Culture - Book 12: A Great Reckoning


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It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

William Shakespeare (Epigraph, A Great Reckoning)

Christopher MarloweThe Shakespeare quote comes from the comedic play, As You Like It (Act III, Scene III), and is believed to have been written in 1599. The line is a direct reference to Christopher Marlowe’s death which occurred six years earlier under extremely suspicious circumstances.

Marlowe, a mercurial figure in Elizabethan England, was a rumored spy, a possible heretic, a poet, and, above all, the greatest playwright of his era, up until his untimely death at the age of 29, when Shakespeare would assume the mantle.

The “reckoning” that led to Marlowe being stabbed to death was purportedly over an unpaid bill, although the man who wielded the dagger, Ingram Frizer, was—like Marlowe—linked to espionage and the motive for murder was perhaps more political than pound sterling based.

So great was Marlowe’s influence on the Bard that there are theories that Marlowe was indeed Shakespeare himself. For over 400 years, the question of “did Shakespeare actually pen the plays attributed to him?” has loomed large. Marlowe is but one of the possible candidates. Others include Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Sir Walter Raleigh, and—the most curious of all in my opinion—Amelia Bassano Lanyer.

Amelia Bassano LanyerLanyer (1569-1645) was one of the first women in England to publish her own poetry and to operate her own school. She is also credited as a pioneer of the feminist movement. In short, Amelia Bassano Lanyer was smart, unique, and strong-willed.

Enter (Stage Left) Louise’s character, Amelia Choquet.

Amelia, as introduced in A Great Reckoning, is certainly unique, classically smart, and exceptionally strong-willed.

And, the name Amelia has a singular importance in Armand Gamache’s familial history.

“Armand Gamache sat in the little room and closed the dossier with care, squeezing it shut, trapping the words inside.”

And so begins the 12th novel in the Three Pines canon and, for those of you who have read it, you know that the book contains a major settling of accounts, a great reckoning, if you will.

Culture - Book 11: The Nature of the Beast


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“There’s been weapons since there’s been man,” said Delorme. “Neanderthals had them. It’s the nature of the beast.” (The Nature of the Beast, Page 186, Trade Paperback Edition)

Collection of English ProverbsFor those of you who have read the 11th installment in the Louise Penny canon, you know that this retort, directed at Gamache, comes at a crucial moment in the plot. It’s the only time the phrase, the nature of the beast, is used within the novel but the power it conveys is so strong it titles the book. The Oxford Dictionary defines the expression as “The inherent and unchangeable character of something” and the phrase itself first appeared in John Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs which was published in the 1600’s.

The origin of the idiom is murky and has been interpreted in many ways since it was first uttered. In Louise’s novel, it is both a reference to human nature, and a haunting evocation of something far more malevolent. The biblical beast, who waged war against God in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations. Here is the moment, from The Nature of the Beast, when the investigators begin to get an inkling of what they might be up against:

“An etching?” he asked.

“Oui,” said Beauvoir, standing up slowly at his desk in the Incident Room. “At the base?”

albrecht durer woodcut“Oui,” said Beauvoir, caution creeping into his voice.

“Is it a beast?” Rosenblatt asked, finding it difficult to breathe. “A beast?”

“Un monstre.” His French wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that. “Oui. A monster.”

“With seven heads.”

“Oui,” said Inspector Beauvoir.

To the right is a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Beast as interpreted from the Book of Revelation (17:7). Count the heads.

If you have read The Nature of the Beast, you know a major plot point revolves around man’s apparent predisposition to make war. But, as Gamache proves time and again, it’s also in our nature to cherish decency. Kindness. Peace.

Culture - Book 10: The Long Way Home


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Gamache kept his large hand splayed over the cover of the book, forcing it shut as though trapping the story inside.

Then he lifted his hand and showed it to [Clara], but when she reached out for it, Gamache drew it back. Not far, barely noticeable. But far enough.

“The Balm in Gilead,” she read the title, and searched her memory. “There’s a book called Gilead. I read it a few years ago. By Marilynne Robinson. Won the Pulitzer.”

“Not the same,” Gamache assured her.

The Long Way Home (37-38, Trade Paper Edition)

There is a Balm in GileadThough not the same as the 2004 book, Louise does acknowledge Robinson’s novel as “remarkable” and, in fact, two pages later in The Long Way Home Clara quotes directly from Robinson’s work, “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.”

And while Robinson’s novel itself is set in a fictional town in Iowa, the title was influenced by the Biblical town of Gilead which means “hill of testimony” and was situated east of the Jordan River.

Gilead is first mentioned in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 8:22) and the actual “balm” refers to a healing salve that was indigenous to the area. In the New Testament the “balm” becomes a symbol for Christ himself, who God sends to heal the suffering of his people. Those of you who have read The Long Way Home know that the notion of healing is paramount to the story. The hymnal that Gamache covets is almost certainly from Washington Glass’s book, The Sinner’s Cure, first published in 1854.

Glass claimed “There is a Balm in Gilead” as his own but that is unlikely. The composition was probably drawn from a traditional African American spiritual, that was passed down orally for generations, before Glass transcribed it. The hymn has since gone on to be recorded by the likes of Paul Robeson, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson.

“The Balm in Gilead” is also mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

The Raven, not unlike The Long Way Home, is a tale of devotion, memory, and again healing — the balm. And lost loved ones — for Poe’s unnamed narrator, it’s Lenore. For Louise’s Clara, it’s Peter.

Culture - Book 9: How The Light Gets In


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“ . . . finally, I’d like to thank Leonard Cohen. The book is named after an excerpt from his poem/song — ‘Anthem.’” (Louise Penny, Acknowledgements, How the Light Gets In)

The Future album by Leonard CohenLouise goes on to tell us that she first used the words in her second book.

“Gamache leaned in and put on his reading glasses.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget the perfect offering,
There’s a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

He read it out loud. Beautiful.” (A Fatal Grace, Page 174)

Cohen, a Canadian and Quebecker like Louise, passed away last November and was hailed by Nick Cave as “the greatest songwriter of them all.” Anthem appeared on his 1992 album, The Future, but the song was a long time coming. It took Cohen 10 years to write and he reflected late in life on how much the song meant to him, “There’s not a line in it that I couldn’t defend.”

How the Light Gets In, the ninth Chief Inspector Gamache novel, is a harrowing tale of deep-seated corruption both political and moral. And, at its heart, the sanctity of Three Pines itself.

On page 117 of the novel, Gamache ponders, “Three Pines, he knew, was not immune to dreadful loss. To sorrow and pain. What Three Pines had wasn’t immunity but a rare ability to heal. And that’s what they offered him.”

Leonard CohenThat statement, to me, epitomizes Louise’s choice for the title and its connection to Leonard Cohen’s profound words. As Cohen said himself in a rare interview in the early 90’s, “And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”

Three Pines certainly has some cracks but as Gamache points out it also has “a rare ability to heal” the brokenness of things.

When Louise originally reached out to Cohen to obtain the rights — and ask what it would cost — to license the stanza for inclusion in A Fatal Grace, she was astounded by his response:

He would give it to me for free. Free. I’d paid handsomely for other poetry excerpts, and rightly so. I’d expected to pay for this, especially given that at the time, six years ago, Mr. Cohen had just had most of his savings stolen by a trusted member of his team. Instead of asking for thousands — he asked for nothing. I cannot begin to imagine the light that floods into that man.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

Culture - Book 8: The Beautiful Mystery


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“Some malady is coming upon us,” Gamache quoted under his breath. “We wait. We wait.” (The Beautiful Mystery, Page 110, Trade Paperback Edition)

Murder in the CathedralGamache’s quote above, as he points out, is a direct line from T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, and he repeats it in Louise’s eighth novel when confronted by an ominous plaque that may hold a clue to murder. Eliot’s play is a perfect reference as Gamache has come to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups to investigate a homicide.

Murder in the Cathedral, as Gamache tells the reader, details the assassination of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Becket, who had a long running feud with King Henry II over the rights of the Church verse those of the Royal Government, was bludgeoned and hacked to death in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral by way of the King’s command. Becket was later canonized as Saint Thomas and today is regarded as the “protector of the secular clergy.”

Thomas BecketT.S. Eliot, who was also a big inspiration on The Cruelest Month, dramatized Becket’s story in 1935. Rather than betray his conscience, Becket chose martyrdom, and, knowing Louise, she specifically chose the story of Saint Thomas to illustrate her ongoing theme of morals: right versus wrong, principles, and, of course, the conscience itself.

“Gamache sat up in bed. He knew only two things could give a killer a good night’s sleep. If he had no conscience. Or if had a conscience, and that conscience had been an accomplice.” (The Beautiful Mystery, Page 106)

“You’re willing to throw the abbot to the wolves, you just don’t want it on your conscience. Instead you imply, suggest. You all but wink at us. But you don’t have the guts to stand up and say what you really believe.” (Page 230)

“Gamache had seen decent young Sûreté officers turned into cynical, vicious, strutting thugs. Young men and women with little conscience and big guns.” (page 294)

Culture - Book 7: A Trick of the Light


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“There is strong shadow where there is much light”
(A Trick of the Light, Page 10, Trade Paperback Edition)

Jean Guy Beauvoir quotes these words to Annie Gamache at the beginning of Louise’s 7th novel. When asked where the phrase originates, Beauvoir says, “Some German guy said it.”

Johann Wolfgang von GoetheThat “German guy” is none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the quote originally appeared in 1773 in his play, “Götz von Berlichingen”. Goethe’s drama focused on the life of Gottfried von Berlichingen, a Knight who fought in the Crusades, lost his arm to cannon fire, and wore a prosthetic “Iron Fist” thereafter.

While the quote itself (“There is strong shadow where there is much light”) seemingly fits perfectly with the title of Louise’s book, like all things in Penny’s work, there is deeper meaning.

iron fistGoethe uses Götz as a symbol of an individual with integrity—be it a free spirit, a rebel, an artist, etc.—trying to live within a dishonest society. Sure sounds a lot like our dear Chief Inspector Gamache, no?

Chief Inspector Gamache had a great deal of respect for artists. They were sensitive. Often self-absorbed. Often not fit for polite society. Some, he suspected, were deeply unbalanced. It would not be an easy life. Living on the margins, often in poverty. Being ignored and even ridiculed. (Page 90)

Goethe’s play was the leading work of the Sturm and Drang literary movement, which was significantly influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and exalted nature, feelings, and humanity. Three key factors in A Trick of the Light and the canon of Three Pines.

“With all the force, the power, the energy and the beauty of NATURE” (Page 140)

“He’d ask her all about her day, her life, her likes, her FEELINGS” (Page 189)

“…but believed in family and friends, culture and HUMANITY” (Page 127)

Oh, and Goethe’s supposed last words on his death bed; “Mehr Licht!” which translates as “More Light!”

Culture - Book 6: Bury Your Dead


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“Dulce et Decorum est,” the Archeologist said.
“Pro patria mori,” Gamache finished.
“You know Horace?” Croix asked.
“I know the quote.”

(Bury Your Dead, Page 130, Trade Paperback Edition)

HoraceThe quote is indeed Horace and originates in his Odes (111.2.13) and as Dr. Croix, the archeologist, points out, essentially means, “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” To which Gamache replies—to the shock of Croix—”It is an old and dangerous lie. It might be necessary, but it is never sweet and rarely right. It’s a tragedy.”

This exchange takes place in the basement of the chapel of the Ursuline convent where General Montcalm was buried after his death on the Plains of Abraham, a pivotal battle in the Seven Years War. Montcalm most certainly died for his country and in doing so ceded control of Quebec City—and eventually all of Canada—to the English.

Horace wrote the original words to inspire his own countrymen, the Romans, to reach war-like heights in the face of their enemies.

Wilfred OwenThe great World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, would borrow the phrase to title, arguably his most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum est, in which he describes the horrors of being gassed in the trenches on the Western Front.

Contrary to Horace’s original motivation for his Ode, Owen’s poem—in the words of Dylan Thomas—was “to show, to England, and the intolerant world, the foolishness, unnaturalness, horror, inhumanity, and insupportability of war, and to expose, so that all could suffer and see, the heroic lies, the willingness of the old to sacrifice the young, indifference, grief, the soul of soldiers.”

The heroic lies

And here, the last line of Owen’s prescient poem (he was killed just one week before the signing of the Armistice):

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“It’s an old and dangerous lie,” says Gamache to Dr. Croix.

Culture - Book 5: The Brutal Telling


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“In the letter she said that her father had said something to her. Something horrible and unforgivable.”
“The Brutal Telling.”
“That’s how she described it.”
(The Brutal Telling)

If you’ve read Louise’s fifth novel in the Inspector Gamache Series, you’ll recognize this scene, in which Clara Morrow explains the phrase “The Brutal Telling”. The phrase was first used by the Modernist Canadian painter Emily Carr to describe a horrific falling out with her father.

Emily Carr with her monkeyHere she is with her Javanese monkey, Woo, who plays an important part in Louise’s book. And as Superintendent Therese Brunel points out, “She adored all animals, but Woo above all.”

Carr was born in 1871 in British Columbia, one of nine children and, by all accounts, had a relatively stable childhood up until “The Brutal Telling” episode. Clara describes the mysterious incident to Inspector Gamache as thus, “She went from being a happy, carefree child to an embittered woman. Very solitary, not very likable.” Whatever terrible transgression took place (to this day, the details are unknown), it propelled Emily to travel to the isolated regions of Canada where she recorded, through her paintings, the vanishing indigenous cultures that resided there.

Emily Carr PaintingThe similarities between the real life Carr and Louise’s Clara are apparent. Both, of course, are painters and in a scene late in the novel, Superintendent Brunel and Clara sit before a statue of Carr where Therese tells Clara, “She looks a bit like you”. This is also the point in the book in which Brunel—while examining Clara’s painting —exclaims, “The Fall. My God, you’ve painted the Fall. That moment. She’s not even aware of it, is she? Not really, but she sees something, a hint of the horror to come. The Fall from Grace.”

The Fall from Grace. . . .

See our previous post on A Rule Against Murder and Milton’s Paradise Lost to see how deftly and deeply these novels interweave with one another. It really is quite amazing!

Oh, and remember Clara’s own description of Emily Carr? “. . . an embittered woman. Very solitary, not very likable.”

Kinda reminds me of a certain rascally poet who also has fondness for out-of-the-ordinary pets. . . .

Culture - Book 4: A Rule Against Murder


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“The mind is its own place, monsieur,” said Reine-Marie. “Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (A Rule Against Murder)

Paradise LostEchoed from John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the quote above appears numerous times throughout Louise’s fourth book and serves as the defining mantra of the work.

Originally published in 1667, Milton’s masterpiece has been interpreted in many ways—a scathing rebuke of corruption in the Anglican Church, a critical view of the Monarchy, a warning tome on civil war, and, as C.S. Lewis saw it, a straightforward morality tale. For those of you who have read our entry on Still Life, you know how big C.S. Lewis looms in Louise’s life and work. Professor Lewis was also quite the Milton scholar. He lectured extensively on the make-up and merits of Paradise Lost and wrote a singular thesis on the poem, A Preface to Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1942.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a morality tale as “a story or narrative from which one can derive a moral about right and wrong” and when boiled down A Rule Against Murder is just that: a choice between good or bad and how those decisions may lead to ruin. Or as Gamache observes, “To have it all and lose it. That’s what this case was about.”

A Preface to Paradise LostWhich brings us to the quote itself:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Satan, himself, speaks these words in Paradise Lost in an attempt to come to terms with his lost war with God and his banishment to the netherworld. Essentially he’s saying he can deal with Hell if he imagines it’s heaven.

In A Rule Against Murder, the Milton quote is rephrased no less than five times and as Louise explains, “life is perception. We make our own Heaven and Hell, depending on how we choose to view a situation. A huge success isn’t big enough, so we turn it into a disappointment. A loving relationship isn’t perfect, so we leave. A gift isn’t up to expectations, so instead of being happy, we are angry. We turn on the very people who are there to help us. In not recognizing Paradise, we lose it.”

But in this book, Louise also deftly turns Satan’s statement on its head and uses it as a beacon of hope. There doesn’t have to be a hell at all. If we choose the path of goodness, to paraphrase Reine-Marie, “there will always be a heaven.”


Culture - Book 3: The Cruelest Month


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Gamache took the bread to the long pine table, set for dinner, then returned to the living room. He reflected on T.S. Eliot and thought the poet had called April the cruelest month not because it killed flowers and buds on the trees, but because sometimes it didn’t. How difficult it was for those who didn’t bloom when all about was new life and hope. (The Cruelest Month, page 248, Trade Paperback Edition)

How serendipitous to offer this post up in the month of April when the novel itself is set and the month—by way of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—that has provided one of the most recognizable lines in modernist poetry.

The CriterionOriginally published in The Criterion in 1922, The Waste Land was conceived by Eliot during what has come to have been described as a nervous breakdown and was heavily influenced by many things, including the Grail Legend, the work of James Joyce, Homer, and Hermann Hesse. The poem defines the prevailing desperation of the post-World War I generation as well as Eliot’s own tortured time.

Eliot described his epic poem as, “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life . . . just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” Despite the poet’s own downplaying of his work, a vast number of significant critics disagreed with him. Conrad Aiken called it, “One of the most moving and original poems of our time” while Ezra Pound— who had a heavy hand in editing Eliot’s masterpiece—called it a “justification” of “our modern experiment”.

At its heart, The Waste Land is about rebirth—the revitalization of society after the catastrophes of war, the restoration of the mind after the ravages of mental illness, and the reinvigoration of the spirit after prolonged dejection.

Helena BlavatskyLouise, as always, has chosen the perfect title because at the very core of this magnificent novel is the notion of rebirth and as the Gamache quote (at the top of page)—and Eliot’s own “April is the cruelest month” line—so profoundly illustrate is that rebirth can be accompanied by astonishing pain, even death.

We witness this throughout the book from the reoccurring theme of Easter (the death and rebirth of Christ), the rebirth of flora and fauna when winter turns to spring, Ruth and the ducklings Rosa and Lillium, to the séance itself (the living communicating with the dead).

In closing, I can’t help but point out one of the great “wink and nods” from the novel that concretely connects T.S. Eliot to Louise’s tome and that is Jeanne Chauvet using the nom de plume “Madame Blavatsky”.

The real Blavatsky, an infamous occultist of the late 19th Century, was heavily referenced in Eliot’s 1919 poem, The Cooking Egg:

Madame Blavatsky will instruct me

And, like Blavatsky, Chauvet offers her own guidance throughout The Cruelest Month.

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