Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Night Watch - A Reading Group Discuss

night watch - STOP - lesbians in the blitz - STOP - every one a silly bitch - STOP - no tension - STOP - dreary structure - STOP - I wish that they would - STOP

As part of the Reading into Writing module for NAW we, the class, must read four books (some previously discussed on this blog) and to hold a book group to discuss elements/themes/characters/narrative/structure, etc. I want to share with you how a book group discussion develops itself and all the intricacies we covered, or the bugbears we had. but first... the book itself:

Sarah Waters's The Night Watch is a departure from her usual Victorian romps of lesbians in varying situations of undress/distress. I've not read them, and I must say I didn't really enjoy this - though I have it on good authority that her research really does evoke the time and place very well (so say some people from the library's customers who were there at the time).

For me it started off really badly - last Wednesday I thought that to save time I would listen to the audio book in the car - to and from Birmingham. After four hours of listening to the prattle and two attempts to take my own life and returned home and discovered that I'd only hear 125 pages out of 500+. I couldn't take it any more - the plodding nature, the aimlessness, the stupid and gruff sounding men. It had its moments, but a lot of it was lost as I tried to drive, dipping in and out of the story as if I had an incessant passenger who refused to shut up.

Here I respond to a fellow students questions:
  1. I want to know more about Helen - she's so central - yet she's the person I know the least.
  2. Do you think the book would suffer if the Duncan story was removed? I found the Alec sequence a complete anticlimax - almost like Sarah Waters had contracted this section out to someone else to write.
  3. I thought the 1941 section could have been more detailed. It all ended (or began) too quickly.
  4. The ring? I'd have been tempted to push that back to 1941 - originally Julia gave it to Kay? (perhaps the version with Julia fishing it out of the Rhine was too much).
  5. This sounds like I didn't think much of the book - actually I loved it - in particular the richness - and originality - of the historical context, the Kay-Julia relationship, and the reverse time structure.
  1. Yes, since it hinges around Helen, you would expect her to take up the mantle of protagonist, yet we're not allowed that since it's ensemble - I think this is one of my gripes, since by the middle of the 1944 section all I could think about Helen was - "stupid bitch" - for what she was throwing away with Kay
  2. I think the book suffered from, as Edmund pointed out from the other reviews, that the pace never falters but never speeds up. To me it stagnates (not least because I listed to four hours in the car which was only 125 pages worth - have I bored you with that?) I thought that Duncan's storyline had the biggest question mark hanging over it, the one that seemed most important to me... until I reached the end and had to wriggle through that awful section in which they discuss how best to end it all - boy was that awful!
  3. I was glad by the 1941 section that it was short - I'd had more than enough of sifting through the rubble of their lives. What I found interesting was that when I reached the end of 1944 I realised the majority of what was in that section was obsolete since it was implied in the 1947 section. Similarly the 1941 section was obsolete since the majority of it was implied in the 1944 section.

    And of course the end of each section for each person was dull, poorly contrived and served no purpose beyond... er... nothing. So what if we find that that's how Helen and Kay hooked up. It's so banaly fictionalised I'd rather that the end had Helen die to save us all the trouble and that Waters could have pretended that Helen had dreamed all the future up.
  4. I'll let the ring go - it was a nice touch in an otherwise bloated boat of a book that seemed constantly to be looking for reasons to link stories and times.
  5. The only things I liked were Waters writing itself - well constructed, lovely descriptions and the blitz - whether with Kay or with Duncan (spunking aside). The rest just wasn't my kind of book, dragged, was too chick-litty, and I just can't get on board with characters who love to bed hop in the name of lust and romance. Especially when you can see how unhappy they'll all end up - this of course is thanks to the useless structure which makes any reveal more of an "Oh, whatever," moment out of what should be "Oh God, I see."

    And of course, the problem with the opening section, thanks to that dreary pace is that it shows wonderfully how lost all these people are now that the blitz is over, how they are going through the motions of life, dragging their feet, trying to find themselves once more - unfortunately the narrative matches that feeling far too well. I don't like to read books that make me feel bored, lost and hopeless.
And here lies the transcript I took of our book group discussion - admitedly it seems to ramble in places, no one seems to listen to one another, etc, but that is only down to my inability to write everything at one. It's an interesting record of what we covered (numbers replace names to protect identities):

1: Reading The Night Watch was like attempting to swim underwater for the entire length of an Olympic sized swimming pool. You think you can do it, but you quickly realise you can’t.

2: Reviewers have said “read it again”. No. I wouldn’t want to, unlike David Mitchell’s work, which has these brilliant onion-like layers

3: I like to read into the intricacies of books, and yes, I like the idea of reading something again to pick out new bits that you’ve missed, but not this.

4: But you realise that the throwaway comments have meaning though.

2: The first line has a lot of meanin2: “So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve becom7: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlords door.”

5: Did you pick up on the toilet references? There are a lot of references in just the first 30 pages – I marked them out in my copy.

5: The Alec scene at the end takes place in the toilet too, but it was awful. His death and their mincing about was so poorly written

3: It wasn’t necessary. It was all insinuated and didn’t require being shown, which, as you say, was done poorly. That scene was wholly unnecessary.

6: The toilets seem to depict the only place of privacy for females. They go there to have a moment or for social reasons. Men use them totally for utilitarian reasons.

7: It breaks with conventions.

6: It’s about female alienation. It starts and ends in a toilet. Women go to a powder room to pull themselves together

4: But Duncan does this also.

6: He is an honorary female.

5: Reggie is in the loo with Viv. He’s a man of his time if ever there was one in this book.

4: Just cut out Alec’s scene!

8: It all strikes up with Gawain though – 2 men making a pact. Their actions have consequences, to do it together is an act of chivalry but Duncan doesn’t go through with it.

7: Lesbian chivalry/gallantry. P. 257, Kay buying the pyjamas for Helen. P. 368, Helen talking about Kay and Julia say8: “How gallant you sound.” P. 468, Reggie mentions King Arthur. And Kay at one points lays down her cloak.

6: But the books have been specifically chosen to link in. The romantic code is so entwined in fiction from Arthur to James Bond

2: Kay and the pyjamas is a representation of the girdle. It’s the same thing; a trophy

7: P. 230, we see how nice Helen is. P. 278, Julia calls Helen “nice”, and we know what “nice” can mean. But the book is like eating a hearty meal when you’re not hungry.

2: The two cigarettes – Helen and Julia – did it mean anything when they turned up later on her desk?

7: The cigarettes were having a tryst in the packet. A bell should ring. Duncan and Fraser share a cigarette in prison – Waters wanted something like Jeunet/Genet (playwright of the Maids)

6: Reading this as literature or structuralist?

7: It’s stolen intimacy

2: She plays a lot of games 6: Helen is in love with Julia’s makeup.

3: Julia is everything Kay isn’t

7: P. 307 – Genet reference – Fraser masturbates, Duncan holds the mattress. Lights two cigarettes. French kiss is like the passing of the ciggie.

5: The cigarettes help to establish the era

1: Repressive times like that Hollywood sense of love, lust, affection through smoking. A shared intimacy. The change in which they “suck” or “blow” differently.

7: One rings the other and asks for Ms Hepburn. P. 492 – Genet – sharing razors to kill

4: I felt Waters intended Alec and Duncan almost as they are translated to the reader, but it doesn’t come over properly. It doesn’t work.

7: Duncan doesn’t want to share his items

8: Duncan comes across as slow.

3: The opening of the book, and certainly on the CD, he comes across as stupid and gruff. Not at all how he comes across later.

7: Viv refers to Duncan as a child – the wool reference

1: The Mundy relation is sinister

5: They get into bed.

1: P. 162, the Angel at the end of the bed.

2: Telling it’s sinister, not showing

6: Duncan goes long. Too difficult to go to war, to difficult to resist Alec or Fraser.

2: It annoys me that it’s played with and undeveloped

4: Sociograms with the incidents. You could do away with all the men and the book would read better.

7: But the men develop the women’s stories. The developing triangle between Fraser, Duncan and Viv!

4: Fraser is only doing it for Duncan, taking Viv.

2: The book is at its most honest with Viv. Best character. Truthfully written

6: See them all as types.

2: Waters dispenses with all her research and develops Viv.

3: Viv is used to weave in and out of the other stories – she is the only one who seems to respond to the other characters – trying to avoid Kay and then seeking her out. Fraser, Duncan, Helen etc, all responded to by Viv.

7: They’re all outcasts of one kind or another. Which order did she write it in?

6: I read it backward8: 1941, 44, 47

3: I didn’t like it. There wasn’t any overarching tension. It was ruined by the backward structure

1: There is. In the scene looking around the house with Helen and Julia. Helen isn’t happy to be there.

3: But it’s localised to the scene. Just as the blitz raids, their only incidents. Nothing transcends that.

2: I couldn’t believe the reasons for Duncan going to prison – suicide/note/being gay?

6: Get a better understanding by reading it backwards

2: Which direction was it written in?

3: In her interview on her websit7: Waters states that she wrote 1947 first and then didn’t know where to go with it.

2: I think it works as it is, going backwards.

4: Yes, it does.

2: The reader looks for the why they do what they do, not the what they are doing

8: It’s a rare pleasure to keep going back rather than forwards

5: Pinter’s Betrayal anyone?

6: It’s a fatal flaw. Waters can’t sustain it. I reached P. 150 and thought 1) what is this about? 2) I don’t care about these vapid people. 3) I wanted to dig in and read it back to front. The opening of 1944 suddenly has greater meanin2: “Every time Viv and her father came out of the prison they had to stop for a minute or two so that Mr Pearce could rest, could get out his handkerchief and wipe his face. It was as though the visits knocked the breath from him.” It’s soap opera though in its current order. It only has two acts, and the best bit is 1944.

3: It’s a melodrama. She wrote 1947 first wanting to evoke the sense of displacement after the war, how these people are lost and looking for their lives, but she writes it too well into the book and it makes the reader feel bereft and lost. But she couldn’t sustain it herself, she realised it was all far more interesting during the war. Which lets herself down. She’s stumped herself at the first hurdle.

6: It has no beginning and no ending.

4: It’s written about after the war being bad. They all had their places during the war, which they’ve lost.

2: It’s a cliché though.

7: Waters has faith in mankind. Unlike Sebald, Waters is so nice. Object Correlatives (TS Eliot) in the bombing of the city

5: It’s the lost half-decade. I was born in that time.

7: It’s a successful book. Other relations have high hopes for the future.

5: Read P. 15 – the dating agency. It’s a microcosm for the greater society

2: Like Gawain/Arthur we have the legacy of WW2 hanging over us.

3: They’re all lost, tired, they need to be healed, which is the link back to the Christian Spiritualist. He’s telling them that they have the strength to heal themselves that they just need the willpower to pick themselves back up.

7: Yes, she wrote 1947 and wanted to write about the aftermath. Walking the streets – London is still working. Hope.

6: 47 is bereft because all the energy was expended in 44.

2: Reaction: It’s not tough enough.

3: Waters was bored by it.

6: She’s bored! I’m bored!

1: Gawain: tells you about all the gritty detail of gutting the animals, but skips the details of the other food being served. But Waters just goes on listing.

6: List all the “bored’s” She’s not excited. Stop repeating it! It’s infiltrating my mind.

1: They use cigarettes during the bored moments

3: Yes, the boredom permeates and its written well, it makes you feel as bored and lost as the characters

4: What happened to Kay and Julia? That is far more interesting.

5: The coincidences are too contrived. All the meeting ups.

4: I loved the driving along with Whiskey – Reggie.

1: Blood is used to catalyse the story! Waters’s pace remains the same throughout. She’s like a long distance walker. And throws in the blood for story lubrication.

2: The abortion is visceral, but the body parts during the war isn’t

6: Kay is “stone cold”

1: Helen is Kay’s emotion. Losing Helen breaks Kay

7: Reading anecdotes about the war time experience is what Waters has done, and she’s used what she’s found to fill up the book, whether they’ve been covered before or not.

8: Ian McEwan is remorseless at lifting anecdotes into his work.

2: Atonement – the nurses section is lifted from an autobiography

6: But she avoids the war. They’re not in the war. The place they’re in is not the war.

2: It would bleed into their lives. Julia can’t carry on ignorant to it. Her writing… she doesn’t care.

4: Virginia Woolf was stressed about invasion. No threat in the Night Watch

1: There are a few references to marrying Nazis on the train – slacks

5: The Camomile Lawn – carrying on as if there’s no tomorrow. Sex is terribly coy.

8: I found it erotic though.

3: Yes, I suppose so. With Kay putting Helen into the pyjamas, but not with the inclusion of men.

7: It’s heartwarming.

6: Sex in the street is the closest we get. Are we almost having sex now?

1: Helen is pretending to be Kay with Julia.

6: Waters is a coward. She touches upon the most interesting thing in the female psyche – she could tell us the secret, but bottles out.

There is a separation on thought between men and women here regarding male orgasms in the book – that is to sexually explicit to include, and rather disgusting for us blokes to have to think any more upon. Let us leave it on the note of a Hand Job in the Country!

8: Masculinity and femininity! The genders are overlapped. Relates to Gawain. Masculine women are honourable. Kay, Mickey and Binky.

5: Julia is male. Reggie…

8: Relations are doomed at the beginning because Kay didn’t admit that she rejected Julia. Julia isn’t as prised as Helen first thinks she is. Three weeks between sex and Helen’s love dying away. Femininity is punished.

7: Duncan hates the prison ladies like the invisible man hating to eat food! P. 425. Julia speaks about Kay – misunderstanding.

8: Sitting on the bed – a puppet cipher – like Gawain. Gawain is misogyny, harking back to Adam and Eve. Traditional female characters are blamed – as in the Night Watch

7: Masculinity gets away with it. Masculine always gives in to love in both, they need it, give in to the apple.

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