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Look Inside | Reading Guide
Jul 10, 1995
| ISBN 9780345396457
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Jul 10, 1995 | ISBN 9780345396457
"[A] BRILLIANT, WITTY AND PROVOCATIVE NEW NOVEL."–San Francisco ChronicleAs a young woman, the brilliant and eternally curious Magda Danvers took the academic world by storm. Then, to everyone’s surprise, she married Francis Lake, a mild, midwestern seminarian, who has devoted his life to taking care of his charismatic wife. Now, Magda’s grave illness puts their marriage to its ultimate test. Though facing her "Final Examination," Magda continues to arouse her visitors with compelling thoughts and questions. Into this provocative atmosphere comes Alice Henry, retreating from family tragedy and a crumbling marriage to novelist Hugo Henry. But is it the incandescence of Magda’s ideas that draws Alice, or the secret of "the good marriage" that she is desperate to discover? For Alice, Hugo, Francis, and Magda will learn that the most ideal relationship–even a perfect marriage–doesn’t come without a price…."COMPELLING WRITING…REMARKABLY SKILLFUL…Gail Godwin shows herself to be at the height of her considerable power as a storyteller and a writer."–The Boston Globe"ONE OF HER FINEST BOOKS…It is not only a well-written story, but a mature and wise one, affirmative in its vision of love, unblinking in its portrayal of tragic loss."–Atlanta Journal & Constitution"FASCINATING…[A] BIG SUMPTUOUS BOOK…HER BEST NOVEL."–Entertainment Weekly"A BRILLIANTLY CRAFTED NOVEL, full of fun and mischief and resonating with wisdom and moral depth."–New WomanA Featured Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club
Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, Queen of the Underworld, and Unfinished Desires…. More about Gail Godwin
Jennifer Morgan Gray is an editor and writer who lives in NewYork City.Jennifer Morgan Gray: The title The Good Husband has manymeanings, both literal and figurative. What did you hope to evokein choosing this title? Were there any others you considered andthen abandoned?Gail Godwin: This is one of the very few novels that I’ve writtenwhere the title came with the idea. I meant the title to be ambiguous,so that the reader would have to start asking, "So just what isa good husband? Who is the good husband in this book? Could itbe both of them, or neither?" It was chosen exactly at the time thatI thought of creating these four people.JMG: It’s said that authors often write what they know. As an acclaimedauthor with extensive experience in the world of academia,did you find it liberating to set a novel in a familiar college setting?Did you deliberately insert elements of satire into the situation andthe various characters–for example, President Harris and his wife,Leora?GG: I wrote one other academic novel, The Odd Woman. That wasset in one point of view, that of a particular young woman professor,and it was a much more naturalistic treatment of a university.Now, this one has a bit of a satire to it, this college, Aurelia. It’s acollege where fundraising has gotten the upper hand, and it’s thetype of college where I thought it would be possible for these typesto meet. Hugo Henry gets invited at the last minute; Magda Danvers,if she had become the scholar she started out to be, would besomewhere else, like maybe Columbia.When I imagined what the president of the college would belike, it did creep over into satire, because fund-raisers do have away of forgetting the interior and the unseen. But the last we see ofPresident Harris, he’s flying toward this wretched literary tour withthis bore of a woman he wants to get money out of. He has this seriousmoment, when he thinks of what he’s really interested in,how things going in and out of fashion could ruin whole industriesand transform cultural patterns. He would rather have written abook on American cultural patterns instead of spending his liferaising money to satisfy other people’s egos.JMG: In the dedication of The Good Husband, you remark,"Francis, Alice, Hugo, and Magda are, I must admit, four stimulatingbut often puzzling parts of my own character." Which elementsof these characters most perplexed you while you were in theprocess of writing this book? Which aspects of your own personalitydid you insert into each character? Were there characteristics ofeach character that you wished to emulate and to make your own?GG: A wonderful question. On page 353, Hugo is talking to hisson’s lover and is talking about how writers choose or get chosenby different subjects. And he says to him, "There’s somethingabout this story that addresses longings and woes of my own." Atthe time I was writing this book, my longings and woes were attractedto the subject of death. I had never seen anyone die untilright before I wrote this book; my father committed suicide and mymother died in an auto crash. Actually, before I wrote this book, Iwas working on another one, and then I started visiting this dyingprofessor. He had some of the characteristics I gave Magda–thesense of humor, the acceptance of using his time to die as a time toevaluate his life.Then I had to make up some more characters! I decided that Iwanted to make the dying person a woman because I had read anarticle by the Jungian analyst June Singer. She said when you gettoo goal-oriented–and it’s ruining your life–just stop for a minuteand imagine that you’re dying. You’re already on your deathbed–you can’t pay the bills, you can’t go out shopping, somebody elsehas to take over. All you can do is just lie there and think of what itall meant.That was the scene that attracted me most, but I couldn’t justhave a woman lying there by herself in bed. So out of that came allthese other creatures. Then I wanted to give her a husband whowould seem to serve all of her needs, and yet there’s another side tothat: Perhaps by serving all of her needs so well, he kept her fromtaking any more flight. When I got into his personality, I began tolove him because he really is one of those human beings who getssatisfaction out of serving the needs that he sees around him–Imust say that there’s very little of that in me! And yet I started seeinghow that could be a very relaxing and fulfilling thing: washingthe windows of a monastery or of your own house, making a mealfor someone, keeping things clean. The dark side of that is that aperson like that often does not want to go into his or her own interior,because it’s too scary. So I matched them up well, because theycan complement each other and they can goad each other.Hugo Henry is perhaps the most me. Yes, he’s the most me.Any scene that you see him in, I’ve been there: ruining a vacation inSwitzerland because my books weren’t in the English bookstore,and always worrying about my literary status. But, thank goodness,having written Hugo and made fun of him a little helped medistance myself from that aspect.And then finally, the woman Hugo marries, Alice. By being sodamaged by what’s happened to her, and so passive, Alice also is aclean, soft sheet for things to make impressions on. Her happiestmoments in the book seem to come from visiting a woman who isnear the end of her life and who has the luxury to figure out whatshe was, and what’s important in life. Magda, of course, comes tothe conclusion that she has been an arouser rather than a fulfiller.What is most important, now, is that she order her loves and tallyher accounts.Of course, no one wants to identify with someone who is goingto die, but Magda’s the one who casts the light so everyone can askthe questions they need to ask in difficult times of transformation.JMG: How did you manage to integrate humor into what couldhave been a bleakly depressing novel? Were those moments of levitywhat guided you through writing a book that’s consumed withdeath?GG: She’s wickedly irreverent. She wants to shine light on thingseven if it’s unflattering. I just finished another short novel that willbe out in April and that’s all about death. It’s called Evenings atFive, and some of the early readers and critics have said that it’sfunny as well as being sad. But if you’re true to what your charactersreally think and feel and say and do, humor is going to comeinto it because that’s the way life is; that’s the way death gets ab-sorbed by the living. In A Southern Family, a long book of minethat also has death in it, they’re all going to the funeral and they getinto the limousine and realize that one of them has stepped intosome dog doo of the dead boy’s dog. It rides to the funeral withthem. Everyone is so upset–but at the same time, it’s funny.In The Good Husband, I was true to Magda. I also let hersay awful things about the people who came to visit and makeup provocative letters to adoring researchers whom she can neveranswer–because she can’t read or write anymore.JMG: The narrative shifts points of view throughout the book, andthe story unfolds from several different perspectives. Why did youdecide to craft the book in this manner? In your opinion, is thereone true narrator, someone you viewed as the true eyes and ears ofthe story?GG: Absolutely not. I wanted to go into all of them and to see howfar into them I could get. Then I started going into more than thefour–I went into the president, into his wife, into the teacher thattakes over Magda’s class. From the beginning, I wanted to have allthe viewpoints. A Southern Family has lots and lots of viewpoints,but most of my books have been with a first-person narrator orthird person, but staying in one consciousness.JMG: It must be interesting for you, then, to see the story throughso many different mind-sets.GG: It is. You think differently. They have different dreams. Andthey see the same event from different perspectives.JMG: The Good Husband doesn’t seem to support the concept ofone perfect soul mate for each individual. In fact, according toMagda, "Mates are not always matches, and matches are not alwaysmates." How did this thought guide you as you were writing?Was it something you considered beforehand, or did it pop upwhile you were writing?GG: It popped up when Magda said that. When she’s lecturingat the seminary about Blake and his wife, she’s explaining abouthow they were mated well but they were not matches. Mrs. Blakecouldn’t even read and could not follow William into his imagination.When Magda said that, I realized that I had something: Hugoand Alice are certainly matched, but, reading their scenes closely,neither of them was ever passionate about the other. They admiredeach other; they could talk about whatever needed to be talkedabout. She served his needs, and he served hers; she wanted a child,and he wanted an editor. He admired her calmness and her loveliness,while she admired his work. So they were matched, but thepassion was left out.JMG: Do you feel that any of these couples resolved the disconnectof being mated but not matched?GG: I don’t think that either of the couples became mated andmatched. When Francis threw Magda’s ashes overboard, he said,"Now I’m going to do what I want." So he was, in a sense, declaringhis freedom. Although many people have written me and askedwhy they didn’t get together, Alice and Francis were certainly notdestined for each other. They were there for each other to helpthem get on to the next stage of their lives–whatever that will be.JMG: Sort of transitional, in a way.GG: Yes. There are two mates in this book, and they’re married.The mates are married, and the matches are married. And thenthere’s a lot of crossing: Alice feels she could be mated with Francisbecause she’s attracted to him and passionate about him, and Hugoadmires Magda’s fire. There’s this dynamic here, like an X. In away, they’re like one whole person.JMG: Do Magda and Francis have the secrets to what makes a marriagehappy and successful? Does their unconventional arrangementwork for or against them?GG: It certainly is a satisfactory, cozy, successful marriage. The questionis, what did it do to the potential of each of them? If they hadn’tmet each other, would Francis have become a perfect priest? WouldMagda have become a literary star? And is that so important?Maybe they are enviable because they were comfortable andthey enjoyed their lives together, even though she complained thathe was obtuse and would never go in for self-examination. I thinktheir marriage was satisfying. She loved traveling with him. As shewrites to the woman who wants to interview her–the letter shenever writes, because she’s unable to do so–she loved seeing himgo out in the morning when they were traveling, knowing that hejust could be serendipitous all day. She writes that he looks likea cross between her gigolo and her archangel. I think sensually–all the things about the senses, eating together, traveling together,sleeping together–it was a very good marriage, and mysterious inthat sense to both of them.JMG: The most well-adjusted couple in the book is a single-sexone. How is Laurence and Cal’s relationship a more traditional"marriage" than the other pairs in this book, in particular Magdaand Francis? Did you deliberately make the most unconventional(by society’s standards) partnership the most functional one? Why?GG: I always work from inside my characters, and I try not to planahead for them. Hugo faces the worst thing he could imagine, thathis son is gay. This becomes a point of growth for him, because theonly way that he can start facing it is to pretend he’s writing a story.And then I had to create these people–Cal, and then Laurence, andfigure out why they would have been attracted to one another. Theyhave this thing in common: They are providers–there are some inthe world. They both want to provide, on a large scale, to people,especially children, who have had a hard time. They complementeach other in that Cal is desperately energetic because he’s foundsomething he cares about, and the older man is more thoughtfuland laid-back and has lots of money. As far as the fact that theirmarriage might be more well-adjusted–remember: They’ve justgotten together!JMG: They haven’t weathered the storms yet.GG: I’m sure that if we imagine them ahead, there will come a timewhen they have arguments about building one of the shelters. OrCal is going to get annoyed with some habit that Laurence has–who knows what. They’re a new couple. I think if they survive,they’ll do a great deal of good in the world.JMG: In The Odd Woman, one of your previous books, a charac-tersaid that "teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourthstheater." How is this exhibited in Magda’s behavior in the classroomand through her interactions with friends and loved ones?Do you think her flamboyant approach in all things serves to erodeher scholarship, or to augment it?GG: Her personality is flamboyant. Her personality is self-created,and she likes you to know that. She chose her own name. Shepicked subjects to study that would shock and arouse people. Ofcourse, this is going to arouse envy in some of her colleagues, and Inever felt that theater hurt in the classroom. It could hurt, perhaps,if you let it cover your lack of preparation. This quote is from TheOdd Woman, my other university book, from another professor. IfMagda were reading this in a book, she’d probably say, it’s three-fourthspreparation and three-fourths theater–and then let everybodyfigure out the mathematics!Because she did prepare. She adored the summer research shedid for the love of it, collecting things she could challenge andarouse her students with.JMG: In The Good Husband, Hugo compares the stages of writinga novel to the stages in a marriage–with a beginning, middle, andend. For you, what is the process of writing a novel like? Is it similarto Hugo’s, or much different?GG: For me, character is first. In some instances–for example, inThe Good Husband–problem is equally important to the character.The problem here is, you’re going to die. How do you do it, andhow does it look to those around you? What does it teach them?Then I have the characters. When Hugo is writing this shipboardlecture about novels being like a marriage, he’s also sendinga message to his wife, saying, "It’s all right. I know that we’ve gonethrough the beginning, we’re now in the middle, and we’re probablygoing to have one of those open-ended ends." It’s a spoken letterto her.I go for this for my own writing, too. Hugo says that in the beginning,you’re attracted to something, and there’s a summons.You’re so attracted that you want to go wherever this story promisesto take you, and wallow in it, and get to the bottom of it. At thispoint, if it’s going right, you fall in love with your material.When you’re in the middle, this is really the hard part. I’mquoting him now, but also me: The middle of your book beginswhen you know pretty much the kind of thing you’ve committedyourself to. You’ve gotten into the rhythm; you know who’sgoing to be in the book, who doesn’t belong in it. You know whatkind of book it’s not going to be. And you still know what youhope it can be. And this is the same with marriage. The honeymoonis over, but the middle of the novel has arrived when your excitementhas faded, and you soberly face the limitations and the difficultiesof what’s ahead.So the first part is attraction, the middle point is chosen. Sonow you have to choose. And you’re going to find things in it thatirritate you, just like with a married partner. And you’re either goingto take them out or say, well, this is what I chose.Then the end. There’s the closed ending, the more conventionalkind where everything gets wrapped up, and the open ending.That’s exactly what I know I’m going toward in my new book,Queen of the Underworld. In an open ending, you’re going to getsomething different from what you anticipated in the beginning.And that’s because sometime during the middle of writing it, yourealize that the reality of the story just can’t make a match withthose old anticipations. The story, as I’ve been writing it, has mademe see the necessity of going off in a new direction. Then you getanother little jolt of passion when you realize that the new directionis exciting you–even if it’s scary or bittersweet. And this isn’tgoing to be a satisfying, wrappy-up brand of outcome; it’s going tobe going off into a new direction.JMG: No happily-ever-afters?GG: Maybe not. And instead of wrapping up, you see that yourcharacters have somewhere else to go that is right for them. Andthis is going to be more powerful to you and to the reader than theold satisfaction of seeing them safely home in each other’s arms.Yes, I subscribe to that. I would nod if I were in Hugo’s audience,on the ship, and say, "Yes, that’s it."JMG: The struggle between work and relationships is paramountin the book. Magda is forced to give up her all-consuming workdue to her impending death; Alice chooses to do so; Hugo is consumedby his writing; Francis abandons the priesthood for Magda.Must the two opposing forces always be at odds? How can they bereconciled–or, for some characters in The Good Husband, is thatsimply impossible?GG: I don’t think that they always have to be at odds. If you arevery, very fortunate, you find the right work and the right person togo with you. And it certainly helps if that person has work that heor she cares about, as much as you care about yours. Magda is thegoal-oriented one–she loves her work and is driven by it. Hugo isthe same. Alice needs to get back to work, and indeed she does.And Francis–he is extremely happy at the end of the book whenhe’s bringing something to completion, rebuilding this old seminaryinto a retreat center. All of these characters feel happier whenthey are working. Hugo is in hell when he isn’t working. So thething is to aim for both, as Magda would say.JMG: It’s interesting that Magda really is the touchstone of thisbook for the other characters. Why, in your opinion, does she havesuch a profound affect on those around her? Is she a personalitytype that welcomes this affection or disdains it?GG: She is really the fire that they are all gathering around. They allwant some of the excitement and some of the warmth. On page 317,when Ramirez-Suarez is telling his wife why Magda is so compelling,he says that that fire was her passion, and that’s what droveher. That’s what came out of her and attracted others. And forFrancis, it was more compelling than those moribund practices inthe seminaries that were killing off young vocations.When she’s in bed trying to figure out who she was, and whatshe was, she realizes that she has been an arouser; that her vocation,as it was lived out, has been to arouse and inflame others, andnot to fulfill. She thinks only art can do that. So she’s been totallytrue to her fire, and it’s the reflection of her passion for her particularwork that compels these people. Then, of course, she’sdeveloped her persona around it. Flamboyant hair, flamboyantclothes.JMG: Magda refers to her illness as "the Gargoyle," before thereader even knows what, exactly, is ravaging her body. Why didyou choose to be vague about what Magda was suffering from untilmidway into the book, and instead communicate her strugglethrough literary and classroom references?GG: Actually, the president of the college reveals that Magda is dyingof cancer in the opening pages, when he comes to visit her. She,however, prefers to think of it as a mythical creature. That’s herstyle. As she tells Francis, it amuses her to personify this thing as aliving creature in her. She’s its enemy, and it needs to munch on herto grow bigger.JMG: In contrast to Hugo and Magda’s strong personalities, Aliceand Francis both display passivity. Do you feel that a spirit, a fire,is lacking in them that others have (sometimes in overabundance)?Or are they simply crafted of a different cloth?GG: They are different. But Alice really had so much loss. Hermother, father, and brother all wiped out at once. She’s becomekind of punch-drunk, and it’s amazing that she got through Princetonand became an editor and even got that far. She could have justlain down and given up all her spirit. I think her work, and thenHugo, and then the hope of resurrecting everything through havinga child, and then, last of all, falling in love with Francis: Thesethings kept pulling her out of the abyss, and she made the choicesto keep on living.At the end, Francis has come far enough to realize that he doeshave his own desires. He wants to do what he wants to do, whichis probably going to be more of the same–taking care of otherpeople. But now, he knows that it’s his passion.JMG: He delves into himself, as Magda had always wanted himto do.GG: Yes. And he even says that, as he’s scattering her ashes overboard:"Now I’m finally thinking the way that you always wantedme to think–but too late for you to enjoy it."JMG: The book features Hugo grappling with the mixed feelingsof his South Carolina upbringing and of the character of the "newSouth," mostly from his perch in New York. As a transplantedSoutherner yourself, did you find it cathartic to have a characterlike him in the novel?GG: I purged something from my own past with Hugo. For awhile, I had to live with a family like the Manigaults, because mystepfather had to move to another town. And so Mother and he leftme behind for two months, so I could finish out the school yearwith this family, and there were many scenes that were like Hugo’sordeals. I didn’t fit in. These people–knowingly or not–put methrough the tortures that Hugo describes.JMG: Alice has suffered loss after loss, first of her family, and thenof her baby. In which ways is she a tragic figure? How does shecope with the tragedies that surround her? How does she stop"preferring the company of the dead to the living"?GG: She’s not tragic in the classic sense because she didn’t bringon her own downfall. She’s just been beaten down by one calamityafter another. And actually, she copes quite well. She has her breakdownwhen she needs to, she pulls herself together, and she developsa trade, a skill. And then, at the end, how does she stoppreferring the company of the dead to the living? She falls in love.She falls in love with Francis. It doesn’t matter whether she getshim or not, because it makes her want to live.JMG: There’s a great deal of writer’s block being experienced inthis story. Hugo’s pen stops cold after the publication of A Monthwith the Manigaults, while Magda never writes the much-awaitedsequel to The Book of Hell. Do Francis and Alice suffer anythingthat’s tantamount to this affliction? Did you ever battle writer’sblock during the writing of this novel?GG: I don’t think Francis suffers anything tantamount to writer’sblock. As for Alice, after the death of her child, she can’t do anything.During this book, I never once battled writer’s block. BeforeI started this book, I was about three chapters into the book Ithought I was going to write, and then, when I got this interest indeath, I had to drop it. The times when I’ve had what they callwriter’s block, it usually means that the novel was either miscarriedor stillborn. I’ve never had writer’s block and then finished a novel.I’ve had problems. For instance, with Violet Clay, I was trying tomake it one kind of novel and it became another. But it still had thesame people in it. I had hoped to write what they call a gothicnovel, but it became too real for that.JMG: This book is not a "closed narrative," one where everyonelives happily ever after and all problems are ironed out. Was this adeliberate choice on your part? Do you think that the reader mightexpect Alice and Francis to begin a relationship? Did you ever pondera sequel?GG: I left it open. I knew that Alice and Hugo were going to breakup. I knew that Magda was going to die. I wasn’t sure about Aliceand Francis, because she wanted him so much and he seemed tolike having her around. But when it came right down to it, it didn’thappen. And many readers wanted it to happen. When this bookwas in the editorial process, several editors read it over, and onesaid, "Oh, please, please, I want to see Alice go to the airport andmeet Francis when he comes back from the Midwest, where he’sbeen building the retreat center. And I want to see them kiss!"When this reader said that, I thought, "Oh, no, you don’t. That’snot going to happen." And I never pondered a sequel.JMG: I’m sure you’ve been deluged with letters from readers, saying,"Can’t there be another book where Alice and Francis gettogether?"GG: That happened with Father Melancholy, too. And I saidno. Then I ended up writing Evensong [the sequel to FatherMelancholy], where the two very unlikely people get together; theyounger woman and an older priest get married. So . . .JMG: So never say never?GG: Never say never!JMG: Recently, you’ve taken a break from novels to tackle non-fictionbooks. Do you plan on continuing that path? What are youset to write next?GG: I wrote a short novel, Evenings at Five, which will be out inApril. And I’m writing a novel about a young woman who is ajournalist–I have a feeling that it will turn into two novels becauseI want to stay with her for a while longer. I don’t think I’ll ever doa nonfiction book again. I do love to do short nonfiction pieces. Forinstance, a friend of mine is publishing an anthology of snake stories,poems, and essays. I offered to write one, because the subjectintrigues me, so I’m writing an essay called "My Snakes." Whichmeans research, and it will be nonfiction, but it will be fifteen pagesat the most. It’s figuring out why I like snakes. I’m just about finishedwith that.But for the rest of my life, I want to write novels.
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