Browse Reading Guides


Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageQuartet for the End of Time: A Novel

    Johanna Skibsrud

    A “cinematic . . . page-turner and a compassionate analysis of faith, memory, responsibility, and consequence.”—Molly Antopol, Fiction Writers Review

A Note from the Author

In 2007, I stumbled upon a performance of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, offered by the Free Concert Series at the Canadian Opera Company. I was struck instantly—not only by the music (unlike anything I had heard before) but also by the incredible story of its creation. From the program notes, I learned how Messiaen had completed the Quartet while he was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp, Stalag VIII-A; how the unusual configuration of instruments—piano, cello, violin, and clarinet—had been determined not by the artist himself and his particular vision for the piece, but because those were the instruments, and musicians, available to him in the camp. I learned how the premiere of this remarkable piece of music, which would later garner attention in Paris and around the world, took place in November 1941, inside the barbed-wire walls of Stalag VIII-A. Messiaen and his fellow musicians—Jean Le Boulaire on violin, Etienne Pasquier on cello, and Henri Akoka (a Jew, who a short time later would escape an Auschwitz-bound train) on clarinet—performed the piece for the first time to an international audience of prisoners and their German guards, all of whom sat together, rapt in appreciation of what they instantly understood was a monumental artistic and historical event. Though inspired in large part by the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelation, Messiaen insisted that his Quartet (even written and performed at the historical moment it was) had not been imbued with any political or historical overtones. Instead, the angel of the Apocalypse’s announcement, “There shall be time no longer,” was, Messiaen urged, to be taken literally in the context of this piece: understood in terms of his ultimate musical aim, which was to abolish musical time—freeing it from conventional time signature. In this regard, Messiaen was inspired by birdsong, which he often sought to transcribe into his music directly (a project he took up more specifically in the 1950s with “Catalogue d’oiseaux” and other works).

Listening, for the first time, to Quartet for the End of Time, and thinking about the extraordinary circumstances under which it had been written—as well as the inherent tension that exists within the piece itself between the political and the spiritual, consonance and dissonance, chaos and form—I thought to myself: If I could write a book that transcribes into language the complexities of this piece of music. . . . I had no idea at the time how I might go about this task, but I liked, just as much as anything else, I think, the unreasonable ambition of it, and I kept the idea with me, turning it over in my mind. Then, in 2010, after stumbling—once again, by chance—upon another historical event until then unknown to me—the Bonus Army March on Washington and the ensuing riots of 1932—I began to write my own Quartet for the End of Time. Like Messiaen’s Quartet, the work is divided into eight sections and moves between several distinct voices. But also like Messiaen’s Quartet and his other compositions, which often seek to express through music the language of birds or other sounds (the rattling of tanks and motor cars in and out of the prison camp, for example, as he composed), the result can by no means be understood as a direct transcription, but rather as a creative piece all its own. The feeling I got as I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the first time is, I hope, still very present within my own novel—as is the central ambition at the Quartet’s core: that of finding a new way of expressing, and thus understanding, our relationship to one another, to the world around us, and to time.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does the Judge mean when he describes patriotism as “not a thing that could be bought, but something, instead, that grew in a man’s heart in accordance with the value he himself invested in the land he profited by”? What do you think patriotism meant to him versus what it meant to Alden and Sutton?
  2. The Bonus Army camps, set up within view of the Washington Monument, where World War I veterans squatted for over a month, is a scene not unlike the Occupy Wall Street camps of our lifetime. How are they similar? How much of a role do you think these recent historical events played with the author?
  3. When Alden says that John the Indian must have “had his reasons” for killing a man, what do you think he meant by this? How does war give people more “logical” reasons to kill than at any other time? How does this question relate to the idea that war is not waste, but rather, offers a promise of something greater?
  4. Discuss the idea of time in the novel. What is the author trying to say about time? And how does it relate to Messiaen’s famous quartet?
  5. How are Alden and Sutton’s parents (as well as others of their generation), as Alden puts it, “hopelessly trapped in the past”? How is it different from what Alden and Sutton discover about the past and the present? How does it subsequently affect their ideas of the future?
  6. What is the effect of the photographic interlude? How do the photographs contrast with, and also add to, the lyric prose of the rest of the novel?
  7. Much of Quartet for the End of Time discusses humanity and our ability to adapt to our circumstances, no matter how difficult. How do the concepts of regularity and rationality affect these characters’ ability to endure trials?
  8. At many points in the novel, characters are talked into doing things they don’t want to do. Can you think of any? How do those examples relate to the bandit’s observation that men holding a one thousand dollar ticket in their pocket can be bought off with a cup of coffee?
  9. How do Alden and Sutton deal with their act of betrayal? How true is the idea that, in the context of one’s own life, one plays only a limited role? Would you say that it was true for them?
  10. Discuss the story of Messiaen’s Quartet piece and the role it plays in tying the novel together at the end. Why do you think Skibsrud chose to make it the focal point of the book?
  11. The composer wonders what it means, in the Book of Revelation, when an angel stretches out color and light and says, “There shall be no more time.” What do you think it means?
  12. One of the major themes in Quartet for the End of Time is a common one found in history: the story of desperate human beings struggling to do the right thing while also trying to survive. How did the four major characters in Skibsrud’s novel deal with this quandary?

About Johanna Skibsrud

Johanna Skibsrud is the author of The Sentimentalists, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and This Will Be Difficult to Explain, as well as two poetry collections. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Books by Johanna Skibsrud

  1. Book CoverQuartet for the End of Time: A Novel

    A “cinematic . . . page-turner and a compassionate analysis of faith, memory, responsibility, and consequence.”—Molly Antopol, Fiction Writers ReviewMore

  2. Book CoverThe Sentimentalists

    "A hypnotic meditation on memory . . . reaffirms the potential for storytelling to offer clarity and redemption." —New York Times Book ReviewMore