Takoma Park group discussion

Discussions relating to John Fowles' novel Daniel Martin.

Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Jun 24, 2011 9:02 am

Welcome to the Takoma Park Big Book Group discussion of Daniel Martin!

This engaging group has been reading two novels per year since spring 2009. Previous titles selected:

  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Our Daniel Martin discussions will begin in the first week of October 2011, and continue every other week through late November. New members are welcome! This forum will allow members to post responses and engage each other online, and allow out-of-towners access to our discussion as well.

For the first posting, I’ve written some introductory material.

DANIEL MARTIN by John Fowles is available new and used at amazon.com (starting at $0.05 plus postage). It's unavailable in books-on-tape format. It hasn't been filmed yet, though I think you'll find some of the scenes—especially in Oxford, on the coast of Italy, in New Mexico, and along the Nile River--highly cinematic!

A few notes about the novel:

Daniel Martin (1977) by John Fowles concerns creativity and passion regained in mid-life. One day Daniel receives a call from a long-estranged friend from his Oxford student days, and soon finds himself face to face with people—including a woman he once loved--he has spent many years actively avoiding.

In his late forties Daniel must go back to his origins to understand his life anew. However, the “story of his life” also becomes an inquiry into his generation, into his ethnic roots in England, and into a skein of influences leading back into the distant past. Even before its concluding chapters amid the ancient cultures of Egypt and Syria, Daniel Martin shows that individuals are deeply embedded in the lives of ancestors and civilizations preceding them.

John Fowles (1926-2005) regarded this and The French Lieutenant's Woman as his two finest novels.

In the style of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Daniel Martin opens with a philosophical premise: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.”

Daniel Martin can be challenging, owing to shifts in time period and narrative perspective in the early chapters. Daniel serves as both the hero and narrator, and sometimes refers to himself as “I” and “he” in close proximity. However, the novel is accessible to a general educated audience. It was selected as Book of the Month Club’s main selection for October 1977. It includes one chapter in the form of a fable, and a teen-romance chapter that was excerpted by the popular women's magazine McCall’s.

Some people find the title character initially hard to like: divorced and noncommittal, privileged, opinionated, a fitting embodiment of the Age of Self. However, Daniel’s perspective is challenged--not least of which by his irreverent actress girlfriend in Los Angeles, Jenny—and it changes during the course of the novel. His responses gradually lead toward new sources of hope both for the hero and for the age he represents.

As Merrill mentioned, I've been blogging about Daniel Martin for several years, at this site, fowlesbooks.com/forum. Among the various discussion threads I've started, these two are especially geared to first-time readers:

“Reading group”
A reader's guide with questions by chapter:

“Getting started”
For anyone who finds the first few chapters challenging:

I look forward to sharing this reading adventure with you!

Kelly Cresap

Of further interest:
An article by the group’s founding member, Merrill Leffler, “Reading Great Books--Great Big Books,” is found in the Friends of the Takoma Park Maryland Library Spring 2011 online newsletter (pp. 3 and 6):


For out-of-towners, here’s the Wikipedia entry on Takoma Park, Maryland:
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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Sun Sep 18, 2011 7:04 am

Our introductory meeting on John Fowles and the novel Daniel Martin is set for Wednesday, October 5, at 7:30-9:00 p.m.

Location: Azalea Room, Takoma Park Community Center, 101 Philadelphia Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912.
The event is free and open to the public.

My aim is to have us look at the first 14 chapters (“The Harvest” to “Breaking Silence”). Come even if you haven’t started in on the book, or if you want a nudge!

We’ll continue meeting on alternate Wednesdays through mid-November. Here are the rooms and the readings:

Meeting 2: Oct. 19, 3rd Floor Atrium, “Rencontre” to “Rituals” (the 15th chapter to the 26th chapter)

Meeting 3: Nov. 2, Hydrangea Room, “Compton” to “The Shadows of Women” (the 27th chapter to the 35th chapter)

Meeting 4: Nov. 16, 3rd Floor Atrium, “Pyramids and Prisons” to “Future Past” (the 36th chapter to the 46th chapter)

In the meantime, dive in and share your comments here at our discussion thread!

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Oct 07, 2011 8:40 am

I enjoyed our first get-together last Wednesday, and am glad to be diving into the novel with y’all!

I had an “aha” moment last week while reading the second chapter, “Games.” In this passage, Dan tells Jenny why he doesn’t want to turn his own life into a work for public consumption, why it would be artificial:
He strokes the side of her hair. “It’s such a soft option. You write, Interior, medium shot, girl and man on a couch, night. Then you walk out. Let someone else be Jenny and Dan. Someone else tell them what to do. Photograph them. You never really stake yourself. Let it be no one else. Just you.” He stops stroking, pats her hair. “That’s all, Jenny. I don’t really want to start a new career. Just a way of saying I’m sick of screenplays.” (14)

What struck me was how this parallels a moment in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, which came out in 1977, the same year as Daniel Martin. In a scene near the end of Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) has turned his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) into a stage play. We see the final rehearsal scene where hired actors repeat an exchange between Alvy and Annie, and then (unlike them) patch up their differences in a forced happy ending. I recall Alvy shrugging an excuse to us after the scene, as if to admit the same thing Dan felt, that it’s a soft option--art that merely serves the artist’s ego.

These moments in Daniel Martin and Woody Allen’s film are examples of the reflexive or “break-the-illusion” tendency in postmodern art. Several other scenes in Annie Hall do this as well, in ways that are both funny and insightful:

  • the scene where Alvy settles a score with a pretentious guy standing behind him and Annie in a movie queue by bringing real-life media expert Marshall McLuhan onto the film set;
  • the notorious balcony scene where subtitles reveal what Alvy and Annie are really thinking behind their posturing dialogue;
  • and the scene where Alvy interviews an apparently happy couple passing by on the street, to find that what holds them together is their both being shallow and empty, with no ideas and nothing interesting to talk about.

I doubt that’ll be a problem in our next session! Plenty of ideas and lots to talk about. Our foundation is laid, and a big payoff awaits us in the second meeting, set for October 19.

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Sat Oct 29, 2011 9:00 am

I look forward to our upcoming third meeting this Wednesday at the library’s Hydrangea Room.

At our second meeting, one member expressed an interest in discussing certain ideas raised in the novel—for instance, the narrator’s claim that the 20th century didn’t begin until 1945 (see p. 86 in the 629-page edition most of you are using; p. 89 in the 673-page edition).

A few other elements we haven’t touched on yet:

  • Aunt Millie, with her favorite saying, “Perhaps it’s for the best” (85-86/88-89).

  • The “Hollow Men” chapter and its critique of the mass communications industry (258-62/274-79).

  • The “Sacred Combe” chapter and its promotion of the Robin Hood story into an “archetypal national myth” and “dominant mental characteristic” among the British (271-72/287-89).

  • How to interpret the last sentence of “The Sacred Combe”: “If a life is largely made of retreats from reality, its relation must be of retreats from the imagined” (276/294).

Another member said she had a dream about this novel. That makes a lot of sense to me. At the discussion thread “Forays into the unconscious” on this site, I explore how Fowles incorporates subconscious and unconscious aspects of his characters—even some of the minor ones. (Recommended for reading after you finish the novel.)

As lively and rich as our discussions have been, they’ll always leave loose ends in a novel this far-ranging in its interests. Feel free to explore such issues here online, or bring them as topic ideas or questions to our next session.

If you’d like a pictorial guide to the chapter “Tsankawi,” set in a beautiful, lesser-known part of Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, see the online photo essay my friend posted at the discussion thread “Tsankawi: Photos, Fowles’ Prose.”

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Oct 31, 2011 2:30 pm

Upcoming Event:

I’ll be presenting this Thursday, Nov. 3, at a Washington, DC, cultural forum (see the facebook link below). In my allotted 10 minutes I’ll be doing a TED.com-style treatment of my John Fowles literary project. I’ll answer the question: Can a novel published in 1977 support a cosmological advance in 2011? I’ll support the claim that Daniel Martin, besides being a fully engaging reading experience, represents a broader and more sustainable worldview than is available elsewhere.

I hope to see you there! Feel free to pass the word along to a friend.

Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011, @ The Dunes
1402 Meridian St. N.W., Washington, DC
(14th and Meridian N.W.)

Doors open at 8:00 p.m.
Program begins at 8:30 p.m.
I'll be presenting at about 9:15/9:30 p.m.
Tickets are $30

Featured speakers:
  • Mary-Alice Farina on Madame Bovary, the first modern novel: how Flaubert changed
    literature forever and paved the way for film.

  • Jason McCool on composer Gustav Mahler: his emotionally charged symphonies consistently sell out 21st century concert halls, perhaps because they address life’s big questions: love, death, comedy, tragedy, the search for God, and the individual human struggle.

  • Phillipa Hughes on catalyzing and connecting intercontinental creativity.

  • Dr. Kelly Cresap on John Fowles’s novel Daniel Martin as the basis for a cosmological advance: a fiction lover’s guide to a more comprehensive and sustainable worldview.

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Nov 21, 2011 12:17 pm

We voted to have a fifth session to draw together threads in our discussion of Daniel Martin. Date and time: Wednesday, December 14, 7:30-9:00 p.m.; room to be announced.

Below are some ideas to ponder. You might also look at the two book reviews I handed out at the first session (written by Paul Gray and John Gardner). Feel free to add your own questions and comments.

Also that night, I’ll present an encore of the 10-minute talk I gave earlier this month at a literary fundraiser, on the results of my recent Fowles research.

- - -
Questions to ponder for a wrap-up and “putting-it-together” session on Daniel Martin:

1. The River Between

Notice the contrast between the opening and closing of the chapter “The River Between” (508-525/542-561). At the opening, Dan uses a rational standpoint to classify birds viewed from the deck of the cruise boat; at the end, the Herr Professor uses a trans-rational standpoint to classify humanity into two nations
separated by “the river between.” How would you characterize the distance between these outlooks? What does the Herr Professor mean by “the river between”?

- - -

2. Ghost story/Disorientation

At the same Kobbet el Hawa cliff site where the Herr Professor’s “ghost story without a ghost” occurred
(524-25/559-60), Dan has an experience of disorientation (534-35/570-71). For a few ominous moments the perceived world seemed to him “as thin as an eggshell, a fragile painted flat.” How would you describe or interpret what transpires here?

- - -

3. Evolution and genetics

Here’s a passage to consider in connection with the topic of human evolution that surfaced at our most recent discussion:

[Dan] still clung to his inmost grain of conviction—that freedom, especially the freeom to know oneself, was the driving-force of human evolution; whatever else the sacrifice, it must not be of complexity of feeling, and its expression, since that was where, in social terms, the fundamental magic (or
chink in the door) of mutation inside the nucleic-acid helix took place. (526/562)

On this topic, here’s an excerpt from John Fowles’s journal entry of 12 December 1975:

I have been re-reading and revising [‘Daniel Martin’]. It will be condemned as an elitist book, I know that; and as wicked in its mocking of pessimism and egalitarianism. Once again no one will understand that its real frame is biological, not cultural or political . . .

. . . the new classicism to be broken is the romanticism of extreme anti-romanticism, all for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. It is not sufficient to argue that there is some statistical and historical sense in which that is largely true (mankind is going through a bad patch) and that therefore art must faithfully copy that sense (which in any case I suspect is more an intuitive than a rational appraisal); and even if most should, someone should not.

- - -

4. Choosing and learning to feel

What lessons can be gleaned from the novel’s concluding commitment to “choosing and learning to feel” and “No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion”? In light of this, how do you read Dan’s last conversation with Jenny? Note the reversal of E. M. Forster’s watchword “Only connect”: “Only reify” (623/666).

- - -

5. Rembrandt self-portrait

What impact does the Rembrandt self-portrait make in the novel’s final pages?

- - -

6. The novel’s structure

A. Why do you think Daniel Martin is structured as it is, with an emphasis on discontinuity in the early chapters, and on continuity in the final 11 chapters?

B. In the opening session I suggested that Daniel Martin begins seven times:

    1. Gramsci epigraph
    2. Seferis poetry
    3. A philosophical line about “Whole sight”
    4. A 1942 Devon harvest scene
    5. A chapter set in 1974 Los Angeles
    6. A chapter set in 1950 Oxford
    7. An epistolary chapter written by Jenny.

One could argue that the novel doesn’t have a proper ending, since its final sentence points us back toward the first, in Mobius strip fashion.

What is conveyed through this structure?

- - -

7. Mythic elements

What mythic elements does Daniel Martin contain? According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, myths serve four main functions:

    1. They impart wisdom on how to live a human life (pedagogical)
    2. They support a social order (sociological)
    3. They help us to imagine the shape of the universe (cosmological)
    4. They serve the human capacity for wonder (mystical)

In our Nov. 16 discussion, one member questioned whether Daniel Martin in fact does instruct us on how to live. What case can be made on either side of this issue? What other mythic functions does the novel serve?

- - -

8. The hero: unique or “one of us”?

A. As an individual, is Dan special and unique? Or instead does he qualify as “one of us”?

Does his being a creative artist set him apart from us, or does it make him embody a universal archetype?

B. How sympathetic is Dan as an artist? The night of Anthony’s death, Dan’s unconscious is given voice: “I create, I am; all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed” (208/221). Yet despite this epiphany we also remember that Dan has misused his creative talents--by neglecting his wife Nell and his daughter Caro, by writing the vindictive play “The Victors,” and so on.

C. Is creativity accessible to all (i.e., is it an archetype)?

This passage from Alexander Argyros’s A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos may help frame the issue:

Human artists are natural entities doing the work of evolution, so it is reasonable to assume that creativity is an essential feature of the universe . . .. Ultimately, it is not human beings who are creative, but that human beings are the most creative expression of the universe’s fundamental creativity.

- - -

I hope you can join us at the discussion!

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby StephLove on Tue Nov 29, 2011 5:38 pm

Hi, Kelly,

Have you read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye? Whenever we talk about "whole sight" I think of the moment when Elaine looks into the long forgotten marble and says "I see my life entire." It's different, of course, because Daniel doesn't repress and then recover his past to the same extent that character does, but if you're familiar with the book, I wonder if the parallel resonates with you.

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Sat Dec 03, 2011 3:14 pm

Good question, Steph.

I read Cat’s Eye about 10 years ago. I think you’re onto something. Both novels span the hero’s life from childhood to adulthood, which permits new angles on aging and memory, and a closer approximation of “whole sight,” or seeing one’s life entire, as you put it. In Atwood, Elaine’s rediscovering the marble from her childhood resembles Proust’s hero re-accessing his childhood through a tea-cake. Here are three parallel moments in Daniel Martin:

  • In the brief scene that ends the family-background chapter, “The Umbrella,” Dan has to carry a black umbrella home for his father, on a perfectly sunny afternoon. As the adult narrator, Dan describes this umbrella as “My Rosebud,” referring to the childhood sled in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (91-3).

  • In the chapter “Rain,” Dan takes Jane to visit the Vicarage church he attended in his boyhood. They stop a moment in the churchyard to view the gravestone marking where Dan’s mother is buried. Later that day Dan reflects on the pervasive influence of his mother, who died just before Dan’s 4th birthday (438, 441-42).

  • In the chapter “North,” Dan takes refuge in a bar after an evening walk in Beirut with Jane. Reflecting on Jane’s reemergence in his life dislodges for Dan a distant memory of his adolescent sweetheart Nancy Reed (615-16).

Atwood, Welles, Proust, and Fowles all imply that full self-awareness comes only through an adult’s backward glance to formative experiences of childhood.

Thanks again for the question. I hope you can attend our last session on Dec. 14.

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Re: Takoma Park group discussion

Postby drkellyindc on Fri Mar 02, 2012 12:45 pm

An article I wrote about last fall’s Daniel Martin seminar appeared yesterday in the Friends of the Takoma Park Maryland Library newsletter. Here’s the online link (scroll down to page seven)--


--and here’s the article in regular blog format:

By Kelly Cresap

In its first years the Takoma Park Big Book Group tackled the 19th century classics, one each in spring and fall: time-honored novels by Tolstoy, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Melville, and Dickens. Then last fall it forged into more modern territory with the 1977 John Fowles novel Daniel Martin. The driving force behind this rash departure from protocol was, well, moi.

My enjoyment of Daniel Martin goes back several decades, and I’ve been blogging about it since 2007. The more I got to know the Takoma group, the more it felt like the right place to share Daniel Martin. Not without risks, however. Between the selection last spring and the first discussion last October, I had pause to wonder: Will Fowles’s novel work in this setting? As discussion leader, will my “20,000-fathoms-deep” connection with this book intimidate first-time readers, or send them dog-paddling to shore?

Come to think of it, Daniel Martin may take some initial dog-paddling regardless. Its scope and ambition are suggested in an audacious opening line—“Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.” Where might one begin, or end, in a quest for whole sight? This issue has continued opening new inquiries for me as Daniel Martin has yielded up its secrets over the many years I’ve pondered and re-engaged it. What began for me primarily as a love story, when I first read it at age 23, has expanded to become many other things--a portrait of a generation, an examination of the 20th century, and a prism through which to look at history and civilization writ large. In a scholarly essay coming out later this year I’m advocating for Daniel Martin as embodying an enhanced cosmological view of the world.

Holy Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune! With a facilitator thinking in such lofty terms, what’s a book group to do? Nobody mutinied (to my knowledge), and yet there was some adjustment needed on both sides. A first time through this novel might be likened to standing close to an impressionist painting: the colors are beautiful, and each part makes sense by itself, yet the full effect requires some distance. This isn’t a criticism of Fowles or of first-time readers--just a recognition of the demands involved in aspiring to “whole sight” as this novel conceives it.

As it turned out, each of our discussions was absorbing in its own way, and often led in serendipitous directions I didn’t anticipate. Two members reported having dreams about the novel, which I found intriguing. Others suggested links with works by Margaret Atwood and T. S. Eliot. One person noted how Fowles managed one or more navigational turns in the course of a single sentence. As with any book group, favorable views were interspersed with more demurring or skeptical ones. We reached the end of our fourth session with much left to discuss, and so elected to expand to a fifth. This meeting turned out to be a wonderful, festive occasion—and not only because it coincided with my birthday and a surprise celebration. Several members stated then or afterward that Daniel Martin had grown on them, left them much to ponder, and may draw them back for a re-reading someday.
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