The answer to the question: yes, with reservation. This novel was the February selection for Literary Masters book groups and literary salons. It proved to be a very difficult book for a lot of members, BUT we had seriously intense and riveting discussions. So, I say “with reservation” because, if your book club is more social than serious, your members may have trouble with the book. On the other hand, if your book club likes to “dig deep” into great literature, this is the book for you!
So what can your book club discuss? The following contains many spoilers, and is in no particular order. In fact, forgive me if there’s a rambling nature to this blog post, but my head is swirling with thoughts due to the many fantastic insights my LM members expressed, and I want to get them down here.
Warp-speed plot summary: Maurice Bendrix is obsessed with Sarah Miles, who is inconveniently married to the unassuming Henry. When Sarah breaks off the affair abruptly with no explanation, Bendrix is determined to find out why.
There are many lenses through which to view this novel. Let’s take a look at a few:
The biographical lens: Yes, this book appears to be somewhat autobiographical. Greene’s house on Clapham Common was bombed during WWII. Greene had an adulterous relationship with a woman who seems strikingly like the character Sarah. Greene and his lover kept diaries that they shared. Greene converted to Catholicism but seemed to struggle with his faith. Greene went through Jungian psychoanalysis when he was young–and this book seems to be some sort of therapy for both Greene and Bendrix. Greene is said to have suffered from depression (and was bipolar according to some accounts) throughout his life.
However, most of us knew none of the above before we read the book, so this information colored our reading experience in retrospect. Once we knew these details, though, we couldn’t help but conflate the life of Green with the lives of his characters. And let’s not forget that we have an author, Greene, writing about an author, Bendrix, writing about the end of his affair…who comes across the diary of his lover…
The historical lens: We all discussed how this novel was about more than a love affair; it was about a whole new world that had exploded on the scene, literally, due to two world wars. We talked about how of course one would question his or her faith–and whether there could be a God in a world that had seen such atrocities. Note the references to the Victorian age in the novel, and see what message you can take away.
The psychoanalytic lens: I mentioned above that Greene went through Jungian therapy, and my bet is that he read plenty of Freud. So was it intentional on his part, or am I just reading into the novel the structure of the Oedipus Complex? Motherless Bendrix has found his substitute in Sarah; he is the phallus for her, and the two of them are emotionally inseparable. When Sarah, in the role of mother, leaves Bendrix, in the role of child, for the father–and in this case it’s God the Father–Bendrix attempts to kill that father by denying his existence.
And if you don’t like that triangle, how about this one: the Karpman Triangle, where each of three people take on a role of either Persecutor, Victim, or Rescuer. In this relationship dynamic (which you can google to find out more about–it’s really interesting) the roles are very fluid with the three individuals moving around and taking on a different role at various times. One Literary Master member brought this to our attention; she said she was seeing these triangles all over the story!
We have more than a few feminists among us, and there was quite a lot of discussion about Sarah and what she got out of her relationship with Bendrix. We tried to understand her in the context of the times, but she is a slippery one–we couldn’t agree on her at all. Lacan would have a field day with this! (You know, Jacques Lacan, the “French Freud.”) Sarah needs someone to admire her–to validate her existence. You’ll want to talk about her mother and how that relationship has affected Sarah. Interestingly, more than a few of us thought that Sarah made her vow as a way to break off her relationship with Bendrix.
No matter how you feel about Sarah, you’ll want to discuss whether she truly did believe in God. And if yes, when and why.
You’ll want to explore the same question about Bendrix.
Henry is another character that will consume quite a bit of your time. Some of us saw some homosexual tendencies in him–and in Bendrix. Regardless, you’ll want to dig deep into Henry’s motivations.
This has been called a “Catholic novel” by critics. You may or may not agree with this characterization, but you will want to discuss the miracles that occur in the story. Are they truly miracles, or is there always a scientific explanation for what has occurred? Are they just coincidences?
You’ll want to discuss the role of suffering in the story and how it relates to love.
You’ll want to discuss the language and Greene’s use of opposites for effect. Not only are words and phrases contrasted; characters are as well. We have the “high” and the “low” and you’ll want to wonder why. Speaking of characters, you’ll want to carve out quite some time to discuss the secondary characters in this novel. For example, what is the purpose of the scene with Sylvia Black? (My answer–just a hint–focus on her initials…)
You’ll want to discuss the symbolism and imagery in the story. (Does Bendrix “rise from the dead”?)
If you’ve read all the way to here, kudos to you. You’re obviously a serious reader who will enjoy Greene’s work. When you’ve finished the novel, watch the movie (I watched the version with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes). You’ll want to compare it with the book. It’s really good!
As always, let me know how your book club gets on–and enjoy!