Trees, Gemeinschaft, and Bildungsromans: Billy Collins’ The Art of Drowning; Richard Bessel’s Life in the Third Reich; and Helen R. Hull’s Quest

Dear Reader:

Super-windy, bright sunny April day and we went for a long hike over hill and dale this morning with Jo and Mundy.  Great time had by all.

480) The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins, 1995 (hard copy)

These meditative poems by Collins are like well-balanced meals – vegetables (references to Hamlet and Pepys), potatoes (writing, dying, musing, trees an nature, loving themes), meat (his ability to pull you into his mental images), and dessert (the humor, beauty, absurdity).  But I find it very hard to sum up a book of poetry.

I don’t see an overall drift in these poems substantially different from Questions about Angels (1991).  What I do see is the commonality between the books – poems about weather and clouds, writing and reading, dying and living…

Some favorites:

“Man in Space” starts with his musing about a man at a dinner party mistreating his wife and spins into recollections of sci fi films of planets of women visited by spaceships of male earthlings (Star Trek episodes!) and, based on “dinner party husband’s” treatment of women, his understanding of:

why they are always standing in a semicircle
with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.

Man in Space from The Art of Drowning


It is enough to make you inhale deeply,
breathe in the brine of the whole century
that held him in her rolling waves
and lapped against the sides of his poems.

Keat’s Handwriting from The Art of Drowning


It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs

Thesaurus from The Art of Drowning

As I read through his books, again and again, I say to myself, “just one more poem”, and then “OK, now, really, just one more poem,” and “now, I really mean it, just one more.”  Must re-read poemcrazy next as it is about inspiring us to write our own poetry.  Reading so much of it is making my inner voice poetic.

No worries, I won’t be subjecting you to my poetry any time soon.  But I am so pleased to be finding reading it so enjoyable.  Thank you, Billy Collins!

450) Life in the Third Reich by Richard Bessel, 1986 (hard copy)

I’m interested in the world wars of the 20th Century.  Partly this is that enjoyable filling in the gaps stuff I love so much, but it is also due to World War II ending not so long before I was born in 1961.  Of course, as a child it seemed so ancient.  Today I marvel at what recent history it was.

Somewhere along the line I picked up this slim volume.  And I read it this week because I was intrigued by the promise of the title and cover image that suggests the book will be about everyday life in Germany during the war.

This edited volume (all men! even though it was published in the 1980’s) does include a couple of chapters of this nature: “Village Life in Nazi Germany,” “Youth in the Third Reich,” and “Good Times, Bad Times: Memories of the Third Reich.”  But mostly it covers topics revisited in many places, namely: how did Nazis gain control? how did their policies regarding Jews and gypsies and the disabled evolve? and what role did Hitler play in this and how did the German people think of him?

These are all interesting questions.  Here are some of the things I learned from the book.  I saw repeated that, contrary to common perceptions, the Nazi state was not highly organized, was instead characterized by a great deal of competition and infighting (I got this from Richard Evans’ wonderful The Coming of the Third Reich – I am eager to begin his next book in this trilogy).  What I didn’t realize was how widely hated the Nazis were in Germany, especially by the time that World War II came along.

And how Hitler was carefully immunized from this anger with propaganda suggesting the problems were the result of out of control underlings, not Hitler himself – he remained pretty popular for a long time.  I also learned that there was a lot Nazis brought in the 1930’s that Germans great appreciated: social stability (relatively speaking), economic growth out of a terrible depression, and a resurgence of love of nature and inexpensive vacations around Germany.  Gemeinschaft (an important sociological concept already familiar to me that means deep, intimate community ties) is a central concept in the authors’ explanations of World War II.  The Nazis drew upon and reified German Gemeinschaft – defining Aryans as the in-group and everyone else as the “out-group” of non-members.

I’d been unaware of significant youth gang movements that resisted Nazis and, of course, were suppressed.  I think I would find it interesting to read a biography or diary of a rural German during the same time period – I don’t know if such a book exists, but I’d like to learn more about what they were doing and thinking.  Nonetheless, I found this book very interesting, learned a great deal from it, and am glad to continue building my deeper understanding of World War II.

185) Quest by Helen R. Hull, 1922 (hard copy)

Pat suggested that I follow up Last September with Quest, Hull’s first novel.  It is built upon some of the themes explored in Last September‘s short stories.

I was a bit worried as I’ve found her writing somewhat uneven.  Heat Lightning is fantastic – not only shockingly progressive, but also a ripping good yarn.  I loved Last September, feeling her stories were powerful and compelling, and comparable to those of Alice Munro in quality.  Labyrinth, on the other hand, got weighed down by her emphasis on her feminist political statement.  I didn’t not find it to be an enjoyable, well-plotted story.  Similarly, Landfall was somewhat bloodless and I found the protagonist unlikeable.

I need not have worried, Quest is wonderful.  It is beautifully written, compelling, and has a strong, progressive point of view.  I’m noticing that Pat has carefully chosen the books she chose to promote(?) or at least edit and/or write afterwards for (Heat Lightning which Persephone is reissuing, Last September, Quest, and a book I own but have not yet read: Islanders).  So far, three of those books are, in my opinion, among Hull’s best out of her 17 novels.

Quest tells the story of Jean Winthrop, an adolescent girl with two brothers, a stay-at-home mother, and a college professor father.  Originally published in 1922 (the edition I read was reissued in 1990), I assume that the story is set in Hull’s childhood – roughly 1900-1910 or so (I think the first cars make an appearance?). The book ends in Jean’s young adulthood, perhaps when she was about 22.

Jean’s life is disrupted by her father’s inability to retain a college position, resulting in the family moving about, and almost always struggling hard to make ends meet.  Her parents’ marriage is very unhappy with her mother leaving the family multiple times.

Through it all, Jean works hard to sort herself out.  She finds, becomes passionate about, and loses female friends and teachers.  Boyfriends move into and out of her life, sometimes providing social and sexual enjoyment.  Jean leaves college after just a year due to, among other things, her family’s poverty, and begins teaching, a profession at which she enjoys much success.  She is bookish, funny, and strong.

I like Jean’s character a lot.  Probably many of you would find much to relate to in her.  Jean’s “quest” to find good work that engages her mind and provides her with dignity is a major theme.  I remember my own quest for this in my 20’s when I dropped out of college, worked for four years in conservation corps, and wound my way back to university.  Throughout I knew I could never be happy working in a store or a company, doing a job that required little intellectuality.  And Jean feels this way too.

Pat says in her afterward (which I found very helpful) that the book is highly autobiographical.  Jean experiences attraction to boys and girls (given that she had a long relationship with her partner, Mabel, I was surprised that Jean experienced so much sexual attraction to boys and men).  I can see Hull’s struggle to find her way to academia, where she ultimately stayed, reflected in Quest’s themes.

What I wouldn’t have picked up on as much or as clearly without Pat’s afterward, is Hull’s construction of a Bildungsroman – a story of an individual’s development, a theme in many (all?) of her books.  The four parts of the book are explicitly named after stages in Jean’s development (the small self, filaments, with the wind, emergence).  And indeed we see Jean buffeted about by her family, by friends, by boyfriends, and by co-workers.  But throughout she always comes back to a reliance on her own goals and opinions and a growing self-reliance that leads her inexorably to success.  A remarkable novel for 1922.  I highly recommend it.

What a Poppy!

happy reading, ruby



  1. I’m glad you were enjoying the sun today – I understand snow may find us on Monday – we long to see you again, bright little poppy :/
    I realize I go through poetry moods; right now I’m in more of a short story mood. It seems everything in life is seasonal….

  2. pmccmiller

    Nicola Beauman of Persphone Books deserves all the credit for getting Heat Lighting back into print. I’d stopped working in the field nearly 20 years ago, but she tracked me down with Hull-related questions & then I got involved in this latest Hull re-print adventure.

    Love your description of Quest and the questions you raise. Although the Bildungsroman tradition is associated mainly with young male characters (at least the way literature used to be taught), Hull’s depiction of Jean follows that pattern and is unusual in part because she puts a female at the center. I think all of her books really are Bildungsroman because she was so interested in learning, and each novel follows her characters as they try to understand and to grow throughout their lives–not just as adolescents. Insights, rather than action, become the crucial plot elements. Happy Spring!

    • Hi Pat: Thanks! I’m glad you agree that she makes development a major theme. And I have to say, it was informative to read a book that I felt had a good message, but got weighed down by it (Labyrinth). Usually, I give up on books because the subject matter doesn’t interest me. In this case, it did and you’d recommended it and I wanted to work my way through her oeuvre, so I stuck with it. And in the course of it, I noticed problems – I’ve never read something by an author I respect where I saw flaws and that was as interesting as anything. Ruby


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