Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to the book group...

My mother has just told me a funny incident about her book group. For some reason the library facilitator (or whatever she's called) hadn't managed to get enough books for the whole group and instead had 10 copies of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller and only two of Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene. Because there were more than 10 groups members, last month she gave out both titles. On the day of the discussion, two group members shared a lift to the venue and discussed the 'book' at length on the way. They didn't actually realise they'd been reading completely different books until they got to the village hall.

It reminds me of that scene in The Third Man when Rollo Martins has been invited by a cultural attache to give a talk about his books in Berlin just after the war. Unfortunately Martins is the author of popular westerns with the pen name Buck Dexter (an author in the style of Zane Grey) but the audience of 'his' admirers is under the impression that he's actually Benjamin Dexter the author of highbrow literary fiction, entitled, for example, The Curved Prow. Martins and the readers talk at cross purposes for quite some time.

'Don't you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf? In prose, I mean.'

Crabbin (the cultural attache) whispered, ' You might say something about the stream of consciousness.'

'Stream of what?'

This incident is quoted in How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard which is very funny in a rather dry, intellectual French way about ... well, just what it says in the title. (And which is also much better than the pale imitation Who's Afraid of Jane Austen or How to Really Talk about Books you haven't read by Henry Hitchings.)

Has anyone had a similar book group mix-up?

In a head-to-head contest of the two book group titles, I think Travels with My Aunt would be my winner. I think I'd give quite a lot not to have to read Notes on a Scandal again. (Like Nick Hornby, I found I the constant wrongfooting about contemporary Britain jarring.)


  1. I have this Pierre Bayard book in my TBR pile and have picked it up a few times, but have yet to commit to it.

    I love Travels with My Aunt. And I enjoyed the film version of Note from a Scandal but don't have much interest in the book.

  2. I read the Bayard when it first came out. I found it a bit of 'un curate's oeuf' in that I liked the chapters which involved books I had read.

    I loved the Zoe Heller, and anything by Graham Greene too -

  3. Ha, ha, that is so funny about the misunderstanding. Two completely different books! I haven't read Travels with My Aunt but I actually enjoyed Notes on a Scandal.

  4. Thomas: Yes, the Bayard is a bit too consiously intellectual and dry in some ways, but I think it has some interesting things to say. The bit about the African tribe's understanding of Hamlet was fascinating.
    Annabel: Ha ha I like the idea of a curate's oeuf.
    Lit Stew: Yes, Notes on a Scandal was okay I suppose; Nick Hornby couldn't go on reading it after Heller got some fact about his beloved Arsenal wrong and that undermined the whole thing for him. So much for suspension of disbelief.

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