On the last Wednesday of August The Llangybi Literati joined forces in The White Hart once again, this time to discuss The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. We were an impressive 10, with two newcomers to the group, Jenny and Mansel, who I hope have been converted and will join us again in THE social night of the month. We also had a Whyman imposter at the end who joined us for the After Party and who we may manage to convert in the future if we all chip in for a Kindle so that he can read the book at his favourite font size.
Despite quite a lot of cheating this month with people openly admitting that they only read the first and last chapters, most people finished it like good little students. Overall, everyone seemed to find the book incredibly unique and interesting.
For those who have not read the book (and for the cheats who only read the first and last chapter!) the book follows the ex pornstar narrator’s recovery from being burned in a car accident which is portrayed to the reader in exquisitely written detail but it is sometimes quite uncomfortable to read. Alongside this is an intricately woven 14th century love story between the narrator and the schizophrenic sculptress Marianne, in their alleged past life. Many questions are raised about the nature of God, Hell, Love and Sexuality.
The famous first chapter
There were mixed reviews among the group about the opening first chapter in which the author goes into graphic detail to describe his experience of being severely burned in a car accident. Some people found this a compelling start to a novel because of its originality, others found it off-putting and would not have ordinarily continued had it not been for the book club, and others were surprised at how much they enjoyed it because they are normally quite squeamish. Whatever your reaction to the first chapter there is no denying that it is memorable, and stunning in terms of its originality. Here is a very short section where we are invited to imagine being burnt.
I imagine, dear reader, that you’ve had some experience with heat. Perhaps you’ve tipped a boiling kettle at the wrong angle and the steam crept up your sleeve; or, in a youthful dare, you held a match between your fingers for as long as you could. Hasn’t everyone, at least once, filled the bathtub with overly hot water and forgot to dip in a toe before committing the whole foot? If you’ve only had these kinds of minor incidents, I want you to imagine something new. Imagine turning on one of the elements of your stove — let’s say it’s the electric kind with black coils on top. Don’t put a pot of water on the element, because the water only absorbs the heat and uses it to boil. Maybe some tiny tendrils of smoke curl up from a previous spill on the burner. A slight violet tinge will appear, nestled there in the black rings, and then the element assumes some reddish-purple tones, like unripe blackberries. It moves towards orange and finally — finally! — an intense glowing red. Kind of beautiful, isn’t it? Now, lower your head so that your eyes are even with the top of the stove and you can peer through the shimmering waves rising up. Think of those old movies where the hero finds himself looking across the desert at an unexpected oasis. I want you to trace the fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers even the lightest touch. If someone else were doing it, you might even be turned on. Now, slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto that glowing element.
And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.
I want you to keep that hand pressed down, for a slow count of sixty. No cheating. One Mis-sis-sip-pi, two Mis-sis-sip-pi, three Mis-sis-sip-pii.i.i.i At sixty Mis-sis-sip-pi, your hand will have melted so that it now surrounds the element, becoming fused with it. Now rip your flesh free.
I have another task for you: lean down, turn your head to one side, and slap your cheek on the same element. I’ll let you choose which side of your face. Again sixty Mississippis; no cheating. The convenient thing is that your ear is right there to capture the snap, crackle, and pop of your flesh.
Later in the book we are confronted with another graphic description, that of the attack against the narrator by the trackers from the condotta. I personally found this much more difficult to read, and the overall opinion of the group was that this later chapter was much more difficult to stomach for a number of reasons. Firstly, we naturally care a lot more about the narrator at this point, and so any violence towards him is going to toy with our loyalties. Secondly, an accident is by its very nature very different to being tortured. Thirdly, it is clear that there he will die as a result of the attack whereas he slowly recovers from the accident.
The Radio’s presence at last month’s meetup encouraged a step up in my hostess duties which must have spilled over into this month too as I came armed with a list of questions and felt really rather professional. One of the questions I asked was a clever one about God that I stole from the Internet.
How did Marianne’s experience of God evolve and mature throughout her life? How do you personally reconcile the concept of a loving God and the reality of human suffering.
I felt that the answer to the first part was that she kept her strong faith but that this evolved to allow for her own happiness as well, but when it came to the second part I was relying on Drew, our retired vicar. Unfortunately, as he was unable to make it to this month’s wineclub bookclub, I requested that his wife channel him in to the room and give us his answer. So as not to cause their divorce by citing Anne incorrectly I am going to keep this cowardly vague and simply say that his answer to the question (and please bear in mind Anne’s wine in-take and her powers of clairvoyancy) is that he thinks that the idea of a benevolent God is a tricky one to hold, and that one must be open-minded to the balance of love and hate within a God. This sparked up various analogies to Star Wars and the Jedi Knights, and how everything requires a balance to achieve order. The only thing I know less about that religion is Star Wars, so I smiled and nodded.
As well as being thick-skinned enough to read the uncomfortable bits in the book, whether that be his accident, his painful recovery procedures, his intricate suicide plan, or his torture in the 14th Century, an awareness of Dante’s Inferno and the nine rings of Hell wouldn’t go amiss either, as it is a central theme throughout. The 9 rings of Dante’s hell are first introduced to us in the first chapter:
‘Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever’
and then recur several times throughout the book in hallucinations and discussions about Hell. This themes is so underlying that we are left wondering whether the accident in the beginning of the book is actually one of his hallucinations of Hell after all. This book really challenges the reader’s notion of Hell. It is not to be considered a uniform Hell, and instead it is your own version. In the stories about Iceland, for instance, the author reveals that Hell in this country is generally considered to be an area full of ice.
‘This makes sense: having spent their entire lives hammered down by the frigid climate, how could they fear anything more than an eternal version of the same thing.?’
This probably means that our British view of hell should be of a below par short British summer on the cusp of having a full week’s sunshine but never quite getting there. With us all chained to cider stained beer garden tables with immortal wasps.
That Hell is tailored to the individual is hardly a new idea. It is, in fact, one of the greatest artistic triumphs in Dante’s Inferno; the punishment for every sinner fits his sin. The Souls of the Carnal, who in life were swept away by the gusting fits of their passion, are in death doomed to be carried on the winds of a never-ending tempest. The Souls of the Simoniacs, who in life offended ‘god by abusing the privileged of their holy offices , are doomed to burn upside down in fiery baptismal fonts. The Souls of the Flatterers spend eternity buried in excrement , a reminder of the shit they spoke on Earth.
The overall opinion on the ending was that it was a little lacking for some of us, with the impression being given that he ran out of time and wanted it finished to get his money. Not the best impression you can get of an ending. Then again, how could this book end in way that does justice to all the different styles in the books, and that encompasses all the trials and tribulations that we have been though as readers. The writing style rapidly oscillates between surrealism and contemporary realism and readers are bound to drawn towards one more than the other and feel a sense of disappointment if the final chapter is written in their least favourite style. A couple of readers agreed that it would have felt more fitting to leave the book with Marianne walking out into the sea. This would also have paved the way nicely for a second book, but would have stopped the narrator revealing his dilemma over whether to save her from drowning or not. This contemplation of what he should have done harks back to the earlier thoughts of the narrator (p. 328)
‘It made me wonder what my version of Hell – if I believed in such at thing, that is – would be like. Would I be doomed to burn forever, tapped inside my car? Or would hell be a never-ending stint on the debridement table? Or would it be the discovery that when I was finally able to love, it was already too late?’
There are too many for me to choose but I liked:
‘Everyone’s past is nothing more than the collection of memories they choose to remember.’
‘Any man who believes he can describe love understands nothing about it’
‘The cliché goes that at twenty a person has the face that God gave him, but at forty he has the face he has earned’
Nadia felt that the book was a hug love story full of sacrifices for love and a discussion of the decisions that we make for those we love, and that this passage sums up the essence of the book for her:
I remembered then that he had deliberately inhaled his wife’s plague before commanding his brother to shoot him through with an arrow. “Is this what Hell is like for you?” “My choice to die came within hours of my inevitable death, and it was a decision made with love, not cowardice. An important distinction to remember.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Although my afterlife is not this one, there is a reason that I am your guide here.”
For Paul, the book was about a journey, which can be summed up in the following passage:
But Nietzche was wrong. I was born beautiful and lived beautifully for thirty-plus years, and during all that time I never once allowed my soul to know love. My unblemished skin was numb armor used to attract women with its shininess, while repelling any true emotion and protecting the wearer. The most erotic of actions were merely technical : sex was mechanics, conquest a hobby; my body constantly used, but rarely enjoyed. In short, I was born with all the advantages that a monster never had, and I chose to disregard them all. Now my armor had melted away and been replaced with a raw wound. The line of beauty that I had used to separate myself from people was gone, replaced by a new barrier – ugliness – that kept people away from me, whether I liked it or not. One might expect the result to be the same, but that was not entirely true. While I was now surrounded by far fewer people than before, they were far better people. When my former acquaintances took a quick glance at me in the burn ward before turning around to walk out, they left the door open for Marianne Engel. Nan Edwards, Gregor Hnatiuk, and Sayuri Mizumoto.
I’d like to end with a quote from p236 which is about how people can meet and find common ground through literature, books, and reading, no matter what their backgrounds or opinions are, and I would like to think this is something that we do at bookclub J
‘I’d read you what I had finished the night before. It felt as if we were sharing something wicked…the story took us each to a different place. The rough language and the harsh imagery brought me towards your world, but the religious ideas brought you towards my life of spirituality. Somehow we met in the middle.’
Join us on the 25th September at The White Hart, 7pm, where we will be discussing two books:The Warden by Anthony Trollope and The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney.
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October 30th The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
November 27th Dovetail by Jeremy Hughes
December 18th A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
January 29th 2014 Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier