gives Camus’
own view, which while implying an acceptance of Meursault’s moral
imperfection, comes down very much in his defence by presenting
him as a martyr:
...for me Meursault is not a reject, but a poor and naked man,
in love with a sun which leaves no shadows. Far from lacking all
sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and profound passion, the
passion for an absolute and for truth … I tried to make my character
the only Christ we deserve.
I said that the comparison with the present-day Vernon God
Little (discussed in December) was interesting. While Meursault
simply refuses to save himself from the guillotine by pretending
to regret his crime of murder, and thus seizes control over his
own destiny, however negative, it is Vernon’s inability to display
guilt for murders he has not in fact committed which condemns him
to death: Vernon’s present-day universe is a more complex one, in
which sentiments are even falser and more devious, and the truth
not a weapon for seizing control over one’s own destiny, but the
very thing over which you can lose it.
Don concluded by commenting on the brilliant economy and vividness
of The Outsider, and those of us with the earlier translation
agreed, while those with the later one looked surprised.
here to add your comments
Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
small number of us met at mine and John’s to discuss this book with
its vivid and satirical depiction of nineteen-twenties’ New York
high society and the story of the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby
whose glittering parties are its heart.
The book was my choice as one of my all-time favourites and one
which I would say has coloured my mental landscape and has strongly
influenced me as a writer.
Reading it again, I was if anything more impressed by the writing,
and in particular by Fitzgerald’s narrative genius in his choice
of narrator, Nick Carraway.
Carraway is a narrator both implicated but detached - brought up,
as he tells us, to be non-judgemental and thus treated as a confidant
by the other characters, while his tolerance of them sometimes,
by his own confession, ‘has a limit’; wise to the corruption of
the America Dream as played out by the other characters, yet implicated
in it himself by virtue of his background and his profession in
the ‘bond business’. This gives him a freedom to view the other
characters at different times from both inside and outside, the
anti-hero Jay Gatsby in particular, and deepens
both theirs and his own moral ambiguity.
thus combining a certain level of narrative omniscience with an
almost postmodern sense of the deep partisanship of storytelling,
Fitzgerald creates a psychologically complex novel.
I was struck again by the economy of the writing and the detonative
symbolic power of the images: the wind blowing through the house
of Tom and Daisy, Nick’s cousin, and making everything, the curtains,
the women’s dresses, seem to float – prefiguring their lack of moral
grounding; the whiteness of the dresses conveying their moral blankness;
the lawn surging from the beach to splash up the side of their house
in vines, foreshadowing the tide of moral corruption that will overtake
the characters. So vividly are these things described that they
stay in the mind to explode with their full meaning as the story
The only odd thing for me was that I found I had not remembered
how the story ended – which was certainly strange when the novel
is so vivid and when I have held it as so important to me, and when
no one else in the group who had read it previously had the same
problem. It was only next day that I realised what must have happened.
I was reading The Great Gatsby just before I first began
writing. I must have been so inspired by the prose that I went off
and started writing half-way through it and never finished it!
Everyone present agreed that the novel was a great read, though
Sarah said she found it lacking in the thinness of the depiction
of the women characters, which no one could deny. Anne said that
she was troubled by the fact that she couldn’t like any of the characters,
including Nick Carraway. We all agreed that you couldn’t, but no
one else found this a problem, as we felt that this was the satirical
point of the book.
Anne, who had not read it before, said she wished now that she hadn’t
seen the film of it beforehand, as she felt that Robert Redford
wasn’t right for Jay Gatsby (not sinister enough), and the image
of him got in the way as she was reading.
This led on to an interesting discussion about books in the media
and the hyping of books and authors. All along Mark has been rather
resistant to our reading new books that have been heavily hyped,
as he feels that this is no guarantee of literary merit. We pointed
out that just because a book is hyped doesn’t mean it’s bad, either,
but Mark said that, more importantly, he strongly resents being
told what to read by the profit-making multinational publishing
He was rewarded this time by John choosing a modern classic for
the April meeting, Blindness, by the Portuguese writer Jose
here to add your comments
Blindness by Jose Saramago
chose this 1995 book by the Portuguese writer Saramago as one he
had previously read and admired, a novel in which a whole society
– at first one by one and then en masse – is overcome by
a ‘white blindness’ with no obvious cause but which is clearly infectious.
We all sat waiting expectantly for his introduction. However, he
confessed that he had been unable to read the book a second time,
finding it too one-dimensional and unsubtle to take a second reading,
but that he had not remembered it well enough to introduce it in
Anne hadn’t even managed a first reading, but had been defeated
after eighty pages by the dense minimally-punctuated prose.
Martin had told me that he hadn’t liked the book, but he wasn’t
able to make the meeting, so it was left to me, who also had great
doubts about the book, to argue with the others present – Sarah,
Trevor and Mark who had all loved it (although Mark had only had
time to read the first hundred pages) and Doug who had some reservations
but was basically positive.
I said that I had a problem with how to read this novel. It began
with all the hallmarks of an allegory, which conventionally indicates
a clear and logical meaning, yet it didn’t appear to fulfil these
allegorical terms. It was hard to work out very precisely what the
blindness meant, and why everybody had gone blind.
Sarah said that this didn’t bother her; she didn’t read novels for
meaning. She had been completely taken up in the world the novel
described, which was enough for her, and swept along so she had
none of the problems others had had with the lack of punctuation
I insisted that the novel appeared to be asking to be read in this
way, however, for meaning.
I said that if the novel is meant to be about the tenuous nature
of civilised society, and the ease with which it can break down,
then I felt that it had failed to convey this fully since it concentrates
closely on the experience of the initial group incarcerated in a
disused asylum for their blindness and therefore unable to experience
the breakdown of social structures as it occurs in the outside world.
Sarah said she didn’t think this mattered, as within the asylum
there is a microcosmic society which breaks down, the blind thugs
in possession of a gun gaining control of the others.
I didn’t find this satisfactory, however, especially as when the
group finally emerges from the asylum the situation inside it appears
not to be paralleled in society at large, where people seem to be
coping with their blindness with a greater democracy.
Sarah said that she found this part of the book fascinating: the
way that people in the outside world seemed to have reverted to
the primitive set-up of tiny tribes in order to survive.
I said that if, on the other hand, the book was meant, as John suggested,
to be a psychological study of freak en masse blindness rather
than an allegory about society, then I thought the novel failed
in this, too, most especially as the whole thing is witnessed by
the only person, the doctor’s wife, who doesn’t go blind, a point
with which Doug agreed. While the central sighted character is clearly
a necessary literary device, it’s unavoidable that it’s also something
of a cop-out as an exploration of the psychological experience of
It is true that there is considerable stress on the physical experience
of the characters, and some psychological exploration, most notably
in the conversations between the characters about their situation.
However, the fact that the characters are not referred to by name
(merely as ‘the doctor’s wife’, ‘the man with the eyepatch’), while
clearly intended to portray the way that blindness robs them of
their identity (at one point one of the characters states that blind
people don’t need names), also has the effect of locating them as
allegorical rather than psychologically-rounded figures.
Having been primed, though, by certain aspects of the novel to look
for psychological and social realism, I found much about it unconvincing.
I didn’t find convincing the situation depicted at the start in
which the first people to become blind are thrown into the disused
asylum building and left to fend for themselves without medical
help, guarded by soldiers and threatened with being shot if they
try to escape.
Trevor said that he certainly found it believable: what about the
concentration camps? And John said, What about Guantanamo Bay?
I said, but there is no suggestion in this novel of terrorism, or
of any political underpinning for the strategy. At the start of
epidemics under normal circumstances in civilised societies, which
is what the situation in the book appears to be, doctors and nurses
are expected to risk infection to treat patients.
Sarah, who is a doctor, snorted and said that she could just imagine
this kind of thing happening if the Ebola virus got out. Mark, who
is a flight attendant, agreed: he felt he’d already seen signs of
it, since during the SARS outbreak a man on his plane with a raised
temperature was refused entry at Singapore and separated from his
wife and child.
Another thing I didn’t find convincing was the fact that the blind
inmates of the asylum, crammed together, disorientated, half-starved,
worried that no more food will appear, in fear for their lives and
monumentally covered in excrement, appear to be conducting normal
and indeed – according to this translation at any rate – discreet
and decorous sex lives.
Everyone else said they found it perfectly believable that people
would still want sex in those circumstances. My point, which I had
clearly failed to convey properly, was the level of psychological
conviction of the novel; however, since everyone else was appealing
to real-life probability, I did so too, and as the comparison with
Nazi concentration camps had been made, reminded them that when
we discussed Primo Levi’s This is a Man Don told us of work
he had read which showed that for Nazi-camp inmates sex drive disappeared
beneath the need to survive appalling circumstances.
Doug now protested to me that he didn’t think the circumstances
in the book were comparable to those in the Nazi camps.
I said I couldn’t work out precisely why blindness had been chosen
as the trope of the book.
Mark and Trevor said it was obvious: blindness is obviously the
most frightening sensual affliction. I said, but a study of the
psychological effects of loss of sight could be done via a single
character: you don’t have to send a whole society blind to make
Doug said he felt that the physical blindness of the book must stand
for moral blindness, and a suggestion was made that the doctor’s
wife remained sighted because she was selfless. I said that if this
is what’s intended then it’s rather an obvious and somewhat hackneyed
association. Mark said, Well, there’s nothing new under the sun.
I replied that I do expect a new insight from a novel, and not just
a corny idea, and anyway, the precise moral blindness of the society
is never defined.
Doug said, well, one of the first group is a thief and another a
prostitute. I said, but the book doesn’t make any particular issue
of this – which Doug conceded – and anyway others of the group are
morally blameless yet they all suffer blindness in the same way.
Trevor then said to me, Look, you want this to be a book like Animal
Farm with a single meaning. But as far as he was concerned,
he said, this book was about a lot of things, including society
and human nature under stress, and war.
I said that I had no rules for what sort of book Jose Saramago ought
to write. It was simply that I needed to be able to know the terms
of a book in order to know how to read it, and that I felt that
the terms of this book were not clear.
John, who had read several other books by Saramago, then said that
the other books were more clearly in the magic realist mode, with
its much lesser reliance on logicality than allegory, and that he
felt that this book was affected by this.
Then everyone in the group, including those who had said they loved
the book, said that they hated the ending, in which everyone’s sight
is returned suddenly and simultaneously for no apparent good reason
(apart perhaps from the fact that they have learnt to live together
with their blindness), and that they considered it a real cop-out.
here to add your comments
to interesting discussions of Blindness on Bob Corbett's
site, Webster University
Cogan by Gordon Burn
all his trips abroad, the birth of his second baby and the complete
renovation of his house, Mark was finally able to host a meeting
of the group, and we all piled in and exclaimed with ironic accusations
of yuppiedom and genuine admiration at his beautiful new interiors,
which had immediately been snapped up as a location for a TV advert
- before finally turning to the book, Mark’s choice.
a Whitbread First Novel winner, this 1991 book did not get a good
reception from the group.
It proposes the continuing life of the fifties popular singer Alma
Cogan (who in reality died in 1966 at the age of thirty-four), and
in first-person prose charts her problematic negotiation in post-fame
middle age with her own youthful and very manufactured famous persona,
and with the world which keeps that persona frozen.
Everyone present agreed that the meditations on the above theme
of celebrity were stunning, that Gordon Burn can sure turn a sentence,
and that his evocation of fifties and eighties Britain and the contrast
between the two were startlingly vivid and spot-on. (Although Don
later complained that the fifties Britain evoked was hardly representative,
being the Britain of fifties showbiz.)
However we all felt that, as Jeanne put it, the prose had the quality
of a series of ‘creative writing’ exercises, in that the marvellous
impressions seemed not to be anchored on any narrative bedrock,
and therefore lacked overall resonance and soon faded.
all agreed that a non-plot-based novel was theoretically acceptable
(witness Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, to which this
novel has been compared), (although Sarah and I said that we did
like a good story). A problem with this novel, however, is that
it kept prompting you to look for narrative satisfaction and resolution
by creating moments of seeming narrative tension and doom (ominous
signs in and around the seaside cottage in which Alma Cogan is spending
her retirement) which however come to nothing and ultimately appear
to operate only as indicators of Cogan’s existential unease and
poisoned relationship with the public world.
Anne pointed out that it was rather the connection made between
Cogan and the murderer Mira Hindley which was the ‘narrative’ hub
of the book. On a thematic level this connection was intriguing
(the notion that both fame and notoriety can trap you as a ghost
of yourself), but on a narrative level it seemed uncertain, appearing
only belatedly and bedevilled by the book’s mixture of fact and
fiction. As Don said, with some heat, it was impossible to know
just from reading the book whether the precise circumstances recounted
linking the two characters really occurred or not, and one is left
wondering about this precise issue, and their potential force in
the book is thus lost.
Martin, arriving late from putting his kids to bed, strongly agreed.
Mark disagreed: he said he loves faction, especially the way it
is handled by Janes Ellroy. Sarah said that she didn’t mind faction
in the least if it was made believable, but that in this book it
wasn’t. She said that in view of all these problems she had found
the book a pretty tedious read and, frankly, rubbish.
I said that I felt that, stunning as the prose and ideas were, they
were unconvincing as the voice and mentality of Alma Cogan, and
came over rather as those of an agiley-intellectual and knowledgeable
researcher with a savagely poetic bent of mind, ie Gordon Burn himself.
Everyone pondered the question of how on earth the book could have
won the Whitbread, and John said he felt that then, in 1991, it
must have seemed very innovative and prescient, but that the things
it was saying about the nature of fame and manufactured celebrity
(Cogan being perhaps the first truly manufactured pop star) had
since become commonplace, and thus the book now has less impact.
that that’s the problem nowadays, to get published now books have
to be showily zeitgeisty, which makes me anxious about the long
novel I’m writing now: will it be obviously zeitgeisty enough to
get published? Mark said, Precisely, and it means that books that
get published aren’t necessarily good, and in fact are quite likely
to go out of fashion, and we were back on his hobby horse, the hyping
of books by multinational publishers. There was a very heated debate
about whether good books can sink without trace in this situation,
which Don thought was rubbish: Books always make it in the end if
they’re good, he said, Look at Turgenev! And I said but Turgenev
wasn’t battling the present situation: what if good books fail to
get published in the first place because the marketeers say they
won’t sell? But then felt I’d better shut up in case it sounded
like potential sour grapes, and in any case it wasn’t up to me to
judge my own books as good. Though Mark said Exactly! and poured
me another big glass of wine and I started to get drunk.
people asked the older members what Alma Cogan’s singing voice and
songs had been like and they said, Mediocre, but Don said that at
least she had sung live with a real big band, unlike modern
pop stars who all mime to music made by machines, and that so-called
music today isn’t real music at all - at which people protested
that it was simply a different technology today, and another heated
Then Don and Jeanne left, Don saying that it had been great to see
us all again (having missed the last two meetings for a holiday),
misinformed though we all were. After which, Mark and his partner
Kirstin recounted the experience of having a film made in their
house, and there was a general discussion about the various houses
in the neighbourhood given a somewhat anonymous immortality by being
used as locations for films, and the book, famed as it might have
been, was forgotten.
The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills
met at Martin’s to discuss this quirky novel about a group of three
fence-builders who travel from Scotland to England to work and are
increasingly overtaken by surreal and sinister events.
It was Martin who had chosen the book – because, he said, having
read it twice previously and thoroughly enjoyed it each time, he
was nonetheless still stumped as to what it was supposed to be about.
Now that he had read and enjoyed it a third time, he had come to
the conclusion that it was intended as absurdist and was more able
to accept its ambiguities.
Everyone else agreed that the book was an immensely enjoyable read.
We found the portrayal of the workers, their work and their attitudes
to their job and their employers – uncomprehending yet wily, shamed
and resentful yet shameless and lackadaisical, and often full of
suppressed violence – beautifully observed: laugh-out-loud funny
and often touching. We all agreed that the prose, while apparently
simple, was almost magically resonant.
Many of us were unconvinced, however, that the book worked as absurdist
literature. It’s true that there is a tragi-comic absurdity about
the gang and their alienation from the purpose of their work. The
whole story, too, is shrouded in moral ambiguity: it’s never quite
clear whether the workers are victims or exploiters, and when people
are killed on the work site, it’s debatable how far the deaths are
accidental. Yet the ending, while it too seems ambiguous, seemed
to some of the group an attempt to provide a moral gloss. For me
it was an aspect of the mode of narration which cut across the absurdist
elements: the spell-like repetition of events told with incantatory
repetitive wording are the tricks of fairytale, with its distinct
black-and-white moral framework.
The social and psychological realism with which the characters were
observed also seemed to indicate realist rather than absurdist authorial
Apart from Sarah, we were agreed too that there was an unsatisfying
disjunction between this realism and the surreal and fairytale elements.
While the men and their work are described in minute and specific
social and psychological detail, there is none of the character
development one might consequently expect, and as in a fairy story
the deaths that occur have no psychological effects on them, or
indeed any social consequences. The very surreal ending, when it
becomes clear that the three men are unwittingly building a sinister
death-camp-type trap for themselves, felt to some people tacked
Only Sarah didn’t mind that it was hard to work out the precise
symbolism of the fences and the obsession of the men’s employer
with the unnecessary straightness of each fence they build.
Don said the book was about authority and hierarchies. John similarly
wondered it if was about colonisation, as invested in the Scottish-English
tensions in the plot and between the characters. I thought it might
also to some extent be about the nature of reality – the way the
deaths are covered up and then ignored, the way characters swear
by clearly dubious ‘truths’: the idea that truth and reality are
not as straight as the men’s employer would like it to be.
Trevor then seemed to draw all these notions together by saying
that, as a manual worker and service provider himself, he felt that
the book was more mundanely but satisfyingly about the slippery
morals operating in this kind of work, and those of a society based
on it. He viewed the men killed accidentally-on-purpose in the book
as extreme symbols of the way that in life botched jobs are so frequently
covered up and clients made to pay for them.
He then told us about some real-life cover-ups he’d witnessed. We’d
also had a long digression about absurdist literature, and Jeanne
said with some irony that we had in fact spent more time discussing
other things than the book itself, which illustrated how thin it
was. Mark said he couldn’t believe that we’d spent as much time
discussing the book as we had, and that he doubted that the
author had spent as much time as we had thinking about its meaning.
We all got quite animated, and the door of the room, inadvertently
left open by someone returning from the lavatory, was quietly closed,
and we realised we’d got too loud, with the real-life social consequence
that we’d woken Martin’s small children who had to go to school
List of all books discussed (alphabetically