When We Argued All Night

By – April 20, 2012

Alice Mat­ti­son’s new nov­el explores the life­long friend­ship between two men. It begins in 1936. Artie Saltz­man and Harold Abramovitz are vaca­tion­ing in a rus­tic cab­in by a lake in the Adiron­dacks, and we observe how much they care for each oth­er despite their dif­fer­ences and com­pet­i­tive­ness. Artie starts out as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er inter­est­ed in chron­i­cling a Com­mu­nist ral­ly, while Harold is more curi­ous about the ideals behind it and gets involved. The sto­ry unfolds through details of their lives in Man­hat­tan and Brook­lyn from World War II to the McCarthy and Viet­nam eras and the 60s and 70s, right through to the new mil­len­ni­um. We learn about the two men’s char­ac­ters through their var­i­ous work and per­son­al rela­tion­ships and through telling dia­logue with each oth­er and with their wives and chil­dren. The set­tings are ren­dered beau­ti­ful­ly, the pace is thought­ful and mea­sured, and the plot and dia­logue are about real-life sit­u­a­tions of the times. Polit­i­cal and social opin­ions are pas­sion­ate­ly aired, often with painful fall­out. Themes such as sex­u­al free­dom, pol­i­tics, men­tal ill­ness, unem­ploy­ment, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, ped­a­gogy, gen­der roles, and par­ent and grand­par­ent­hood are all tack­led fear­less­ly. While the plot is on the heavy side, I was impressed by Mattison’s sen­si­tive writ­ing and will seek out her pre­vi­ous novels.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions

1.The title When We Argued All Night tells us right from the start that this book is about peo­ple who don’t always get along. What is the rela­tion­ship between argu­ment and love in this nov­el? Is Harold and Artie’s friend­ship stronger or less strong because they argue? Artie is par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­agree­able. Can you love him anyway? 

2.Talking about Hen­ry James’s nov­el The Por­trait of a Lady, Harold and Myra dis­agree about the final scene, in which Isabel Archer goes back to her evil hus­band even though she could get away. Harold says James means her to be hero­ic, or else there’s no rea­son for it to be the end of the book: the final act is her achieve­ment, what she accom­plish­es. Myra says What does any­one accom­plish?” and that ques­tion titles the first six chap­ters of the book. What is accom­plish­ment in this nov­el? For Artie? For Harold? For Brenda? 
3. The first chap­ter is enti­tled The Whistler.” What does music mean to Artie? Photography? 
4. World events affect the lives of these char­ac­ters at least as much as their per­son­al his­to­ries. How do events and atti­tudes in the soci­ety around them influ­ence Harold’s mem­ber­ship in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with it? Harold and Artie’s teach­ing careers? Bren­da’s will­ing­ness to con­sid­er that she might be gay? 
5. Toward the end of the book, Bren­da’s son David becomes a writer, choos­ing to write non­fic­tion because he wants to recount the real events in his life, even though they are not dra­mat­ic. He goes to grad­u­ate school to learn how to con­vey his strong feel­ings with­out invent­ing excit­ing events. Must fic­tion exag­ger­ate life to make the read­er care? What makes writ­ing — fic­tion, non­fic­tion, or poet­ry — affect a read­er if it is about peo­ple to whom noth­ing much hap­pens? Do qui­et events in fic­tion speak to you as much as excit­ing ones? 
6. Late in his life Harold tells David that he regrets noth­ing, because each part of his life, even the parts he has been ashamed of, has led to some­thing he cher­ish­es. Is that a con­vinc­ing argu­ment? Harold is always aware of the wish to be a good per­son — but is he a good per­son? What about Artie, who rarely thinks in those terms? 
7. What is the mean­ing of the cab­in in the Adiron­dacks for the char­ac­ters in this novel?
8. Nel­son is a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in this nov­el, espe­cial­ly for Harold and Bren­da. What do you think of Bren­da’s deci­sion to dri­ve Nel­son to the bridge, and her sub­se­quent actions there? Is Harold a good father to Nel­son — or is that an unfair question? 
9. Harold and Artie both lose their jobs as a result of McCarthy­ism, but the effect of this dif­fi­cult event on each of their lives is quite dif­fer­ent. Is this just chance? How is it con­sis­tent with their ear­li­er lives? 
10. Nei­ther Harold nor Artie is an obser­vant Jew, but being Jew­ish mat­ters to both of them. How does Jew­ish­ness play out in their lives? What makes them feel Jew­ish? As the chil­dren of immi­grants, how are they like or unlike Jews who are sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions removed from the old coun­try? What do they have in com­mon with the chil­dren of immi­grants from oth­er eth­nic groups?