Thursday, March 10, 2011

Zadie Smith

If it had been published a few years earlier (that is, if it had been published during the Presidency of George W. Bush), there would have been a stronger political context for unpacking the title: Changing My Mind (Occasional Essays).

As it was, Zadie Smith's brilliant and diverse essay collection was published in 2009, and so can be read politically as an affirmation of the dude who followed dubya, the cosmopolitan Mr. Obama, who is sometimes derided as a waffler.

Smith doesn't celebrate waffling, but she does celebrate deep and attentive thinking. "For reasons that are obscure to me," she writes, "those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians" (142).

Quote: "Shakespeare's art, the very medium of it, allowed him to do what civic officers and politicians can't seem to: speak simultaneous truths" (143).

Quote: "From our politicians, though, we still look for ideological heroism, despite everything. We consider pragmatists to be weak. We call men of balance naive fools" (144).

Well, not all of us do, and not always, but point taken. Life, reality is mutable. The bards are more honest than the politicians. It is hypocritical, nay, dangerous, to seek purity in our politics or truth through ideology.

Smith quotes John Keats' famous definition of negative capability, then notes: "Through the glass of 2008, 'negative capability' looks like the perfect antidote to 'ideological heroism'" (144).

So, she takes us into the G.W. Bush era, after all. (Which for many, ahem, hasn't ended, and didn't begin with dubya, anyway.)

The book's seventeen essays are classified by five verbs: reading, being, seeing, feeling, and remembering. They are not, despite what might be suggested above, overtly political. The title, however, is well chosen.

Covering topics are diverse as film (seeing), David Foster Wallace (remembering), her father's D-Day involvement (feeling), her early engagement with Zora Neale Hurston (reading), and Mr. Obama and Shakespeare (being), Smith champions life as an engaged process. One with ebbs, flows, regressions, and, above all, change.

Lord, bless her. Early on, I discovered I needed to read this book pen in hand; all the better to put check marks in the columns where I wanted to shout out, "Right on!"

Smith is dedicated to the delicate, sophisticated, and precise. She is a detractor of the, well, fanatic. Here's a couple sentences from her essay on E.M. Forster:

To his detractors, the small, mild oeuvre of E.M. Forster is proof that when it comes to aesthetics, one really better be fagged: the zeal of the fanatic is what's required. "E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot," thought Katherine Mansfield, a fanatic if ever there was one (15).

In a terrific compare and contrast essay ("Two Directions for the Novel"), Smith shows what literary criticism can be and so often isn't, an opportunity to be open to different perspectives and not build up an argument on one side with the goal of eliminating any opposition.

The two novels contrasted in this essay are Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainder. Do these novels represent the two directions for the novel? The two directions or just two directions? They are two very different novels. They may even be, as Smith suggests, "antipodal." "One," she writes, "is the strong refusal of the other." But are they the only two paths novels can go by? Unlikely.

Smith writes:

All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It is perfectly done -- in a sense, that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait (73).

"A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked." Yummy. This sentence describes the state of the Canadian novel, and the above paragraph is stunning criticism calling out for mimics within the Canlit cosmos. Not a criticism of nationalism, but a criticism of form, style and content. One rooted in deep history and respectful of diversity of approach.

Meanwhile, anyway, and in any case (apologies for the diversion), it's a great essay.

Also recommended (worth the price of admission all on its own) is the elegy (strangely available on YouTube) to David Foster Wallace, who could not have asked (or dreamed or prayed) for a more sensitive reading of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which (unknown to me until this latest google search) is now a movie ("comedy, drama").

"Elegy" is my word. Within the essay Smith notes that she began writing it while DFW was alive, but the tone overall is elegiac. The tone avoids hagiography, but the sensitivity of the reading Smith presents makes clear her respect for her late-colleague.

Smith quotes the following from DFW (from a 2005 commencement speech (Smith, 264)):

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"


The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: "This is water. This is water." It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.

DFW did, and Smith does. The evidence is on every page of Changing My Mind. I liked the essays about books and literature best. The rest were okay.

Smith writes about Nabokov and Kafka and much else. Here's one of the lighter moments: "It's a cliche to think liking Keats makes you cultured (Larkin and Amis defaced their college copy of The Eve of St. Agnes) ... " [and here she puts in a footnote: "Next to the phrase 'into her dream he melted' was written 'You mean he fucked her, do you?'" (24).]

I looked for a decent video of Smith to end with here, but didn't find one. So here instead is DFW.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010) is both easy and difficult to describe.

The book contains an analysis of Toronto literature, from the earliest of times to the present.

But what is “Toronto literature”? And what is the critical approach taken in the analysis?

First, Toronto literature is books that set (most of their) action in Toronto.

Second, Lavender Harris teaches at the Geography Department at York University and focuses on “urban identity and the cultural significance of place.” See also the Imagining Toronto website. Her book, she writes:

… is predicated on a belief that rather than comparing Toronto to the world’s other great literary cities and finding it wanting, we should instead realize that Toronto’s literature reflects an entirely new kind of city, a city where identity emerges not from shared tradition or a long history but rather is forged out of a commitment to the virtues of diversity, tolerance and cultural understanding (14).

That is, she presents an urban planner’s view of Toronto as reflected in books written about Toronto. What she compares and contrasts are books about Toronto to other books about Toronto and all of those books to the city itself. The book emphasizes, therefore, the integration of the “real” and the “imagined.” The first sentence quotes Michael Ondaatje from In the Skin of a Lion: “Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting” (13).

One caution here. The Ondaatje quotation contains the suggestion that the real can be seen, defined and stabilized. Once it has been routed through the filter of the imagination. But the imagination is nothing if not mutable, and so the real is constantly shifting also. Lavender Harris presents an image of Toronto as filtered through dozens of books published between the recent past and stretching back through the decades to pre-Confederation. She has distilled patterns and provides a remarkably wide-ranging reading list, but I’m uncertain how much this has to do with “the real.”

The greater value in Imagining Toronto is the “kind of charting” the book provides of the imagined Toronto presented across genres in the dozens of books Lavender Harris analyses. This is perhaps the place to say that “literary value” isn’t at the top of the author’s mind, though this doesn’t stop her from calling Gwendolyn MacEwen “undeservedly neglected” (21) or Hugh Garner “internationally regarded” (15), claims George Fetherling challenged in his otherwise praising Quill & Quire review. Lavender Harris, however, does outline a sort of Toronto Canon, but it is a canon shaped around the cultural significance of space rather than a holding to account against a particular school of literary criticism.

The best Toronto books, in other words, are those that assist in defining Imagining Toronto’s thesis and thus they are books that include an exploration of the specific history, geography, and sociology of Toronto. Such books include: Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, Claudia Dey’s Stunt, Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown and Death in Don Mills, Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Noman’s Land, Michael Redhill’s Consolation, Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians, Sarah Dearing’s Courage My Love, Austin Clarke’s short stories and Hugh Hood’s The Swing in the Garden. To name but a handful.

I kept a pen handy as I read this book, jotting down titles and authors I’d never heard of or had previously passed over. Lavender Harris provides more than ample proof to contradict the skeptics who think that Toronto hasn’t been deeply engaged as a subject in literature. Here is Lavender Harris outlining that school of thought:

In a 2005 essay called “Making a Toronto of the Imagination,” journalist Bert Archer asserted that Toronto is “a city in no one’s imagination, neither in Toronto, nor in the rest of the world,” adding, “Toronto is a place where people live, not a place where things happen, or, at least, not where the sorts of things happen that forge a place for the city in the imagination.” Similarly, author Andrew Pyper has claimed that “there’s a reluctance in our fiction to engage Toronto directly as a place,” a sentiment echoed by literary critic Philip Marchand, who wrote flatly of the “bland and featureless reputation” of Toronto’s literary landscape and insisted that “our city awaits its great novelist” (15-16).

Of great interest to me was Lavender Harris’s inclusion of many titles published pre-1967. Just as Carmine Starnino did in his expansive introductory essay to Lover’s Quarrel, where he argued that the pre-dominant view that the nation’s literature had failed to mature prior to the Centennial Generation was false, Lavender Harris re-introduces the sophistication of previous eras to help renew and reframe discussions about Toronto’s literary history.

Lavender Harris, in fact, goes back to the beginnings of geological time, discussing the impact of the Ice Age on the topography of what would become Toronto (i.e., it left the city dragged with ravines, a feature that repeats with unsurprising frequency in many Toronto novels. Paul Quarrington’s The Ravine, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, for example).

Lavender Harris also explores other common features of Toronto: its famous neighbourhoods, its multiculturalism, its suburbs. She also provides a class analysis and surveys the city’s topography of desire. She does all this while also suggesting there is much more that could be said.

Imagining Toronto provides an outline and an overview. It is perhaps overburdened by having to begin by addressing such severe skepticism. It is an introduction to Toronto literature, and it suggests many opportunities where deeper analysis may be richly rewarding. The section called “The Myth of the Multicultural City,” for example, is a mere 25 pages. It deserves a volume unto itself.

Here’s some other online responses: