Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Douglas Glover

"All art is against the Anglicans of the spirit."

This quotation comes from Douglas Glover's Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon, 1999). It sums up, inadequately, Glover's rebellion against certain Canadian historial and cultural norms. The norms of United Empire Loyalist rural Ontario.

I recently wrote a biography of Glover on assignment. It is posted below.


Douglas Glover, writer (b. 1948, outside Waterford, Ontario). Born and raised on his family's tobacco farm, Glover grew up minutes from the Six Nations reserve outside Brantford, Ontario. His family had United Empire Loyalist roots and a multi-generational interaction with their First Nations neighbours. As a result, Glover gained a self-awareness at an early age that history is a conversation that never closes.

Glover told an interviewer: "There’s a historical conversation that goes on, even within my family, we remember how we interacted with [our native neighbours] through the years." His grandfather attended Iroquois longhouse ceremonies, and whole native families would come to the farm to pick strawberries. Self-awareness of history being perpetually remade through language is a prominent feature in his short stories and novels, such as Elle (Goose Lane, 2003).

ELLE won the Governor General’s Award (2004) and received a nomination for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2005). The Governor General’s jury praised the novel for combining "humour, horror and brutality with intelligence and linguistic dexterity to forge a revised creation myth for the New World."

The novel chronicles the story of a young French woman marooned on an island in the St. Lawrence River in 1542, during Jacques Cartier’s final attempt to colonize Canada. Partly based on real events, the novel tells of its teenaged narrator’s time in the wilderness and her possible transformation into a bear and later return to France.

Glover has speculated that "there’s something about the beginning of Canada [that] happens to be flowing through my mental make-up." As United Empire Loyalists, Glover’s family came to Canada from the United States following the War of Independence. The historical conversation behind that armed conflict forms the subject of The Life and Times of Captain N. (M&S, 1993; Goose Lane, 2001).

That novel is set in upstate New York at the end of the American Revolution. Oskar Nellis, a young man who writes admiring letters to George Washington, is kidnapped by his father and forced to fight for King George’s army. Oskar lives into old age, and the novel includes his memories and parts of his "Book on Indians." The novel captures the multiple points of view of an ongoing historical conversation.

As Glover told an interviewer: If "you pay attention to what really happened and you start to say, ‘Well that still is going on now. That’s a conversation that started then, it’s going on right now.’ People may define it in terms of colonialism, or they define it in those terms, and every time you confine it in some box you do a disservice to the actual people and the actual conversation because if you say that they were beaten, you’re wrong, because they’re still there and they’re talking back."

Glover is the author of four novels, five short story collections and two books of nonfiction. He has also played a prominent role nurturing developing writers as an editor of anthologies, including BEST CANADIAN STORIES (Oberon Press) from 1996 to 2006. He has cited as influences writers known for subverting convention, among them Christa Wolf, Milan Kundera, Leon Rooke and Hubert Aquin. His nonfiction, such as his book-length essay on DON QUIXOTE (2004), demonstrates a broad knowledge of literary history and a rare flexibility about different aesthetic approaches.

Glover wrote his first short story in 1968 while training to make a bid for the Canadian Olympic track team. He received a BA for philosophy from York University (1969) and a graduate degree in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh (1971). Following jobs at newspapers throughout Canada, he attended the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received an MFA (1982).

Since the early 1990s, Glover has taught at Vermont College. He has two sons Jacob Glover and Jonah Glover and is divorced. In 2007, the Ontario Provincial Police Awarded Glover and his sons special citations for helping to save the lives of canoers in Algonquin Park in July 2006.


Douglas Glover links:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mark Anthony Jarman

"Canada's answer to Barry Hannah" is how the Toronto Star described Mark Anthony Jarman on June 22, 2008.

Reviewer Derek Weiler wrote:

Readers of Mark Anthony Jarman will likely notice a recurring stylistic tic in his prose: the missing verb. In his new short story collection, My White Planet (Thomas Allen, 2008), the examples are many: "Her enclosed boat a tiny orange orb among mysterious green icebergs." "Her kind sad face by the icy shore, her long wrists."

The dropped verb is a trick with a purpose. It can embed us more deeply in the moment and give the characters' perceptions a greater sense of immediacy. At the same time, though, it suggests a certain aloofness, reminding us that Jarman won't settle for simple "this happened" exposition or conventional sentence structure.


He most strongly recalls the southern U.S. writer Barry Hannah, whose classic collection Airships (1978) has a similar range of subject matter and a similar interest in sharpened prose.

Not having read Airships, I take Weiler's word for it. He's an honourable man and an intelligent reviewer. I am surprised, however, that at this late date there's a need to "explain Jarman" by positioning him as an apprentice of Hannah.

Is this an example of measuring a Canadian's achievement against something foreign and therefore more "real"?

How many of the Star's readers can possibly understand what "Canada's answer to Barry Hannah" means?

On the other hand, we constantly hear Alice Munro compared to Chekhov. And we are all trained to "compare and contrast" as the best way to solidify argument and communicate meaning.

But still. In 2008, can't MAJ be compared to MAJ? That is, doesn't Mark Anthony Jarman have enough of a track record that we can presume he has "found his voice" and that his work isn't merely derivative of something someone else has already done?

I provide one example. Shane Neilson reviewed Jarman's 2000 short story collection 19 Knives and compared Jarman to Rick Moody. That review appeared in The Danforth Review, which I edit. After it appeared, in an email conversation, Jarman told me that he actually hadn't read Moody before writing 19 Knives. If there was a common influence between Moody and Jarman, it was more likely the zeitgeist. They were drinking the same kool-aid, in other words.

Literary influence is highly complicated and very rarely linear.

Weiler's suggestion, for example, that Jarman shares with Hannah a "a similar range of subject matter and a similar interest in sharpened prose" may well be true. But so what?

Weiler writes of Jarman's latest collection:

His work is similarly restless on the macro level: the stories in My White Planet show a striking variety. Some are historical pieces set during the Riel Rebellion or the U.S. Indian wars. Some evoke sci-fi tropes, like the one set on a polar research station that loses touch with the rest of the world. Others read like nothing so much as autobiographical reveries, the narrator ambling around New Brunswick (where the author lives) or London, England.

Riel references or not, Jarman is something of a misfit on the CanLit scene.
It's not clear what Weiler means by this claim. Presumably it has something to do with Weiler's belief that "Jarman places a premium on sheer linguistic energy."

Last week, in a post about Rawi Hage, I mentioned Nabokov's term "aboutness" and linked to an interview with Carol Shields, which included her opinion that "the language is always first."

In short, I don't think Jarman is "a misfit on the CanLit scene." That's a misreading of Jarman and a misreading of CanLit.

Douglas Glover, for example, is another writer of "sheer linguistic energy." He has also written an insightful essay on Jarman's fiction in Wild Writers We Have Known, a special issue of The New Quarterly (Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3; 2002). Glover's short stories could also be described using the words Weiler uses to describe Jarman's: they are "restless on the macro level." They go backwards and forwards in time and have all kinds of weird shit happening in them.

Isn't that what short stories are supposed to do?

Weiler ends his review this way:

The book is stronger than his previous, 2000 collection, 19 Knives, and I don't think it's because his actual prose has been greatly refined in the interim. Rather, I suspect, it's because in the new book, the prose has been more often married to consequential, urgent, and memorable evocations of character and mood.
This isn't my opinion, which is that 19 Knives is one of the great neglected books in the Canadian canon. I believe this, because when I read it I had one of those rare moments of astonishment. THIS CAME OUT OF CANADA? It was unlike anything I had previously read.

Of course, perhaps is it was exactly like Hannah's Airships?

I'll have to check that out.

I doubt it is, though. Jarman has been too consistent over too many books. His work is complex and serious -- and unique. He has created his own imaginative kingdom, as all writers worthy of deep comtemplation do. His work may sometimes lapse into self-parody as a result. It should be measured, in my opinion, against itself. Does it achieve its own goals? Which clearly require more than communicating "aboutness."

Jarman writes with a dedicated intensity, creates stories about a certain kind of masculinity, often places his characters in extreme circumstances and tests their "grace under pressure." Is he, therefore, a latter-day Hemingway? No, this isn't a useful thought-pattern.

We are all children of Hemingway, are we not? He wrote for The Toronto Star, after all!

Sorry, just a diversion and a joke.

Humour, by the way, is also a common element in a Mark Anthony Jarman short story. Perhaps that is another reason he is "a CanLit misfit." No self-respecting high-school teacher in Saskatoon would assign "Burn Man on a Texas Porch" (from 19 Knives), would she?

Here's how it starts:

Propane slept in the tank and propane leaked while I slept, blew the camper door off and split the tin walls where they met like shy strangers kissing, blew the camper door like a safe and I sprang from sleep into my new life on my feet in front of a befuddled crowd, my new life on fire, waking to whoosh and tourists' dull teenagers staring at my bent form trotting noisily in the campground with flames living on my calves and flames gathering and glittering on my shoulders (Cool, the teens think secretly), smoke like nausea in my stomach and me brimming with Catholic guilt, thinking, Now I've done it, and then thinking, Done what? What have I done?
Seriously, though. We must ensure that CanLit escapes the stereotype of being Pinch-your-nose CanLit:

Pinch-your-nose CanLit is the CanLit most Canadians teens were force fed in high school, swallowing it because it was good for them. No teen ever got indigestion from CanLit but few asked for second helpings until their literary taste buds matured.
Celebrating the pyrotechnical writers we've already got as home-grown talent (and not reducing them to imitations of others) is essential to this hope and process. At the same time, we should not shy away from looking at the broad range of literary influences at work in our literature. And all the other excellent writers that write elsewhere.

As Douglas Glover told The Danforth Review:

Whether Canadian literature is all it's pumped to be is not a question that interests me. On the other hand, there are some books written by Canadians I love.

That seems just about right.