The strange book title comes from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by WB Yeats. This historical fiction tale addresses the life of a young socialite. During WWI, Georgie Hyde-Lees breaks free from maternal control and arrives in London to nurse soldiers. Through her mother’s connections she meets WB Yeats, the famous poet many years her senior. Interested in the occult, Georgie enlists Yeats’ help in securing an invitation into the Order (The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). The author’s descriptions of a young woman trapped by conventional society’s rules and expectations are well drawn. Georgie falls for Yeats, but the reader remains hard pressed to understand the attraction Georgie exhibits. Certainly, he treats her poorly throughout their relationship. At the time of their meeting, WB struggles with his professional writing career faltering.
Presented with the option of another suitor, an officer who is her contemporary and a suitable match, Georgie sends him packing. Regardless that her mother and friends warn her that Yeats still loves a woman from his past (Maud Gonne), headstrong Georgie doggedly pursues Yeats. Yeats strings her along through his reconnection with Maud and then Maud’s daughter, Isesult.
Georgie’s stubbornness eventually pays off. Turned down by everyone else, Yeats finally marries Georgie. Neither are happy in the marriage but to keep Yeats’ attention (at least for a while), Georgie takes up automatic writing. Very keen to engage in all things esoteric, Yeats focuses just enough on his wife. That satisfies Georgie even though she knows she’s perpetrating a fraud. Eventually, Yeats’ poems benefit from the pursuit of the greater unknown.
Having read the reviews on Amazon after reading the book, most people agree the writing is exceptional, although the pacing suffers in a few places. The depiction of the period and societal constraints are interesting and well done. My biggest gripe is that the book is basically a very sad, one-sided romance. I had hoped for a journey into a mystical world of secret societies where Georgie actually had some PSI ability. At least on that level, she might have shared a connection with the older poet. Apparently not, she duped her husband for years if this fiction reflects reality.
(How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God)
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014
I’ve always regarded the word atheist as a quagmire. What does it mean, really? People mean so many different things in using it. Even after reading Watson’s book, I’m still puzzled. So let’s more away from that term and look at the meat of the book.
Watson traces the history of thought following Friedrich Nietzche’s 1882 pronouncement, “God is dead.” The big questions about the meaning of life and how to live it are quested after by artists, writers, poets, philosophers, and scientists. The 626 page tome follows hundreds of individuals and their pursuit to answer the stickiest of questions in a post-modern world where salvation doesn’t exist.
This is a book for everyone because it is about our collective history. Unless you have a PhD in philosophy, you won’t know all the people Watson brings up in his survey, but names like James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and countless others, will ground you in the familiar. Some chapters are absolutely fascinating. Did you know that some people thought poetry would supplant God? Or that many intellectuals looked forward to WWI as a way to purge the modern age? Other chapters are a slog to get through. But persist.
Watson takes us on a journey to understand where we’ve been and perhaps where we’ve going. In the end, we see the search for meaning seems to be universal and that many have answered the call by looking to transcend this life while others (the subject of Watson’s book) look for meaning in this world in diverse and rich ways.