Reading Notes for the novel THE HOURS BEFORE
Beneath the Surface of a Sinister Gothic Tale
Vengeance or Forgiveness
The meeting between Deborah and Kristina takes place at a time prior to the dreadful conflict of the First World War, but it is also on the eve of Deborah’s own personal conflict - the choice she must make between vengeance and forgiveness. Does she make the right choice in the end and how is she aided in her decision?
How does the cult of Rascham distort ancient philosophies and religious teachings for its own ends? In particular, contrast the false, manipulative doctrines of Rascham and von Spiegler with that of the genuine mystical traditions referred to by Kristina and understood already to a certain extent by Herman.
The reflective surface plays an extensive role in the story in the hotel room, where Deborah is presented with her past in a triple mirror, a story which is itself divided into three parts. The antagonist Von Spiegler’s name means ‘mirror’ in German (Spiegel). How much of ourselves, our human frailties and readiness to be flattered and deceived might we also see in these mirrors? Reflection, meanwhile, is also a term that applies to the process of contemplation. Could the story also be about arriving at wisdom through the light of reason?
Consider the parallels between the young maid Kristina and the Hindu divinity of Krishna as he appears in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna in human form offers himself to become a humble charioteer and guide to the hero, Arjuna, on the eve of battle, but later reveals his true divinity. How many of the ideas that Kristina discusses with Deborah can be traced back to the philosophy outlined in the great classic of Indian literature? In particular, consider:
A) the idea of leadership through service.
B) the eternal nature of the soul
C) the recognition of divinity in all things
D) the illusory nature of certain aspects of the physical world
E) the value of selfless dedication and acceptance
The Three Hours
Can conflict prove positive in some cases and lead to a resolution that is greater than the opposing forces? European philosophers at the time were still fascinated by the triad of ‘thesis, antithesis and synthesis.’ In this sense, consider again the conflict between vengeance and forgiveness, but also that between the will, as represented by Hugh, and faith as represented by Deborah, or even between Deborah’s hatred and Kristina’s sense of acceptance and resignation. Where does Poppy fit into the equation? Is she the synthesis? Does all this have a resonance in the 3-part structure of the story itself?
The iconic painting by Klimt remains one of the most enduring and popular creations of the Belle Époque, and many people have pondered its meaning. But what is the nature of the kiss that Herman brings to Poppy? How is this reflected in the kiss between Deborah and Kristina?
Consider the parallels between the archetypal mythology of the ‘quest’ - of bringing back to the light that which has been lost. In particular, consider:
A) the parallels between the story and the myth of Persephone and Demeter.
B) the role in the story of Herman in terms of the myth.
C) Do you believe that spirit descends into matter at birth and leaves it at death? Do you believe it returns to life again, mirroring the cycle of things that grow in the soil? If so, how much light, if any, would you say is shone on the secret nature of the Eluesinian mysteries of ancient Greece by stories of this kind?
How plausible or otherwise is the suggestion in the story that the origins and senseless continuation of the First World War were to a degree based on the interests of a hidden clique of financiers? If so, what nefarious means did they employ in order to exert influence over the politicians and media?
On more light-hearted note, if The Hours Before were to be made into a film, who would you choose to play the main roles of Deborah, Kristina, Herman, Poppy and Hugh? What about the baddies, Rascham, Hanno and Spiegler?
For a guest post by the author at 'A Literary Vacation’ on the nature of the Belle Epoque, click here. (External link opens in a new window)