Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

A Few Small Perfect Moments

Thursday night’s late show, “Freedom,” featuring eclectic novelist trio David Bergen, Annabel Lyon and Shauna Singh Baldwin, turned out to be a fine, intriguing evening. From start to finish, the event was engaging. The authors were too bright, too accomplished at their trade for anything else to be possible. Yet certainly, there was a precise moment about halfway through where, just as things threatened to descend into the realm of predictable, introverted lit-talk, David Bergen managed to toss in just the right amount of unpredictability and informality needed to keep the pot boiling.


It was during the panel section of the evening, when Ottawa poet and moderator for the evening Sandra Ridley asked the trio questions. Unexpectedly, Bergen, apparently unable to contain his boyish curiousity, apologized to the moderator, faced Lyon, and started asking his own questions to her. He asked about how she structured her works, and whether she outlined her plots ahead of time and a few other technical questions. For a few minutes the three of them discussed their organizational approaches to writing, and it seemed that they had almost forgotten the audience in their curiousity to uncover the others’ trade secrets. The audience certainly didn’t mind being momentarily excluded.


Seeing the natural connection form between the authors was memorable. At the best moments, it wasn’t three performers trying to entertain an audience, it was three very different people who had allinvested their lives into the same craft, genuinely connecting in conversation.


The evening concluded with a time of Q&A, which did a good job maintaining that informality so necessary in keeping things relevant and interesting. Some fascinating reader-writer connections were formed: The first audience member to stand up addressed Singh and told her of a trip through Pakistan in which she had used one of Singh’s novels as a kind of guidebook, going to each of the different sites mentioned in the novel. Singh was clearly honoured that her book had made such an impact on this woman’s life.


Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night came near the end of the Q&A. A woman stoodup, prodded by a friend, and asked hesitantly whether a certain baby in Lyon’s most recent novel, The Sweet Girl , had been fathered by this character or that. Apparently this had been the source of some controversy in their book club. Lyon’s shocked and surprised expression was priceless.


“You thought that!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Come talk to me after.”
She wasn’t being derisive of the woman’s comment. She was simply fascinated that an intelligent reader could come up with such an alternate interpretation. Raising her arms in a baffled expression, she brought up Roland Barthes essay, “The Death of the Author,” implying, who was she to judge an interpretation of her own book? The book is finished; its text is there for anyone to dismember and reassemble; it is no longer hers to dictate exactly what it means. They would speak after the event not as author and reader but as two readers of the same book. I wish I could have witnessed the conversation.


To me, the event was a success not because of its profound in-depth look at “freedom” (the theme, in fact, was only touched on briefly and tangentially) but because of a few small perfect moments.


Maybe the most perfect of these moments was Bergen’s reading from his latest work in Canadian realism, The Age of Hope . When Bergen spoke the last sentence of his reading and raised his eyes to the audience a quiet laugh ran through the audience, not because the last line was funny, but because wewere thrown slightly off-balance at how compelling the narrative was, how perfectly it ended, and how much emotional thrust it contained for its simplicity.