Sunday, January 29, 2012

Elizabeth Smart

Google Elizabeth Smart today and you get the teenage kidnap victim. But there was another Elizabeth Smart whose story is at least as interesting and quite divergently different.


By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life
by Rosemary Sullivan
Penguin, 1992

[This review first appeared in Imprint, University of Waterloo, May 29, 1992]

Once upon a time there was a woman who was just like all women. And she married a man who was just like all men. And they had some children who were just like all children. And it rained all day. ... In the end the died. Do you insist on vulgar details? Mere gossip? Loathsome gluttony? Chapter one: they were born. Chapter two: they were bewildered. Chapter three: they loved. Chapter four: they suffered. Chapter five: they were pacified. Chapter six: they died. -- Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart wrote the poetic-prose masterpiece, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and may just be Canada's greatest and most misunderstood writer. I mean, The Globe's Jay Scott somehow found it fit to describe her in last March's Chatelaine magazine as "the bisexual bohemian product of a wealthy Ottawa family against whom she rebelled."

Smart, says Scott, "carried on a passionately masochistic relationship with married poet George Barker for 19 years; she even bore him four children." Even, says Scott. It makes you wonder if he even bothered to read By Heart, "the awkwardly written but superbly researched biography" he was supposedly reviewing. What an idiot. What a country.

Elizabeth Smart once described Canada as a majestic country without any people in it, by which she meant there weren't any decent Canadian poets. For Smart, there weren't any people but poets, which was why she had four kids by T.S. Eliot's protoge, George Barker, though they hardly ever lived together and her four children were only four of his fifteen.

Smart wrote By Grand Central Station about the initial stages of her relationship with Barker, when he was drifting between Smart and his wife, manipulating them both and putting down his carelessness to the cause of Art. First published during World War II, the book was well received but quickly vanished. Its powerful poetry only resurfaced to prominence later with the rise of interest in women writers and a democratic reshuffling of the literary canon. Smart's work now stands as one of the pinnacles of poetic-prose of the 20th century.

In her own way, Smart, then, is a transitional figure. Hugely passionate and yet fiercely independent, she embodies both the traditional female mother-archetype and the contemporary feminist-ideal. She had four children because she wanted children. She was obsessed with them all her life. When she read George Barker's poetry in a book store one day, she decided he would be the father of her children -- damn the powers that be -- and he was. In that way, she was what her generation of told her a woman should be.

But she was also a New Woman, a female writer, a romantic, who wanted to live a life like Byron's. She wanted to live her life with kinetic energy, fight against the forces that would try to hold her back, struggle against the suffering, and win. Of James Bond she once wrote that he could have his mistresses as long as she could have her lovers. Society was hypocritical: it praised adventurous men but damned adventurous women.


Reading at Seagram's Museum on May 6, Sullivan expounded on her thesis that Smart had two primary themes in her writing, love and silence. Smart first pursued George Barker with an obsessiveness that was total and blinding, believing as she did that heroic love would save her from her bland, bourgeois, Canadian up-bringing.

But finding her vision far less than realistic, Smart then turned later in life, like many creative women of her generation (Sylivia Plath comes easily to mind), to trying to find a voice for all the women who are silenced by a culture that dominates and subjugates them.

Smart came from a wealthy family, but she spent the prime of her life as a single mother struggling to make ends meet, dying all the time only to write. She knew only too well what she came to call "woman's lot." Smart's second book, The Assumptions of Rogues and Rascals, illuminates her second theme. She "rebelled" (said Scott)? Good God, I hope so.

At one point in By Heart, Sullivan poses the rhetorical question, How then do you survive life's script? "By a rage of will," she says and quotes Smart:

Like this: pray; bang your head; be beautiful; wait; love; rage; rail; look, and possibly, if lucky, see; love again; try to stop loving; go on loving; bustle about; rush to and fro. Whatever you say will be far less than the truth.

"Refuse dismay and battle on regardless," says Sullivan, "which is what Elizabeth did. Indeed, Elizabeth believed the only response to life was 'ecstatic surrender' since life has a will stronger than yours. 'It is not for you to know.' She would always ask herself, 'Can't I possibly be a little braver?'"

Elizabeth Smart, says Sullivan, "lived on a vertical plane, where ecstasy or pain could deliver themselves like shafts shattering the moment." And -- oh! -- she is so sad! Her language has such strength and yet she was so subsumed by her need to love and be loved. She couldn't believe she was a good writer until a man told her she was. But not just any man, a poet. Barker, thankfully, gave her that praise, and Smart gave us her prose.

So full of contradictions, it is difficult to know what to make of Smart's life in our contemporary context. Her absolute devotion to her children might be seen as an attack on women's progress in the workplace, and yet Smart broke through many -- if not all -- of the social taboos of her day (and these days, too). That she is a great writer is gospel. Her life will only grow in significance. Rosemary Sullivan has done her well.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Milan Kundera

This is the first book review I ever published, over 20 years ago, and its conclusion still rings true today.

Interesting to read this so much later. I can't remember much about the book now. Forgot all about Imagology. But I did remember the 60-year-old waving to the swimming instructor.

The point being, WC Williams and the imagists were right. The concrete wins out over the abstract every time.

On the same page, above the fold, was Derek Weiler's review of Atwood's Wilderness Tips.


[Review first published in Imprint, University of Waterloo, Sept 27, 1991]

by Milan Kundera
Grove Weidenfeld

Back after a seven year hiatus, Milan Kundera has published a new novel. Probably best known in North America for the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera has returned with a delicate and delightful novel, a novel very much of its time.

Not that its time, the present, is delicate and delightful. Quite the opposite. The present is paradoxical, as is this beautifully heavy novel with a light touch, Immortality.

Translated from the native Czech, Immortality is Kundera's first novel since the end of the Cold War and the restructuring of Eastern Europe. For an expatriate living in France whose last novel studied the intricacies of modern life on both sides of the Iron Curtain before, after, and during 1968's Prague Spring, these must be significant events. And they are. But Immortality sets them in a broader context.

This is not a novel about the end of communism, though the effects of the recent changes are in evidence. This is a novel about Europe(ans), past and present, a contient too told and too much ravaged by supposedly Great Leaders this century to trust too quickly in another promise of renewal.

The novel explores the relationship between personalities and environments in intricate detail. This is a novel about a continent and its people stuck in time, not Movements or destiny or the Great Future. The characters, including one named Milan Kundera, are metaphors, imaging life in our uncertain age. Each character represents a personality-type whose almost every action the novel explains in continually evolving essays: the novel begins by interpreting the connection between the wave of a 60-ish woman to her young male swimming instructor with her adolescent self. Some people, the novel explains, are better suited to their environments than others, are luckier.

Though most of the "action" (very little happens in any real sense) takes place in Paris, late 1980s, the landscape of the novel includes a couple-three scenes in Heaven, where Hemingway, Goethe, the 19th century German poet, converse about their respective losses of power over their images on Earth now that they are dead. Being dead for Kundera is apparently as unbearably light as being alive.

"Nobody reads me any more," Hemingway complains. "Instead, they read about me."

Goethe, on the other hand, decides that immortality is as much a joke as his first life and zaps himself from eternity.

The relationship between words and reality, a theme explored in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is picked up again in Immortality. Where the first novel included "A Short Dictionary of Words Misunderstood," Kundera now expounds his theory of Imagology, the theory that the illusion is more powerful than reality because the illusion is what people believe.

Bernard Bertrand's father, Bertrand Bertrand, is a big-time journalist. Bernard chooses his occupation, breaking away from the partri-lineal tradition of politicians of his family because he realizes those who choose the images make the politicians. The power base has shifted.

And power, after all, is what life is all about. Think globally, act locally, the personal is political, and we're all responsible. Deluded perhaps, and more than a little confused about how to act in unity with the rest of the world's population, the environment, History, Time and Space (read, Immortality), but still responsible.

Life is a series of power relations, or at least that's the "image" to believe in these days (Kundera says Imagology has replaced Ideology, as both communism and capitalism have proven themselves morally backrupt).

The Gulf War was still Saddam Hussein's fantasy when Immortality was written, but the century's most destructive one-sided massacre appears only to have provided evidence for Kundera's thesis. Iraq's millions fought the "Great Satan" and the coalition forces fought "Another Hitler." Meanwhile, reality lost once again, along with civilians in both Iraq and Kuwait. The images of hate prevailed.

Immortality is President Bush's New World Order on a literary level. It draws allusions of hope out of destruction. However, like the President's vision of a new and lasting international peace, Kundera's vision of immortality is based on his own politics, not universal truth (the situation of very real death and destruction in Yugoslavia is proof enough that peace and renewal will take more than American rhetoric, or another novelist's sweet despair). His exclusive use of male pronouns reveals the walls of only one of his illusions.

The novel is a fine work of art and great reading, but any attempt to pull definitive truths from its pages will only meet frustration. We have no way of knowing how events are going to turn out, and nothing is new about that!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sam Roberts

"There's no road
that ain't a hard road
to travel on."
-- Sam Roberts, "Hard Road"

Friday, January 20, 2012

Don Freed

Apropos of nothing, I thought I'd look up "Talkin' Louis Riel Day Blues" by Don Freed on the internet. Isn't that the home of everything these days?

My my, I couldn't find it.

And yet, there I was in 1992 in Saskatoon (what was the name of that place?) in a little club watching Don Freed record a live album. Colin James guested.

I think "Talkin' Louis Riel Day Blues" is a song every Canadian should know.

I'd first seen Freed when he opened for Jane Siberry at the Ontario Place Forum in 1988-ish. Is none of this on YouTube?

From Wikipedia, I learned that the live album was only ever available on cassette. I have a copy. Upstairs. Somewhere.

But I didn't know this - Freed with Johnny Cash - and more.

Here he is from 2007:

Also on MySpace.

Here he is again.

Rock on, Don!