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  1. Book ImageI, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

    Rabih Alameddine

    Named after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, red-haired Sarah Nour El-Din is "wonderful, irresistibly unique, funny, and amazing," raves Amy Tan. Determined to make of her life a work of art, she tries to tell her story, sometimes casting it as a memoir, sometimes a novel, always fascinatingly incomplete.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do we discover about Sarah in the opening chapters of this book? Now read the last two “first chapters.” How these would work as first chapters of Sarah’s work-in-progress? What has Alameddine revealed about her character that we did not know in the beginning? If you were to start this book at the end, what would your first impression be?
  2. We learn right away that Sarah’s grandfather named her after the great artistic performer, the divine Sarah Bernhardt. What traits of Sarah Bernhardt does Sarah Nour El-Din emulate in her life? Her sister Amal later narrates a Druze myth of a different Sarah and presents another version of Sarah Bernhardt’s story. What do these conflicting myths tell us about Sarah’s family and their history? If Sarah had grown up hearing the Druze myth about her namesake, might she have modeled her life differently?
  3. Sarah frequently bears the rare privilege—and challenge—of being a favored female among the company of men, not only in the all-boys school in Beirut, but also within her family. How do her close relationships with her grandfather and her father shape her character? In what ways do these men influence her interaction with her mother? Her stepmother? Her sisters?
  4. Sarah recounts her marriages and her lovers—how do these characters differ? What attracts Sarah to each of these men? Her brother, Ramzi, reveals an unexpected side of her lover David; we also learn that Sarah’s first sexual experience was a violent encounter. How does Sarah handle unforeseen shocks in her sexual relationships? What do we learn about her character in these circumstances?
  5. Sarah reflects that she comes to resemble her mother more strongly as she grows older—she is the one who chooses to live in America and who becomes an artist, like her mother—but she later realizes that perhaps it is her sister Lamia who most closely resembles her mother. What aspects of Janet do her three daughters carry? After Janet’s death, Sarah ironically gains a new perspective on her mother’s life. How does this change her understanding of her parents’ marriage? Of herself as a mother?
  6. Beirut is a powerful character in Sarah’s life story—a city encompassing both cosmopolitan glamour and terror, strong familial bonds and terrible intercommunal violence. In what ways does this city of paradoxes mirror Sarah’s own complex personality? When she first decides to stay in America, Sarah seems to be trying to escape her past. Do you believe she ever manages to find reconciliation with her Lebanese-American history?
  7. Sarah’s story is peopled with vibrant secondary characters-her family, her lovers, and her friends. In your opinion, who among these stands out as the most memorable character? How does he or she influence Sarah’s development?
  8. Some of the first chapters are numbered or titled; others are preceded by book title pages, a list of characters, or a dedication page. Discuss these different ways Sarah introduces her story, even before she starts a chapter. What elements of her life do the various book and chapter titles highlight?
  9. Sarah is an undeniably bold personality, but she also reveals great sensitivity and need. What do you think Sarah is seeking in these moments of need? What is Alameddine trying to communicate about self and identity through Sarah’s series of incomplete first chapters?
  10. Discuss your reaction to Rabih Alameddine’s experimental style. Did the first-chapter fragments work for you? Did you find yourself reading each new chapter as a new book by Sarah Nour El-Din or as a continuation of the novel I, the Divine?

A Conversation with the Author

What was your own path from Lebanon to the U. S.? Was it similar to Sarah’s? Was there any wish to escape the past in your case?

My path was very different from Sarah’s: Sarah escapes; I was sent abroad. I left Lebanon when I was fifteen at the beginning of the war in 1975 to go to boarding school in England. It was the second time I was separated from my family. I lasted there for two years before going to UCLA.

I had had a relatively safe, if dislocated, family life, but I had always wanted to escape Lebanon and head West. I felt more like an American than a Lebanese—only to find out when I arrived here that I was neither, a discovery that is central to Sarah’s narration.

In a different way, I see Sarah’s journey, as well as my own, not as an attempt to escape the past, but to escape oneself. By remaining constrained in one’s environment or country or family, one has little chance of being anything other than the original prescription. By leaving, one gains a perspective, a distance of both space and time, which is essential for writing about family or home, in any case. I believe one has to escape oneself to discover oneself.

Do you believe that people really can “start over”?

Starting over can mean many different things. If we are talking about changing one’s personality, then I would have to say that I do not believe people can start over. We are stuck with the hand we are dealt. How we decide to live with our “personality” can change, but not its basic tenets.

On the other hand, if by starting over, we mean changing careers, leaving a mate, or some other life changing action, then of course, people can start over. But does one really go back to the “starting line”? No. Our history is in our bones and, short of a sharp blow to the head, is with us forever. Even when people start to lose their memories, they lose the most recent ones first. The earliest memories are the last to go.

But there are other ways of starting over. One can start over in some moral sense, in which case we are talking about redemption, or at least I hope that we all change in that direction. Grandparents are often much more loving and understanding with their grandchildren than they were with their own children. That’s a sort of redemption, isn’t it? One can start over in love, can recapture some of the wonder and thrill of young romance, which my friends in the medical and psychology field tell me is just a hormonal event, a kind of oxytosin high. Still, even with these sorts of “starting-overs” the past continues to influence us, and I think that the great task for humans is to integrate their past into their present. There is so much about me now that is pure American, but a part of me will always be shaped by the mountains above Beirut, and it is this integration that makes me who I am.

I, the Divine is clearly in some way about self-creation through literary creation. It’s also a bit of a parody of both of those things. Do you believe in writing as a form of therapy, of “finding oneself”?

No, I do not believe in writing as a form of therapy. At times, writing can be therapeutic, but most of the time, writing is untherapy, something akin to torture. A writer goes to therapy to work out problems that are exacerbated by writing.

I never believed in the romantic notion of art as being redemptive—writing (or reading) as a means of improving, repairing, or curing what ails us. To paraphrase Anne Carson (she was talking about religion): My writing makes no sense and does not help me; therefore I pursue it.

Of course, I do believe that Sarah was attempting to “find herself” by writing her memoirs, which was why she was unsuccessful—not in finding herself but in completing her memoirs.

Did you start out to write I, the Divine as a novel of first chapters, or did it happen that way by accident? Have there been other cases where you’ve abandoned the beginnings of books and started again from the beginning the way Sarah does?

I started the novel as first chapters. First Chapters was the working title for a long time. I came up with the structure first, and the character of Sarah was based purely on what kind of woman would abandon so many chapters. The structure determined the story. But once I decided on the structure and initiated the story, Sarah took over. She gained a level of consistency and dimension that made her very real to me and, I hope, to those who read her story.

Of course I have abandoned the beginnings of books and started again. I don’t know any writer who hasn’t. I begin many projects, in writing and in life, and complete only a small percentage of them. I assume that’s a natural human foible. At the same time, I see this process of starting and discarding not as only a shortcoming; it is part of the creative process, the crucible in which one tests the mettle of one’s writing. If I can’t find the story, if my characters do not come alive, or most important, if my own interest is not sustained, then the work is probably best tossed.

Did you begin writing the book at the beginning, or did you shuffle the chapters around?

I began to write the book at the beginning. I shuffled few chapters around after each draft for reasons of aesthetics or narrative. My original purpose was experimental, really. Most of my writing has an experimental quality. I set out to tell a complete story within a set of fragments. I was fascinated by this idea because it reflects the way I think and the way people experience life. Our lives are filled with events that form a continuous stream: we get up, go to bed, eat, work, talk to others, do all the daily things. And we sense a continuous self as agent in all those events. But when we remember, when we tell our stories, we remember only peaks and valleys, significant events that are only partially connected one to the other, and often out of order.

You’ve created Sarah as a woman character with several aspects of your own life and history—playing soccer as well as painting, for example. So how did you make her so convincing as a woman that many readers can’t believe she was created by a man? Is the character ultimately more convincing than the author?

By definition any writer of fiction uses his or her own life as material. I mean, the story is a product of the writer’s mind. Sarah plays soccer, paints, because these are things that interest me, as well as these are things that seemed appropriate for her.

How did I make her convincing? I’m not sure I can answer that question. I try to make a character (and my writing) convincing. I don’t think I sat down and decided how to make Sarah convincing as a woman. I assume that my writing can be convincing because of certain principles I abide by. For example, part of the current problem with writing is an overemphasis on detail. Most writers and readers seem to consider good writing to be detailed writing (an Argentinean writer once called this an American literary disease), every physical aspect of a character is stated, every nuance of her character is posited categorically, a room is described down to the tiniest carpet stain. I provide what I hope is just enough detail and allow the reader to fill in the blanks. That allows the character (as well as a scene, a setting, etc.) to become more convincing since both writer and reader are essentially involved in the creation.

Is the character ultimately more convincing than the author? God, I hope so. I believe Sarah exists. I’m still trying to convince myself that I exist, Descartes or not.

About Rabih Alameddine

Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids, I, the Divine, and The Hakawati, the story collection The Perv, and most recently, An Unnecessary Woman. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut.

Books by Rabih Alameddine

  1. Book CoverI, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters

    Named after the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt, red-haired Sarah Nour El-Din is "wonderful, irresistibly unique, funny, and amazing," raves Amy Tan. Determined to make of her life a work of art, she tries to tell her story, sometimes casting it as a memoir, sometimes a novel, always fascinatingly incomplete.More