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A Passion for Classics

Micahel Bevel leads Bustles and Beaux: Reading the Classics in Context at Bethesda Library, 7400 Arlington Blvd., Bethesda. The next meeting of the group is Tuesday, Sept. 18. The group will be reading "Daniel Deronda." Visit www.bustlesandbeaux.blogspot.com.

What is the focus of Bustles and Beaux?

Bless your heart for thinking there's a focus. The ready-for-press answer is that we're currently focusing on 19th-century Victorian literature through four (mostly) Victorian writers: Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. Each author represents a significant or interesting development in the novel — Austen is bidding goodbye to the aristocracy and is setting the stage for the new Victorian middle class; Collins does double-duty, both exposing the hypocrisy of Victorian morality while also introducing the world to the literary blockbuster; Eliot, after Dickens, might be the most important novelist of the 19th century; and Hardy gives us an equivalent of a postmodern view of Victorian society, and presages the modern novel as we have it today.

Additionally, I thought it would be interesting to take a first-middle-last approach to each author, tracing the arc of the Victorian era within the arc of the writer. For Jane Austen, this proved fantastic, because all three novels were such a hit ("Northanger Abbey," "Mansfield Park," and "Persuasion"). However, when we hit Wilkie Collins, my Grand Idea sort of bit us in the end. Collins's first novel, "Basil," wasn't the page-turner we all hoped; in fact, it bordered on the ridiculous pretty much from the get-go and showed none of the inventiveness of later Collins, like "The Woman in White or "Armadale." While it wasn't necessarily a pleasure to read, however, it did highlight Collins' arc, and showed his progression as a writer. His final novel, "Blind Love," also had some likeability issues. I felt like I had betrayed Collins in some fundamental way; he truly is an author I enjoy a lot. But the examples I shared with the group certainly didn't leave that impression.

Where did the name come from?

I thought it was clever. In the interest of transparency, I will now also share my favorite joke: Q. Why'd the monkey fall out of the tree? A. Because he was dead. As illustrated, it's pretty apparent that "clever" may not necessarily be a strong suit. I've also been known to laugh at comic pratfalls.

I liked the play on words, and I wanted something more for a title than simply "19th Century Book Group." Of course, in 2008, the group is moving on to American literature, starting with Nathaniel Hawthorne and ending with Sinclair Lewis's "Babbit." There's not the same focus on either bustles or beaux — however, I'm also pretty much out of clever plays on words.

How did the book group start?

Selfishly. There's a wonderful group of readers who meets at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, and I kept trying to hijack the voting process each month with Charlotte Bronte's "Villette." Finally, I realized that the best way to talk about the literature I love is to start a group that only reads the books I love. I called the library, looking for meeting space, and they graciously offered to sponsor the group.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to at least start with a planned book group, as opposed to the traditional model, which is having members recommend or vote on future titles. Again, I was really interested in that first-middle-last concept; however, more importantly, I wanted to make sure that I didn't end up having to facilitate a discussion of anything by D.H. Lawrence. (I won't elaborate. He knows what he's done.)

Except for that minor hiccup with Collins, that model has worked well for us. Which, of course, is why I'm changing that model for next year. For the Americans, we won't focus on four different authors; we'll work our way chronologically from about 1850 through 1922.

What is your background with books, writing, etc.?

I could lie and tell you that I've been J.D. Salinger's personal assistant, but I actually find Salinger a little irritating to read (except for "For Esme, with Love and Squalor").

I have no formal education or training or what have you beyond the ability to read. And actually, that might be an advantage. Terrible things are happening in academia with regards to literary criticism. If an edition is available, I like to use Norton's critical editions of the books for the detailed notes and concluding essays. Some of those essays, however ... wow. There's a real commitment, it seems, in willfully misreading literature out of its own context. You end up with, for instance, poorly conceived pieces about Jane Austen and slavery in "Mansfield Park" that pay no attention to the novel Austen wrote, which is about strength and frailty and morality, and instead function as busy-work for folks on a Ph.D. track. (I expect, when I'm burned in effigy by the entire literature department of whichever college or university gets to me first, they'll dress me in a really unflattering empire-waisted gown.)

I will also say that Freudian interpretations of most literature causes more damage than it offers illumination. I also list Harold Bloom as a mortal enemy.

What happens at a normal meeting?

Quite simply the best conversations I've ever had about literature. When I set up the discussion group, I was a little worried that no one would show up. I ride the Metro. I see how popular books with "Da," "Vinci," "Code," and "Potter" in the title are. I'd wonder — Are people really going to want to sit for an hour and a half each month to talk about the books they avoided in high school? So in January, for our first discussion, I was pleasantly surprised when something like 35 people showed up to discuss Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey." And they keep coming back.

Typically, I'll have five questions prepared to get us started, and I'll open the session with a bit of background either about the author or the book or both. And then, I just sit back and listen. Actually, I do more than listen, of course. I'll interject, or disagree, or make a fool of myself when I say something entirely ludicrous.

The people who show up are incredibly insightful and careful readers — I've found myself often rethinking my positions on every novel we've read, or at least gaining a deeper understanding of a position I don't agree with. We have members who know quite a bit about the time period, and two or three people who actually think about these books professionally (which causes me no end of stage fright, I've got to tell you).

Also, unlike other book groups I've been in, where our personal lives become the focus and the books are relegated to an afterthought, we spend pretty much the entire time discussing the novel. Which isn't to suggest that we're not a friendly group. We're a friendly group with our priorities.

Who usually comes to the discussions?

The best and brightest in Montgomery County. And one woman who comes in from Virginia. (Not that Virginia doesn't have any best or brightest. Actually, that is what I'm saying.)

The group itself is open to anyone who can make it to the Bethesda Library, whether you've read the book or not. Of course, you'll get more out of the discussion if you've read the book. We meet the third Tuesday of every month. For anyone interested in participating, you can pick up a flyer at the library, or you can e-mail me directly: mbevel2002@yahoo.com.

How are books selected?

Undemocratically. I pick all of them. That may or may not change in the future — however, I have programs developed for 2008 and 2009. It's not entirely draconian, however; I'm open to suggestions. Just so long as they're not D.H. Lawrence.

Do you write yourself?

I dabble. I'm more of a reader than I am a writer — but I do enjoy writing quite a bit. I've read a couple of essays out loud at an open-mic event at the Bethesda Writer's Center. I also read a short story I wrote at another open-mic in Silver Spring. That, though, was a disaster. I had the Nixon flop-sweats, an unforgiving microphone, and unrealistic expectations of how long people are willing to listen when buffalo wings and beer are available.

What is your favorite classic book? Favorite book in general? Why?

"Villette" by Charlotte Bronte. The first time I tried to read it, I hated it. I made it maybe 100 pages in and figured that life was too short for bad Bronte. Several months later, I was stuck somewhere with "Villette" in my backpack and nothing else to read, and maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome or something, but I ended up falling madly in love with the book and its main character, Lucy Snow.

One of my proudest moments this year was having Diane Rehm read my e-mail out loud on her program about "Villette": "Lucy Snow makes me feel like I'm represented in literature." Not that I'm a dowdy, unlucky-in-love governess; it's her brittleness that I identify with, and her pessimism. "Villette" is a good antidote to all of the marriages and love-endings in a lot of Victorian literature.

And while it's not a pleasant read, I think Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata" is a pretty important piece of fiction in understanding 19th century literature — specifically, the role of women and their day-to-day lives. In the novel, a man on a train explains to another man why he murdered his wife; presumably, she was having an affair with her piano partner. In attempting to exonerate himself, the husband illuminates 19th century ideas about women. Again: not a pleasant read, but very, very powerful.

What is the worst book you've read? Why?

I haven't had a lot of luck with contemporary literature. It all seems too autobiographical, in the wrong way, for me. The Brontes are writing what they know, of course: the life of spinster governesses; and George Eliot uses her life as the backdrop to several of her novels (specifically "The Mill on the Floss"). At the end of these novels, though, they've used their lives to expand both their novels and the life of the reader. Novels written in the last 10 or 15 years seem to be more of these highly personal journal entries that give me a lot of information about the author, but not nearly the same glimpse into the world at large.

If we're talking something more in my chosen millieu, then I'd have to say it's pretty neck-and-neck between "The Red and the Black" by Stendahl (again and again and again with Julien crying) and Henry James' "The Princess Casamassima." It nearly robbed me of my very soul.

What is coming up for the group?

We meet Sept. 18 to discuss our final George Eliot novel, "Daniel Deronda." After that, starting in October, we tackle Thomas Hardy: "Desperate Remedies," "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," and "Jude the Obscure."

Any other good book groups around that you participate in or would recommend?

The fact that I can't think of any other groups to recommend doesn't mean that there are no other groups to recommend. It just means that all my time is really devoted to this one. I do know that the library hosts a variety of book discussion groups — including one where, I believe, they both read and discuss in French. That group intimidates me.