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Delphi

A Novel

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About The Book

A Guardian Best Book of 2022 * “Clever and surprising.” —BuzzFeed * “Brilliantly funny.” —San Francisco Chronicle * “Ingenious.”—The Millions * “Powerful.” —Harper’s Bazaar

A captivating debut novel about a classics professor immersed in research for a new book on a prophecy in the ancient world who confronts chilling questions about her own life just as the pandemic descends—for readers of Jenny Offill, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Sally Rooney.


Covid-19 has arrived in London, and the entire world quickly succumbs to the surreal, chaotic mundanity of screens, isolation, and the disasters big and small that have plagued recent history. As our unnamed narrator—a classics professor immersed in her studies of ancient prophecies—navigates the tightening grip of lockdown, a marriage in crisis, and a ten-year-old son who seems increasingly unreachable, she becomes obsessed with predicting the future. Shifting her focus from chiromancy (prophecy by palm reading) to zoomancy (prophecy by animal behavior) to oenomancy (prophecy by wine), she fails to notice the future creeping into the heart of her very own home, and when she finally does, the threat has already breached the gates.

Brainy and ominous, imaginative and funny, Delphi is a snapshot and a time capsule—it vividly captures our current moment and places our reality in the context of myth. Clare Pollard has delivered one of our first great pandemic novels, a mesmerizing and richly layered story about how we keep on living in a world that is ever-more uncertain and absurd.

Excerpt

1. Theomancy: Prophecy by Foretelling Events Theomancy: Prophecy by Foretelling Events
I am sick of the future. Up to here with the future. I don’t want anything to do with it; don’t want it near me.

No one used to have to deal with this much future. I mean, the future, so far as they could imagine, would have been fairly like the past: harvest, solstice, snow, trees coming into bud. They would get older and die, but the cycle would begin again. We have to live with this rising tide of future, leaking and sopping over everything, claiming cities and sectors, until we’re in the future, already—that dystopian future of surveillance, video calls and VR headsets, and viral epidemics spread by globalization, and the 24-hour news saying AI extinction event gene-modification the collapse of civilization.

So it is that, somehow, one winter night, I find myself standing in my kitchen, hissing shrilly at my husband: I don’t know if my son will even live to middle age.

Something can be melodramatic and true at the same time.

In Delphi, gods spoke through oracles. Delphi is in Greece, on multiple plateaux along the slope of Mount Parnassus. The myth says that Zeus wanted to find the centre of Gaia—the Greek personification of the Earth, our primordial mother—so sent two eagles soaring from the east and west. The spot where their flight paths crossed over Delphi was declared the navel of Gaia, sometimes also known as the Omphalos.

Delphi belonged to Gaia, then, but Apollo slayed the dragon who guarded it, the Python (from the verb pytho, “to rot”), and stole the land from her. To legitimize his theft, a sanctuary was built for him above the deep, zigzagged chasm into which he had pushed the Python’s dying body. There they later installed the Pythia, a priestess named after that rotting-dragon smell. The famous oracle of Delphi. By custom, she was an older woman—what we might call middle-aged—and often poor. Someone who had led an ordinary life but who was willing to sever ties with her husband or children completely and erase herself. To become a blank; become instrument.

Before the oracle could begin there was a ritual: priests sprinkled a goat with cool water. If it didn’t shiver there would be another month’s wait; if it shivered, they could proceed, sacrificing it and burning the flesh. Rising smoke signalled the oracle was open.

Next, the Pythia was purified by fasting and bathing in a spring. They seem to have burned laurel leaves to cleanse her, or else she chewed them. Purple veiled, she was taken down into a dark, enclosed inner sanctum and placed on a gilded tripod that teetered over the fissure. I wonder if her heart was panting? I wonder if she was afraid? The room was low and dim; she trembled as fumes rose from the decomposing dragon, sly, sweet, lifting vapours that lurched her into a blood-thumping blur or violent trance, her limbs loosened from her own control.

She jangled above the pit, enlarging. Apollo moved the bones of her jaw, her clump of tongue, to speak through her mouth—a male voice issuing furious barks, a roar.

The historian and essayist Plutarch, who worked as a priest at Delphi, attributed her ecstasies to the pneuma: the breath of the fault in the rock. He wrote rather memorably that she looked like a windswept ship.

It was probably anaesthetic, the rock’s breath—sugared ethylene or ethane, a heavy, crawling asphyxiant. The sanctuary lacked oxygen. And therefore, lo: the future spilt from her mouth—

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Delphi includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Clare Pollard. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In this distinctive debut novel, COVID-19 has descended on London, and a Classics professor immersed in her next academic publication becomes obsessed with divining the future—as her own future, and the future of her family, begins to slip out of her grasp completely. She is working on a book about prophecies in the ancient world and so, as her husband drinks, her son withdraws, and Trump tweets, she turns to psychics, oneiromancy (prophecy by dreams), cleromancy (prophecy by random numbers), and even the language of angels to cope with the increasingly suffocating pandemic. A proxy for us all, Clare Pollard’s unnamed narrator is searching for certainty in an increasingly unpredictable world only to have the present rear its ugly head when she’s least expecting it. Darkly funny, cerebral, and bold, Delphi asks what is lost and gained when we confront the abyss, and how we will all transform when we emerge on the other side.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Choosing a few chapters at random, find the connection between the “prophecy by X” titles and the content of the respective chapters—which were easier to parse, and which were more of a metaphorical leap for you? Which was your favorite, and why?

2. What is the role of motherhood in Delphi?

3. In Greek mythology, Jason is Medea’s husband and the leader of the Argonauts; in Delphi, Jason is the narrator’s husband. How does the latter diverge from the former, and how might they be similar?

4. How does the narrator wield humor? What are some lines that made you chuckle?

5. First appearing in the Anne Carson epigraph, brackets pop up when the narrator checks WhatsApp on her phone, has sex with Jay, and finds Xander in the cupboard. What function does this device have?

6. Out of all the ways of fortune-telling the narrator turns to, which did you find the most compelling?

7. Brainstorm some adjectives you would use to describe the narrator, Jason, and Xander. Do they share any words in common? What aspects of their identities create the biggest rifts between them?

8. Delphi ends with the narrator telling Xander the story of the Sibylline Books and Tarquin the Proud. How does the fact that we read a slightly different version of this lore earlier in the novel affect how the story lands now? Of all the stories to tell a recuperating Xander, why do you think the narrator chose this one? And, of all the ways to conclude the book, why do you think Clare chose this scene?

9. Clare is a poet, and she published five collections before Delphi. How do you think this informs her prose in Delphi? Are there any lines that feel especially lyrical to you?

10. Reflecting back to your own experience of the early pandemic, in what ways do you identify with the narrator? Do you think Delphi captures that era well? How so?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. From The Devil’s Advocate to The Uninhabitable Earth to Altarpiece, Clare sprinkles literary and cultural references throughout Delphi. Write down a list of as many as you can find and split up into groups to look them up online. Can you find any connections to the novel and the themes within it? You could also come up with a list of other unmentioned works of first-person narration, contemporary womanhood, and characters dealing with crises, and discuss how these selections differ from or are similar to Delphi.

2. The past haunts the narrator, but we only get a few snippets that hint to her history, such as her miscarriage and her father’s alcoholism and death. Imagine what the narrator might be like in a non-pandemic timeline. What would she write about?

3. Clare is also a playwright. Reimagine Delphi as a play: choose your top picks for the main roles, and make a case to the larger group about who would best embody each character.

A Conversation with Clare Pollard

You are a writer of poetry, plays, and now novels. How does your experience in these different genres influence the writing in Delphi? Considering this particular story, why did you decide that a novel was the best vehicle?

Delphi is meant to read like a book of creative nonfiction about prophecies and fortune tellers. I wanted it to have that texture. But then I decided it also needed to have the structure of a Greek tragedy, and my life isn’t a tragedy I’m pleased to say! So I realized that, although I was going to draw on my experiences of the pandemic and my research, I was also going to fictionalize things, and I found that very liberating.

I think Delphi could easily be a play too, with social media as the chorus, but my speaker is someone who is not just locked down in her house, but in her head. She’s this incredibly brilliant, clever woman who has no one to share all her thoughts and fears with—she’s very lonely—and I felt a novel was the best way of showing that interiority.

In researching for Delphi, what was the most fascinating thing you learned?

As a writer I’m really interested in the ways psychics or fortune tellers manipulate language. There’s this “acceptance phenomenon,” which means humans tend to accept almost any personality feedback. So psychics use things called “Barnum statements” (named after the showman) that sound personal but actually apply to everyone, like: “you have a great need for other people to like you” or “you tend to be critical of yourself,” and everyone nods along. “Yes, that’s me!!”

Is there a minor character in Delphi who is of special interest to you, one who you might have explored further if you had the time or space within the world of the novel? If so, why?

I deliberately kept the cast very small, like that of a Greek tragedy. I think the only person I’d like to spend more time with would be the Pythia—the Delphic Oracle—herself. I’m really interested that on one level she’s the most powerful person in the Ancient World, with leaders and kings hanging on her every word. But from another angle she’s completely powerless—just a drugged vessel through whom men channel their propaganda. Which was she really? In the novel I leave it open, but obviously those feminist retellings of Greek myth books are doing very well at the moment, and she’s definitely someone who could be explored further!

Why did you include images?

I’m primarily a poet, and poetry is a visual medium as well as an aural one. We get very hung up about how things look on the page. I’ve always loved novels that use images—I read a lot of graphic novels, and love W. G. Sebald’s use of photography, and the surrealist André Breton’s novel Nadja. I wanted the reader to turn the page and see the tarot card—the Nine of Swords—and have that same lurch in the stomach as the speaker does when the card is turned over. Before you start interpreting it into words there’s something about the image that just chills your soul!

How do you think fear and hope interact in the context of the narrator’s worldview?

It’s very much a midlife crisis novel, and so in many ways it’s about that. As a woman, your narrative is supposed to be about getting married or starting a family, making a home. But what if you have that and you’re not happy? What are you supposed to want next? What are you meant to hope for? When you’re young you go to fortune tellers hoping to hear about romance and fame, but recently I’d found myself avoiding the tarot pack—like, what do I think I’ll see there now I’m in my forties? Illness? Death? And I’m obviously terrified about climate change.

I think we need to hang on to hope though. I always love that Rebecca Solnit quote: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.” We mustn’t let fear of the future poison our present and make us give up. Perhaps letting go of some of our obsession with the future might help us be more appreciative of what we have here, now. I think that’s something the narrator learns.

Is there a moment, sentence, or section in Delphi that you find especially beautiful?

My genre is definitely tragicomedy. A lot of my favorite lines are the ones that made me laugh out loud when I thought of them. There’s a kind of beauty in truth! I’m proud of that description of the speaker trying to get a drunken Jason to bed: “And I kind of push Jason up the first steep step and then he trips up the set of them like a sacrificial goat up to the altar.”

As you were developing and writing Delphi, did you turn to any other books or media to inspire you? If so, what are they and how did they influence you?

I was inspired by Olivia Laing’s Crudo, Jenny Offill, Ali Smith—the way they all create that sense that they’re writing the novel in real time, incorporating the randomness of world events. Anne Carson too, obviously; her translations of Sappho were a big influence.

But to be honest, it was lockdown; like most people I was just watching enormous amounts of TV. The dialogue in Succession is as good as any ever written, I think. And I love The Boys too, how far they push things on that show. I wanted this to be a book about a middle-aged woman, but also to have some edge to it. To have the nerve to say the quiet bits loud.

If you could guarantee that readers think more deeply about one idea or concept in your book, what would it be and why?

I think the line: “If to be good is not to harm others, then I live within a system that has made goodness impossible.” Capitalism loves to make us think everything is about individual choices, and I’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about every single item in my supermarket trolley. But I’m starting to realize it shouldn’t all be on the shoulders of an ordinary mum who’s just trying to buy breakfast for her kids. We have to direct our anger at the system itself, which has made goodness so difficult.

On page 103, you include a reference to yourself as “the poet Clare Pollard.” Why?

Oh, when I was a teenager I loved all the flashy male writers—Amis, Auster, and Vonnegut all appear in their own books. Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park is great fun. I love a bit of playful metafiction! I love Charlie Kaufman films. So it was just a little fun nod to those guys, and a way of underscoring that the book is fiction and I am not the speaker. (Also, quoting my own translation of Ovid’s Heroides saved me having to pay for permissions).

About The Author

Photography by Sophie Davidson

Clare Pollard is an award-winning poet and playwright based in London. She is the author of five poetry collections and the former editor of the Modern Poetry in Translation magazine. Her acclaimed first novel, Delphi, was a Guardian Best Book of 2022. The Modern Fairies is her second novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (May 9, 2023)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982197902

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Raves and Reviews

“Finally, a brilliantly funny and sad look into the heart of the pandemic lockdown... [that] manages to avoid cliches and tired complaints while being reassuringly familiar at the same time… Characters, settings and even whole scenes are drawn in quick, exquisite precision full of wit and pathos. Its intimacy reminded me of Sally Rooney and its subtle, sly humor of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows… a reassuring reflection in the darkness.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Pollard is the author of six poetry collections, and her talents are on display as information and anecdotes unfurl with pleasing syntactic turns… Delphi distills something elusive and upsetting about all the things we can’t quite see or understand about the present moment, even as all we ever do is look. This feels impressive, part of what good fiction is meant to do.”—Lynn Steger Strong, New York Times Book Review

"Anyone who feels tapped out on pandemic fiction, I urge you to give Claire Pollard’s debut novel, Delphi a try. It tackles COVID-19 in a darkly funny way that avoids the dreary dystopian fatalism that afflicts much of mainstream fiction these days... This book does a superb job of providing perspective by connecting our present moment to ancient history in a way that’s clever and surprising. For Fans of Jenny Offill, Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney, here’s another hot sad girl book to add to your list." —BuzzFeed

"For anyone looking for ways of thinking creatively and with love about art in an emergency and what just happened to us all... I would recommend [Delphi], because despite the bleakness – you can’t have realism without bleakness now – this is clever, warm and funny writing." The Guardian

"A deeply intimate story, told in the language of maternal love, of fear, and, especially, of prophecy… From a politics gone topsy-turvy to disrupted domestic routines and interrupted life cycles, the novel vividly portrays what happens when everything stops working all at once, including the authorities we look to for succor and the stories we tell ourselves to cope.” Los Angeles Review of Books

“This isn’t the first — and most certainly won’t be the last — pandemic novel, but it might be the most brilliant… Pollard’s novel is consistently inspired, and will keep you gripped all the way through to the heart-stopping finale.” —Daily Mail

"Ingenious." —The Millions

"A powerful fable about life in an ever-more unpredictable world." —Harper's Bazaar

“[A] richly layered debut novel… effectively conveys the first year of the pandemic…the main character’s frustration and fear is sure to strike a chord.” —Publisher's Weekly

“Inviting, stylish and candid... So many of Pollard’s sentences ring with delicious wryness… It is the freshness of this narrator’s perspective and the openness with which this perspective is shared that suggests that Pollard’s future, as a novelist, is very bright indeed. —i

"[An] exquisitely painful debut... Pollard’s deft inclusion of all the pandemic’s practical and political challenges—masks, vaccines, social distancing, the strain on shared home WiFi networks, long separations from aging parents, the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and January 6—is wrapped in the inventive framework of prophecies. Irresistible and also oddly reassuring for all who have come through (so far) to the other side of COVID’s miseries." —Library Journal

“We need the ancients to explain today to us, and we need Clare Pollard. In brief, brilliant passages, Pollard confronts the shadow-play of our screen-entranced lives, and offers this simultaneous comfort and curse: we are not the first to live these griefs and these bewilderments. Delphi is the strangest, best thing I’ve read in ages.” —Rachel Kadish, author of The Weight of Ink

“Clare Pollard’s Delphi delivers an urgency unlike any I’ve experienced. I loved this book so much; the language, the humor, the style, which reminded me of both Patricia Lockwood and Sheila Heti. A brilliant novel born of searing eloquence and sinister wit.” —Jackie Polzin, author of Brood

“A compact miracle of a book.” —Evie Wyld, author of All the Birds, Singing

“Vivid as fireworks, the brief chapters of Delphi explode with the ambivalence, rage and dread of middle years lived within a world of pandemic and climate collapse. Both terrifying and exhilarating.” —Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of A Ghost in the Throat

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