Welcome to yet another installment of my semi-weekly series “The Things I Do On Sunday Instead of Church.” Previous installments have concerned birding, but this week I get to share some thoughts on what has become the highlight of my month: book club.
I attend book club with my aunt, who was part of the original group that formed around a grand effort to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – members still call it the Proust Book Club, even though the original group finished In Search of Lost Time years ago. We meet in a Panera Bread, among earnest college students fiddling with laptops. Meeting in a dry establishment is perhaps our noblest and most fruitful innovation as a book club. We are trailblazers for temperance.
I joined less than two years ago, when the club decided to tackle the works of Thomas Mann. My membership didn’t make sense in light of the demographics of the club – it’s mostly older, highly educated women and older, exquisitely cultured gay men – so I had to do all the reading, speak up often, and take risks to prove myself. This was ultimately successful and more than worth the effort. I’ve become a bit of a class clown, though – I’m the sprightly, irreverent millennial who can be depended upon to say things like “He puts the bi back in Bible!” That’s fine, as these people are my friends.
Up for discussion this month were pages 932-1038 of Joseph and His Brothers, Mann’s epic retelling of Genesis chapters 27-50. This section concerns Potiphar’s wife’s growing insanity as she fails to seduce Joseph, and it reaches its climax when she frames him for rape. Our topics of discussion included, but were not limited to:
- What is the meaning of blood imagery in the Potiphar’s Wife story arc?
- Why did Mut love Joseph so much?
- What does the Joseph of this novel believe about God’s plans for him? What does it mean if God/Fate has a plan for you? Joseph and His Brothers gets us onto religion the same way The Magic Mountain got us onto politics. One more thing I love about my book club is that we can talk openly about religion. Most of us are agnostics; some belong to religious communities and even go on retreats or sing in choirs despite said agnosticism, while others make a point to avoid such things. All are searchers, and very open-minded. We love to hear each other out.
- What did Thomas Mann really believe? This comes up every time. Mann approaches his subject with reverence on one page and irony on another. It keeps us guessing.
- Was Dûdu the dwarf supposed to be Goebbels?
- Mann’s mysterious narrator: clever and inventive or annoying and intrusive?
- Did the part where Mut went up on the roof to make a sacrifice to The Great Bitch make you laugh? Admit it. Oh, that dry German Humor!
- Is Joseph’s increasing monotheistic observance a reaction to Mut’s madness and temptation? Was Mann speculating on the gendered aspects of the rise of monotheism?
- What is love? Is love wholly physical?
- When Potiphar sentenced Joseph to a prison term, was he acting in anger, cold concern for his own status, or a kind of relative mercy?
You wish your book club was this cool. You also wish your book club had a gay guy who dressed up like Thomas Mann every time. But it probably doesn’t, and that’s sad.