I was hesitant about joining my book group. It is an all-male bunch of bibliophiles – something of a rarity in the female-dominated world of book groups – and I was afraid, not entirely without reason, that it might turn out to be ultra-competitive. Not that I am uncompetitive myself, but that the striving, rivalrous side of my personality needs no further encouragement.
I needn’t have worried. Book group evenings are something to look forward to – even if one hasn’t managed to read the entire book, or more than the first few pages, not to mention the secondary literature that at least one member likes to refer to in the course of his learned disquisitions. The atmosphere is always lively, the wit quite salty, and the wine free-flowing. We are a mixed bunch: a teacher, a film-maker, an indexer, an art dealer, a politician, a senior finance professional, an ex-journalist and a current one; I think the straddling of different worlds adds to the liveliness of the mix and recalls earlier times and smaller, more concentrated cities where such mixing was the norm. The popularity of the book group is in part nostalgia for the coffee-house and the salon.
I am rather proud of the fact that at the only gathering so far which has taken place at my house, one member managed to walk off in another’s shoes, which were not only the wrong size, but of greatly superior manufacture. The member who found that his fine New and Lingwood brogues had mysteriously disappeared, leaving a not especially attractive pair of Marks and Spencer lace-ups in their wake, was less amused. But I thought this mix-up did credit to the rather interesting selection of old South African Chardonnays and minor St Emilion grands crus we had consumed. I was less proud of the fact that I had only managed to read about 50 pages of the book which I had selected, Carlos Fuentes’s ambitious combination of spaghetti western and reimagining of Citizen Kane, The Death of Artemio Cruz. I had chosen the book because once as a cub arts reporter I had interviewed Fuentes over an enjoyable lunch and found the Mexican author charming and erudite. But I don’t get on with his fiction.
With fiction we are getting to the only serious bone of contention I have with my book group. Long before I joined, it was decided that the group would only read novels. I have more or less given up reading contemporary fiction; not a conscious decision, more perhaps a rebalancing from earlier years when I read nothing but novels.
I have enjoyed at least two of the novels or novellas I’ve managed to read – I loved the fantastical pathos and Voltairean irony of Italo Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight from his collection Our Ancestors, and I admired Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant while wishing to resist its bleak conclusions. But when we came to Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet I wanted to say that first this great book is not exactly a novel and secondly that Pessoa is above all a poet, not a prose-writer.
So let me cut to the chase. My book club seems suspicious of poetry, and still worse (for me), of poets. I cannot imagine anyone suggesting that we read, not a novel of recent or not-so-recent vintage, but a newish book of poems. And then there was the treatment meted out to poor Pessoa: “get out of your wretched garret, enjoy the Lisbon sunshine” is a paraphrase of one exasperated reaction. Someone even dared to speculate that Prozac might have cured the habitué of the Café A Brasileira of his pesky melancholia.
Given all this, I took up with alacrity the invitation to attend a very different kind of book group, an all-female, all-poetry group which takes place in one of Vienna’s grandest coffee-houses. Here members bring along poems (one even brought one of her own) on a chosen theme and read them aloud, with discussion afterwards.
I noted certain similarities with the practices of my own group: the tendency to digression, exemplified in this case by a prolonged discussion of the virtues and vices (which predominated) of Margaret Thatcher.
The poems on the theme of city life were notably varied; I especially liked Theodor Storm’s ode to his grey home town of Husum on the North Sea, “Die Stadt”, and a vivid city vignette by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, least feted of the Beat writers, called “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes”, even more relevant to our polarised times than to the 1960s.
Yet even in this group devoted to poetry there was criticism of poets: why were there not more poems celebrating city life, one member mused, rather than ones harking back to some rustic arcadia? I have to admit that most of the poets I love, from Horace to Heaney, show a marked bias towards the rural. Perhaps the noise of the city has become too deafening for poets’ ears, as it has for our departing sparrows.