“Is this reality, the final reality, or just a new deceptive dream?”

kingqueenVladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave was our Brown Baggers choice for September. It features, not surprisingly, three main characters – head of household Dreyer, bitter wife Martha, and impressionable youth Franz. Readers agreed that not a single one of these characters was sympathetic. They are extremely superficial and had a significant lack of moral bearing. Both Dreyer and Martha engage in affairs (Martha’s being with Franz), perhaps because it’s expected of them –  one of the many accepted activities in their social class. Martha and Franz spend much of the book plotting Dreyer’s murder. Dreyer has a myopic, some considered jovial, view of the world that doesn’t lead him to heavily involve himself in the life of others, including his wife. Manipulation and greed were par for the course, and readers suggested the drive to murder and cheat might be a result of the characters’ staid lives and a need for more excitement. While the mystery of would they or won’t they kept the pages turning, most readers were just glad to reach an ending and didn’t have strong feelings as to what became of these characters, especially as the ending was not entirely fair to some of the characters.

Aside from the characters, Nabokov’s writing, especially his description and language, were praised. Readers were also entranced by his ability to paint a fever dream of surreality, notably when Franz experiences Berlin without his glasses, and later when he starts to come unhinged from the pressure to commit murder from Martha. Nabokov also employs seamless transitions between one character’s story line and actions and another which was impressive. The author relied heavily on metaphor – including a whole automannequin (robot) sequence that emphasized the robotic nature and actions of the main characters, especially Franz doing whatever Martha told him, and also served to symbolize the growing Nazi following in Germany at that time. Another metaphor was the repeated mentions of the film King, Queen, Knave which readers took as a metaphor for the dramatic and theatrical lives the characters were leading.

Those who had read Nabokov’s other works, like Lolita, and other noted Russian authors, found this book to be less intense and introspective than those. The internal lives and extended internal dialog of characters was not found here.

More Information:
Author who inspired Nabokov – H.G. Wells
A few of the authors inspired by Nabokov – Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Banville
Paris Review interview with Nabokov (1967)
Excerpt from James Mossman interview with Nabokov (1969)


Similar Books:
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – This former Brown Baggers choice about an older woman-teen boy affair came to mind when reading the Martha-Franz relationship.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – This former Brown Baggers choice about a death and the subsequent cover up matched the intrigue of this book.

The next Brown Baggers meeting will be October 20. We’ll be reading Gray Mountain by John Grisham.

New Food Books

Make some tasty treats with your harvest this fall, using these new books.

The Culinary Herbal by Susan Belsinger – Learn how to identify, use, and preserve a variety of herbs.


Eat It Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton –  Learn how to use the food you grow and purchase – all of it.


The Forest Feast by Erin Gleeson –  A beautiful layout and simple delicious recipes fill this book.


Tasting Rome by Katie Parla  – Learn how to make your favorite Italian dishes, straight from the city of their origin.

“There never was a day like this, nor even would or could be again.”

swiftmotheringBooks on Tap read  Mothering Sunday  by Graham Swift at  Champion Brewery on September 1.  The novella focuses on the life-changing events of Mothering Sunday, 1924 for the Niven Sheringham and Hobday families, and most importantly for Jane Fairchild, the Niven’s maid and our narrator.  For years, she has been having an affair with Paul Niven, the only surviving son of the three landed families. Now, at the brink of his marriage to Helen Hobday, Paul summons Jane to his empty home for what proves to be their last liaison.

With tight, descriptive prose and an engaging narrator, Swift pulls in the reader while he builds up suspense until Paul’s shocking death. He then sweeps the reader through to the end as Jane, whose reliability as narrator is now in doubt, reflects on how the effect of his death and her time with the Nivens shaped her professional life as an author.

Set in the aftermath of World War I, the story is underpinned by both the class differences between Jane and Paul and between Jane and the Nivens. Both of Paul’s older brothers have died in the war, heaping new expectations and responsibilities onto his shoulders, ones which our readers didn’t think he particularly wanted. Both Nivens regret that they can no longer employ as many domestic staff as they once did and are acutely aware that Jane could leave for a better posting.

Jane and the older Paul have been intimate since she joined the Niven household at 16. Today, Jane and the other maids have a rare day off and Paul’s parents have left the house to celebrate his engagement. For the first time, they have sex while completely unclothed. We debated whether the age and class difference made this a consensual relationship and if indeed they loved each other. Paul’s status does mean that Jane has access to high-quality birth control, something that may have been more difficult for her to obtain on her own. Paul takes great care in dressing. After he leaves, Jane wanders through the house naked, eating, observing Paul’s family’s domestic life, leaving traces of herself and seems to emerge reborn.

It is Mr. Niven who tells Jane that Paul has died in a car accident. Late to meet his fiance, he crashes into a tree. This generated much discussion within our group. Some were adamant that Paul committed suicide while others could find no supporting evidence for that view in the text. However, all agree that Jane’s unreliability as a narrator makes a definitive answer impossible. We learn nothing directly from Paul before his death and self-invented, rootless Jane admits that she has lied about herself in interviews for years. Other secrets intrigued us, such as how much of Paul and Jane’s relationship did fellow maid Millie know and was Mr. Niven’s kindness for Jane related to her involvement with Paul. And, would Jane have become a famous writer, paid to invent stories, if Paul had not died that day?

Mr. Niven allows Jane to borrow books from his library and she gravitates to the adventure stories first read by his late sons. Jane experiences Mothering Sunday as a day of adventures and firsts (first time naked with Paul, first time alone in a house, first day of her new life), much the same as a young Marlowe experiences an ill-starred sea voyage in Youth, the Joseph Conrad novel Jane intended to read on her day off before meeting up with Paul.

Finally, we discussed Jane as a character. Both a savvy survivor, motherless with the aspirational invented last name of Fairchild and a manipulative, cold fabulist, Jane captures our attention and holds it through this remarkable meditation on nurturing, freedom and the power of fiction.

More Information:
Author biography
Author interview
Other works

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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October 6: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami