NYRB Classics discussion

The Pumpkin Eater
This topic is about The Pumpkin Eater
note: This topic has been closed to new comments.
62 views
Archive > November 2011: The Pumpkin Eater

Comments Showing 1-50 of 73 (73 new)    post a comment »
« previous 1

New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Discussion on our November pick, The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer.


New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
I just started this morning. Haven't got far yet, but I was struck by the writing. A mix of very straightforward dialogue with complex time settings; when we meet Jake I was at first confused when the scene was taking place. Also, whose child is who, and how old, and their names, will no doubt continue to be confusing throughout the book.

Nick


Mikki | 123 comments Nick,

When reading the Intro, it appears that this book is based pretty closely on her real life, so this is how I linked it together (my guesstimate):

John Motimer was her 2nd husband yet she already had four children when they married (two girls from her first husband,Dimont, another girl from an affair between her and one of Dimont's close friends, then another girl from yet another affair she had while she and Dimont were separated. Got that?

Then she met John Mortimer (while still pregnant with the fourth), they soon married and had a son.

Now, they seem to play on that in the book. We do know that the oldest three are not his, but I haven't hit an exact number yet and am only on page 46.

Loving it so far!


message 4: by Anne (On semi-hiatus) (last edited Nov 14, 2011 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Loving it and finding it both funny and sad. I keep marking so many wonderful quotable passages.

I didn't read the intro - never read them until I've finished the book, but appreciate the bio info, Mikki.


Seana | 407 comments What's striking about the book, and I assume a bit different from her real life is that only one of all these children is ever mentioned by name. And this may be the only one in the story that we even know the sex of.

I haven't quite deciphered what pregnancy and children actually mean to the protagonist, but my preliminary sense is that they represent something to her abstractedly which isn't mirrored in her concern for them as individuals. And I don't know that you are really supposed to figure out the number--they are a collective, apart from Diana.

It's a puzzlement.


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Seana,

I'll keep your thoughts in mind as I read the book. I'm just about half-way through. I just read the part in which her therapist makes this big interpretation: he tells her that she feels dirty and messy (guilty?) unless children are the result of sex; She cannot allow herself to enjoy sex for it's own sake. I'm paraphrasing - don't have the book in front of me. So, at this point, her children are, at least in part, a collective product of her sex life, perhaps. But I'm sure there's more to it than that.

She does seem detached from her children and from herself. She seems dissociated, walking around the streets, not knowing what to do with herself.


Seana | 407 comments I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the therapist in the story--how much credence we were supposed to give him. (I think it was a he.) Without wanting to give too much away, I think it's fair to say that Mortimer was concerned to give a true accounting of her own experience of how life works without trying to make it neat and tidy.


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments I'm not sure how much credence to give the therapist, tho some of the best humor in the book came out of those sessions. I think her writing style is very spare - she doesn't waste words. In the same vein, I don't think Mortimer would have put those sessions in the book if she didn't think they were important.


Seana | 407 comments Right, I don't think so either. I think it represents one way to look at her story, but not the only way and certainly not one she wholeheartedly buys into.


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments What can I say? Once I finish the book I'll be better able to discuss all this. It's short, so hopefully I'll finish it tomorrow. D)


Seana | 407 comments Great. In the meanwhile I'll just mention that there is apparently an excellent movie of the book, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch and with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. It apparently helped this book gain attention, which is kind of ironic, given that Jake (and certainly John Mortimer) had a lot to do with the British film set.


Mikki | 123 comments Anne wrote: "I'm not sure how much credence to give the therapist, tho some of the best humor in the book came out of those sessions. I think her writing style is very spare - she doesn't waste words. In th..."

**Don't want to ruin for anyone so I'll be vague**

I agree. One of the strongest moments of the book for me is when she goes to visit him and he announces that he'll be on a ski trip and unavailable for two weeks, right after she has a bit of breakthrough. The ending paragraph of the chapter was so poignant.


Mikki | 123 comments Seana wrote: "Great. In the meanwhile I'll just mention that there is apparently an excellent movie of the book, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch and with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. It apparently helpe..."

Seana, I ordered it from Netflix last night since I knew that I'd be wrapping up the book today. Have you seen it?


Mikki | 123 comments Seana wrote: "I haven't quite deciphered what pregnancy and children actually mean to the protagonist, but my preliminary sense is that they represent something to her abstractedly which isn't mirrored in her concern for them as individuals. And I don't know that you are really supposed to figure out the number--they are a collective, apart from Diana.
i>

** Possible Spoiler** (happens around page 105)

Yes, exactly, they are a collective. Do you recall her thinking of why Jake originally loved her? She says that he "wanted to join us...to belong to us."
The children perhaps filling the voids of their own childhoods.



Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Mikki, that's strange. I cannot get it from Netflix, but you can. I wonder why.


Mikki | 123 comments Anne wrote: "Mikki, that's strange. I cannot get it from Netflix, but you can. I wonder why."

Oh no!!! It was available because it was in my queue and one of the only reasons why I went back to 1 DVD at a time. Remember when we were all talking about this in the September thread? That's when I put it in.


Mikki | 123 comments Yep, in October it was available on disc (I just looked at Seana's old thread), it was top on my queue so I figured that it would be coming next. Maybe there's limited number?


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Mikki wrote: "One of the strongest moments of the book for me is when she goes to visit him and he announces that he'll be on a ski trip and unavailable for two weeks, right after she has a bit of breakthrough. The ending paragraph of the chapter was so poignant. "

Yes, that whole scene was very strong. The therapist 'forgetting" to tell her about his trip ahead of time is a major faux pas. In this session she had just been telling him how she and the kids have been living separate lives, apart from Jake, as he became more successful. For instance, she and the kids go off alone on vacation without Jake. And Jake goes off alone to make films, leaving her. So, by forgetting to tell her about his upcoming trip he misses an opportunity to talk about what it feels like for her to be left behind. She ends up defensive and hurt, unwilling to speak further and unwilling to make another appointment with him.



Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Mikki wrote: "Anne wrote: "Mikki, that's strange. I cannot get it from Netflix, but you can. I wonder why."

Oh no!!! It was available because it was in my queue and one of the only reasons why I went back to..."


Yeah, that's when I saw that I could only SAVE it for when it becomes available on DVD.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 38 comments Oh I almost forgot to come discuss this, because I'd read it a few months ago. What really struck me was some similarity to The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot. Does anyone know it? All about a woman coming to terms with herself, to great extremes.

My favorite little bit:
"I don't know who I am, I don't know what I'm like, how can I know what I want? I only know that whether I'm good or bad, whether I'm a bitch or not, whether I'm strong or weak or contemptible or a bloody martyr - I mean whether I'm fat or thin, tall or short, because I don't know - I want to be happy. I want to find a way to be happy, I don't care what it is."


Mikki | 123 comments Jenny wrote: "Oh I almost forgot to come discuss this, because I'd read it a few months ago. What really struck me was some similarity to The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot. Does anyone know it? ..."

Jenny, so funny that you mention because I was just telling Anne that I ordered it after reading your review on Pumpkin Eater.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 38 comments Mikki wrote: "Jenny wrote: "Oh I almost forgot to come discuss this, because I'd read it a few months ago. What really struck me was some similarity to The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot. Does any..."

I re-read it every few years after seeing the play in college (I went back twice!). For some reason it really speaks to me.


message 23: by Seana (last edited Nov 15, 2011 11:16AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Seana | 407 comments I had to put The Pumpkin Eater in my Saved list as well. I'm going to see if there is any other way to watch it online, as I have to watch everything on my computer anyway.

I haven't read or seen The Cocktail Party, but it sounds right up my alley. I might not have thought a verse play would be, but I happened to watch The Song of Lunch on Masterpiece Theater the other night, and found it effective, if somewhat depressing.

Straying back to topic, yes, the ski trip makes him seem a bit of a fraud to me, although it probably is just how it's done in real life.

This may or may not be a bit spoilerish, but I had a weird hit on Diana, which is totally unsubstantiated by the text. I kept feeling like there was some incestuous aspect between her and Jake. The story doesn't bear this out at all, but it was very strange to then read the introduction and find out that Mortimer herself had been molested by her father. I still wonder if Mortimer somehow invested that character with some of that energy, though obviously I can't really defend my position.

I will say that it strikes me as a very witchy sort of book, and I don't mean that in a bad way.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 38 comments Interesting Seana. I do think that authors include emotions from their own experience even when they don't know they have.


Mikki | 123 comments Yes, In the introduction, Merkin says, "Through the scrim of fiction, it depicts her tumultuous yet addictive marriage to John..." So, Seannna, you might be on to something.

Jake was drawn to Dinah when she was a young child -- preferring her over the rest. Mortimer says in the story that the reason being her father (Dinah's) was the only one not living. It's all odd.

There's, "the older children, the violinist's children, Dinah, and then Jake's children." What mother would categorize her children like that?


Tajma Just started it yesterday and am thrilled that I like it so much. I could probably finish it today but I want to savor it so I'll read some short stories.


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Let's discuss the title: could be SPOILERS

Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had another and didn't love her;
Peter learned to read and spell,
And then he loved her very well.[1]
[edit]


Seana | 407 comments I have to admit that I didn't really get it even with the epigram. I kept thinking of the tower, but as a pumpkin shell isn't much like that, and I was never all that clear on the function of the tower anyway, this did't take me very far.

One explanation I came across was that pumpkin shell stands in for a chastity belt in the rhyme, which sort of makes sense, but not really if you draw out the analogy.


message 29: by Mikki (last edited Nov 17, 2011 04:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mikki | 123 comments I looked at it as keeping her somewhat isolated and yes, I felt the glass tower was a symbol of that.

BTW: Ordering the DVD. Perhaps we'll have to do a Sisters of the Travelling Pants with the movie! :)


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 38 comments Mikki wrote: "BTW: Ordering the DVD. Perhaps we'll have to do a Sisters of the Travelling Pants with the movie! :) "

Hehe!


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Seana wrote: "I have to admit that I didn't really get it even with the epigram. I kept thinking of the tower, but as a pumpkin shell isn't much like that, and I was never all that clear on the function of the t..."

I like the idea of the chastity belt - with that she wouldn't have been able to have more children. Perhaps an alternative to the hysterectomy.

I didn't go too deeply into the nursery rhyme. I thought Mortimer chose it because it says a lot about her husband who couldn't "keep her" in terms of fidelity. So he put her in a pumpkin shell (left her alone ) so he could "have another" that he didn't really love.

That's sort of the outline of the whole story.

I think that the tower is one of Mortimer's jokes. We know that Mortimer was in psychoanalysis and it failed her. I'm sure she knew all about Freudian thought. Towers in Freudian thought are phallic symbols. The tower should be strong and powerful, just as the men in her life should be. None of them are - they all disappoint her. Even jake's father tells him that he is weak. In fact, this tower, a phallic symbol, is made of glass. To me it represents a very weak fortress that is easily penetrated. She seeks refuge in it but her children and Jake enter it very easily.


New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
I'm about halfway through and really enjoying it, also really enjoying the discussion feed. Keep it up! Disappointing news about Netflix, I've trying to hunts down a copy of the movie as well. I don't have much to add with what's said above. The issue of psychoanalysis is interesting: from one point it is forcing her into the proper role that she should be fulfilling, and really seems quite oppressive; from the other it is useful in the narrative by giving multiple vantage points of the protagonist. The mother issue is also tough, she definitely relishes being a mother, but I'm not sure what to make of the psychoanalytic explanation that her desire to have more children is a desire for more love. Are we meant to believe that or not?


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments I think that Mortimer wants us to understand that the therapist wasn't so great. Much of the humor in the therapy sessions comes our protagonist taking pot-shots at the therapist. I took from this that he is yet another disappointing man in her life. Mortimer also makes this point by ending the therapy on a bad note, the therapist forgetting to tell his patient ahead of time about his vacation. She makes it clear that he's fumbled it - with how awkward he feels and behaves. (see my message 18)

Regarding having children: I don't think it's having children that she desires so much as being pregnant and having an infant who needs her and is dependent on her. I think she feels less lonely and more loved when she is pregnant and when she has an infant that needs her. If that weren't true all the children she has now would fulfill her. I think she is never fulfilled enough by men, Jake in this instance. That is why she resorts to pregnancy to feel "full", or fulfilled.


Mikki | 123 comments Anne wrote: "Regarding having children: I don't think it's having children that she desires so much as being pregnant and having an infant who needs her and is dependent on her. I think she feels less lonely and more loved when she is pregnant and when she has an infant that needs her. If that weren't true all the children she has now would fulfill her. I think she is never fulfilled enough by men, Jake in this instance. That is why she resorts to pregnancy to feel "full", or fulfilled..."

Perfectly stated. Yes, see my message 14. I feel as if the children are filling a void and that the names for the reader are not as important as seeing them as "a collective"...the children are never thought of as individuals -- they're "The Armitages, a brood, an army, and a bodyguard of children. They're there to fulfill a purpose, maybe a protective barrier (a moat) between her and all the others.


New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Almost finished the book. My question is: is there any hope in this book? Perhaps I should finish the last 20 pages before asking this.

Nick


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments New York Review Books wrote: "Almost finished the book. My question is: is there any hope in this book? Perhaps I should finish the last 20 pages before asking this.

Yeah. Finish the book.



Tajma Seana wrote: "Great. In the meanwhile I'll just mention that there is apparently an excellent movie of the book, starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch and with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. It apparently helpe..."


That sounds delightful! Is the movie of the same name? Pinter is one of my favorite playwrights.


Seana | 407 comments Yes, Tajma. Unfortunately, it sounds like you're going to be fighting us tooth and nail for the single copy Netflix has.

I'm not actually in a hurry though.

My problem with the idea that he couldn't keep her is that actually he could keep her. She couldn't keep him or not in the way she would have wanted. I think at first he couldn't keep her financially, but that changed.

Really going beyond the bounds of the book, I am thinking about John Mortimer and his Rumpole character. Obviously, this is not Mortimer himself, but I do get a little shiver now when I realize that probably his most famous line is the patronizing "She who must be obeyed."


Tajma I loved this novel, even in all of its bleakness. This is what life is. People do things and they don't know why. They have desires that are never quenched.


Seana | 407 comments I think you're absolutely right, Tajma. Mortimer doesn't attempt to wrap up anything in a neat bow. She just tries to show it. Or rather, her own unique experience of how it is.


Tajma Seana wrote: "I think you're absolutely right, Tajma. Mortimer doesn't attempt to wrap up anything in a neat bow. She just tries to show it. Or rather, her own unique experience of how it is."

I especially liked the little interlude with Giles near the end. How easy it would have been for Mortimer to take the easy way out with that. But nope!! He's just as messed up as the rest.


Seana | 407 comments That's a good point, Tajma.


message 43: by Mikki (last edited Nov 20, 2011 12:39PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mikki | 123 comments Mortimer leaving the ending open was one of the strongest things for me in understanding the character. Even telling the reader at the end that "some of these things happened, and some where dreams", though they were all her reality as she understood it. Which I suppose is true of everyone. We're only getting one side of the story.


New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Just finished it this weekend, and was blown away by the ending. I also found the introduction very interesting, and now see what you guys were talking about.

Nick


New York Review Books | 212 comments Mod
Also, Daphne Merkin's intro was published in Slate magazine. Have a look at the comments, some of them are really shocking.

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_...


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 38 comments New York Review Books wrote: "Also, Daphne Merkin's intro was published in Slate magazine. Have a look at the comments, some of them are really shocking."
Totally shocking. As if being imperfect means you don't deserve to try to be happy? I think that is one of the internal struggles of the character too... Trying to reconcile what she "deserves" with what she "gets" with what she
"wants."


Mikki | 123 comments Thanks for the link, Nick. Some pretty harsh critics in that lot.


Also, for those that would like to see the movie immediately, it is available for streaming through Amazon!


Anne (On semi-hiatus) (reachannereach) | 0 comments Mikki wrote: "Thanks for the link, Nick. Some pretty harsh critics in that lot.


Also, for those that would like to see the movie immediately, it is available for streaming through Amazon!"


Not for me. Isn't that strange?


Seana | 407 comments Oh, blog comments. They always have their own little ax to grind, don't they? I have a feeling that no one who commented there had actually read the book yet before they made their dispaaging remarks on Mortimer herself, and as there is really no reason to comment on Mortimer's life unless they have read the novel, which will incline them toward a more compassionate stance, let's hope they do.


Mikki | 123 comments Anne wrote: "Mikki wrote: "Thanks for the link, Nick. Some pretty harsh critics in that lot.


Also, for those that would like to see the movie immediately, it is available for streaming through Amazon!"

Not for me. Isn't that strange?."


Anne, try this link: Click where it has Amazon Instant View. You should then see the option to rent or buy to stream to PC or TV. Hope that works!

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_nos...


« previous 1
back to top
This topic has been frozen by the moderator. No new comments can be posted.