Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mordecai Richler

The headline read "Quebec concerned that Paul McCartney will "bring back painful memories of our conquest,'" and I found it hard not to think of Mordecai Richler.

Especially when the article also revealed that a letter to the former Beatle endorsed by Parti Québécois Members of the Quebec National Assembly asked McCartney to show the same sensitivity to “the people of French Quebec” as he has shown to “the fate of the seals.”

The Beatles' bassist was in Quebec as part of the city's 400th anniversary. At first he said, "Me and the band are excited to finally get there and rock out with the good people of Quebec."

Later he said, "I'm very friendly with the French people that I know. I know people of all nationalities and, hey, I'm friendly with German people and, by that argument, I should never go to Germany or they should never come here."

This event took place in July 2008. By today (Sept. 21, 2008), the CBC version of this story had accumulated 348 comments.

Oh Canada, Oh Quebec! [Peter Gzowski interviews Richler on his book (1992).]

[The whole CBC archive on Richler here.]


Earlier this year, the first formal biography of Richler (1931-2001) appeared. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain (McGill-Queen's, 2008) by Reinhold Kramer, a professor of English at Brandon University, has been reviewed by Darryl Whetter, Steven W. Beattie, Nathan Whitlock, Robert Reid, Ken McGoodgan and probably others...

Previously, an informal biography appeared. The Last Honest Man (M&S, 2005) told the story of Richler's life through the voices of others. The book is full of fragments of interviews with those who knew Richler. The result is a kaleidoscopic view of the man. The general gist of his life come across, but one gets the sense of missing many details.

Kramer's biography fills in some of those details, but not nearly enough. More significant is its attack on the theme of the previous book: honesty. Kramer never calls Richler a hypocrit, but he does undermine the oversimplistic reputation of Richler among his fans that he simply "told it like it was."

"Do you want to be liked?" Joel Yanofsky asked Richler in 1997, and he got the stare of death in return.

"What do you mean do I want to be liked?" Richler finally replied. "I want my work to be well thought of. But myself? I never think of that one way or another. Look, I don't take the temperature every day. I've also been very critical of a lot of things in the past and I continue to be critical, so I'm fair game. I don't solicit affection."
Myself, I miss Richler because he was funny. He was complicated, and unique. I want to know what he would have made of the fracas over Paulie's showcase in Quebec City.


And what of the Kramer biography? First, there is a lot more to be written about Richler. This is not the definitive account. Second, Kramer is excellent in illuminating the consistency of Jewish thought through Richler's work. For example, the golem is a Jewish avenger, and so is St. Urban's Horseman, the hero of the book by the same title (1971). Who knew? Not me.

As noted above, Kramer seems to have gone out of his way to be "fair." That is, he is clearly not beholden to the Richler estate (though he is deferring to Richler's widow) or the myth of Richler as "The Last Honest Man." He has made an attempt to outline the influences and forces on Richler's life, and he has created an alternate account of Richler: one who knows the value of his work and never fails to exact it. He presents Richler as the hero of the common man who later publishes a story in Saturday Night magazine sponsored by Absolut Vodka.

Ken McGoogan in the Globe and Mail said Kramer "sounds like a tenured academic disparaging a professional writer for making a living by his pen." Actually, Kramer twice inserts jokes into the biography about Brandon being the centre of the universe. Funny? No! (Particularly after he botches one of Richler's best lines: how his father responded to his first novel, The Acrobats: "What do you know about the circus?")

There are a number of new biographies of Richler coming soon, one by Charles Foran. Many more will likely follow. I'm looking forward to the review of Richler's career as a screen writer. Kramer outlines it here, but only in the barest details.

Richler led many lives -- and was a remarkable self-creation in a time when Canada had no major writers to speak of. That's the most significant challenge for any biographer of Richler: to explain how he did it, drove himself into the world as he did, with the ambitions that he had, achieving what he did. It was a remarkable life. There is much more to be written about it, and the work, too.



I saw Richler twice. Once at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I'm guessing it was about 1992. And once at the Eden Mills Writers Festival, about 1998?

At Hart House, he presided over a debate about "appropriation of voice." The two sides debated and then he waded in. He didn't take sides. He essentially said it was an unfortunate, irrelevant debate. One, of course, could write whatever one wanted to. To the young, black woman who'd argued that she hadn't read anything that included her point of view, he expressed regret. It was too bad, but the remedy she wanted (a kind of censorship) wasn't realistic.

I'd been reading Richler essays, and I'd noted that he had a couple of favourite quotations that he repeated. In the discussion at Hart House, he used one of them again, and after the debate I went to talk to him about it. I tapped him on the shoulder and said I'd noticed that he'd used one of the quotations he liked. He said, "You're a very perceptive young man," and turned swiftly around before I could reply.

At Eden Mills, he read on a bill with Barbara Gowdy and Gordon Lish. Before Lish read, he warned the audience that any young children should be removed. He was going to read something that wasn't child-friendly. And he didn't. He read a litany of sex acts. After about fifteen minutes, the audience started clapping. Enough already. He stopped, noting that Leon Rooke had been given a similar kiss-off in New York City.

Richler made no comment about Lish's reading, but he did say that he'd been approached by Greenpeace before the reading and asked to make a comment about their good work. "These young people are doing good work," he said, then he read the section of Joshua Here and Now about Jesus being nailed to the stick.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Literary snob, c'est moi

I was reading my University of Toronto alumni magazine (Fall 2008) in the office the other day, when I discovered myself quoted in a profile of novelist Andrew Pyper: "He seems more intent on following Grisham than Faulkner."

The quote isn't recent (I haven't read anything by Pyper in nearly a decade and haven't got anything against the man), but you see the dichotomy? On the one hand, millionaire; on the other, Nobel Prize.

I came home and told my wife about my discovery. "I was quoted in the U of T alumni magazine."

"That's great!" she said.

I said, "The article gave me as an example of a literary snob."

She thought this was hilarious. "You?!"

There were pots on the stove. The kids were demanding attention. There was no time to explain that years earlier, before we met, in another century, I cultivated pretentions, hung out in smokey bars, listened to poetry. Discussed Sartre. Or was it Pynchon? Or that prose magician of my own generation, David Foster Wallace?

I was not always the patient, nurturing, earth-father of a family man that you see before you.

[And she wasn't always the pot-minding, laundry-tending super mom who can sweep through six rooms in a single bound to attend to a screaming child either, she would like you to know.]

Yes, I reviewed books. Mea culpa. I had opinions.

What is all of this about?

At the Salon des Refuses launch last month, Dan Wells told an anecdote about Mavis Gallant. When asked by an editor if she would be interested in writing book reviews, she declined, saying: "Nothing good can come of it."

I kind of felt that way when I saw my words bounced back at me. Nothing good has come of them.

[For the record, I've never written anything about Pyper's novel The Trade Mission.]

The article continued:

Pyper can't stand such snobbery, the divisions of writers into people-pleasers and artists. To his mind, too many literary types look down on storytelling, while lauding ponderously written navel-gazing. "The so-called beach reads actually take a lot of work ... as much refinement as, if not more than, 500 pages about gazing out to sea and memories-of-my-grandmother."

Pyper continued: "I'm not a Virginia Woolf, doing spontaneous and poetic noodlings, letting the vibrations of the universe speak to me."

Is this article implying the Faulkner wrote ponderous navel gazing? Does the typical beach read have more refinement than The Lighthouse? Is being compared to John Grisham really all that bad? Who implied that writing a beach read was easy? Is the difficulty of the writing process even relevant?

These latter questions cluster around the subject of this blog (attempts to define literature; whatever that is). The article says Pyper believes too many literary types look down on storytelling. One of them is the editor of Pyper's short story collection, John Metcalf, who has made a career as a sharpened literary advocate for short stories written in prestine prose.

For 40 years Metcalf has been trying to introduce Canadian readers to elegance. In 1982, he told Geoff Hancock, "Critics in Canada don’t have a horror of elegance. They don’t even know its there." He quoted Evelyn Waugh’s Paris Review interview:
I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language. And with this I am obsessed. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.
In response to that quotation, Metcalf said:

Now, that sentence, ‘I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language’ is a statement that many today would have difficulty understanding. They’re so used to the idea of literature being about something or of using literature as something else – as sociology, history, psychology, what have you. The idea that it’s a verbal structure in the sense in which a lyric poem, for example, is a verbal structure, is an idea that’s largely foreign now to most readers of novels – even intelligent readers of novels (Kicking Against The Pricks, 10).
Here is the essence of Metcalf’s project: To inculcate into Canadian letters an aesthetic that takes pleasure in rhetoric. Short stories, he insists, are "performance," not telling of tales. What should concern refined readers is the arrangement of the words.

Is this snobbishness? Maybe so, but snobbishness has an evil opposite, which is a sure killer of literary culture. Populism.

Myself, I think good storytelling is just fine (and Metcalf undervalues it), but literature is more than storytelling. Metcalf's critiques are a welcome reminder of that.

This blog post echoes some of the conflicts at the heart of the Salon des Refuses. Taking sides isn't the point of this post. Keeping the discussion going, and hopefully deepening it, is.

Friday, September 5, 2008

TDR Fiction issue #24

With this issue, TDR begins its tenth year. It's hard to believe, but a glance in the mirror confirms I'm going grey.

Is this from an overdose of short stories? Not at all. After ten years, the most enjoyable part of this little enterprise (for me, anyway) is selecting the fiction we publish.

Each of the stories submitted is a unique creation of the person who wrote it. For this issue, I reviewed 198 stories. Okay, they weren't all great, and I didn't read each one through to the end. But every time I begin preparing a new issue I am heartened by the flood of emails from hopeful writers.

Life abounds out there on the e-horizon. People are daring to write, daring to risk the rejection of submission, daring (in the first instance) to honour the daemon of the creative impulse. Make a mark against the darkness. Leave a legacy.

Twenty-four issues ago, I confess, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I didn't know what I was doing as an editor and had only the rawest qualifications. Some would say my ability to recognize excellence is questionable (nearly every issue, someone who's been rejected lets me know of my error -- though many more do the appropriate thing; say "thanks for your time, dude").

I've tended to assume that over time I was learning what I liked by choosing stories to place in TDR, but I don't think that any more. Now I think that the stories in TDR represent a prismatic overview of the short story form. They aren't limited to a particular aesthetic. They showcase the variety of which the form is capable.

I know this may sound self-serving, but there it is. With this issue, I have found eight stories (double the usual number of late), and I was so pleased by the richness of this grouping that I couldn't bring myself to cut the number down any further.

These editorials, BTW, began when the Canada Council suggested I write editorials to let readers know something about my aesthetic. My aesthetic, it turns out, is: Whatever works; surprise me. I like all kinds of stories. I'm most impressed if you can make me laugh.

Many of the stories in this new issue did that immediately. Others worked on me with a more subtle humour. Though Tim Conley's story, frankly, I'm not sure I understand.

Here are the stories once more. Please read them. They're great.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jonathan Bennett

Entitlement by Jonathan Bennett (ECW, 2008) is a plot-driven encounter with one of Canada's richest, oldest, most entitled (and fictional) families: the Aspinalls.

A well-paced story with a thumping ending, Bennett's second novel occasionally lapses into sociological telling-not-showing about the meaning of wealth in Canada. It is saved, however, by its strong, compelling characters and clear, direct prose.

The novel is framed by the quest of a biographer to tell the story of Aspinall family, old, Upper Canadians who -- in the words of the patriarch -- manage to perpetuate their wealth and influence because Canadians don't really know they exist. Americans worship their capitalists, and the British gossip endlessly about the Monarchy, but Canadians kind of just assume that we're all pretty much the same. The rich amongst us benefit from this anonymity, this novel suggests. They just keep doing what they do, and no one bothers them much.

The biographer in the novel is sort-of trying to excavate this silence, though it's not immediately clear why she thinks there's a story to tell (there is, but she doesn't discover it until later).

I imagined the biographer as modelled on Stevie Cameron, but I hope the author of On The Take (Random House, 1995) was ... well, a little more intrepid, alert, smart and gutsy ... than the biographer presented here. There's a certain simplicity to Bennett's characters in this novel, embodied by (but not limited to) the biographer character. This simplicity grounds the novel's presentation of Canadians as passive, willing dupes to the super rich.

Are the Aspinalls supposed to be the Irvings? the Reichmanns? the Thomsons? the Westons?

None of the above. But one does note it's been many years since Peter C. Newman's The Canadian Establishment has had a new edition.

What are those rich people up to, anyway? National Post readers know; they provide glory for the rest of us. This novel takes that point of view, too; then twists it.

Back to the plot. The biographer discovers, and interviews, Andy Kronk, a working-class hockey player whose puck skills "earned" him a scholarship at Lord Simcoe College (UCC?), where he befriends the youngest Aspinall, Colin, a contemporary Oscar Wilde. Perceptive readers will pick up quickly that things won't go well for Colin. Twenty years later, Kronk tries to reconstruct the story.

At the heart of this book is the relationship of Andy and Colin. They live as brothers, yet are star-crossed. Colin is gay, loves Andy; not gay, Andy can only be Colin's platonic ideal.

Bennett's last novel, After Battersea Park, told the story of twins separated at birth:
Part mystery, part love story, Jonathan Bennett’s debut novel deftly examines fractured identities, families and cultures in a tale that spans one year, three continents and two generations. As William and Curt conflate and dissolve they wrestle with the twin masters of memory and truth, reason and passion. Here is a contemporary portrait of two men bound by blood and lies, but liberated by a chance to be both whole and wholly understood.
A thematic summary of Entitlement would also focus on the challenges of emotional connections between men. Bennett is a deft explorer of this continent.