For a long time I had the idea of starting a book club, and eventually, after a few delays, I decided to just do it.
To the first meeting of my book club then: in attendance were me, Maja and Ivana, who is an English teacher at the Croatian school in Brtonigla, and was proof that promotion works as she got in touch after seeing a poster in Umag.
For the first meeting we had read two short stories:
We started with Signs and Symbols – a story set in 1940s New York, about an elderly Russian couple and their attempt to visit their son for his birthday at the psychiatric hospital where he lives, suffering from ‘referential mania’. They are unable to see him because he tried to commit suicide the previous day, and their visit may disturb him. so they return home. During the night the couple are awake and receive two telephone calls, both the same caller, but getting the wrong number, and the story ends with the sound of the telephone ringing for a third time.
This ending draws the reader into wondering who was calling this time. The tone and writing of the story lead you to think that it is the hospital calling to inform the couple of their son’s suicide. For instance, there are many details that point to death and dying:
the subway train lost its life current
under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.
This second quote may also represent the relationship between the parents (the tree) and their son (the bird). Despite these details, Ivana had a much more optimistic thought that, because the father was talking of bringing their son home just before the call, it was their son calling to say that he had escaped and was coming home.
We learn about the referential mania that the boy suffers, which makes him think that all inanimate objects are part of a conspiracy against him, and communicate with each other in a way that he is unable to decipher, which leads many readers to try and work out if there is any hidden meaning behind the details that Nabokov includes. This can make you feel a bit crazy yourself, and was something Ivana commented on, seeing hidden signs, though Maja said that she stayed objective, and was analysing it from that viewpoint.
We discussed the atmosphere of the story, it is grey, drab, wet and oppressive, something that is mirrored in the mother’s attitude towards living, which:
does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement.
It is also seen in the father’s silence – this is noticeable, when the phone rings the mother answers it because he is not so proficient at English, and the first time he speaks, the first time there is direct speech, he proclaims he can’t sleep because he is dying.
They seem to have a lonely existence; they are elderly immigrants, their one son in hospital, and they are reliant on the father’s brother, Isaac, to pay for this, but they rarely see him. This seems especially so for the mother, because of the father’s silence, who recognises and remembers things from their previous life in Minsk and then Liepzig, and spends her evening looking through an old photo album, whilst her one real companion sleeps.
Towards then end it begins to get a bit brighter, and more optimistic, with the father deciding they would bring their son home, and there is an injection of colour as he examines the “luminous yellow, green and red little jars” of jam, until the last phone call.
The Bear Came Over the Mountain is about another elderly couple, in which the wife – Fiona – suffers from a degenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s, though it is not named), it concerns her going into a care home, and is told from her husband Grant’s point of view.
It begins describing Fiona’s home where she lives with her parents, in the town where she and Grant go to university, before detailing her impromptu proposal – Fiona shouts it over a storm at the beach, asking whether it would be fun to get married. Grant accepts this proposal
He wanted never to be away from her.
We don’t get to see how much fun their marriage is because in the next part Fiona is a seventy year old woman. This is a sudden change, with no warning, and, in fact, we all said we went back to reread the beginning, to make sure we had read it correctly.
From there the story continues with how Fiona’s disease developed; and we talked about the different ways Fiona and Grant deal with it, from Fiona’s casual comments:
‘I expect I’m just losing my mind.’
to Grant’s excusing her to the doctor, saying she had always been like that. Munro easily captures everyday situations, and you can empathise with Grant and understand that he doesn’t want to accept what he knows and he doesn’t want to give up his wife to a home, to the point where he nearly turns around on the way there because she vividly recalls a shared memory.
Despite his love for Fiona, we find out, through his recollections, that Grant was unfaithful to Fiona during their marriage, and there are some question marks over Grant’s early retirement from being a university professor.
Grant is not allowed to visit Fiona during the first month of her stay in the care home, during which time she becomes quite attached to another resident, Aubrey, and when Grant visits he is unsure of how much she remembers him. Aubrey is only there temporarily, and when his wife takes him away Fiona is heartbroken; she stops eating regularly, and spends most of her time in bed.
In an effort to cheer Fiona up, Grant goes to Aubrey’s home to ask his wife if she would consider taking Aubrey back to the care home. Marion, his wife, says she can’t afford to send him there permanently, and isn’t willing to disrupt him by taking him in once per week. Her initial coldness towards Grant has dissipated by the time he arrives home to find a message on his answer phone, more-or-less asking him out on a date.
The final scene has Grant taking Aubrey back to see Fiona, with the implication that he has had another affair in order to do something to make his wife happy. Another irony is that, for the first time since she has been in the care home, Fiona seemed to recognise Grant as her husband of fifty years, and was up and about – when he asked if she remembered Aubrey it took her a few moments to recall him. This story is also open ended, as the reader is unsure between whom the final exchange takes place:
‘You could have just driven away,’ she said. ‘Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.’
He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull.
He said, ‘Not a chance.’
It is not clear whether Fiona is talking to Aubrey or Grant, or as to who replies.
We discussed many things, but focussed a lot on what we would do, firstly, in Grant’s position. It can been seen that, despite his infidelities, he loves Fiona, although it is maybe not the most passionate love – he just wanted to be around her all the time, ever since they were at university and it would be ‘fun’ to get married. It is implied, or possible to say, that Grant, if he wished, could have put Fiona in the care home and taken that as the end because they had no children, other family is rarely mentioned and they have few friends in the area they retired to, so there would be few people asking after Fiona, or saying anything to him for not visiting. I said it is difficult to say what you would do because everyone reacts to things in different ways, and in this sort of situation you can’t know until you really have to make that choice.
We also discussed what we would do in Fiona’s position, Ivana was sure she would want to tell her other half to continue without her, Maja was not so sure, and would prefer it if he stayed by her side forever. We spoke about the differences between death and having this sort of disease, and that with death there is closure compared to what can be a long deterioration. This led me to make a related point, that if you find out you have such a disease you have the opportunity to say goodbye and get closure, before going out on your own terms, and with dignity, though this raises many more questions about euthanasia, and would require clear, objective thinking, and acceptance of your disease, that I don’t think many people would have at the time. It may also require incredible foresight to make plans when you are healthy, and within a society and framework where it is legal to plan an assisted suicide.
As a final point we discussed the relationship between the title and the children’s rhyme, and that if Grant is the ‘bear’ then the other side of the mountain could be that he is still having affairs, despite what has happened. But Fiona could also be the bear, and in reality, we will all be that bear at some point.
So, despite there only being three of us, and having read two short stories instead of a book, we had a long, wide ranging discussion, and it was a great first meeting of the book club. Hopefully more members will joining, and I am still hoping to hold another club in Buje.