Questions and Proposals about Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” (1951, 1966)

Questions and Proposals about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory  (1951, 1966)

Please note: The edition of Speak, Memory referred to in the following questions and proposals is the Everyman’s Library edition, 1999, with the added “appendix” of the Sixteenth Chapter, and with an introduction by Brian Boyd.   If your group decides to read this version of Speak, Memory, readers should be urged to read Boyd’s introduction, so they know the complex history of the book’s publication.  And if you would like to use these study questions, but would prefer to work with the version of Speak, Memory Nabokov intended—meaning, the one without Chapter Sixteen–these questions will serve.  Only one question here treats Chapter Sixteeen. 

These questions were written by Emilie White. © Emilie T. White


Question 1. Speak, Memory as perhaps effecting a change in your relationship to reading.

Have you found, in reading Speak, Memory, that you are more aware of the reading experience than you usually are, even more protective or cultivating of the reading experience than you usually are?  Perhaps you’ve reserved a specific time of day to read it, or have found yourself harvesting more of your day for reading generally.  Perhaps, like me, you’re transcribing passages you especially love, in effect protracting the amount of time it takes to read, the book creating its own special “time” within the larger, habitual time of your day.

It seems Nabokov is up to something in describing reading as much as he does.  Go back over the pages you’ve already clocked and look at how much reading goes on in Speak, Memory.  And not just reading, but—-and here I’m expanding the question — looking, or studying, or gazing.  The book is intent on sustained aesthetic wonder of several kinds (and under this heading I would include Nabokov’s pursuits as a lepidopterist).  We might even say that “sustained aesthetic wonder” stands in Speak, Memory as a threshold between modes of perception, maybe even as an altar between worlds.  Do you identify with this description of the book?

Question 2: Tone

Nabokov will do everything possible not to cheapen experience or to privilege emotion over the (sometime) hard-feeling, final-feeling obduracy of reality.  You may have noticed, for instance, that at exactly those moments when other writers might have gone in for sentiment or nostalgia, Nabokov becomes droll; or he just concludes the chapter or section, he just gets out of there; or he expands the frame to include material unanticipated at the beginning of that chapter/section.  You might have noticed how fast the narrative sometimes moves—-all of a sudden, a character we were just getting to know is dead.*   You may have also noticed N.’s habit of self-irony, of making a character out of himself at exactly that moment when another writer might have tried to seem “sincere.”  The attitude a writer holds towards his or her material is called “tone,” and many reader-writers believe that tone is all: that with the proper tone we are able to honor experience, thereby giving it to the reader; and that with an improper or vulgar tone we dishonor it, drawing the light to ourselves.

How do you experience Nabokov’s tone in Speak, Memory?  Do you find yourself surprised by it, at times? Please refer to the text in your answer.

*An added observation: This acceleration in narrative I mention above, in which, say, an element of the world N. has just created for you is suddenly being “wrenched” away—the word is Boyd’s — such as a character suddenly dying, is an example of the many ways in which the book is experiential.  It does what it’s talking about; or, it does what it dreads.  The “colossal effort” Nabokov is making to rebel against time will be overwhelmed. Regularly the book will admit this, and moreover will make you feel it; and one way you feel it is to have something or someone you’ve grown to care about suddenly “wrenched away.”

Question 3: Time

In the first pages of the book, Nabokov sets himself up as a rebel against time; yet only a paragraph later he describes time as a “radiant and mobile medium” (p. 11).  Also within that first chapter he suggests that the beginning of sentient life coincides with the beginning of our awareness of time (and here I refer to the moment on pages 10-11 when N. first learns his age in relation to those of his parents.)  Now that you’ve read the book, what do you think time really is for Nabokov?  Or maybe the question is less what time is for Nabokov than what Nabokov does with time.  What he is able to do with his “medium” (it’s like asking what a painter is able to do with paint and canvas.) And what is time for you, now that you are beginning to integrate N.’s conception of time with your own?

By the way:  Very helpful to me in my studies of Nabokov’s writing has been Michael Wood’s excellent monograph on Nabokov, The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction.  Here is Wood on Nabokov’s (or the narrator’s) posture toward time in Speak, Memory.

“The dominant posture in Speak, Memory is not disbelief in time and not simple submission to it.  Nor is it, although Nabokov himself makes a number of rhetorical waves in this direction, a rebellion against time, an assault on the ‘walls of time’ of the ‘prison of time.’  It is an intricate engagement with what Nabokov, echoing Proust, calls ‘time itself’, and anticipating his own fiction character Van Veen, calls the ‘texture of time’. [. . .] The would-be rebel against time, time’s disbeliever, speaks even in his opening pages of time as ‘a radiant and mobile medium.’ Time is not only brutal passage and decay, it is also a form of awareness, and what Nabokov calls ‘the birth of sentient life’ is the birth of a consciousness that knows itself to be temporal.  He associates the development of the mind itself with the very constraints it longs to deny: ‘the beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning sense of time.’ A little myth of origins.  The remotest ancestor is figurative and hyperbolic, but the argument is immediate: we start to think when we think about time.”

(See Michael Wood, “The World Without Us: Speak, Memory,” in The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 84)

Question 4: For Personal Reflection: Curiosity

Do you wish you had been as curious about the things and people of your childhood as Nabokov was about his own?   I don’t have my childhood to do over again, and I am, in middle age, pretty much stuck with the mind I have-—but perhaps I can make a few hopeful changes.  Does Speak, Memory inspire such hope in you?  Please refer to the text in your answer.

Question 5:  About “Sirin”:  Self-Objectification/ Separation Self-from-Self

The narrator discusses Sirin on p. 225, in the middle of Chapter Fourteen (this is in the Everyman’s Library cloth edition from 1999.) “Sirin,” as some of you will know, is the name with which Nabokov signed his Russian novels.  This is to say that when Nabokov starts talking about “Sirin,” he is in fact talking about himself—or, more precisely, about the writer he was, when he was still writing in Russian.

Please go back and reread the passage beginning on p. 225 of the Everyman cloth edition treating “Sirin” (the passage ends on the top of p. 226).  “Sirin” raises a number of interesting and important questions, which, if answered, might help you think about the book as a whole. Here are some of those questions:

  1.  Why is Nabokov posturing as someone other than the writer he was when he wrote in Russian; or, to put this question differently: Why has Nabokov objectified the writer he was when he wrote in Russian; or to put the questions differently still:  Why is Nabokov invoking his former writer-self from outside of that self?
  2. What are the reasons behind the severance, the separation, self from self?
  3. There is mischief here, isn’t there?  Do you think, with that mischief, Nabokov just wants to make you feel tricked?  What if we said that by separating himself from himself,  he makes something possible–emotionally possible, imaginatively possible-—both between you and him, and between you and yourself?

Question 6:  About “Chapter Sixteen”: A proposal:  Through ending his book two different ways, Nabokov has sent his book into two different kinds of “time,” two different kinds of contingency

In this proposal I’m going to advise that readers take a long look at the last two chapters of the book, Chapter 15, which was the ending N. intended for the book, and Chapter 16, which N. wrote in 1950,, and which he never published, and which was included, by Brian Boyd, as an “appendix” to the edition we read in the All Souls Book Group.  What I advise you to do here is to treat these two different “endings” as two different kinds of “time.”  Into what kind of time does Nabokov send his autobiography when he concludes it with Chapter 15?   Into what kind of time (a very different one) does he send it when he concludes it with Chapter 16?  Two different posterior lives he creates for his book; two contingencies.  In giving his book (his life?) two endings, he up-ends the myth of endings.  That is how the two-endings-ending registers for me, as an effort at control that admits paradoxically to the lack of control.  For once you have two endings, you could just keep writing them, you could have…seventeen endings, you could have an infinite number.  It’s also obviously extremely telling that Nabokov didn’t end his book with Chapter Sixteen.  He ends it with Fifteen.  That’s how he wanted the book to close.  The final impression he wants for you, and here I’m referring to the very last paragraph of Chapter Fifteen, is that of his family, together, in “one last little garden,” “laid out on the last limit of the past and on the verge of the present,” encountering the “real prototype” of one of the toy vessels from his son’s bath. Another pattern to be discerned. Another “stratagem.”  A ship will take them to New York, away from Europe, and Russia.  (Go back and look at that final page, p. 243.)   What are we to think—that Nabokov writes the clever, deconstructive ending (Chapter Sixteen) but doesn’t value it?  Doesn’t want it, anyway.  What are your thoughts, here?

Question 7:  For Personal Reflection:  What Speak, Memory may have to teach us about raising children: Nabokov as a I’ll theorist of child development.

One of the ways I thought about Speak, Memory was as a parent and/ or educator of children. You may remember Nabokov turning to the reader relatively early in the book and addressing him/her expressly as a parent.  This moment comes after a long, especially moan-overable passage about Nabokov’s childhood nighttime-bathing ritual (he calls it his “bedtime dawdling” (61)).  Nabokov has been climbing the stairs to bed ahead of his mother, with his eyes closed; and when he gets to the toilet, he dawdles some more by engaging in a sensory sort of experiment involving pressing his forehead against the “smooth comfortable edge” of the door and then “roll[ing] it a little.”  “A dreamy rhythm,” he writes, “would permeate my being.” The whole passage, meaning, the description of this “bedtime dawdling,” takes nearly four full pages.  The passage summarized above concludes:  “I appeal to parents: never, never say, ‘Hurry up,’ to a child” (62).

I wonder if others of you began to see the book as, among other things, a portrayal of, maybe even as an argument for, a certain kind of parenting that could make possible within a child the peace and energy essentially to have one’s childhood—-to dwell without hurry or self-consciousness within the fantasies and imaginative play of childhood and explore their particular character.  There does seem in Speak, Memory a kind of theory of individual development that says that the full and “dawdling” exploration of one’s self, of the natural world, of language, books, images, one’s own rhythms—-that this research, if allowed to follow its own “time,” could, later in life, result in the courage and delicacy of attention necessary to love one’s life, even to make a work of art out of that life (or out of that love, if you will), despite the dread of loss.

Thoughts here?  Thoughts here as a child?  As a parent? As an educator?

Question 8:  Shift in Writer to Reader Address:  The Moment when Nabokov starts addressing his wife, Véra

What do you make of the shift in address, which happens about mid-way through the book, from a generalized reader-address to a more specified “you,” meaning, to Nabokov’s wife, Véra?  Every now and then Nabokov will turn to his wife and recall an experience only the two of them could know.  The feeling I am left with as I read these shifts in address– well, the feelings are complex, and one of them is of suddenly realizing I have been eavesdropping. Then, by Chapter Fifteen, the chapter originally intended by Nabokov as the last in his autobiography, the entirety of the address is to Véra.  What is the effect of this shift for you, the reader?  Does your relationship to the book change as Nabokov emerges more and more as a husband and father?  What is it like, for you, to be included in that relationship–through reading Nabokov address his wife–and to be ex-cluded by that relationship, in that you are now no longer the primary addressee?

Question 9.  A way Nabokov might have conceptualized his relationship to you, the reader

In one of our meetings about Speak, Memory, a couple of discussants said that they found Nabokov “conceited,” and then went on to say that they found his conceitedness a kind of barrier they had to overcome before accepting the book.  I’d like to shake things up a bit and propose the following in reply.  I think it’s worth doing even for the non-All Souls book group member, or leader.

What if Nabokov knew that he had an extraordinary gift—-the kind given only to a few writers a century.  And what if his response to knowing he had it was to create a relationship with you in which the fullness of his gift, and the fullness of yours, could be fully engaged? What if the creation of this relationship—-with you, the reader—-was his way of accepting his gift with the utmost responsibility?

What if, in other words, Nabokov is not a writer who plays at being anything less than what he knows himself to be?  And what if, in the United States especially, we expect such posturing; and what if it’s this expectation that makes it difficult for us to embrace the challenge (a playful challenge) set to our intelligence by a writer as potent–and as liberating–as Nabokov?   Please note that by modifying the challenge as “playful” one does not necessarily mean “light” or “un-serious.”  The point, for Nabokov, is not to value the game one way or the other—-light, serious, what have you.  The point is only to play.

A corollary to the last question, Question 9:  Considering Nabokov’s term, “artist-reader”:  the possibility that Nabokov took his reader very seriously

Indeed, what if it is the potency of our own intelligence, our own imagination, we are most unwilling to accept?  What if our reluctance to accept that potency is the ultimate barrier?  And what if our reluctance to accept that potency is bound up with the reluctance to accept the change-ability of the self, its vulnerability to change and contingency (and death.)

Related to this last question:  What if, for Nabokov, the ideal relationship with you, as reader, is as opponents in a game of chess?  If this proposal interests you, please reread the section about chess in Chapter Fourteen. (The passage begins p. 226 and ends p. 230.)

Question 10.“This capacity to wonder at trifles…[is] the highest form of consciousness.”

The following is a remark of Nabokov’s from one of his lectures about other writers’ literature. The title of this lecture is “The Art of Literature and Commonsense.”

“This capacity to wonder at trifles–no matter the imminent peril–these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”  (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, New York: Harcourt Brave Jovanovich, 1980, p. 374.)

This capacity to wonder at trifles…is the highest form of consciousness.  What are your thoughts, reading this?  One thought I have is how subjective in emphasis this remark is, how perhaps dangerously private and idiosyncratic. But what about the common good?  one wants to say.  Isn’t the highest form of my consciousness taking shape when I’m thinking or working on behalf of the other, on behalf of other people and what we share in common?  And then another thought I have is how hopeful the remark is — how, to have arrived at it at all, one would need to have developed a certain faith in human consciousness, a strength of faith, that had already withstood the vicissitudes invariably encountered in an illogical, speculative state of existence. What are your thoughts, here?  How does the experience of reading Speak, Memory inform your thinking on this question?

Questions and Proposals about Toni Morrison’s novel, “Sula” (1973)

Questions and Proposals about Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula (1973)

Please note: The page numbers given below are from the First Vintage International Edition of Sula, June 2004. The novel was originally published in 1973.

 These questions were composed by Emilie T. White, for use by participants in the Kay Falk Literary Project in Asheville, NC.

“Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”

— Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature, Stockholm, 7 December 1993 (taken from Toni Morrison’s What Moves at the Margin, Selected Nonfiction, University Press of Mississippi, 2008)

  1. Going back to the first chapter to see how deliberate were Morrison’s choices, how articulate her vision

One thing you might do after you’ve finished the novel is to go back and look at the first chapter. Certain fine works of literature will, in their opening sections—their first chapters, sentences, stanzas, what have you—demonstrate, in condensed form, the nature of the world about to unfold. This is certainly true of Sula. Looking closely at its first chapter will show you just how articulate is the vision of the novel, just how coherent and succinct. Let me point to a few features in that first chapter that seem to me especially “telling.”

  1. The first sentence of Sula shows us a place, only then to show us that it is gone. It could be said that the novel as a whole will do this as well, and in several different ways. Do you agree?
  2. The subject of the first sentence of the novel, indeed really of the entirety of this first chapter, is a place, rather than a single character, or a set of characters, from that place. Could it be said that this novel most deeply is about a place or community? Thoughts?
  3. In the first paragraph of the novel, we will learn much about the life of that “place” and the nature of the concerns that “will” “raze” it and “knock [it] to the ground.” We will also learn much about the narrator’s attitude toward the dispensers of the “generous” funds that have been “allotted to level the stripped and fade buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course.” (3) How would you describe the narrator’s attitude? Out of what kind of wisdom does s/he appear to be responding to the gone life of the Bottom?
  4. What if I said that there is much life in the first paragraphs of the novel, much idiosyncratic and inspired life. Do you agree? If so, where do you see it? And: Why is it so important that it’s here?
  5. On the next page of the novel, p. 4, for the first time we will see someone “watch” a black woman dance. Several more times in the chapters to come we will encounter characters “watching” other characters go through experiences that cannot be shared, that can only be passed through alone. And we will be watching the watching characters watch. This is an address—reader to read-about—to, well, watch for.
  6. And then in the next paragraphs, you have the first of several of the novel’s many reversals: in this instance, the “top” become “Bottom.” As you re-read the novel, you might, as I say, stay on the lookout for the novel’s many reversals: terms ordinarily standing as opposites having the terms of their opposition reversed. You might also look for recurrences of the words “bottom” and “top.”
  7. And then in the very last two paragraphs of the novel, we are given a kind of instruction as to how we might orient ourselves as we enter the story to come. Here are the paragraphs to which I’m referring.

“Still, it was lovely up in the Bottom. After the town grew and the farm land turned into a village and the village into a town and the streets of Medallion were hot and dusty with progress, those heavy trees that sheltered the shacks up in the Bottom were wonderful to see. And the hunters who went there sometimes wondered in private if maybe the white farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the bottom of heaven.

The black people would have disagreed, but they had no time to think about it. They were mightily preoccupied with earthly things—and with each other, wondering even as early as 1920 what Shadrack was all about, what the little girl Sula who grew into a woman in their town was all about, and what they themselves were all about, tucked up there in the Bottom.”

Could it be said that this is what we will do as readers: wonder at what these characters are “all about,” but not just from our own, individual perspectives, rather from the perspective of the town? Perhaps that will be part of our activity as readers: deciding what Shadrack, what Sula, what Eva, mean, and on terms largely informed by the meanings given them by their fellow citizens in the Bottom. What are your thoughts, here?

  1. The novel’s narrator

Have a look at the first two paragraphs of the novel and describe for yourself the novel’s narrator. Here are a few questions about him or her to help focus your thinking.

  1. How much does the narrator know about the world he or she is showing us? It would seem s/he knows everything, maybe even more than everything—that s/he has drawn her wisdom from exposure to many more histories than are included in this story. At one and the same time s/he sounds to me of the Bottom and beyond it, bearing perspectives both vernacular and mythological. Though maybe they are the same thing, the vernacular and the mythological, in this world. (?) That this narrator should speak of magical and/or supernatural occurrences without designating them as such perhaps speaks to his or her estimation of the power of the imagination–a very great estimation indeed. Do you agree? Disagree? Or am I viewing the presence of magic and/or the supernatural in this novel in the wrong way?
  2. If this narrator has wisdom to impart to us, what is the substance of that wisdom? It may not be possible to answer this question definitively. (Indeed, this may not be a very good question.)
  3. At many points in the novel the narrator will speak on behalf of everyone in the community. This perspective is an important one to keep in mind.


 3.  Shadrack/ The Shadrack chapter, “1919”

One thing your book group might do before meeting to discuss Sula is to look closely at the chapter about Shadrack, which is the second in the novel (it begins p. 7). The group might look in particular at the way Morrison manages the development of Shadrack’s life, from a young, “permanently astonished” war veteran, to a larger-than-life, self-ostracized, Cultural Collective Unconscious. It’s a remarkable development, one worth wondering at; and one worth studying, given that its shape, its “circle of sorrow,” will be repeated across the novel as a whole.

4.. What happens to Helene on that train, in the third chapter, “1920”?

And what happens to Helene’s daughter, Nel? How will their time on that train ride influence them later on? How will it influence the lives of those around them?

5. Reflections/ Mirrors

Two characters will look at their reflections early in the novel: Shadrack in his prison cell, looking into the water in the cell’s toilet bowl (see page 13), and Nel looking at her face in the mirror after her train ride, a “shiver” running through her, as she whispers, “I’m me. Me.” (28) It seems telling that so early in the novel, two major characters will regard their reflections and wonder at their respective…identities? (I’m not sure “identity” is the right word.) What do you think?

6. Skin/ clothing and what’s underneath it

At two points in the novel a character will wonder at what’s underneath the skin or clothing of another character. The first of these moments is when Nel, in the COLORED ONLY section of the train to New Orleans, is trying not to let her eyes travel up her mother’s body, “for fear of seeing that the hooks and eyes in the placket of the dress had come undone and exposed the custard-colored skin underneath.” (22) And the second of these moments is when Sula, astride Ajax during lovemaking, envisions taking a chamois cloth and rubbing “the black” of his face until it disappears. Beneath the black, she imagines, will be gold leaf; under the gold leaf, alabaster; under the alabaster, loam. (See p. 130) And the gradual, envisioned disappearance of Ajax, into loam, coincides with Sula’s mounting sexual climax. I genuinely do not know if these two moments in the novel are part of a larger theme; and I don’t know if they are connected to the images, indicated in question 5, about mirrors and reflections. But for the sake of discussion, it seemed a good idea to highlight this (possible) correspondence.

It should also be said that all of these images, these ways of re-imagining the relationship of the “outside” of the body to the inside of the body—to what is beneath the skin—seem of a piece with a description of Sula that comes fairly late in the novel, in which it is said that she had no “center,” “no speck around which to grow.” (119)

“In the midst of a pleasant conversation with someone she might say, ‘Why do you chew with your mouth open?’ not because the answer interested her but because she wanted to see the person’s face change rapidly. She was completely free of ambition, with no affection for money, property or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments—no ego. For that reason she felt no compulsion to verify herself—be consistent with herself.” (119)

Do you agree that this description of Sula—that she has no “speck” around which to grow—seems part of a larger meditation within the novel on what is inside the body as contrasted with what is outside of it? On surface and identity? Or am I distorting the material to make it say something that it actually does not?

7.  Eva’s December night in the outhouse with Plum

I also want to mark that night for Eva in the outhouse with Plum. To me, this is one of the most important—-and by important I guess I mean decisive—-events in the novel, not just for Eva, but for Hannah, and, therefore, for Sula. (And by the way, I could be wrong.) The moment I’m talking about is on p. 34, when Eva takes the last bit of food staple she has in her house, a bit of lard, and puts it up her baby, Plum’s, anus, then pulls from his body “pebbles,” which are “hard stools.” This is a remarkable moment in lots of ways: for the life of the woman it’s happening to—it is this experience that will decide Eva’s disappearing for eighteen months, during which, somehow, she gives up (?) her leg for money (?); for the lives of her children and grandchild; and for us as well: for the lives of our imaginations as readers. I doubt I will ever forget reading this scene. It seemed to me unprecedented, unprepared for, in all the fiction I’d read before. How did the scene register for you? And how would you respond if I said that for me this scene functions as the novel’s deepest recess, indeed like a womb, or perhaps an anus, or a “bottom”?

8. Sex

There’s a lot of it in this novel. And it’s very important to the people who have it. It’s sought after, made space for, cultivated, protected. How does it figure in Nel’s life? In Hannah’s? In Sula’s? In the life of the town? For the men on the street? For Ajax and Sula? For Sula and Nel? For what-it-means, or is-going-to-mean, to be a woman in the Bottom? For what-it-means, or is-going-to-mean, to be a man in the Bottom? How does it figure in the way black men are figured, or are believed to be figured, by white men?

It will also be important, however, to resist fixing what sex means in this novel.   To decide, say, that Sula “portrays female sexuality as no other work of fiction has,” etc, would imperil, really would shut down, the particular people described here, and the ways in which they respond to and are changed by what happens to them, and changed also by what happens to them in their relationships with each other. (I heard just such an estimation of the novel—“a truer portrait of female sexuality than anywhere else”—a couple of weeks ago at a party.) Also mistaken would be to say that the book portrays something essentially “African American” about sex. To think in an essentializing or generalizing way about anything in this novel would be to read it exactly against its grain.

 Sub-question: Recognizing the complexity of what sex means to Nel and Sula as recognizing their complexity as people

 One way to think about the relationship between Nel and Sula, and also about what they are believed to “stand for” in the society of the Bottom, is to look again at their “contrasting” notions of sex and sexuality. At first, the contrast would seem a pretty simple (and simplistic) one: for Sula, sex is just….sex, the way a dog might have it (105), whereas for Nel sex is bound up with possession, matrimony, and the orderly functioning of society. But there is more going on inside of each of these women than this dualism will allow. For example, Sula, too, will experience the desire to possess someone through her coupling with Ajax (because she has fallen in love with him); and when we finally get around to learning what sex means for Nel, we see that Nel’s pleasure in sex does not begin and end with Jude—and here I’m thinking of her despair at the prospect, once Jude has left, of never being able to “open her legs” to “some cowboy lean hips” again (111). It seems that every time we oppose Nel and Sula, thereby requiring them to fulfill only those “points of a cross” Morrison speaks of in her Foreword (xiii); every time, moreover, we ask them to stand for values determined by their society, which was never really theirs to imagine in the first place, something will happen in the development of the story to stretch the limits of our conceptualization. Yet neither we nor they seem able to hold their ever-complexity, their ever-promise, in view. What are your thoughts, here?

9. Nel’s and Sula’s friendship

I don’t really have a question here, except to invite you to watch for the many repercussions of that friendship outward from its inception. While there is definitely a diachronic, linear “shape” to this novel—and we have only to look at the chapter titles to see it—there is another shape too, which maybe could be described as concentric, such as ripples in water. And Sula’s and Nel’s friendship seems best described by that concentric or “ripple” shape. What happens between Sula and Nel? The novel never says outright. Certainly what happens has something to do with Chicken Little’s death, but it seems to this reader that the source of the mystery lies even deeper than that. Indeed if I had to point to one image in the novel that embodies the understandings Sula and Nel share, it would be the “grave” the two of them dig near the river as girls. This happens on p. 59. The grave begins as two holes, which then become one hole, which then is filled with debris, which then is covered up to become a “grave.” Nel and Sula dig this “grave” just moments before they encounter Chicken Little. For me, the image of this “grave” bears a kind of authority you rarely see in modern fiction. Which images in the novel for you seem to speak to the particular intelligence of Nel’s and Sula’s friendship?

10. The aftermath of the death of Chicken Little/ The novel’s materialism

In mentioning Chicken Little’s death in the previous question, it occurred to me how important it is to underscore the novel’s faithfulness to matter—to its laws, its limits, its inevitable life and death. Chicken Little, for instance, matters more to this novel than just as a lost child, a loss, of itself, devastating enough. There is also his dead body to account for, a body we’ll encounter from several perspectives: the (presumably) white bargeman whose first response is “disgust at the kind of parents who would drown their own children”; then the sheriff; then the embalmer; then Chicken Little’s mother; then the women of the town, their hands flying up in the air at his funeral. This is a materialist novel through and through, which is to say that Morrison never lets us forget that the world she’s describing must and can only be occupied according to the laws and limits of matter. What the great matriarch Eva understands, she understands from a constant and inescapable reckoning with the limits of the earthly and the bodily. (“Play?” she exclaims to Hannah when Hannah asks her if she “played’ with her children when they were young. “Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895.” (68) Further examples of the novel’s materialism: the intricately considered description of the pains taken by Shadrack to come to terms with his shaking hands (pp. 8-9); Eva’s night in the outhouse with Plum (the “pebbles” in his anus, the three beets she doesn’t use to loosen them) (34); the seemingly endlessly impeding course Eva must take to get out of the window to try and save her daughter, Hannah, from being engulfed by fire (75-76); the cared-for and episodically imagined course of Sula’s coming to sexual climax (130-131); the depth at which Sula imagines Ajax’s incarnate soul (130-131); and countless other examples.

11.  Burning/ Fire

Two people burn away in this novel, Plum and Hannah. The reach here, the reach of the image, I mean, seems to extend beyond the earthly or the plausible, certainly beyond the “realistic,” into another realm entirely: the realm of legend? of myth? What do you think is going on, here? And why burning? Why fire?

Connected to this question: There are many supernatural elements to Sula that end up placing the story well beyond the realm of the “real.” We have talked many times in the book group about a kind of fiction that can habituate the imagination to expect—well, I can only generalize here, and that’s hanging me up—to expect the unexpected: and Sula certainly qualifies as that sort of fiction. Sula doesn’t seem to me the kind of fiction that readies the imagination for Christian grace–the way, say, O’Connor’s fiction does, or Marilynne Robinson’s; but it definitely has oriented this reader’s mind, if you will, toward “what moves at the margin.”

In what cultural logic, for instance, does the “deweys never growing above forty-eight inches”, belong? What is this world that three boys entwine together to become effectively one boy, and then never grow up? Where flocks of robins augur doom, or where the death of a female “pariah” precipitates the dissolution—not just the dissolution, the disappearance–of a whole community? Where a certain dream—marriage in a red dress—only means one thing, and actually does predict the future? What is the magic here about? And: Whose magic is it? Who believes in it? And: What does that magic make possible that might not have been possible otherwise? What, for instance, do Shadrack’s beliefs make possible for him, and for those around him? And how are magical truths mobilized to make certain developments impossible? And: Why does this narrator treat these magical elements as though they were “real”?

And it’s true! The proposals of this question contradict those of question number 10, which stated that the novel is a materialist one “through and through.” But the two proposals interestingly do not contradict one another entirely.

12. Why Peace?

Why give this family the last name of Peace? The name, or word, will ring a new set of notes in the novel’s last pages, when, in 1965, Nel will visit the Medallion graveyard and will see all the “flat slabs” with “one word” carved on them.

“Together they read like a chant: PEACE 1895-1921, PEACE 1890-1923, PEACE 1910-1940, PEACE 1892-1959.” (p. 171)

13. Why “Always?”

What is meant by this word? It’s what Shadrack says to Sula when she’s come to his door after Chicken Little flies out of her hands into the river. Both Shadrack and Sula will supply a meaning for the word later on in the novel; but somehow there will be another meaning, another ripple or “circle of sorrow” around the word, the significance of which is perhaps not available to us, or even to Sula or Shadrack.

14. Sula’s autonomy

This is a question I imagine you have been asking too: why Sula’s autonomy, when even she knows it’s going to result in a life lived alone. Connected to this question is why Sula doesn’t appear to feel for those around her, even for her mother and her best friend. (Emphasis here on “appear”!) It’s an immense question, one that concerns not just this particular character, “Sula”, and not even just the particular reality of being a black woman in the south in the early part of the 20th century, but also—and now the question expands to include all of us–a question that concerns the imagination, and its vulnerability to lived experience: to social, racial, communal, material experience. Sula is a kind of riddle, one we study from several perspectives but are never able finally to penetrate. We know what sort of family she’s come from; we have a sense, but maybe only a sense, of the secret understanding encircling Sula and Nel as they grow up and through their friendship into women. We have a sense of the social and really mythological pressures at work on Sula and Nel as they articulate their life-choices as African American women in the early part of 20th century—though it should be emphasized that it is rare in this novel that Morrison ever states the contents of those pressures outright. We know that Sula goes to college (Nel, by contrast, does not.) But accounting for why Sula is able to stand in “interest” (!) and watch her mother burn, to me the most troubling event in the novel; accounting for why she’s able to sleep with Jude, and thereby risk losing her dearest friend; why she’s able in full cognizance of what she’s doing to alienate her society and thereby to isolate herself irrevocably for the rest of her life: accounting for Sula’s radical autonomy, is, for me, the great and vexing and even frightening question that is Sula. It’s an existential question, and it’s not just Sula’s question, it’s all of our question. What do you think? Please review the novel as you contemplate this question.

And now I’m going to contradict these last proposals and say that if we forget that Sula is an African American woman in the early part of the 20th century, and in the southeastern part of the United States, we won’t be able to answer this question about her autonomy. More consequential still, we’ll lose the novel—all of it. Yet Morrison has managed to tell a story here of universal relevance. How can that be possible? Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

15. Another way to view Sula’s autonomy: Considering Sula as an artist and in the possession of the moral subtlety of an artist

 With this question I invite you to view Sula’s intelligence as an artist’s intelligence. What set me thinking in this direction was sheer coincidence, but I’m going to share the observation even so.

In the last couple of weeks, three reader friends of mine, and from different parts of my life, have, in trying to articulate the source of Sula’s “autonomy,” compared her to certain of the great artistic geniuses of Western literature—and here I’m not talking about writers, but about characters. One friend compared her “social discernment” to that of Hamlet, another her “coldness” to that of Stephen Dedalus at the end James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist of a Young Man, and another her “moral subtlety” to that of Professor St. Peter in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Again, this correspondence, this fellowship, really—Sula among the Artistic Geniuses Too Subtle in their Thinking to Take Up their Designated Place in Society–are in actuality the result of sheer coincidence. Yet I do want to invite the possibility that there’s something instructive going on here. Quite possibly a comparison between Sula and, say, Hamlet, or—and now I’m brainstorming—Lily Briscoe—might show each character more sharply than before the comparison. What if we thought of this early novel of Toni Morrison’s as another “portrait of an artist” as a young person; only this artist has no opportunity to develop her craft, no opportunity to articulate her vision? What are your thoughts, here?

And this way of figuring Sula—as an artist—does happen in the novel proper. Here’s the relevant passage.

“In a way, her strangeness, her naïveté, her craving for the other half of the equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” (121)

16.  It’s after Sula dies that the Bottom begins to disintegrate. Even the land falls to ruin. Why? One of the members of the All Souls Book Group suggested that Sula had been for the Bottom a source of “enchantment,” and another said that Sula was the “speck” around which the “community” “grew” (to remember the description of Sula-the-individual on p. 119). Do these descriptions resonate with your reading of the book?

 17.  Question for personal reflection:

What did you take personally from the novel? Where, or how, do you find yourself in it?

18. An especially expressive image: the dandelion spores

One of (for me) the most expressive images in the novel is that of the dandelion spores to which Sula’s “drifting” thoughts are compared as she is dying (147), and which reappear on the very last page of the novel, as Nel is leaving the graveyard, in 1965 (174). You might have a look at these two incidences of dandelion spores and contemplate the relationship between them. The second time they appear, when Nel is leaving the graveyard on the last page of the book, they begin as a “soft ball of fur,” which makes me think of the “gray ball” hovering “just to the right” of Nel after Jude leaves (108). What do you think is going on here? What do these dandelion spores, shared by Sula and Nel, drifting across their story, and across time, “say” that words–meaning, exposition–could not?

 19.  The way the novel ends

 Lastly, I’d like to point to the way the novel ends, which is that it ends and ends and ends (in a good way.) For me, the ending really begins on the first page of the third-to-last chapter, “1940”—so in the Vintage edition, that’s page 138—and lasts until the last page of the novel, which is page 174 (and even beyond the last page, as the final image of the novel has “no bottom and no top”.) This is to say that the ending roughly begins with Nel’s coming to visit Sula when she’s sick, and ends with Nel walking away from the Medallion graveyard twenty-five years later, in 1965.   What I invite you to do in your meetings about the book is to look at the shape of that ending, its effective, if you will, endlessness, each implication resulting in its next, and its next, a story, in a sense, with “no bottom and no top,” “just circles and circles of sorrow.”

Questions and Proposals about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

(The page numbers below refer to the 2010 Anchor Books edition of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.)

  1. Redemption, Corruption

Several characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad find “redemption” as they grow older – “redemption” is Sasha’s word (18) – and several fall.  How to preserve the perfection of the sun “captured” inside Sasha’s circle of wire?  (The sun in the circle of wire, hanging by the window in Sasha’s room in Naples, is the last image in Chapter 11.)  How to stay true to the purity of the nuns’ singing, that “unearthly sweetness” that had once “echoed deep” in the young Bennie’s ears?  (Bennie has his memory of the singing nuns on the second page of Chapter 2.)  How to keep purity pure; how to grow up and still care?  (“Ask Me if I Care,” is the title of Chapter 3).  These are among the central questions of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

And then there are the many characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad that are neither redeemed nor compromised, and whose example complicates this dualistic and too-easy way of viewing the novel.  Which characters fit into neither category?

Also, what is it about our current culture that makes it so hard for a growing adult to preserve her values?  Do you think this is a good question; do you think it belongs with this book?  Or, in saying that our current circumstance is somehow more corrupting than circumstances past, am I just continuing to blog (and “update” and “tweet”): continuing emptily to react to a half-understood reality only then to “send” my reaction into another reality that is largely artificial?  How has the novel informed your thinking on these questions?

Perhaps the above questions could lead to larger ones about whether the novel, despite the artificiality of the culture (s) it describes, offers us hope, and/ or direction.  What about the experience of reading it?  Is there something redeeming in that?   And if there is, must the redemption result only in our becoming better people – kinder to others, more honest, less superficial, etc?  If there is redemption here, maybe it is subtler than that, but perhaps more affecting as well.

  1. Pauses

In the (now famous) “Power-Point” chapter, Lincoln, Alison’s brother, is obsessed with long pauses in rock and roll songs.  Alison shares his fascination, A) because she’s a good sister, but B) because they’re fascinating.

“The pause makes you think the song will end.  And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved.  But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” (281).

One way to conceptualize the novel is as a series of character narratives interrupted by “pauses.”  Almost every character in …Goon Squad we will meet at multiple points in their lives, and the intervals, or “pauses,” between those points will often be several decades long.  The pauses in music so fascinating to Lincoln, then, we could look to as smaller versions of those pauses in our own character narratives, around which others know us, and then, once we, or they, have moved on, do not. This novel-shape – multiple life-stories organized around pauses – is one to be thinking about before going into discussion with your book group.  For now I will propose “the pause” as the novel’s most expressive image – expressive of its major themes, and expressive also of an emotional state evoked by the novel, a confusion or longing, that is (blessedly) hard to summarize with exposition.  What are your thoughts, here?

  1. E-mail, cell phones, Text messages, Facebook, Power-Point, Handsets, T’s, and Starfish

The medium through which many of the novel’s characters “live and move and have their being” is technology – high-speed computer-communications technology.  Did the novel get you thinking about the ways in which more or less constant occupation within the virtual arena might be affecting us – affecting our relationships to each other, to ourselves, our memories, our sense of reality?  Did you find yourself arriving at different conclusions on this matter than you had before reading A Visit from the Goon Squad?  Egan’s project in …Goon Squad seems more to describe the effects of these interactions than to evaluate them – meaning she leaves the evaluating up to us.  Do you think her description correct?

  1. What is your favorite relationship in the book?

One of the reasons I am heartened by Egan’s fiction is for how much she expects from our relationships with one another.  It’s one thing to write beautifully complex characters, which, for my money, she does in …Goon Squad a dozen times over.  But it’s a wholly splendid other thing to put your characters into relationships that elicit the fullness of their intelligence.  Relationships that do hold the fullness of our intelligence are complicated; things go on in them that people on the outside would be surprised to know.  Here I’m talking about relationships in which many parts of ourselves are at play, which is to say: any relationship of consequence.  What is your favorite relationship in the novel?  I think my favorite is Sasha’s with her uncle Ted, though I also love Alison’s relationships with her mother, father, and brother.  How about you?

  1. Character Revelation: Multiple perspectives on single characters

One exhilarating way to review this novel is to consider the (often) multiple perspectives through which single characters are revealed.  Take Sasha, for instance.  In the first chapter we see her at thirty-five, viewed from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, a perspective that will be richly complicated by her therapist’s understanding of her, and Alex’s.  Then, in Chapter 2, we’ll see her from Bennie’s point of view, this time as a (not quite) lust object, but also as his friend, sensitive, it seems, about his painful relationship with his son.  Later in the novel, Rob’s perspective will reveal yet other dimensions to Sasha; and then, in Chapter 11, we’ll see her through the eyes of her Uncle Ted, and at two different points in her life: at five years old – and so in this instance, Ted is remembering her as a child, while remembering himself as the young man who took care of that child – and, at nineteen, the age she is as a runaway teenager in Naples.  It will be from her daughter’s perspective that we’ll see her in the next chapter (the “power-point” chapter); and then in the last pages of the book, we will see Bennie and Alex wistfully longing for Sasha-at-thirty-five, as, finding themselves in her old neighborhood in the East Village, they try her buzzer, realize she’s not upstairs, and wish her, wherever she is, a “good life.”  Which is what she is having – an outcome we are aware of, but they are not.

Rhea’s character, too, will be shown at more than one point in her life, and through the perceptions of more than one character.  Same goes with Scotty; same with Rob; Lou; Jocelyn; Lulu; Dolly (or La Doll); Alex; Jules; and Kitty.  Indeed in myriad ways we’ll be between competing understandings of single characters on nearly every page.

Such complexity of character revelation is not just valuable for its aesthetic innovation – though innovate Egan triumphantly has, unveiling capacities to the novel, really flexibilities to the novel, that I, for one, couldn’t have anticipated without her.  So that’s a huge accomplishment.  But for me there is immense ethical value here too, especially given the world through which her characters move: the world of the celebrity machine, in which the individual, collapsed into an image, is conveyed via high-speed visual technology to vast indifferent populations unimaginable to that individual; the world of artificially made “realities” where experience, even as it’s happening, endures only as it can be marketed; and a world in which power and maturity often mean having chosen, and without looking back, disaffection over caring and moral integrity.  Never fear, Egan seems to reassure, we still have novels. There’s more to this person than you may have imagined, you with your eyes glued to your iPhone — and more even than that, and more even than that.  We still have this “novel” medium through which to observe one another as creatures of history and society, and just look how many histories and societies it can describe.  And this “novel” medium can still praise the best that we can be, and the most beautiful that we can feel.

As I don’t want to script your experience of …Goon Squad, I will now back away from my tremendous admiration for the unsentimental curiosity that had to have been in place for Egan to see past her first understandings of her characters to the characters she ultimately wrote.  What was it like for you to get to know Sasha et. al. via discrete glimpses across “pauses” in time?  Did the novel resonate with your experience of knowing people, knowing yourself, growing older, growing (perhaps) into tarnish and ruin, growing (perhaps) into redemption and grace?

  1. Raising Children

There are a lot of children in this novel, and most of them grow up in highly unstable environments.  Sasha’s parents’ violent arguments result, early in Sasha’s childhood, in their divorcing, a year after which Sasha’s father disappears, never to be heard from again; Scotty’s mother dies of a sleeping pill overdose; Rolph’s father, Ray, the record-label producer, “devours” everyone in his path, disposing Rolph to take his own life at twenty-eight; poor Jocelyn gets sexually involved with Ray when she’s a teenager, “costing herself” her youth (87); nine-year old Lulu is carted overseas by her mother, Dolly, to the home of a genocidal dictator; Christopher, Bennie’s and Stephanie’s son, grows up the child of divorce; baby girls Ava and Cara-Ann fall on one another in a “gladiatorial frenzy” as their neglecting fathers, Bennie and Alex, broker false enthusiasm for a rock concert in “lean, perpendicular couches” above them (311).

And then you have two first-person chapters in which adolescents tell their stories unmediated by an adult perspective: Chapter 3, which is told in Rhea’s voice, and Chapter 12, which is told in Alison’s.  Two testimonies to the fragility and preciousness of childhood, offered in belief.  “I BELIEVE IN YOU,” their directness seems to say – and here I’m remembering the “pale blue lines” written on the slip of paper Sasha finds in Alex’s wallet in Chapter 1.  The directness of those first-person chapters also seems to say:  “And I still believe in me.”

What, then, does …Goon Squad have to say about raising children?  And: Do you think Egan wants you to be asking that sort of question as you close the book?  In myself asking it, am I being too heavy-handed?

  1. Satire, in particular all the funny scenes involving the body

Many of the scenes in A Visit from the Goon Squad are rendered satirically.  To quote the New York Times review-excerpt on the back of the paperback Anchor Books edition, the novel is “darkly, rippingly funny.”  Often Egan will set her characters down in highly exaggerated and implausible scenarios to. . . .what?  To get you to laugh at those characters?  To get you to see their folly, their vanity?  To get you to see your own?   The “satiric” is a mode of literary representation that runs on irony, exaggeration, and often outrageous circumstance – think of Dolly’s party with the platters of burning oil – and it changes from satirist to satirist, obviously.  And it can coexist with other modes in a single work: think of Shakespeare, for instance, who will write a Polonius into a drama as ultimately tragic as “Hamlet.”  What sort of work is satire doing in …Goon Squad?

Often the satiric mode will promote the writer as a judge of morals and manners, placing him or her at a station above the people she writes about.  And I don’t think that’s Jennifer Egan.  I think it’s because so many of the funny scenes in …Goon Squad involve the body, and the body in humiliating ways, that her satire, for me, brings me back into my own, in effect liberating me from my fantasies about my body, fantasies of omnipotence, really, that ultimately isolate me from others, and from myself.  What I’m describing here is a kind of relief, and, from Egan, a kind of generosity with her own body, her own physical experience, strange as that may sound.  What are your thoughts, here?

  1. Art, Longing, Memory

Most of the questions I’ve posed thus far are “issue” questions — questions having to do with topical and or ethical issues explored in A Visit from the Goon Squad.  And so I haven’t asked the important question.  The novel is about loss and the powers of art and memory (almost) to stay it.  As we close the book we long for our own Sasha, and for ourselves as we once were.  For me the last page holds astonishment: Where did she go?  Where did go?

I don’t want to draw the connection between art and loss in …Goon Squad too explicitly, because I want the terms of that connection to be yours.  Let me then only remind us that there is a lot of art in this novel.  There is a lot of music, and, in Ted’s chapter, which is Chapter 11, there is visual art.  The novel is full of surprises, and one of my favorites is that of Ted dutifully going to Naples to find his sister’s daughter, only not to look for her once he’s there — because he wants to look at art instead.  The marble relief of Orpheus and Eurydice Ted so savors might illuminate the rest of the novel in wonderful ways, if only we would savor it ourselves.  Yet we have nieces to rescue, texts to send, youth to preserve, youth to mourn, children to fail, images – of our perfection – to post.  Does art offer sacredness in this novel?  Let’s ask these questions when we meet.


Questions and Proposals about J.M. Coetzee’s novel, “Disgrace”

Questions and Proposals about J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999)

(For future readers/ users of this website: Please note that the page numbers indicated below refer to the Viking 1999 edition of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.)

  1. David Lurie’s habit of aestheticizing his experience:

Pay attention to the way David Lurie thinks. He is in the (almost constant) habit of aestheticizing his experience, especially his experience of desire and sex. Sometimes this aestheticizing, as I am calling it, will take the form of his drawing an analogy between his experience and a work of art—a work of literature, or a painting, or a piece of music. An example of this comes on p. 19, right after he and Melanie have had intercourse for the first time. “After the storm, he thinks: straight out of George Grosz.” (George Grosz, for those of you who don’t know, was a German Expressionist painter known especially for his pen and ink drawings satirizing the German nation and—perhaps most relevant to Disgrace–Berlin nightlife, during and after World War I.) And sometimes Lurie’s “aestheticizing” will amount to his referring away from his immediate experience to an established cultural understanding of what the experience has meant, for others, in the past (as contrasted with what it is meaning, for him, in the present.) An example of this tendency falls on page 12. Lurie is putting a Mozart recording on his stereo as a means to seduce Melanie.

“Wine, music: a ritual that men and women play out with each other. Nothing wrong with rituals, they were invented to ease the awkward passages. But the girl he has brought home is not just thirty years his junior: she is a student, his student, under his tutelage. No matter what passes between them now, they will have to meet again as teacher and pupil. Is he prepared for that?”

How does this proclivity towards the “aesthetic” shape David Lurie’s experience? Does it bring him closer to that experience, or does it act as a boundary to experience—or

are these (perhaps in David Lurie’s view) not the questions to be asking? Lastly, do you feel that the changes that happen in his life across the novel—changes effected both by the scandal of his affair with Melanie, and by the events at his daughter’s farm—shake him out of this “aestheticizing” tendency? If so, what do those changes leave in its place?


2. David Lurie’s preoccupation with time, in particular with the “perfective” tense.

At several points in the novel, David Lurie will consider his experience in terms of verb tenses, in particular the “perfective” tense, which represents an action “carried through to its conclusion.” Live, drive, burn and usurp are verbs that appear throughout the novel in the perfective tense, with ever broadening significance. The following excerpt shows Lurie thinking through this problem as it relates to his new life at his daughter’s smallholding:

“Two weeks ago he was in a classroom explaining to the bored youth of the country the distinction between drink and drink up, burned and burnt. The perfective, signifying an action carried through to its conclusion. How far away it all seems! I live, I have lived, I live.” (p. 71)

How is this state—of being concluded, finished, “seen through to one’s conclusion”—an adequate figure for the person of David Lurie? And how is this temporal structure embodied in the novel’s larger story?

3. Trials, Hearings, Public Declarations of Feeling or Personal Truth

There are several “hearings” or “trials” in the novel, or, more precisely, several instances in which a character is asked to declare the contents of his or her private experience, feelings, motives, etc., in a public setting. To name a few examples: David Lurie is asked to deliver a convincing statement of penitence during a disciplinary hearing for sexual harassment at his workplace, the Cape Technical University, a request he ultimately refuses; Lucy is repeatedly urged by her father to press charges against the three men who raped her, a request she refuses; in an ironic turn, David then willingly submits a confession of motives for his sexual encounter with his student,

Melanie Isaacs, to her family, though not in a public setting, rather in the Isaacs’s home.

Do you detect a theme here? It seems that the novel has something to say about our private selves versus our public and/or social selves, and, following from this, about the capacity of the public realm to house or to represent, with any fairness or adequacy, the contents of our private subjectivity. Does this proposal resonate with your understanding of the book?

Related to this issue is a trickier, more complicated one about the nature of language, in particular about the failure of language to unite individuals who are divided against one another in a single, continuous understanding. That is what we believe language ought to do—bridge misunderstanding, help us commune, and, in the communing, heal. But in a world as “burnt” as post-Apartheid South Africa, words, Coetzee seems to be saying, are just more weapons to be hoarded, foe against foe. A depressing estimation of the powers of language, coming from a novelist of the aesthetic and ultimately ethical ambition of J.M. Coetzee; and yet should we turn from the novel only in despair? A vexing question, if you believe, as many in our group do, in the power of stories to instruct and to heal; and therefore a good question to take up when we meet.

4. Dogs/ dog euthanasia

If the euthanizing of dogs stands for you as an appropriate destiny for David Lurie, why do you think it’s appropriate?

5. David Lurie as outsider/ David Lurie as insider:

In almost every sphere of the novel’s activity, David Lurie is an “outsider” (141). As a self-proclaimed “disciple” of William Wordsworth, he is an outsider to the “rationalized” view of language held by the Communications Department of which he is a faculty member (see pp. 3-4); after the revelation of his affair with his student, Melanie Isaacs, he becomes an outsider to academic life generally; he is an outsider to his daughter Lucy’s experience of her rape and, more broadly, to female reproductive life and to female suffering; he is an outsider to the life—and death–of animals, as are we all; and he is an outsider to the logic informing Petrus’s decisions as regards the securing and maintenance of a black-run agricultural economy in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

In smaller, more immediately inter-personal ways, too, Lurie is an outsider: an outsider to the definition of friendship held by Bill Shaw, and an outsider as well to the Christian view of repentance held by the Isaacs family, in particular by Melanie Isaacs’s father.

However, in one realm of his life, in one ultimately very substantial realm, David will become an insider, even a kind of master–and that is in the realm of art. By the last pages of the novel, he knows exactly how to write his opera; indeed, you’ll notice that the subject of the first sentence of the last chapter in the novel is not a character in that novel—a novel that has taken David Lurie to the furthest extremes of his identity, nearly effacing that identity—rather a character in David’s work of art, David being the writer now, David the one responsible for seeing souls, of his own creating, “through to their conclusion” (p. 71). What do you make of this development? If art is to function for David as a kind of salvation, how will it save him? Will it save him in a way that might matter to more people than just David? How do you think David would weigh in, here? Maybe he’d tell us that that’s not the question to be asking.

6. Is it possible for a work of art to save but not to console?

Disgrace, we might argue, is one such work of art. Do you agree? Why, or why not?

Questions and Proposals about Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (1955).

Study Questions for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955).

(For future users of this website, the edition of Lolita referred to in the questions below is Alfred Appel’s The Annotated Lolita, Vintage Books, 1970.)

 Proposal/Elucidation #1: Humbert Humbert as Writer

Probably the most important thing to keep in mind about Humbert Humbert is that he is writing. He has fifty-six days until his trial, a trial he knows will probably result in his death, and what he does with the time is write. He writes his life as a work of art. Not as a work of autobiography, mind you, and not of confession–not, certainly, of self-justification—-Humbert is too smart for that–but as a work of art in whose first paragraph he will analogize his own predicament with perhaps one of the most sacred images of the history of western culture, the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head at the Crucifixion. “Look,” Humbert concludes the first paragraph to his opus, “at this tangle of thorns.” In Humbert, then, we are dealing with an artist, or, to be fair, a man who thinks he is an artist, and who esteems his story as capable of shaping nothing less than his reader’s consciousness, just as was the story of Christ.

If we keep this in mind—-that H.H. is writing his life as art–we may have an easier time accounting for the many kinds of language he uses to do so. At many points in his narrative Humbert will write in a language of heartbreaking precision, especially in his descriptions of Lolita-the-real-girl—-and here I am thinking, for example, of her “sooty eyelashes,” or, as she rides her bicycle, her “one hand dreaming in her print-flowered lap.” This kind of language makes me feel something of Humbert’s humanity, and makes me feel that he has seen something of Lolita’s, too. But Humbert also writes in a language, or language-s, that feel more performative than genuine, language that is ornate, fussy, high-falootin’ (“You sound like a book, Dad”), needlessly literarily allusive, needlessly French, shamelessly alliterative (“dwelt delicately”), at times archaic, at times abstruse, at times very capably and idiomatically American, at times purply poetic, nearly always entertaining (or so I would argue); and, perhaps most important for our purposes, emotionally very hard to decipher, for Humbert’s ineluctable drift toward irony, parody, and caricature, the cruelest of his caricatures, perhaps, those of himself. The sheer density of his prose, its brocaded, embroidered, thorn-interlaced, almost material feeling thing-like-ness, should be thought of not as Vladimir Nabokov’s “window” onto Humbert’s “reality,” but as Humbert’s performance of what he wants his readers to believe that reality was like.Does viewing the novel this way—as Humbert’s eleventh hour opus—change or influence your attitude towards it? And, secondly, do you feel that life can be like that—-that our way with words sometimes creates not our true selves, but our masks?

Proposal #2: First Chapter as “Contract” With Its Reader

Another way to get on terms with Lolita is to concentrate on its first chapter. As Peter Turchi taught me in a lecture on Lolita at Warren Wilson’s MFA program—this was several years ago–a great novel will draw up “contract” with its reader in its first pages—-it will show you, in condensed form, the laws of the world about to unfold. Note, for instance, that in the novel’s second and third sentences, the emphasis is on the word, not the person: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Note the author’s seeming pleasure in syllabling the word into its separate sounds, then his virtuosity in immediately arriving at several new “ee” and “tee” words which, joined together in a sentence, describe how the sound “Lolita” gets made in the mouth: “tip,” “tongue” “taking” “trip, “three,,” “teeth,” “tip,” “palate.” Note the author’s preoccupation with the way the word “Lolita” affects him: “My sin, My soul.” Already, in sentence two, we intuit something of this author’s (ultimately monstrous) solipsism.

Also, did anyone notice how short that first chapter is? With his cursory reference to Lolita’s “precursor,” Humbert mocks those realistic novels that provide, in their first chapters, a psychological or historical explanation for the protagonist’s current behavior or crisis. You might also note the math problem H.H. asks you to perform if you’re to figure out when it was that H.H. was involved with that precursor: “About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer.” We don’t realize it, but as we pretzel our heads around that formulation, we are engaging the first of the many number-games arrayed for us by the trickster-gamester Humbert Humbert, games, coincidences, doublings, labyrinths and privately determined numerologies comprising a kind of tracery of the convolutions of Humbert’s mind.

In focusing on single sentences I mean to demonstrate the delicacy of attention required of us if we’re to understand the novel’s meanings. We may decide we don’t like that kind of novel, but if we’re going to proceed with Lolita—if we’re going to be good stewards of it, in a sensebest, probably, to take down our dictionaries, to take down our French-English dictionaries, even, to ready our pens and our reading journals, to poise ourselves to hover over the word. Have you found, during the days or weeks you’ve been reading Lolita, a heightened awareness to words generally, to their lives and after-lives, their percussions and re-percussions? Some novels, like Lolita, will train us in a new kind of attention: what aspect of your experience has this new attention revealed?

Proposal/ Question #3: What Kind of Person is Humbert Humbert?

What kind of person is Humbert Humbert? In deciding that he is a monster—-which is how I myself have been referring to him in previous questions—-might be we be limiting the novel’s potential to teach us something about ourselves? What sort of person holds a resolutely ironic stance towards his feelings and those of others; seeks coincidence and an almost mystical patterning in the events that make up his story; prefers obsession and lust to acceptance and supportive familial and/or conjugal relationship; repeatedly aggrandizes and distorts his own image, often to the total disregard of the realities of other people; believes in fate; revels in the melancholic recognition of the passage of time and love; seeks the structured, the patterned, the intentional—-the artful—-in all things; sees himself as the center of the universe, all reality merely a projection of his subjective state?

Not my sort of person, I dearly hope, and not yours either; but surely these are habits of psychology we have all struggled to overcome. One of my dilemmas in reading the novel these last weeks has been articulating why Humbert needs to be so horrible and horrifying for the novel to reveal something universal in our humanity. Could Nabokov have taught us the same lesson, I ask myself, without Humbert’s having stolen Lolita’s childhood? Why the extremity, why the perversity, why the nightmare? “There is much sense in Humbert’s madness,” writes the scholar Michael Wood, “but of course we shan’t see it unless we see the madness too.” And this is a theme we’ve wrestled with in previous meetings; the Misfit, from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is arguably one of the most intelligent and sympathetic characters she ever wrote—yet he is a murderer. Why is it that so many writers seek to reveal the natural in our nature through the least natural among us? I genuinely don’t know the answer myself—and open the question to the group.

A corollary to the question above: Why do the sexual encounters between H.H. and Lolita, so troubling to read, need to be in the story? I would argue that they do need to be there; that for the story to “enchant” us, it must engage us at the level of our “spines” (and Nabokov once said that for a story to be great it had to engage the reader at the level not just of the mind, but of the “spine.”) Also, why do you think Nabakov chose to make Lolita twelve, as opposed to, say, six? And why didn’t he monstrous-ize Humbert’s appearance and bearing? Why is Humbert made to seem sort of attractive?

Proposal/ Question #4: “Somehow his horrid scrapes become our scrapes”

The following is a set of remarks from The Magician’s Doubt, a monograph on Nabokov’s novels I highly recommend, by the very delicate reader–and professor of English at Princeton University—Michael Wood.

“We might […] say that while Humbert writes wonderfully about his own deviance, he can’t write himself straight; and the thinness of his repentance is a measure of the weird, lingering humanity of his crime. He has been involved in ‘intricately sordid situations,’ as the scholar, F. W. Dupee says, but somehow ‘his horrid scrapes become our scrapes’. Not literally or legally, we hope, but closely enough for all but saints and hypocrites. Love itself, of the least deviant kind, is scarcely less possessive or crazed than Humbert’s mania.” (Michael Wood, The Magician’s Doubt, (Princeton University Press, 1994) pp. 140-141.)

Do you agree with Wood? Does the novel, as Wood seems to imply, have something to teach us about “love itself”?

Proposal/ Question #5: What do you make of Quilty?

We have talked over these past months about a novel’s central character being “foiled” by another character that seems to represent that first character’s perfect challenge. And certainly we could say this of Quilty—that he “foils” Humbert. He also seems a kind of double to Humbert—a shadow, a shade, a reflection, an inversion. (Doubling happens all over the novel; for a brilliant analysis of why this might be so, see Alfred Appel’s introduction to his The Annotated Lolita (Vintage Books, 1970)). When we meet on Monday, I would like to look over Chapter 35, the chapter in which Humbert kills Quilty. Figuring out the ways in which Quilty foils Humbert—and also, in kind of infinite regress, repeats and repeats and repeats him—may prove useful in articulating the novel’s (yes) moral offering.

Proposal/ Question #6: Can we believe that Humbert Humbert really “loved” Lolita?

Toward the end of Chapter 29—the chapter in which Humbert goes to find Lolita–Humbert declares to his reader that he “loved” her. (In Appel’s annotated edition, this happens on pp. 277-278).

Please reread this passage again, and, if possible, please reread it within the context of Chapter 29 as a whole. Do you believe Humbert? We’ll talk about why we do or we don’t when we meet.

Proposal/ Question #7: Why Read This Book?

Peter Turchi recently sent me the title for the talk he’ll be giving at All Souls in February, and it goes like this: “The Bright Side of Darkness: Stories and Novels that Take Us Places We Don’t Want to Go to Meet People We Don’t Want to Meet Doing Things We Don’t Want Anyone to Do; and Why We Should Read Them Anyway.”

Have you articulated for yourself a reason to read Lolita—a reason perhaps more substantial than the sheer pleasure of its surface effects: its linguistic play, the elegance of its structure, the fun to be had in solving its puzzles and games? If you have articulated this larger reason, what is it?   And if you haven’t, why does the novel ultimately disappoint you? I myself promise to articulate why I believe the novel is worthwhile—but not until I hear from you.

Proposal/ Question #8: An Ape Drawing the Bars of His Own Cage

 To the question of where he found the inspiration for Lolita, Nabakov replied: “As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

How might this image—an ape drawing the bars of his own cage—stand as an adequate metaphor for Humbert Humbert?

Looking forward to seeing you Monday,




Questions and Proposals about Marilynne Robinson’s novel, “Home” (2008).

Questions and Proposals about Marilynne Robinson’s Home

Enclosed below are several questions about Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home (2008). The questions are organized into two sections: Section I, which is oriented toward formal description of the novel, and Section II, oriented toward content and theme. Prefacing Section 1 is a brief essay on the advantages to be gained from the descriptive approach to literature. The author of these questions is Emilie White, who directed the Kay Falk Literary Project at the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, NC, and is now working on a new teaching/ reading project in Asheville, called “Reading Literature Together.”

The page numbers indicated below refer to the paperback, Picador reprint edition of Home, released in September of 2009.




“Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing.” –Zadie Smith


“As soon as you generalize, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there’s no bridge between the two.”

—Philip Roth


“It’s funny, isn’t it, Karamazov, all this grief and pancakes afterwards…”—Fyodor Dostoevsky


A Brief Essay Advocating a Descriptive Approach to Creative Literature


Over these last several months I have talked a lot about close reading, but not in a long time have I specified what I mean. Largely this has to do with the context in which we meet (not school), and also with the variety of individuals comprising our group. Some of us have a background and/ or education in literature, some do not; some are looking for an intensive literary experience from the book group, some are not. And each of us is valuable to the group. For those of you who are interested in learning more about close reading, I recommend several excellent books: for fiction, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; basically anything by James Wood; anything by Lionel Trilling; Joshua Landy’s How to Do Things with Fictions (forthcoming); Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House; Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World; E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel; Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love; and any criticism and/ or commentary by the writers you admire (I recommend the commentary of Edgar Allan Poe; Henry James’s notebooks; Flannery O’Connor’s letters and the essays collected in her Mystery and Manners; Anton Chekhov’s letters; the lectures of Vladimir Nabokov; Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka; Mavis Gallant’s Paris Notebooks; Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act;; and Willa Cather’s On Writing.) For poetry, I recommend any criticism by Helen Vendler, Mary Kinzie, James Longenbach, Randall Jarrell, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Heather McHugh, Thom Gunn, Philip Levine, John Berryman, Richard Hugo, Robert Hass, Tony Hoagland, and Louise Glück.


For those of you who don’t have time to pursue the titles and/or writers listed above, these study materials, right here, provide several questions oriented toward formal description of Marilynne Robinson’s Home. These questions are intended to help you describe the novel’s forms—-describe them, if possible, apart from content. (I’m not at all happy with distinguishing between form and content, but for now to do so seems the clearest way to proceed.)   The hope here is to help you to cultivate the practice of studying a work of creative literature really as though it were a foreign world — a world whose “meanings” exist at all because of a unique formal arrangement that made those meanings possible. Describing in this way will help you avoid falling into (mere) generalization, (mere) reaction, and also mere judgment, or worship, of the novel’s characters, or of the author. As I explained to members of the book group during our pot-luck last November, my art history professors would begin discussion this way—-by asking students simply to describe the work of art under consideration, a reproduction of which would be projected on a screen at the front of the room. Sometimes that was all we would do, in a two-hour seminar—-describe the work of art, just simply sit there and try to put into words what it looked like, and how it appeared to have been made. Of a painting by Mark Rothko, for instance, Student A might say: “It looks like the green field was put down first.” Then would elapse a fairly excruciating silence during which the other students would be checking their observations against that of Student A. And then Student B would venture forth. “Yes,” she might say, “the green field does look to have been put down first, but the fuzzy brush work in the red field seems to be confounding the notion of ‘sequence,’ of first, second and so forth.” So laborious an address, and toward an object potentially so inspiring, may sound boring, and sometimes it was. It’s work. Yet this sort of work must be in place before we can speculate an author’s intention, which is when, in my experience, inspiration takes place—-when we feel “spoken to,” and when we may begin to sense ourselves as adequate to understanding what has been said.


Description effectively seats authority with the work, rather than with the reader. And if the encounter, reader-to-work, is happening in a group, description allows interpretation to proceed democratically. Anyone can describe. It doesn’t matter whether you have a background in literature; and indeed, in my however many years of teaching, I have often found that the more innocent approach—and, along with innocence, the mindful approach, even the self-watchful approach—yields the deeper the insight. Someday I would hold a seminar with the All Souls Book Group on the similarities between Mindfulness Meditation and close reading. It does seem as though analogies of this sort—to the visual arts, to meditation—-basically to media/ disciplines other than literature–can help.


But, back to the page: All that matters is that we stay with it, that we, to quote Joshua Landy again, “get out of the way” of the work, “efface” ourselves before it. This means quieting the ego—hard to do, sometimes–and it also means resisting the understandable inclination to interpret the work according to bodies of knowledge the work is not–“templates,” as Betsy Gardner has called them.   (In our discussions these “templates” have included various branches of psychoanalysis, the Enneagram, feminist theory, Other Works of Literature, theology, and all kinds of online research to find out “what the experts think.”) As we have reminded each other many times in our five year life together, a superior work of literature will establish within the imagination an entirely new “template,” if you will, one that exists only within that particular work, and exists for the reader only when she or he is reading it. So just focus on the work, even if doing so feels like being back in elementary school. Increasingly I will try to model this sort of address both in my questions and in discussion.


Here, then, are some formal elements of Marilynne Robinson’s Home to describe.


Section I: Descriptive Questions/ Form Questions


1.The Point of View/ Perspective

From whose point of view, or perspective, is this story told? In Robinson’s Gilead, we learn everything there is to know from one point of view, which is John Ames’s. Our experience of Ames’s family, of Gilead, of the Boughton family, and, most decisively for our experience of Home, of Jack Boughton, is filtered through the perception of John Ames.

Not so with Home. Home is told from the perspective of an outside narrator. Often, very often!, that narrator appears to be experiencing the story from Glory’s point of view. (But not always.) Here’s a very pointed question: Why is an outside narrator, who seems, at almost every point in the novel, to be Glory, the right kind of narrator for the story of Home? Please answer this question with consistent reference to the text.

Interesting: The point of view from which this story is told changes dramatically during the very last two paragraphs. How so? What’s happening during those paragraphs?

Another important aspect of the novel’s point of view to remember: The only mind we occupy in this novel is Glory’s. We never go into Jack’s mind, or Robert’s, or anyone else’s.

  1. The language/ diction/ prose

In what kind of language does this narrator cast the story of Home? Here’s a different way to ask this question, different in substance: How is the narrator’s language adequate to the story of Home?

Another perhaps helpful way to think on this question: Marilynne Robinson is not a writer of a prevailing or signature “style.” The way she writes changes from novel to novel. This has to do, I think, with the respectfulness of her address toward her subject matter. She finds a “style” adequate to the particular character/ story she’s writing, and that’s that. I find this remarkable. How is the writing here different from that of Gilead? For those of you who’ve read Housekeeping, how is it different from Housekeeping? Why must the prose/ language/ diction/ in Home be as it is for the story to sound “true?”

  1. Where the story goes (or doesn’t go) in space and time

This is not a story that satisfies for its plot-twists or its newfangled management of time. This is a story that moves slowly, that focuses intensely on only three people, and a story which also tends to stay in one place—-basically in one house (sometimes in the back yard of that house), occasionally venturing into the streets of Gilead, or to the Ames’s home, or, once, into the countryside beyond Gilead. You’ll also notice that the characters tend to talk about the same things again and again, energetically, for sure, but also exhaustively. So many ways to tell a story, aren’t there. Just think of all the many ways Robinson could have told this one. She could have, for instance, included scenes of Glory’s life away from Gilead. She could have introduced more characters into the story—-a relief for her reader, maybe, and maybe even a relief for Robinson. But she didn’t do these things. If, for you, the choice she made is the right choice—-to stay essentially in one house for three hundred pages, having the same three characters enter and reenter the same conflicts again and again–why is it the right choice?

  1. How is this story told?

Most of this story is told through dialogue—through people talking to one another. There’s exposition here as well, and that’s important. But for now I want to emphasize the prevalence of dialogue in Home. How is this choice the right choice for the story of Home?

(And as a once-upon-a-time fiction writer, I want to say that dialogue is hands down the hardest kind of fiction to write, because that’s when you lose control over your characters. That’s when they’re at their most complex, when they’re revealing dimensions you hadn’t anticipated when they were just “thinking”–or when you, as their author, were thinking about them. I for one very much admire Robinson for the energy it must have taken her to stay with Jack and Glory and Robert as they toiled for three hundred pages just trying to talk to one another. The only reason, as I see it, more novelists don’t write novels this way is because the other ways are easier.)

Details, and what they say that isn’t (can’t be? won’t be? could never be?) said in words

What are for you the novel’s most revealing details? What I’m asking for here are those details suggestive of an emotion or significance that isn’t said in words, this because the characters perhaps don’t “know” that emotion yet, at least not consciously. For me, Robert’s hair possesses this sort of life. Same with Jack’s clothing. Same with Jack’s laugh. Same with the framed picture of the river Jack keeps in his room–and which Glory gives to Della before Della leaves. You might look for details that recur, also for phrases that recur. Which, for you, are the especially revealing details in Home? What are they “saying”?

  1. How Jack is shown/ How the novel knows Jack/ How we know Jack

This question overlaps with those above it, but I’ll accord it its own because the Mystery of Jack—-is he good? is he bad? can he be saved? was he born to this? what’s at the source of his “sadness,” his “loneliness”? what is inside of his “soul,” and while we’re at it, what are we talking about when we say ‘soul’?–is central to the novel, and to the lives of just about everyone in it. Do attend to how Jack’s character is revealed in Home. Remember, at no point do we go inside his head—-in either novel, Gilead or Home. Also note that we’re not with him for certain crucial scenes, crucial to him. Think of all the letters he’s written to Della—-we don’t read a single one. Think of that painful night in the barn—-we only hear about it afterwards. We never go up to his room with him; we never come down from his room with him. The ways Jack is revealed, for most of the novel, are two: A) through the speculations of other characters, and, B) through dialogue—-through what he says. He’s also revealed, to a lesser extent—maybe encrypted is a better word!–through the objects in his room, or rooms (house and barn); and also through the revelations of the last pages of the novel. But he’s never revealed decisively. So again, describe. What do you actually, experientially know of this man, and how do you know it?

  1. The Tempo of the Novel

In an essay on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the critic James Wood describes Anna Karenina as having the “ample lento of life as we live it from day to day.” (See James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, p. 102.)   I don’t know if “ample lento” is how I would describe the tempo of Home—ample sounds spacious to me, whereas in Home I feel enclosed—-but there is a slowness to Home which this randomly encountered observation of Wood’s helped me recognize. How would you characterize the novel’s tempo? If that tempo seems instructive to you, how does it seem instructive? Please be prepared to support your observations with evidence from the text.

  1. Last, Hardly Least, Maybe First: How is Glory Shown?

Lastly, how is Glory shown? We tend to think of the novel as Jack’s. And how could we not; everyone is always talking about Jack, including Jack. But what if this is really Glory’s story? The last pages of the novel seem to suggest that it is. What do you think? Please refer to the text in your answer.

Section Two: Content/ Theme/ Issue Questions

1. Being ‘good?’ Or being seen as ‘good?’

This problem-—Am I being good, or am I acting this way rather to be seen as good—-is central to the novel. We hear about it right away on page 6:

“They were attentive to their father all those years later, in part because they were mindful of their sorrow. And they were very kind to one another, and jovial, and fond of recalling good times and looking through old photographs so that their father would laugh and say, “Yes, yes, you were quite a handful.” All this might have been truer because of bad conscience, or, if not that, of a grief that felt like guilt. Her good, kind, and jovial siblings were good, kind, and jovial consciously and visibly. Even as children they had been good in fact, but also in order to be seen as good. There was something disturbingly like hypocrisy about it all, thought it was meant only to compensate for Jack, who was so conspicuously not good as to cast a shadow over their household. They were as happy as their father could wish, even happier. Such gaiety! And their father laughed about it all, danced with them to the Victrola, sang with them around the piano. Such a wonderful family they were! And Jack, if he was there at all, looked on and smiled and took no part in any of it.” (Marilynne Robinson, Home, p. 6)

Consider this dilemma—-Am I being good, or am I acting this way, even feeling this way!, so as to be seen as good–as it pervades and shapes the life of the Boughton family. Obviously, the problem occupies Glory very differently than it does Jack, or than it does Robert. Please be prepared to support your considerations with evidence from the text.

2. A controversial proposal having to do with the inadequacy of prescribed righteousness to the real thing

Sometimes as I re-read this novel I see it as a story of the inadequacy of religiously prescribed righteousness to the real thing, to real righteousness. Yet equally as much the novel seems fundamentally sympathetic to religious life, even, in Glory’s case (?), praising of it, certainly “at home” with it. Or, maybe if there is praise here, it is of the Lord. Maybe it is the Lord who is being praised, or glorified. Please, as you articulate your own sense of the problem, open the book and support your reflections with evidence from the text.

3. Race

The struggle for African American racial equality is central to the life of the Ames grandfather in Gilead, and to Jack Boughton in Home.   Yet the problem of race takes up surprisingly little space, in both books. It is off to the side, talked about, and almost always according to the agenda of characters that were not involved in it directly. Why? Think about all the many ways this particular struggle could have figured in these stories. Robinson could have placed those stories in the foreground. She didn’t. Instead the stories come to us mediated by the perspective of other characters, sometimes even suppressed, or distorted, by that perspective.

It seems to me that in Home, the reason the civil rights movement takes up as little “space” as it does is because the patriarch of that novel, Robert Boughton, won’t accord it the attention it deserves. And Robert gets his way, doesn’t he? Here’s a controversial proposal: In ourselves not attending to the decisive importance of race for the lives both of the Ames and the Boughton families, perhaps we unwittingly collude with the culture embodied by Robert Boughton—-with his close-mindedness, inattention, and failure of regard. That’s right, I do mean to get your back up here—but in a way that will demonstrate just how high the stakes are in these “quiet” novels.

Thoughts? Please be specific to the novel (s) in your answer.

4. Gender

What if Glory had been a man? The novel asks this question, explicitly and poignantly, on p. 20. Indeed the novel’s very structure is founded on Glory’s being a woman, on being the one to receive a man’s story, rather than the one to have, or to be, the story. Thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Please be specific to the novel in your answer.

 5.  Why Is Glory Named Glory (rather than the other options, which would have been Faith, Hope, Charity or Grace)

In accordance with the design of Robert Boughton, Marilynne Robinson had basically five Christian abstractions to choose from in the naming of her point of view character, which is Glory. She could have named her Faith, Charity, Hope, Grace, or, the name she chose, Glory. Why do you think Robinson chose Glory? How is Glory…glory? How does Glory…glorify? Once you look up the word “glory” in the Oxford English Dictionary you’ll see how very complicated a word—and phenomenon—it is.

Glory, OED:  1. Exalted (now esp. merited) renown; honourable fame. ME. 2. Adoring praise and thanksgiving, esp. offered to God.  ME.  3.  The splendour and bliss of heaven.  ME.  4.  Replendent majesty, beauty, or magnificence; a feature of resplendent beauty or magnificence, a splendour (frequently in pl.)  Also, an effulgence of light; fig. an imagined unearthly beauty.  lME.  5.  Something which brings renown; a special distinction, a splendid ornament. LME 6. Extreme vanity, boastfulness obs. exc. in VAINGLORY.  7. A state of exaltation, splendour, or prosperity.  E17 8.  A circle of light, esp. as depicted around the head or whole figure of Jesus or a saint a circle or ring of light; a halo.  m17 b. spec. A luminous halo projected on to a cloud or fog-bank by the sun an anthelion. E19 9 A representation of the heavens opening and revealing celestial beings

And here is Robinson on reading the Oxford English Dictionary:

“The Oxford English Dictionary lets me follow the roots of words into the loamy depths of language. It lets me feel the abiding, generative life in it, the mysteries of its persistence and renewal.”   (Thanks to Allan Campo for this quote.)

P.S. Hovering as we are over the dictionary, it seems we’re back in Emily Dickinson territory. Do you see any similarities between the writing of Emily Dickinson and Marilynne Robinson?

  1. “Nothing to be done.”

There is a lot of very high-stake conversation in this novel–a lot of attempts, through talking, to right the past, to reconcile, to forgive. And, at many points in this novel, a character will say, at the end of one of these conversations, “Nothing to be done.” What do you think is being communicated with this refrain, “Nothing to be done”? This is perhaps as much a theological question as it is a plot/ story question (though how this question is theological is embedded within, really incarnated by, the particular story of Home.)


  1. Psalm 139, What it Means to Jack, What it Means to the Novel


Please discuss the relevance of Psalm 139, in particular verses 7 – 12, to the story of Home, in particular to Jack. Jack quotes these verses to Glory on pages 287-288 in a conversation about what a “soul” is. It’s interesting that these are the verses Jack supplies in endeavoring to answer this question. How do you think they matter to him, and to the story generally? Please be specific to the text of Home in your answer.


  1. The question of what a “home” is


The question of “home” is explored in multifarious ways across Marilynne Robinson’s Home. Please contemplate the many meanings of “home” for Robinson’s novel. In doing so, please take out pen and paper and list the various homes in the novel, both the actual ones and the imagined ones. Where, or what, is “home” for Jack? For Glory? What will it be for Jack? What will it be for Glory? What is it for Della? For Robert, Jack’s son? For Robert, Jack’s father?


  1. 9. The parable of the Prodigal Son


How is the story of the Prodigal Son present within, even given new life by, Marilynne Robinson’s Home? This is a huge question, yes. And you can make it even huge-r by expanding your answer to include Gilead as well. Please be intensely specific to the novel (s) as you answer this question.


  1. “What makes the book ultimately so powerful is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the soft-spoken sage that John Ames is in Gilead.”


Recently I read a review of Home by James Wood that included several provocative responses to the novel, including this one.


“What propels the book, and makes it ultimately so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the soft-spoken sage that John Ames is in Gilead. He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and cannot. He preaches sweetness and light, and is gentle with Jack, like a chastened Lear (‘Let me look at you for a few minutes,’ he says), only to turn on him angrily.” (James Wood, “The Homecoming,” The New Yorker, September 8 2008).


Thoughts? Please be specific to the text as you organize them.


  1. Outcast as Seer, Outcast as Bearer of Revelation;


A friend made an interesting observation the other night about Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, which is that in all three of her novels, the characters that see, the characters that must bear revelation, are outcasts, and that the outcast state seems necessary for revelation. The next interesting observation my friend made was that Robinson seems to recognize 20th century American middle-class life as defined by deracination; and the next interesting observation he made was that in a world in which people habitually uproot themselves, moving from place to place, there is nowhere for revelation to go, nowhere for it to belong. What are your thoughts? Please be faithful to Robinson’s fiction as you answer.


The kinds of ‘time” in Marilynne Robinson’s fiction: On the other hand, maybe to see Robinson as writing about a contemporary phenomenon, such as deracination, is to risk missing a larger vision within her fiction of the phenomenon of time. Maybe Robinson is one of these extraordinary fiction writers who manage in a single novel to tell a story belonging to more than one kind of time—in Robinson’s case, belonging to, and ever-attentive to, historical, material time, and, on the other hand, suggestive of a non-diachronic, perhaps trans-historical or non-earthly time– a time perceivable only in part. In my experience of Robinson’s fiction, I find that if I pay close attention to the development of single images, and/ or to the development of certain abstractions—and here we really are back in Dickinson territory–I begin to sense this alternate, non-comprehensible, only partially describe-able time. And what I’m suggesting here is not that Robinson is describing a time that’s out there on its own, apart from, or before, her novel. What I mean to say instead is that she creates this time, she makes it, through the writing of her novel. For the reader, then, this time exists at all only while s/he’s reading, only while she’s inside the prose. (By the end of Gilead, John Ames, who has spent the novel writing, and reading back over his writing, understands this paradox very well.)


Look, for example, at the following paragraph from Home. Watch for how in a single sentence we move from destitution to restoration. It is the movement here I invite you to attend to, rather than to a stabile kind of meaning of either one of these states.


“That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than what nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds it own home if it ever had a home at all.” (282)


  1. Another interesting remark made by James Wood in his review of Robinson’s Home:


“Since the ego is irrepressible—and secular—it tends to bulge in odd shapes when religiously straightened.”


Thoughts? Please be specific to the novel as you organize them.


  1. “Jesus never had to be old”: Robinson’s realism about life’s hardships and how that realism informs her theology


Robert makes this remark—“Jesus never had to be old”–toward the end of the novel, on p. 313. For me, the remark sums up Robinson’s commitment to measuring the practice of Christian faith against the challenges of incarnate existence—in this instance, a challenge unimaginable even to Jesus, as “Jesus never had to be old.” With this proposal I am inviting you to consider Robinson’s realism, in both Gilead and Home, and how it seems to you to inform her theology, and vise versa. Thoughts?   This question is big enough to warrant graduate study; maybe one way to make it manageable would be to pursue it within the context of only one relationship, in either Gilead or Home.   You could also pursue the question by comparing Robinson’s “realism” with that of another fiction writer you admire.


  1. Home and Gilead as anagogical literature, as “elevating” the spirit to “understand mysteries”


Persisting across the now five-year life of our book group has been the question of whether or not literature can habituate the mind to see the world from God’s point of view. (And here I am again referring to the video we watched of Stanford Professor Joshua Landy discussing, among other stories, Jesus’ parables. The video, entitled “The Role of Fiction in the Well-Lived Life,” can be viewed on the Internet.) Certain works of literature open onto this question more readily than others, and from my perspective, Home and Gilead (and Housekeeping) qualify as this kind of literature—as anagogical literature.   “Anagogical” is defined by the O.E.D. as “spiritual elevation, esp. to understand mysteries.”   To the credit of our book group, our conception of God has been a vulnerable one—vulnerable to being changed by experience, vulnerable to being renewed by it. And the medium of “experience” has been, for us, literature: stories, novels, poems, and essays. If you feel that Home has “elevated” you, or at least habituated you, to “understanding mysteries,” or to seeing the world from God’s point of view, how has it done so? And if Gilead has “elevated” you in this way, how has it done so? How have the two books worked together to elevate you in this way?   What are you understanding now that you hadn’t understood before? This is a lovely question, but it’s also a huge and sort of floppy one, so please be specific to the novels as you answer it.


I also want to add that in our group we have read many stories, poems and novels written by dedicated agnostic and/or atheist materialists—Philip Roth, Anton Chekhov, Kay Ryan, Elizabeth Bishop, several others—and we have, again to our credit, met those writers on their particular terms and in their particular worlds.


  1. The remarkable last line of Home


The last line of Home reads as follows: “The Lord is wonderful.”


Is it possible that this is what the novel has been doing all along—praising the Lord, or glorifying Him?   How has the story of Home praised the Lord?   Or, and this is a very different question: How has reading Home put you in mind of the wonderfulness of the Lord?


And if you are not Christian, and/ or are not religiously observant, and/or are observant within a religion other than Christianity, what do you hear in that last line?


Also, and this will confuse us, I’m sure: I hear that last line chorally—I hear multiple voices in it. One of the voices I hear is the author’s. I hear, in that line, authorial triumph. Do you? Or am I over-assessing?


Looking forward to seeing you at our meeting,



Questions about Jennifer Egan’s novel, “The Keep,” which I am posting to see how this blog works.


“Tom-Tom’s watching me, too.  He’s around thirty, I guess, but like all meth freaks he’s missing half his teeth, so his face caves in.  Still, right now he looks about eight years old, his eyes jumpy, full of hope.  Any little thing from me will make him melt, I don’t know why.  I don’t know why I have that power over Tom-Tom.  I don’t even want it.  But I can’t give it up.

The second pass.  I know what’s going on because it’s the same thing that always happens: give me something nice, something I love or want or need, and I’ll find a way to grind it into dust.” (p. 147, The Keep, by Jennifer Egan)

“He clutches his box full of dust.  His crazy worn-out face is full of life.” (107, The Keep)

“She says, My job is to show you a door you can open.” (20, The Keep)


What are These Questions For? How do they help?

As I have been away this summer and haven’t been sending questions, it’s probably a good idea for me to highlight their purpose, their role in discussion, and so on.  Their purpose is to give us a common agenda for discussion, and to give me a sense of orientation as I lead a diverse group of readers through often very complex works of art.  The questions are not meant to dictate discussion, certainly not to dictate your individual engagement with the work.  Often, for instance, you’ll find me raising the possibility that the particular question I’m asking is not the right one.  This I do to invite you to name the better question, the “real” one – “The real question is…” — the one that really matters.  The most important function of these questions is to keep us close to the literature so that we may occupy, however briefly, its unique forms and vision.  For me, it’s when we’re inside of those forms that we’re not just closest to the literature, but closest to each other.  What do forms do?  Disclose aspects of reality one hadn’t seen before.  (New literary forms, anyway, can do that.)  And what does vision do?  Frees the imagination.  Or so, perhaps, is the claim of Jennifer Egan’s The Keep.  Or, is it?  And now we segue (dot, dot, dot) to some questions and proposals (dot, dot, dot) about Jennifer Egan’s The Keep.

Question 1:  Remembering what it felt like to read this book for the first time

What was it like to read this book?  Try and remember the different stages in your experience.  What did it feel like to be reading the beginning of the book, say, the first fifty pages?  Or, what was going on in your mind in the middle, when the complexity of the address of the story — who’s writing it, and to whom, and who is reading it – began to dawn on you?  That complexity grows ever more complex as the story continues, doesn’t it?  Lastly, what was it like to reach that final image on the last page, the one of Holly closing her eyes and diving in?  The novel, for me, kept changing shape, so that at many points I wasn’t sure what I was dealing with.  Where are the edges of this thing? I kept asking myself.  Where’s the outer limit, and where do I sit in relation to it?  Describe your experience of reading this book.

Question 2:  Terminal Zeus

Danny and his cousin, Howie, play a game together as kids they call “Terminal Zeus.”  It brings them – or it brings Danny, anyway – intense pleasure.

“He got so deep inside the game he forgot who he was, and when his folks said Time to go home the shock of being yanked away made Danny throw himself on the ground in front of them, begging for another half hour, please! another twenty minutes, ten, five, please, just one more minute, pleasepleaseplease?  Frantic not to have been ripped away from the world he and Howie had made.”

–Jennifer Egan, The Keep, 2006. The Keep was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2006.  The edition we’re reading in the All Souls Book Group – and the one whose page numbers are cited throughout this document – is the Anchor Books edition, 2007.

It seems important that an engulfing game of make-believe, and one shared with someone else, a fellow make-believer, should be featured so early in the novel.  Why do you think it’s featured?  Why do you think Egan wants us to remember that intense childhood pleasure of making up a whole world, and with a friend?

Question 3:  Alto

What is alto?  It’s introduced on page 6.  It’s a relationship, of sorts.  “True alto worked two ways: you saw but also you could be seen, you knew and were known.  Two-way recognition” (6).  Could we think of this novel as the creation of a kind of alto, fragile though the creation may be?  And: Is that a good question?

Also: It seems important that Danny and his friends have to make up a word for this relationship, that the possible candidates on offer in the English language don’t quite express the relationship they “crave” (6).  “But the English language came up short: perspective, vision, knowledge, wisdom: those words were all too heavy or too light” (6).

Also – and here we are slip-sliding (without our boots!) down the eye-crossing, Möbius-strip head-bender that is this novel:  When we say that “Danny and his friends” made up a word – alto – haven’t we forgotten someone?  For it is Ray who made up the word, Raymond Michael Dobbs, the prisoner who was Holly’s student whose manuscript Holly is reading — and which we are reading too.  But is that right?  When we say that it’s Ray who has written this story, have we accounted for the story all the way down to its source?  Of course not.  Maybe there is something about this novel that resists our expectation that we can see stories all the way down to their source.  Maybe Egan has come up with a novel-shape that is utterly aesthetically succinct yet also, in the end, incomprehensible, not see-around-able.  I don’t really know where this novel comes from, if that makes any sense.  And in a weird way I hope I never will.  I also don’t know what I’m proposing, here – so I need you to help me figure it out.  Thoughts?

Question 4:  Needing Connection

You may have noticed the recurrence of the word “need.”  On page 12 we hear that Danny needs the connection provided by his cell phone and by wireless Internet access, which is why he lugs a satellite dish all the way to Europe, “a drag to carry” and “an airport security nightmare.”  Without this connectedness Danny feels lost, and no amount of talk from Howard about people “needing” imagination (p. 48) more than connection will make him feel otherwise.

Did the novel make you think, as it did me, about what people need?  Holly: what does she need?  Ray?  Holly’s girls?  For instance, Meghan, Holly’s oldest, has her own sort of “keep” – the folding screen behind which she keeps a “collage of her life”: “pictures of her friends, straw wrappers woven into a braid,” etc.  What does Meghan need in keeping these things, in keeping this “keep” (231)?  How about Davis, Davis with his cardboard box “full of dust” (104)?  And Tom-Tom?  We tend to think of these characters as different from one another, even as opposed to one another – or, I tend to think of them that way.  Some of them, I decide, are good, some are bad; some are artists, some are not; some I can sympathize with, and some scare me so much I can barely begin to see them, never mind imagine who they might be inside.  But remember (I tell myself): like Ray, Tom-Tom also writes a story; and, like Tom-Tom, Ray also tries to kill someone – and, in his case, he succeeds.

I’m sort of getting off question, but maybe that’s what the novel does, too, and rather beautifully: begins as a question about our need for connection and ends as a description of how we’re connected.  What do you think?

Lastly, what do you need?  Do you need to dive into that pool?  Did you discover you needed to make that dive only as you read this book?  Or am I not asking the right question?

Question 5:  Dust, Voices, and 9/11

Dust is present throughout the book, as are voices.  I put them together in the same question because the novel puts them together, in Davis’s box full of dust, which he calls his “radio.”  Here is Davis describing the voices he believes his radio can transmit.

“It’s the voices of the dead, Davis says.  He looks gentle, like the idea hurts him somehow.  He says: All that love, all that pain, all that stuff people feel – not just me and you, brother, but everyone, everyone who’s ever walked this beautiful green planet – how can all that disappear when somebody dies?  It can’t disappear, it’s too big.  Too strong, too. . .permanent.  So it moves to another frequency, where the human ear can’t pick it up.” (The Keep, 104)

The novel seems to propose the realm of the dead and disappeared – the realm of dust and voices – as an imaginative opportunity.  Indeed I think we could say that the place we go when we read The Keep is very like the place we go a great deal of our time, the place we go when we think about people, a liminal zone of “dust and voices” where the “real” people from our lives may possess less substance than the ones we happen to be thinking about, many of whom may have never said or done the things they’re saying and doing when we think about them, and many of whom may have been dead for decades.  And there is something about being in that zone, in the framed and concentrated way offered by a work of imaginative literature, where we actually get to reflect on our habits as imagining beings — well, what was the experience like for you?

Some thoughts about the novel and 9/11, the tenth year anniversary of which is taking place a week before our first meeting about The Keep.

I doubt I’m the only reader for whom repeated mention of dust and voices led to thoughts of 9/11.  Did others of you see The Keep as a response to 9/11?

Following upon this proposal is a link to an article in last Friday’s online edition of the NYTimes about what people “kept” after 9/11.

Question 6: Imagining it was like seeing it, in a way 

This possibility, that imagining things is like seeing them, animates nearly every page of The Keep.  Indeed right in sentence two we see a character seeing something that isn’t, in fact, real: “The castle was falling apart, but at 2 a.m. under a useless moon, Danny couldn’t see this.  What he saw looked as solid as hell: two round towers with an arch between them and across that arch was an iron gate that looked like it hadn’t moved in three hundred years or maybe ever.”  [My emphasis.]  Later in the novel, Danny will experience a “funny shiver” at the recognition that “imagining” something “was like seeing it, in a way.”

“The baroness smiled, that beautiful mouth coming apart in a way that must’ve knocked people out when she was young.  It gave Danny a funny shiver, because imagining it was like seeing it, in a way” (87).

Imagining it is like seeing it: did this proposal strike you as true?  Did it give you a “funny shiver”?  If it did, perhaps it’s because the book reads less as an exposition about that possibility than as an experience we pass through as we read.  An experience that changes us.  Perceptually we are inside of that possibility from first page to last.  How do you respond here?

Question 7: Old and Young

You might decide, reading its first fifty pages or so, that The Keep is going to be about the young and only the young.  But then as you keep reading you find that’s not really true.  Old people become young in this novel and young people become old.  Polarities generally are collapsed, making that dualistic way of thinking we’re unfortunately so (killingly) comfortable with – this versus that; you’re this way and I’m the other; if you’ve got power then I have none; a dream has less substance and reality has more; the crazy inmates have killed people and the “normal” ones only stole; etc. — make that way of thinking no longer the dominant one, or, at least, not the only one.  How do you respond, here?  Am I over-assessing, over-enthusing?  What have you to say to correct my estimation so that it’s truer to the literature?

Question 8:  Did this book make you think about writing? 

It did me, in particular of writing a first draft.  How about you?

Question 9: Haven’t you learned that the thing you want to forget the most is the one that’ll never leave you?

And yet nearly every day we nearly completely snuff that awareness out.  Thoughts?  More specifically, thoughts about this truth as it’s given form by The Keep? (This question is asked on page 221.)

Question 10: Layers

There are several images having to do with “layers,” and they seem important.  The first I’m aware of comes on page 17, in the form of a “crust,” a crust of normalcy over the day that Danny left Howard alone in the cave.  “All the normal things that had happened to him since the cave made a crust over that day, and the crust got thicker and thicker until Danny almost forgot what was underneath” (17).  Crusts and/or layers come up again on page 74, as Danny is leaning over the pool at the castle to try and fish out his satellite dish, which has fallen in.  A “smell” rises from the pool, or, not just a smell, but a compound smell, a catalog of every smell that had ever made Danny sick: “every smell that had ever made Danny even a little bit sick gushed up into his face as he leaned over that pool, smells that at one time or another got him thinking just for a second (but he forgot it) that normal life was thin, it was flimsy: a flimsy thing stretched over another thing that was nothing like it, that was big and strange and dark.”  [Emphasis mine.]  And then we hear of layers again on page 217, after Danny has gotten everyone safely out of the cave.  A calm follows in which Danny perceives himself as the one who has the power.   It is now that Danny can ask Howard, and himself, what he is “doing here.”  And, ever the Seller of Imagination, Howard knows just the answer to keep the magic coming.  “I don’t know buddy,” he replies.  “You tell me.”

Danny turned his face to the sun.  It was a weak morning sun, but still so bright.  He said: I don’t know.  I thought I knew, but there was another layer. (217)

Why layers?  What is this image saying to you?

Question 11: And is Howard really only a salesman?  

That’s what I ended up implying in the last question, and without meaning to. I wonder if it isn’t Egan’s intention that we see Howard only as Danny can see him.  What does Howard want in inviting Danny to Europe?  Could he really have forgiven Danny?  Is such forgiveness possible?  As we ask these questions, let’s try and stay in Danny’s perspective.  Doing so will keep us closer to the novel.

Question 12: Traffic

I was struck by the traffic sounds in the last section – that all Holly can hear in the distance beyond her house is traffic.  How about you?

Question 13: Snow

So amazing, so perfect to this story, that snow suddenly begins to fall in the last paragraphs of the novel, just as Holly is about to dive into the pool.  Did you think so?  Why, or why not?

Question 14: Zest in the Storytelling

One of the things I love about Jennifer Egan’s writing is her pleasure, or seeming pleasure, anyway, in telling stories.  This is a writer who seems to have found her power and is reveling in it.  And Egan’s pleasure seems continuous with Ray’s pleasure in writing his manuscript.  Or maybe the word pleasure is too “pleasant” a word for Egan’s sensibility.  Maybe “gusto” would be better.  Gusto!  It’s fun to say.  Or, I’m going to be like Jennifer Egan: gustogustogusto!  Do you sense this gusto too?  Where, in the novel, do you sense it?

Question 15: What do people go to fiction for?  And why do they write it?  And, while we’re at it, why do they go on vacation?

What silly questions!  But did the novel make you think, as it did me, that Egan is unusually interested in why it is that people read fiction, and how fiction might answer their needs?  Throughout the three Egan novels I read this summer I sensed a writer thinking on my behalf, as though she were in a relationship of responsibility with me, even a relationship of “alto” with me.  It’s a kind of intelligence I’m describing, seasoned over long consideration as to what is involved in living through the current historical moment, and how fiction might answer dilemmas engendered by that moment.  Moral dilemmas, spiritual, even perceptual.  This intelligence resides underneath the narrative as a kind of wellspring, animating everything about it; or, above the narrative, like the eye of a god.  In this regard — and it is actually a regard I’m talking about, an authorial regard — the novelist Egan most reminds me of is George Eliot.  This is a fuzzy proposal I’m making, and it would require a Ph.D. to support.  So I’ll leave it for your consideration.

I will say that the moment this “intelligence” first revealed itself to me in The Keep was when, at the end of Chapter One, Holly tells her students what her job is as their writing teacher.  So here’s Ray writing that moment:

“She says, My job is to show you a door you can open.  And she taps the top of her head.  It leads you wherever you want to go, she says.  That’s what I’m here to do. . .” (20).

On its own, the offering — to have been shown a door you can open — is gold.  But then when you remember that it’s actually Ray who’s opening the door, for himself, through his writing; and, in doing so, opening it for Holly, who is reading him writing; neither of these two broken human beings at any point growing implausibly stronger than what, being human beings, they are capable of — well, what do you think?

Question 16:  Love those kids

Children, also, seem an animating concern for Egan.  You’ll find this very much in A Visit from the Goon Squad, but it’s there in The Keep as well.  You may remember, near the end of the novel, Holly asking Ray why he killed the man he’s in prison for.  His answer, basically, is: “It’s just something I did.”  And Holly says she doesn’t like thinking things can happen that way.  Ray’s reply to her, which is given its own paragraph, is: Love those kids. (188)

Do you sense this concern for children in The Keep, that we take care in raising them?  Do you sense it elsewhere in the fiction of Jennifer Egan?

Question 17: Freedom

Lastly, let’s remember that exchange between Ray and Holly when they say goodbye.  For me, it’s at this moment that the novel expands beyond what could have ended as a really good love story to something a great deal more affecting.

“Holly,” he said, and when I looked up he was smiling again.  He’s happy, I thought. I’ve never seen him happy before.  “Don’t you get it?” he said.  “You’re free.” (254)

What is the freedom Ray is talking about?  Bigger question: What is the freedom offered by this novel?  As she dives into the pool, Holly takes that freedom.  I would like to take that freedom as well.  How about you?

Looking forward to seeing you Monday,