This reading group guide for The Listener includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Shira Nayman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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When Dr. Harrison, the distinguished and steadfast head of the Shadowbrook mental hospital, meets the charismatic and brilliant Bertram Reiner – diagnosed with a severe case of Battle Fatigue – he finds the most challenging patient of his career. Their sessions leave Dr. Harrison slipping into a frightening, but also strangely enlivening, existence that renders the boundaries between sanity and insanity disquietingly blurred. When Dr. Harrison discovers that Bertram is having an affair with Matilda, the head nurse whom he himself has feelings for, his own yearnings threaten to throw his sanity into the balance. The Listener
explores the burdens of history, memory and insanity in a post-World War II asylum. Questions for Discussion
1. The narrative begins with a prologue, a slice of time from the middle of the story. “Bertram is gone.” (p. 3) How did this frame your reading of the novel? How did this shift your thinking of Bertram and of Dr. Harrison as you read deeper into the story?
2. What were the root causes of the deterioration of Dr. Harrison’s marriage to Ursula? What impact does that relationship have on Dr. Harrison’s thinking throughout the book and the way that he interacts with other people?
3. Bertram speaks of Velazquez’s paintings and of carnival fun houses, saying that there is a power within mirrors. “There is the promise of all that – of finding yourself. Of losing yourself. Of being stolen away. You discover that, in any case, it’s all just mirrors…. I feel it more strongly than ever: the secret behind the mirror.” (p. 50) What do you think Bertram meant by this? How did you interpret what he was trying to tell Dr. Harrison?
4. Dr. Harrison describes shell-shock as, “the disruption is at the mystical level. The elusive, illusory foundations are sucked to nothingness, and everything collapses.”(p.75) Do you think that Bertram was suffering shell shock, or was his visit to Shadowbrook Hospital related to some other ailment or consequence? Why or why not?
5. Bertram speaks of “Those moments that happen sometimes – you know it immediately. When your life changes.” (p. 95) What were the key changing moments for you the reader in this novel? Do you believe in life-changing moments?
6. When speaking about church and God, Cuthbert speaks of the dangers of “knowledge.” (p. 136) He goes on to say that “In order to truly be
, to live in the divine presence
, you must not know
. Memories are safe, if you can erase their original livinginthemoment source – like forgetting a sound, but remembering its echo… you may remember
, but you may not know
.” (p. 136) How do you interpret this statement? Do you think that he is right? What role do God and religion play in the novel?
7. Dr. Harrison recalls Bertram saying that the two of them were “the same. Spies, both of us. Masters of Disguise.” (p. 147) How does Dr. Harrison’s interpretation of this change throughout the novel? Does he think that Bertram is correct? Do you as a reader? How are Bertram and Dr. Harrison alike? How are they different?
8. “Perhaps it’s not the profession that deforms us.” Dr. Harrison says, “Perhaps whatever you become as a professional is really only the expression of your own nature – that same nature that made you choose the profession in the first place.” (p. 165) Do you think that he is right? What defines us most as people and how is it manifested?
9. “The coroner regrets to inform me that a former patient of mine, Bertram Reiner, was found dead in a hotel room on the outskirts of Phoenix, an apparent suicide.” (p. 212) How did you feel when Bertram was pronounced dead in the middle of the novel? What did you think of Dr. Harrison’s reaction to his suicide?
10. Janice says, speaking of Bertram, “He’s a very special – a very unusual
– man. It was more important to me that I do right by him.” (p. 257) Why are people so attracted and loyal to Bertram? What is it about his character or actions that cause people to feel this way?
11. How did the narration by Dr. Harrison slant your reading and interpretation of the novel? Was he reliable? How did your trust in him throughout the book change? How would the story have been different if Ursula or Matilda narrated the story?
12. By the end of the book, Dr. Harrison finds himself in a very different state, both mentally and physically. Did this surprise you? Why or why not? Enhance Your Reading Group
1. To learn more about shell shock and its treatment read: Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis
by Anthony Babington or The Poetry Of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma And Healing In Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney And Siegfried Sassoon
by Daniel Hipp.
2. Several now-controversial treatments are used at the Shadowbrook facility in the novel. To learn more about the history of these treatments read: Shock Therapy: The History of Electroconvulsive Treatment in Mental Illness
by Edward Shorter and David Healy.
3. The deep and lasting effects of war are captured brilliantly by the World War I poets; their insights are sadly still relevant today. Read their wonderful, lyrical work in: Minds at War:The Poetry and Experience of the First World War
, edited by David Roberts—particularly the poems of Wilfred Owen.
4. Discover more about Shira Nayman and her previous book Awake in the Dark
, by listening to composer Ben Moore’s score at http://www.shiranayman.com/A Conversation with Shira Nayman 1. Recently your collection of stories, Awake in the Dark, was set to music. What type of music or sounds do you envision for The Listener? Do you often listen to music while you write?
The composer Ben Moore wrote a beautiful, aching piece of chamber music, “House on Kronenstrasse Suite” for a musical-theatrical performance associated with my first book, “Awake in the Dark” (performed at St. Francis College Theater, under the auspices of “The Brooklyn Historical Society,” and also showcased at The Lincoln Center Institute in New York). For the launch event of “The Listener,” I asked Ben if he might set three poems of the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, to music.
Owen, who died in battle seven days before the end of WWI, is arguably the greatest English-language War poet; more than any writer I know of, he profoundly captures what he referred to as “the pity of War.” (My book goes into the same territory; all my characters have in some way been ravaged by War and continue to battle the psychological legacy of their Wartime experiences. One of my characters remarks “the War never ends;” sadly, we see that this is true today for many of our soldiers who have served, and continue to serve, in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
I imagine Owen’s poems set to grave, lyrical melodies, dramatic yet intimate, anguished but also touched with a celebratory sense of life. The melodies I hear in my mind’s ear have a haunting grandeur and also ephemerality, somehow capturing the strange, changeling quality of emotions, which are both fleeting and also a bedrock of human experience. I’m hoping Ben’s busy schedule will allow him to write the music; Owen’s poems mean a great deal to me, and were with me throughout the writing of this book.
I don’t listen to music when I write—I find the intrusion of another emotional realm distracting. 2. The novel is full of both light, bright moments and deep, dark themes. What was your favorite passage or section to write?
One of my favorite characters is Cuthbert, the generous, ironic, gregarious patient; to me, his quirky sense of reality offers insights that were rewarding to imagine. During the final readings of the manuscript, I found myself looking forward to the sections in which he appears, hoping to pick up new, illuminating meanings in his remarks—and to my delight, he didn’t let me down!
I also enjoyed writing the sections involving Dr. Ronald Fairbairn; he is an important psychoanalytic figure, who made a tremendous contribution to the understanding schizoid experience. Being transported to other realms is perhaps the most compelling aspect of fiction writing for me; time-travel is part of this, and being able to go back in time and see and experience people moving around the world is exhilarating. Plucking a character from real history and setting him up in my own imagined universe felt a bit mischievous and transgressive; I hope the late Dr. Fairbairn doesn’t mind! 3. Authors often remark that they put a little bit of themselves into their characters. How strongly do you identify with Dr. Harrison, Bertram or any of your other main characters? How are you different?
I think I identify a little with most of my characters, although not always in literal ways. Working in psychiatric hospitals, I was struck by the disconcerting inequalities of power—and also by the slippery nature of the operating categories: sanity and insanity, “appropriate” versus “inappropriate” behavior. I was keenly aware of the moral complexities and ambiguities and perhaps, most powerfully, of the ways in which the sense of our shared humanity seemed often set aside or obscured.
There was a temptation for some people on the “staff” side of things to feel immune to the kinds of terrible troubles that patients suffered—as if there were an invisible, impenetrable divide that kept us
over here and them
over there. The inspiration for the novel came from these perceptions and experiences, which I found both disturbing and intriguing. In imagining my characters into various complicated situations, I was able to explore various dimensions of the intriguing, human struggles I encountered and puzzled over throughout the time I worked in mental hospitals. 4. You have had success as a writer, as a clinical psychologist and as a marketing consultant. The book speaks of one’s professions defining oneself – which of those spheres do you identify with most?
I think I am pretty much the sum total of all my professional involvements; in a way, they feel all of a piece. My work both as a psychologist and as a consultant has taken me into many fascinating worlds, including working in politics at the national level. I feel as if all these adventures feed my literary imagination, and also allow me to contribute in certain worldly ways that feel nourishing and worthwhile.
Though I suppose that being a “writer” feels most like “who I am”—though I think of this more as a condition that happens also to be an occupation, rather than as a career choice. Being a writer is how I think and feel and wonder, so in a sense, it’s not so much a sphere with which I identify but rather a truth about my nature. 5. What was your inspiration for this story? Why did you set the book in the place and time that you did?
I had the idea for the book towards the end of the time I was working as a psychologist in a psychiatric hospital, though the book ended up being somewhat different from how I originally conceived it. The world of the hospital was so vivid and alive, so pulsing with raw and interesting experience and emotion—on both sides of the divide, so to speak: both patients and staff were intriguing, and their interactions and dynamics even more so. Being there was like being in a fiction-writer’s paradise, a kind of tropical jungle of the soul.
The last hospital I worked in was fabulously elegant and moody—esthetically more like a series of old-world mansions designed for luxurious lives of ease; the hallways and offices were beautifully appointed, Persian rugs covered the floors and the walls were hung with interesting paintings. The hospital had a network of underground tunnels, much as I describe in the book; there was something wonderfully gothic about them—and symbolically over the top about the idea of subterranean passageways joining the buildings of a mental hospital. The fact that the tunnels were used to store old furniture from decades past made them even more perfect; I used to imagine the lives of all those countless, anonymous patients as I tip-toed past ancient bureaus and mattresses and towers of chairs, breathing in the dusty, dank air.
Those underground spaces also felt like an uncanny physical incarnation of the fictional imagination—journeying away from sparkling, conscious, daytime realities, into the murky, dimly lit realms of the subconscious where fiction springs to life. It was as if my characters were wandering down there, within, and I only had to creep down the stairs to find them. 6. You grew up in Australia but you live in Brooklyn now. How have the places where you have lived influenced your writing style and focus? What places in your life have shaped your writing the most?
I suppose my fiction is preoccupied with questions of national identity and cultural belonging—issues that are writ large in periods of wartime or other historical kinds of trauma (the book I’m now working on, set when Australia was an enormous penal colony, is another case in point).
Where I’m from and where I’ve lived lie at the heart of these themes; an Australian, whose parents immigrated from South Africa, whose grand-parents were Lithuanian, myself having lived in a number of countries. I suppose my personal history equips me to think about questions of national identity and how that plays into one’s psyche—how one thinks about oneself in relation to one’s country, what one is asked, or forced, to do in the name of one’s country, how these matters define who one is and how one experiences the world. Perhaps the fact that I seem to fling myself around the world on a fairly regular basis is part of my own preoccupation with the question of national/cultural identity, with feelings of homelessness, and the ways in which people search for and shape their own sense of “home.” 7. The book is told, compellingly, from Dr. Harrison’s point of view. As a female writer, did you find it difficult to capture his voice and feelings? What was the greatest challenge writing from the opposite gender?
I loved trying to climb into Dr. Harrison’s skin; for me, such challenges are what make writing fiction interesting and rewarding. I often think about something Tolstoy said: that a writer might walk past an army barracks and peer in through the window to see a soldier, sitting at his table—and that this moment may be enough to create a vivid, veridical novel about that very man, or a man like him.
Those glimpses usually have an almost vibrating intensity about them; it might be an internal glimpse, rather than an external one, some pulsing insight or uncanny recognition, but they kind of hit you in the gut and one doesn’t have a sense of choice about them.
So when I realized that Dr. Harrison was the true narrator of the book (I started out writing it from Matilda’s point of view), I just kind of hunkered down and did the best I could and hoped that Dr. Harrison would let me in enough to allow me to do justice to his struggles and joys and pains. The challenges I faced in bringing the book to fruition did not really feel related to the question of writing from the opposite gender, so much as getting inside the nuances and complexities of Dr. Harrison’s psychology. 8. Who is your ideal reader of the book? What do you hope they take away from your novel?
I would like to think that my book offers the kinds of pleasures I seek when I read; a good, suspenseful story that holds one’s interest, while also making the reader confront complex and challenging questions. I also like to learn something from the books I read—to find myself in interesting worlds or historical periods. I suppose, then, that I write for readers like myself. 9. To what other writers would you compare your writing style? Who do you enjoy to read? What books influenced you to become a writer?
The problem with this question is that my answer might sound grandiose, so let me preface it by quoting Hannah Arendt, who talked about writers, whether living or dead, as her closest allies and friends; she referred to Rahel Varnhagen, for example, who died more than seventy years before Arendt’s birth, as “my best friend.” My favorite writers feel like soul-mates for me, too, and by saying I compare myself to their style, I am only saying that I resonate with their voices and themes.
So...regarding contemporary writers: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, Charles Palliser, Pat Barker, Peter Carey, Rodney Hall. I realize in looking at this list that these writers are all British, Irish or Australian! I suppose this is not surprising, given that I am Australian—a commonwealth writer, after all. But then there’s also Toni Morrison, Steven Millhauser, and Paul Auster, to name a few Americans whose work I admire.
As for writers who are no longer living, I most love and have been influenced by Joseph Roth (German writer who died in 1939), Robert Musil (Austrian writer who died in 1942), James Joyce, George Eliot, Stendhal, Turgenev. I also want to mention John Williams (author of the brilliant novel, “Stoner”). 10. Do you have plans for your next book?
I have several projects going at present: a new adult novel with a working title “Beyond the Seven Seas,” which is set in the mid-1800’s in Australia and England, involving the penal colonies. I’m in the early stages of this project, though two other books are close to being finished. One is a young adult novel about a thirteen-year-old girl who catapults back in time and across many countries where she encounters her female forebears and accompanies them on pivotal adventures in her family’s history. The other is a novel set in the same time period as “The Listener” in three locations—a Long Island mansion, presided over by an Englishman with a mysterious past; post-World War II London, and also Shanghai.