Talking about Israel is perennially topical, and on the packed Sunday afternoon there was palpable expectation about David Berlin and Hirsh Goodman delivering their talk based on their respective books.
Unlike the poetry world where poets seem mainly to write for each other, writers seem to not appreciate each other’s work. Or at least this was the point bemoaned by Berlin as he took the stage first. He mused aloud that it would be an interesting proposal to have authors having to present one of their contemporaries’ work as if they themselves had written it. David Berlin has an impressive CV with being editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada and founding editor of The Walrus being a couple among several other accomplishments. He started by directly extricating a quotation from Goodman, which is essentially that the question of “Will Israel survive?” infuriated Goodman as the premise on which his potential book was to be predicated on.
Berlin’s contention is that writing about the Middle-East would always be a slippery eel of a task since being in a state of flux is indicative of normalcy. This is apparent more so with this year’s regime collapses in Arab North Africa. While Berlin’s point is valid, it is only a half-truth since there are certain characteristics (e.g. the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict) which endure. And for these things that do endure, and for the histories which are tangible, explanations do serve a vital role. Berlin’s book The Moral Lives of Israelis is more of a memoir, filled with varying anecdotes and pointed opinions that any sort of prescription or analysis proper on the State of Israel. This came out clearly in Berlin’s presentation; when juxtaposed with Goodman, Berlin’s personalised pronouncements dragged, seemed jumbled and out of focus. That is not to say that aspects of his presentation do not possess merit.
Berlin’s explanation of how his book came to be is a humbling lesson of listening to editorial advice and willing to let go one’s own voice with respect to the narrator were enlightening. With prodding from his publisher, he allowed the narrator (himself in this case) to get more removed from the text to allow the stories themselves to stand out by itself. In the story which featured in his reading for the afternoon, Berlin’s main concern in questioning an Israeli major centred not as much on human rights violations, alleged or real, but on the training which each Israeli soldier received before being deployed to volatile zones. Berlin, being a sabra and a former member of an Israeli reconnaissance unit (the self-same which Ariel Sharon was a part of) recalled his own experience in the past as an Israeli soldier as being different in that were treated better by their superiors. His main concern was that the original vision of Zionism or a Jewish state by Herzl did not have in its core victimhood as its animating factor, but rather a state where “Jews doing it right” or being the biblical “light unto the nations” was at both its heart and reality. He feared that this ideal was getting dimmer. He outlined an incident at checkpoints in the West Bank, where the diplomatic passports of the Canadian delegation he was a part of were temporarily confiscated, almost causing an incident. His ending of the talk seemed abrupt, with his father’s death, and if sardonic, then failing at providing levity.
As Goodman strode on to the stage, he immediately addressed the incident of the Israeli checkpoint by saying that even Canadian checkpoints in Afghanistan (or checkpoints anywhere) which are susceptible to violent incursions are fraught with tension and mistakes. His rejoinder then illustrated the fact that it is mainly Israeli NGOs which publicize aberration and mistreatment at the checkpoints.
Goodman’s recently published book is The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. In what sounded like an extraordinary statement (and perhaps an overreach) Goodman said that he believed the threat from a nuclear Iran is good for Israel since it “concentrates the mind” but that the heavy catastrophic consequences that would result from an Iranian should be taken seriously. While this may be true, as Berlin would criticize later, using a sense of alarm to promote unity could lead squashing disagreements all on the premise of security. Still, this seems a better attitude than passive panic. With respect to the Arab Spring, Goodman felt that Arab citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and now Syria were dealing with themselves, rather than using Israel as a scapegoat, and that this being a step forward.
Goodman was also bracingly honest about a couple of issues that perennially linger but is often difficult to give a straight answer which doesn’t offend. The one-state solution, was out – since it would mean the destruction of a Jewish state due to the demographics that a right of return would entail. This is often a point which is difficult for Canadians to have sympathy for since an open multicultural milieu is something we value and live out. But an analogy with Québec and it self-identity as a nation is better as it shows that far from being exclusionary, Québec welcomes anyone who accepts the reality of its language and cultural identity. Similarly, Israel hosts 1.2 million non-Jews who are mainly Arab Muslims and Christians and even the Jewish population of Israel is diverse. He also noted that with respect to the settlements, it was hard enough to remove the 16,000 in Gaza and it would be near impossible to remove the 300,000 or so now in the West Bank. He cited that over 60% or the Israeli army is drawn from the young people with links to the settlements and commanding their extraction would lead to civil war in Israel. His solution is land swaps based on density (although the question of contiguous borders remained unanswered). This would inevitably mean that there will be some “hard-core” settlements deep inside the West Bank – since they are a small minority, Goodman sees no problem with them being citizens of an independent Palestine. (Well, maybe he should check with the Palestinian Authority first.) Goodman’s chief concern was that there were many who did not want to see peace between the two sides but this shouldn’t stop Israel from dealing with the current PA administration and using a 10 year hudna or ceasefire with the ideologically unrelenting Hamas. While the settlements may have originated from a time in the 1960s when the “Western Front” posed threats from both Iraq and Jordan, the corrosive effects that occupation brings were acknowledged by both speakers. Another point of agreement was the rejection of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel as being ignorant, flawed and slanderous.
Berlin’s point about preserving the secular nature of Israel, pointing to the presence of a mezuzah at a government official’s drew a rebuke from Goodman that one shouldn’t feel threatened by it since it was present since time immemorial and was rather innocuous. However, Berlin’s insistence that having it at an official, public location (again a comparison with Québec and the crucifix in its legislature comes to mind) is different than having it displayed outside someone’s home is valid. Although this squabble may be small fires next to the incredible growth of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel posing a far greater problem in terms of internal strife.
While the Arab Spring and the recent Occupy movements have commanded a large portion of media coverage, two other protests in India and in Israel against corruption and for social justice have had a deep political impact. Goodman felt that this new generation of up to a million, marching in the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, would indeed make strides towards the dream which Berlin alluded to; based on achievement and compassion than victimhood and occupation. There is still a long road of reconciliation and compromise by both sides but being a hopeful realist isn’t a bad place to start.
By the time the evening ended, it was as if I were transported to my favourite museum in the world: Seattle’s Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Who else but McLuhan could inspire an evening of electronic mysticism and an elegant musical composition? I became more familiar with who McLuhan was, like many others I suspect, through his famous cameo in Annie Hall. Even more recently, Douglas Coupland’s biography of the man (how very apt!) as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series by Penguin was the only one (to my knowledge) which has been re-published in the U.S. under the title of the stinging rebuke delivered in Woody Allen’s movie, ‘You Know Nothing Of My Work!’
2011 denotes the centenary of McLuhan’s birth and as such there have been events around the world to commemorate his unique legacy. We were very fortunate to have B.W. Powe, one of the fabled six students to whom McLuhan taught his last class, to expand and expound the vast implications and ramifications of McLuhan’s often obscure writings. It was great to have the Writer’s Fest play host to the centenary here in Ottawa as it’s frequently unfortunate that Canadians often are the last to acknowledge and celebrate greatness from their own. As Powe would later admit, it took the University of Toronto until this year to give a proper recognition for McLuhan as part of the legendary ‘Toronto School’ of thinkers, which included Northrop Frye, Harold Innis and Glenn Gould; people who remain indispensable to understanding contemporary media culture. It was only the emergence of the Internet and digital technology which revivified him to prominence and vindicated his early supporters.
There were many contemporaries of McLuhan who viewed him with suspicion and in some cases, outright hostility. His work is often littered with prose so delicate and dense that it mirrors the great Jewish sage Maimonides for being esoteric and demanding to parse. Indeed one can think of those like Powe, as faithful commentators akin to the Talmudic tradition. Even Douglas Coupland “found the material so difficult that every two to three pages, he had to take a break from reading.” One way the general and interested reader may dare to scale the walls may be through his many interviews, which consist many of his elaborate ideas succinctly captured.
Powe, who said the he found the Writer’s Fest in Ottawa to be a spark for many of his subsequent writing, seemed clearly poised to preach to a receptive audience. I honestly expected an brief summary of McLuhan’s life and influence, some music then mingling before heading home unscathed as I saw the program with Karsh's (who seems incapable of taking a bad picture) portrait of McLuhan stare back at me. What followed was a soaring incursion into the mystical elements of today’s technological advances when one follows McLuhan’s trails. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated that we “are spiritual beings having a human experience” rather than vice versa. De Chardin’s work would act in juxtaposition to McLuhan’s own work in many ways since de Chardin was also regarded as controversial with many of his work being denied publication by the Roman Catholic Church at that time (the church has since been very receptive to his work with Pope Benedict XVI praising some his ideas).
When McLuhan was asked to describe the 21st Century in only one word, his response was “apocalypse”. While that may conjure up images of annihilation and Armageddon, McLuhan’s derivation finds its etymology in D.H. Lawrence’s aphorism that it is a “new kind of consciousness”. In the mechanical age, technology was seen very much as an extension of the body (notice how the 70s and 80s featured impressive machines and robots à la Star Trek, The Jetsons and Robocop albeit without any inkling of digital prowess) but the advent of the digital and electronic age has ushered in the notion and reality that technology could be an extension of our mind and even our soul. The impact of digital technology has essentially rewired our brains and has brought us closer to each other (in theory at least) so that being part of a “global village” or “global theatre” (a later perhaps more accurate McLuhan terminology according to Powe) means that there is an immediate response to events happening around the world. Much of it is the cause of optimism and the foreboding of a new age of interdependence and openness. Witness the crumbling of dictatorships in the Arab world or that fact that China is ever uneasy with its increasingly bold citizenry or the instantaneous generosity of donations to disasters around the world.
McLuhan was in many aspects a very traditional man; a staunch Catholic who didn’t necessarily have a fondness for what he saw changing around him. As Coupland would propose in his biography, religion seems to be a great “spot to park his (McLuhan’s) overpowering need for a viewpoint that could explain, or perhaps heal, the stress and disjointedness he saw in the world.” Yet, McLuhan had an uncanny and admirably quality of not casting judgement on his own pronouncements (the anti-Chomsky if you will) – in one instance, Powe demanded to know whether one of McLuhan’s observation was a good or a bad thing; McLuhan refused to comment on grounds that it was much bigger than could be fully grasped.
De Chardin really was after what he termed “the global heart of consciousness”. Powe posited that we may be in that era of opening where the gates (much as a Kabbalah tradition holds) of the garden would once again be open. But it may be hard to see or fathom that due to “our cracked natures” (hello Leonard Cohen!) Powe termed this new age “Neuroromanticism”. While, admittedly, Powe’s views extend deeper than can be captured in an article of this length, part of me remained sceptical regarding aspects of de Chardin and Powe’s bewitching ideas. I couldn’t help, mysticism aside, and recall the many negative downsides that technology in this new age has wrought: with the decline of learning and inter-personal relationships being a couple of key arenas.
But I do appreciate the positive outlook of McLuhan who in the spirit of the Christian hope, believed that things would work out well and that one could in imitation of G.K. Chesterton’s exhortation be a “practical mystic” whose “religion is less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Powe graciously ended his lecture by stating that “all of this makes sense, even if I don’t.”
The talk was followed by a special fifteen minute concerto composition based on some of McLuhan’s quotes by the über-talented Ottawan Mike Dubue (on Vibraphone and Synth) and Paul Hogan (electric guitar) of Hilotrons fame, featuring the entrancing Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde from Montréal on cello.
No, I did not go home unscathed. Just as well.
I first picked up Ossuaries late at night after getting my 7 month old to sleep, in that semi-conscious state that all young parents understand brought on from extended sleep deprivation. It’s a state where you are easily taken to fits of wonder and confusion, your emotions manipulated with no effort. I read the first part and had the same feeling I had after watching Donny Darko – “I don’t really know what just happened, but that was cool!” I found much of my reading of Ossuaries, the latest book of poetry by Dionne Brand, to have a similar effect.
I don’t have much experience with poetry. It’s something that I’ve been exploring over the last several years, but this is not an art form that is simple to connect with. It was my graduating ceremony from university that struck my curiosity. The Kipling ceremony (the graduating ceremony for Engineering Students in Canada, based on the work of Rudyard Kipling) gave me a sense of the weight that words can have. Brand has incredible skill in choosing her words for their power. She arranges words like a painter arranges light and dark in an image. Here are specular highlights next to shadows and darkness, giving the two dimensional image an appearance of three, tricking the mind of the reader or perhaps just manipulating for the purpose of affect on the reader:
nearsighted she needs her glasses yes, to summarize
the world, without them she’s defenceless,
that’s why they’re always at the precipice of the bed
Ossuaries is a long form poem exploring our consumptive nature as humans. For the most part it’s spinning around a narrative about Yasmine, a young woman who escapes one ossuary (an abusive marriage) for one she creates for herself. I found it easy to fall into the narrative when it was being told, but would find myself lost when Brand wasn’t speaking about Yasmine. With my first few readings I felt like I would be reading along and then fall right off the page. I expect that this is more a result of my inexperience with work of this depth, but it does give me pause when considering if I would recommend this to someone else.
I found the imagery used in this poem incredibly powerful. Yasmine is consumed by her husband: “You’re nothing, Yas; I made you something by fucking you; other than that you’re nothing”, which she escapes only to become the consumer herself. She robs a bank and kills a security guard in the process, and then flees for safety. She ends her running by taking a job, at the heart of our consumption as a society, on the killing floor of a meat packing plant. In the poem, there’s reference to the September 11 attacks, and many socialist references as well. Like any good work of art, Ossuaries is full of parallels to life that is actually lived.
I think my favourite scene and section of this book is when Yas and her co-conspirators are in their car, and they see the cops behind them, giving chase. The youngest member, a 19-year old, is showing his callousness to the situation. He’s been in jail, he knows what it is like, and doesn’t care. It’s at this junction when Brand says:
they suddenly see their wounds in him,
the gashes in their skins, the gouging, scraping
places left, open raw cavities of their long, long losses
history will enter here, whistling like train wheels,
the road will either end or won’t, the cops catch up or not
they will arrive wherever
they will be at war with their veins,
at war with all accounts, at war, so what
and, look, anyway, they’re all composed in bony anchors
at the feet, they’ll escape or they won’t,
those are eternal cops behind them, glacial and planetary
It’s this that summarizes the poem to me; hopefully we will see our wounds in the character of Yasmine, but whether we do or not, we are being constantly chased by the consequences of our consumption. We can run, and we don’t know if those consequences will ever catch us, but is this the life we want to live?
This is a poem I likely won’t be sharing with a lot of people. It’s a dark work and it has a complicated narrative storyline which doesn’t lend itself to easy popularity. But, I will excitedly share with those that would take the time to engage it. It took me about four reads of Ossuaries to begin to make sense of it on the whole. Reading this work one word at a time was like looking a photo one pixel at a time, so it took me a while to appreciate each colour’s relation to the whole. Because of this effort, I’m likely to appreciate it all the more.
With David Gilmour, Kevin Chong, and Anne Enright, Hosted by Steven Hayward
One hesitates to write a review of an event where three writers spoke at length on their past experience of bad reviews. Their opinions ranged from dismissive pity (“I wish that this aspiring writer could publish a book so that someone can misread him the way that he misread me”) and acknowledgement of subjectivity (“it’s up to the reader to choose which kind of book it is; reviewers brought their own personal morality, or lack of it”) to a rather more violent response (“have I ever smacked a reviewer? Yes, and every time I look back on it, I feel good”). David Gilmour, describing why he doesn’t read his reviews any longer, noted that as a lot of reviewers are failed writers, they unfortunately can make “a perfectly executed stabbing.”
So…let’s get started.
Things did not begin well for monogamy, whatever the event’s title. Anne Enright, who won the Booker Prize for The Gathering and has most recently published The Forgotten Waltz , opened the interview by stating that successful monogamous love is extremely difficult to write about. “Writers,” she said, “are always drawn to the catastrophic and wonderful.” Kevin Chong, who has recently published Beauty Plus Pity , added that such a relationship is hard enough to experience, let alone write about. David Gilmour, whose recent The Perfect Order of Things recounts the suffering in his romantic forays, opined that in his early days he was mostly interested in sexual desire, “the most interesting and dangerous thing about love.”
As the discussion ranged into love of family, there were some genuinely moving stories. Chong referred to the “presentiment of loss” on considering his parents’ death, and how it came to challenge his identity at its roots. Gilmour humorously narrated his conflicting affections on learning that his son thought that the Beatles’ film Hard Day’s Night was awful, John Lennon being the worst of the lot. Correct that: he sided entirely with his love for the band.
At one point Hayward asked if the three writers had any love advice to give. Gilmour feigned the guru, claiming it had taken him forty-five years to learn that while it’s not hard to get a great love, it’s very difficult not to wreck it. Chong passed, soliciting the audience for their wisdom instead. Enright, very loosely alluding to the biblical postures of faith and works, said that as a novelist she was more interested in faith—what people believed, where they go in their heads. When it comes to her life, however, what mattered were the works of love.
When asked if anyone sensed there to be an order or fated element in love, there was a movement towards what had been claimed as uninteresting at the opening of the session: the one right match. Enright acknowledged a sense of momentousness in what we love, even through the seeming arbitrariness. Gilmour, who acknowledged having a number of ex-wives, claimed that there is indeed such a thing as the right person. In fact, he recently went so far as to tell his current wife of twelve years that if she were to leave him she should shoot him on her way out. Tender words. While there was no reference to fate, this seems a hard pattern to break.
What, though, of love looking back from the end of life? Before the interview Gilmour had given a reading from the final chapter of The Perfect Order of Things. In it, he narrated his realization that the memoir was really a process of preparation for his death. “The goal of all philosophy,” he read, quoting Montaigne, “is to learn how to die properly.” Then, with pronounced certainty—odd given his affirmation of being less sure of oneself through the wisdom of suffering—Gilmour read his declaration that there was no afterlife in the religious sense, “no God, no other plane of existence, just a slight delay in the drop into oblivion. Thank you.” With that bracing and conspicuously loveless conclusion, he was applauded.
Reflecting on that first reading in light of an exuberant session on the compelling force of love in human affairs, a seemingly settled acceptance of oblivion is hard to accept. Does the experience of love not signify something greater, more lasting? Thinking of love at its richest, I’ll conclude this review with a reflection from Gilmour’s book that wasn’t read:
How verblessly beautiful the world can be sometimes, I thought. Almost enough to make you believe in God.
Having worked closely with many of the most significant and influential writers of the past half-century, Douglas Gibson is a literary treasure and a wealth of knowledge about Canadian literary and political figures. In his new book, Stories about Storytellers, Gibson recounts a hilarious and touching set of anecdotes about authors and literary figures whose work he has edited and published. The list reads like a Who’s Who of Can-lit: Harold Horwood, Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Jack Hodgins, Pierre Trudeau, Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, and many more. In fact, it seems there is hardly a Canadian literary icon in the past decade with whom he hasn’t had some form of professional connection.
Gibson is utterly at ease in front of a crowd and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious. He began the talk with a silly story about picking his grandson up from school. On the designated day each week when school gets out, Gibson raises his arms in a “V” of excitement to see his grandson. He welcomed the audience with the same gesture. It’s hard not to like him.
Armed with a PowerPoint slideshow of caricatures of these authors, as drawn by Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail, (“The funny thing about Anthony Jenkins is that once he’s drawn you, you look more and more like the illustration every year”), Gibson told a series of short vignettes. For me, this was a fascinating look into the nuts and bolts of writing and editing, and the specific writing processes used by these famous authors. Alistair MacLeod for example, has a very deliberate style of composition – slow and diligent – which, as Gibson recounted, can be quite vexing for a publisher anxious to meet a press deadline. Sometimes he told a story about how he had met an author, other times he spoke about a particular writing style, and other times he spoke about how they developed their rapport as writer and editor. A great many of these stories ended in hilarity, while others still were poignant or sad. In the case of Alice Munro, for example, Gibson claims his greatest literary feat: keeping her writing short stories. As he tells it, Munro’s debut book of short stories was brilliant and, before long, everyone was clamouring for her to follow it up with a novel. But, try as she might, she couldn’t do it. Gibson, recognizing the fact that writing novels wasn’t her thing, encouraged her to go back to short stories and forget about novels completely. He promised to keep publishing her short stories and never mention it again, and she has continued to churn out terrific collections and become one of Canada’s most acclaimed living writers, indeed a modern-day Chekhov.
Gibson also dove into some descriptions of his own editing process. Upon receiving a manuscript, he reads it through in its entirety without making a single mark. Upon completing it, he takes some time to think about it – the plot, the characters, the pacing, etc. Only then, once he feels that he has digested its minutiae, does he go back to the beginning with a pencil and begin making changes. It’s a technique that has served him well.
Much like the myriad authors he has edited, Gibson himself is a wonderful storyteller. It is clear from his own comfort recounting stories that he has made contributions to the work of many of these seminal figures. Gibson’s final story was one of goodbyes. W.O. Mitchell, another renowned Canadian author and inveterate joker, passed away in 1998. When Gibson went to visit him for a final time, they shared their time together and, as Gibson was readying himself to leave, Mitchell casually mentioned that his memory wasn’t as good as it used to be, and he found himself making mistakes. Finally, as they were saying goodbye, Mitchell sprung his punch line, the wrong name: “Goodbye, Bill” Gibson said. “Goodbye, Jimmy,” Mitchell replied. It was a fittingly memorable end to their long relationship. Gibson finished the story with a crack in his voice. His connection to these great and celebrated authors was touching, and his experience and contributions to the canon are invaluable. All in all the evening provided a brilliant portrait of Canadian literature, and Gibson made a compelling case for the wonderful power of storytelling.
Hosted and curated by Mark Medley, book editor at the National Post, Saturday evening’s In the Shadow of the Soviet Union welcomed authors Andrew J. Borkowski and David Bezmozgis to the Knox Church.
After a short introduction to the evening by Medley, Borkowski led things off by reading a passage from his new book, Copernicus Avenue. Roughly based on his own family history, the collection of short stories chronicles the life events and assimilation into Canadian culture of an immigrant family from Poland. The particular story Borkowski chose to read, entitled “12 Versions of Lech,” is the story of an artist – Lech - told from the perspective of a young boy. Borkowski assumed a thick Polish accent at appropriate moments, his booming voice effectively channelling the voices of his characters. The author has a knack for anecdote, and his writing shines with tales of folly and the transplanted Polish culture of Toronto’s fictional, yet grounded in reality, Copernicus Avenue. One such tale describes Lech’s penchant for trickery, on display during an interaction with a couple visiting from America. Posturing as a Laplander, Lech claims to pay his income tax in bones, a story which is eagerly accepted by his woefully inept audience, the American couple.
Bezmozgis followed with a passage from his latest novel, The Free World. The book follows a family of Jewish Latvians who have escaped from the bleakness and despair of their homeland and spend a year in Italy en route to resettling in North America. As Bezmozgis would describe later on in the evening during the discussion period, this European transition zone was a unique cultural phenomenon – families were warmly, albeit temporarily, welcomed into the community as a sort of waystation on their longer journey. The novel is told from three different voices and spans many years; the passage Bezmozgis read is the narrative of a young man, who, upon having gained a reasonable command of the new language, is interviewing as a candidate for an entry-level position in an office. The story largely stays within the character’s own head, and Bezmozgis has brilliantly and deftly kept a running commentary of the situation’s intricacies – the barriers created by language, cultural differences, the sexual interplay between young people – with wry wit and a practiced hand. At one point, the awkward encounter is described thusly, “The sexual proposal was slapped down on the table like a fish.” Titillating indeed.
The wry humour of both authors was brought up once more during the discussion that followed, when Medley and the two authors convened on stage to further discuss the motivations and methods behind their writing. On humour, Bezmogis said, (roughly paraphrased) “When you’re in a bad situation and there’s no way out of it, there’s nothing you can do, you have to laugh.” There is a history of a very dry variety of humour from that part of the world that seems to endure today, perhaps borne of those hardships endured while under the shadow of the Soviet Union.
On stage, the authors shared a comfortable rapport, asking one another questions throughout in response to Medley’s prompts and finding much common ground in regard to their families’ respective pasts and relocation to Canada post WWII. Both Borkowski and Bezmozgis described in detail the histories that set the foundations for their work, with the various waves of immigration into Canada and the events that allowed for and compelled such large groups of people to travel so far around the world. Their writing is well informed by their own personal travels – Borkowski visited Poland with his family as a young man; Bezmozgis has traveled to both Latvia and Italy - as well as the influence of their respective cultures and families.
In traveling back through these historical events, particularly the hardships endured under Soviet rule, the authors became somewhat more introspective. The commodities available in Latvia for example, as described by Bezmogis, were essentially nil (vodka being a lone exception), which prompted whole families to uproot and travel halfway around the world for the sake of finding new opportunities. The extent of the difficulties foisted upon these people was made clear by both authors’ honest marvel for and appreciation of the freedoms those of us living in Canada and the United States have to express ourselves today. Although both Bezmozgis and Borkowski grew up in the West, they still, to a certain extent, live in the shadow of their ancestors’ experience, and reveled in the moment, genuinely appreciating the opportunity to sit, talk, learn and listen. As did we, the audience.
It was great to be able to sneak away to a noon hour event, especially one featuring Miriam Toews (whom I had never previously considered a comic or “funny” writer) and Christian McPherson on a chilly yet brisk Monday afternoon. Titled ‘Is It Hard To Be Funny?’ the question rings rhetorically but as the ensuing discussion illumined, it’s rather more fecund for discourse (or banter at least) than at first glance.
Humour has often been a strange animal, which like live ones seem to die upon dissection with the supplementary insult to injury being that its anatomy still remains inscrutable. This was highlighted by the snail joke our gregarious host, Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Simpson, delivered in his opening remarks which elicited a mixed reaction. Doing stand-up comedy must be one of the difficult gigs in the world, if memoirs of comedians are to be believed. Writing comedy on the other hand, isn’t any easier (nor does it get easier as time goes along as Toews would later attest).
Toews read a passage from her latest offering, her novel Irma Voth which tells the story of a 19 year old Mennonite woman’s experience in meeting characters quite apart from her world. Her deadpan observations really give a form to the absurd incarnations of life which can latch on to our own sense of relating to them by extending our own experiences, transporting our empathy to the protagonist. Voth as a character instantly seems perspicacious and likeable.
McPherson read from his first novel The Cube People which chronicles, with very sly autobiographical allusions, the life of a public servant Colin MacDonald. MacDonald’s trip to the fertility clinic was sympathetic and hilarious. McPherson really owned his narration despite what seemed like early jitters and led the audience through what sounded like an entertaining SNL short skit.
Peter Simpson, in his interview, pointed out that the much beloved comic writer Eric Nicol called writing comedy a “low calling”. The one “doesn’t make a habit of it and doesn’t accept payment for performing it”. While this sounds like an obvious self-parodying jibe, Toews took exception to it in the sense that the notion of thinking of comedy as somehow less “smart or intellectual is completely false.” It was interesting to hear that both writers didn’t consciously try to be funny but rather deliver their observations in their own voice as honestly as possible. I had the impression that a novelist might have the luxury of not consciously trying, but someone writing for say The Colbert Report or This Hour Has 22 Minutes have a different reality as they need to produce funny material on a deadline. This then begged the question as to whether humour is innate or something you strive very hard to produce. This query also leads the subjective notion of humour itself, where Simpson noted that a very affable, educated friend of his didn’t much care for Monty Python whereas Simpson regarded it as the height of comedy.
As a social endowment, there is always a sense of envy with the funny types, because it seems that charisma and thus popularity seems to come to those who can induce the giggles. Scientific studies on the role of laughter in helping with social bonding and the increasing popularity of laughter yoga seem to indicate that comedy in our lives in not at all superfluous but necessary. The emergence and breakout of Novak Djokovic (nicknamed the ‘Djoker’) this year in men’s tennis lends evidence that even court clowns can indeed climb to the top of the proverbial mountain rather than being relegated to being side-shows.
There is also a darker side to humour that goes beyond merely coping with the despair of life, the one that lies at the edge of madness and crosses it. One of the more sobering quotes was given by Rorschach of Watchmen fame about the depression of the fictional clown Pagliacci. Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker is also a very complex character whose crust of mirth hides a deep abiding cruelty. Due to time constraints, a discussion on the subversive nature of humour was missed and I’m sure that both Toews and McPherson would have had plenty to say on it.
It’s astounding to note the prolific presence of Canadian comedians working on-screen but also the presence, albeit sparser, in literature. From Stephen Leacock to Mordecai Richler to Will Ferguson and our two authors for the afternoon, there is much proof that shtick and subtle levity has a place alongside the solemn in and from Canada – and that is a very good thing.
“This will be difficult to explain,” a father told his children on the revelation that their road accident was somewhat shockingly not what it first appeared. The statement is embedded in a story about a family’s dissembling, an experience haunted by fragmented and veiled memories of an SS raid on their father’s childhood home. The complexity of the title story fulfills the whole collection’s promise: no simple statement can be made as to what this book is “about.”
Author of the 2010 Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud is also author of two poetry collections, the latter genre being the subject of her present doctoral work. In between these two forms, the short story serves as an effective tight focus for her characters’ epiphanic moments, whether they would acknowledge them or not. It also helps highlight the skilled poetic density of her language, such as her description of trees in the Japanese streets that were cultivated to appear wild: “Toward their own very specific, requisite immoderation.”
Explanations are not the only things that prove elusive, as the title of this collection suggests; the prior stage of self-perception proves just as difficult. In the opening story “The Electric Man,” a young woman working at the Auberge DesJardins has a series of encounters with an enigmatic guest whose quirky self-description is troubled by a harrowing revelation at the story’s close. Still, his elusive identity seems more substantial than her own attempts to “place” herself, or even to be captured in a portrait.
“The Limit” begins with a piercing description of a father driving around his estranged thirteen-year-old daughter. Having joked about getting her to drive he immediately wants to treat it as a joke, “but then he can’t because he hates the kind of man who would laugh like that, even if he is that kind of man.” Such a sad impasse later leads to the memory of a buffalo hunt from the man’s youth. There he recalls an emerging ambivalence about the right course in life, which proved part of the reason he’d stayed in the same confined geographic area. Skibsrud could certainly treat this “kind of man” with a simplified, even dismissive judgment. As the story reaches its close, however, we find her narration to have shown a sensitivity alert to the complexities, even the awkward winsomeness, hidden in his provincial outlook.
The problem of untranslatability, present in each story, is given a linguistic turn in “French Lessons.” Martha’s language training in her host city of Paris was supposed to come from the grammar charts covering her bedroom walls. Instead she learns, in ways alternately funny and tragic, the deeper gap between herself and her host—a blind Frenchwoman whose minutely ordered life contains an untouchable sadness. The story, with an epigraph by Roland Barthes, is a deeply personal take on linguistic theory. Although more overt in this case, all of Skibsrud’s stories have a philosophical and contemplative cast. The premises and events are significant, but it is often the internal movement, or lack thereof, that receive her incisive treatment.
Many of the stories treat characters who have transplanted themselves. Whether the character has relocated or not, however, the borders of the self are what Skibsrud appears most interested in. In “Cleats,” for example, a woman leaves her husband and daughter to move to Paris. As her husband attempts to draw her back, we see that her confines remain well in place:
She had, Carey said, over and over again, “chosen a life”—and now, he said, a touch of hurt in his voice, like a child, that life needed attending. It caused in Fay, briefly, in the moment that she heard it—that thing quivering there in his voice, canned in the telephone, on the other end of the line—a sweeping sadness, the depth of which she was not brave enough even to properly feel, let along gauge or understand.
It only took a moment for her to forget this tone of the conversation, however. When she recalled his actual words she felt no more for him than for a neglected houseplant.
For all Skibsrud’s skill in articulating a character’s inability to feel the import of what is happening to them, she is also able to let the reader feel on the external opaqueness of a character. After an event threatens financial ruin for a couple in “Angus’s Bull,” the husband repeats only a deflated “H-yep” as his table companions look silently on. For all the impasses and missed cues, however, meaningful encounter does occur in the book, and usually all the more vividly for being in such bold relief. The wife in this same story briskly seduces her husband on the cusp of their realization of a new life of hardship, showing a brash, liberating love in the face of constraint.
This freedom is shown at numerous junctures when, in contrast to either external or internal restlessness, characters are given a task or relationship where they feel ready for the appropriate action. This is seen in how the husband in “Angus’s Bull” feels after his wife’s expression of love and a fortuitous turn of events, or the way the young boy in “The Limit” comes to know in the hunt “exactly who he was—the precise limits of his body—and what to do.” For all the characters’ ruminations, there are clear points when no explanation is forthcoming, but neither is any further reflection needed.
It should be pointed out that several of the characters’ thoughts are in abstractions that seem to float free of the stories’ inciting incidents or any later plotted resolution:
She was caught, at that exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire. Trapped into it, just like everyone else, no matter how—or how variously—she attempted to extract herself. Without faith, and yet…an errant sense of direction, and of purpose, all the same. Always that—yes. The very process of everything as it occurred (always as if for the first time, and so without contrast) leading to the perpetual and most likely false conviction that there actually existed, at the under-layer of things, something infinitely resilient, immutable, and forgiving; that it would be possible, always, to pause…to defer…to destroy, even, if necessary; begin over again.
As nicely as this is phrased, some readers will have a harder time following these trains of thought as they proceed beyond the story’s limits. Granted, such passages could at times be more rooted in the particular language of the character or the tangible elements of the setting. I would argue, though, that a strength of these stories lies in taking time to probe beneath the often false constancies of place or self, attempting that common human pursuit of synthesis—a search for self-knowledge that spans settings as different as the titles “Signac’s Boats” and “Angus’s Bull” suggest. Moreover, the collection shouldn’t be overly criticized for being too little driven by the plot. Several of the stories achieve a satisfyingly surprising twist that completely disrupt the reflective trajectories begun in the stories.
Finally, these stories are tremendously personally challenging, however subtly deployed. Through Skibsrud’s matter-of-fact articulations of a character’s self-deception, I was often jarred into wondering what I was missing and how I might go about naming it with like care. Meanwhile, her celebration of the small but meaningful gestures evoked a sense of hope towards the beauty of human connection. Moving from text to the contours of our lives will prove a difficult task. Nevertheless, Skibsrud’s humane precision as a writer draws us to seek encounter beyond the chasms that exist—whether between persons or within the self—even should the explanation itself remain an open question.
How can you not attend an event when the performing band claims their sound as the edge of mania, vodka fuelled and drenched in old country passions? Seriously, that’s tempting. And so we (my husband and two girlfriends) found ourselves in the ARC lounge last Saturday night amongst writers and fans, catching a performance that blasted with story, excitement and fun. Ukrainina, how have we never met before? Oh, that’s right. I was out of the country these past five years. And thank goodness for that excuse, because otherwise I should feel ashamed in not knowing (and loving) this unique Ottawa-based band.
Taking to the ‘stage’ in their eclectic outfits with each member adopting their own spin on looking good (suit vests, bell bottoms, cowboy shirts, platform heels; like a mixed salad, it all worked together), lead singer Damian Sawka spilled his words of thanks in Ukrainian, while funny guy and drummer Tom Werbowetski translated and told stories. Guitarist Paul Granger and Bassist Dave Martindale added into the mix with their constant laughter and ‘Hey! Hey! Heys!’ as the show took off.
But I’m no music critic. Some people can competently dig into the style of playing, showmanship, synchronicity, technical skills, sound, etc. Here is what my two ears and tapping foot qualifies me to say: they were awesome.
The whole time I was aching to dance, and promised myself I’d see these guys again in a venue that was more suited to vodka-fuelled-mania and up and down, spin around channelling of the music.
So that, from a musical perspective, is what I can say. They were “good times”.
Then the next day as I listened to their CD and remembered the ballots, the power chords, the clapping, the contagious excitement – I began to reflect upon this idea of Musical Language. Ukrainina’s music is set entirely in Ukraine. The lead singer (who was born in Canada) only speaks Ukrainian during the performance. There is, effectively and ostensibly a language barrier between their music and their English/French speaking audience. And yet, there isn’t.
A novel or poem presented in another language (an unknown language) simply remains unfamiliar letter combinations, or markings on a page. The essence, those feeling of history and life and place – they all fail to ‘be’ with a reader’s lack of understanding. In literature, the written form of storytelling, language is limiting.
But turn the story into music. Suddenly it no longer matters whether or not we grasp the details, everything boils down to the experience – we’re infused with hope, aching, celebration, joy . . . Of course this idea extends beyond music into art and performance, but focusing on last Saturday night, despite not catching the lyrics, we were deep in the high and lows of the experience. Music frees the ‘being’ of a narrative and gives it life away from language.
And that’s cool.
It was a great show, and a lovely topper to a festival gone well. I certainly will be keeping an eye out for the next performance of Ukrainia. After all, my husband is Hungarian and we’ve got some ‘old country’ dance moves I’m eager to try. Keep an eye on their performance list – this pulsing Ukrainian phenomenon is worth a night out on the town.
Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi, Miriam Toews, Hosted by Michael Blouin
Sunday, October 23, 2011
The crowd was near capacity in the church’s main hall—an ominous sign given the title of the evening’s event. Helen Oyeyemi didn’t help matters by beginning her reading with a grisly Old English fairy tale involving a stack of bloodied bodies, leaving audience members exchanging nervous glances. As the reader-writers went on, however, their accounts of communication braved in spite of obstacles—from the fallout from severed relations to the barrier of language—took us away from tortured images of isolation.
Oyeyemi moved from the fairy tale, a source narrative for her recent novel Mr. Fox , to a feisty epistolary exchange between writers that had showed their tender awkwardness. Miriam Toews vigorously read a portion of Irma Voth where a passage is negotiated from an airport layover to the beach, revealing the vulnerability and resilience of her characters with touches of wicked humour. Johanna Skibsrud then read an entire short story from her recent collection This Will Be Difficult to Explain where two characters persist in confronting “a mutual understanding of the perfect falsity of language.”
Michael Blouin was the host, and he kept his questions both thoughtful and crisp. While interviewers who also happen to be writers can be obtrusive in speaking of their own work, Blouin showed humility and skill in how he kept the feature on the evening’s guests. A few questions were somewhat predictable, although they had the virtue of allowing the writers maximal freedom in their response. In other instances he nicely sidestepped the usual suspect to take an unexpected angle on a familiar question. Rather than ask why they each became a writer, for instance, he asked instead why they continued writing. The question surprised Oyeyemi such that she told him he’d have to come back to her as she really didn’t know.
Blouin was not the only one asking questions tonight, though. After Toews responded to the first question on planning conflict between her characters, Oyeyemi quickly followed up by asking her, “do you like writing fights?” Her vivacious curiosity extended to the interviewer himself at one point when she asked him if he missed his characters when he was done with them. Blouin’s grace as an interviewer and Oyeyemi’s unpretentious eagerness to learn her fellow writers went a long way in leaving behind Sartre’s dark observation on the company of others.
Later, Blouin observed the obvious commonality of the three writers’ recent works: they had each written about the process of telling stories. Skibsrud referenced her collection’s title, stating that they shared an interest in what it took to overcome the limits of communication. Her act of writing was itself a way “to confront that limit and overcome it through text.” Proving her desire, she took a step back and confessed to sounding too “academic” just then. Although having used an extended Roland Barthes quote in her reading’s epigraph and having been introduced as currently pursuing a PhD along with her next creative project, she clearly sought to speak with broad intelligibility herself.
Oyeyemi next filled in the vivid background to her recent novel, speaking about the accumulation of news stories of women who had been murdered. She recounted that she’d turned to fairy tales, reading them concurrently to try to find a way of responding to this harrowing reality. It was the political interest of the Old English fairy tell she read at the outset, with its chilling depiction of Mr. Fox, that drew her to explore how language can be used to overwhelm and control another’s experience. Hell indeed.
The authors were winsome and generously open about their writing processes—from preferred tools to eBook contracts. When asked if writing required a touch of craziness, they nicely built on their colleagues’ answers. Skibsrud began by talking about how “not being able to shut up” showed a certain delusion of the effectiveness of the craft in bringing about change. Toews responded that a writer couldn’t really be crazy with the tremendous discipline involved, to which Oyeyemi suggested that the discipline itself could be a kind of mania. Yes and no, in other words.
While the exchange was generally warm and open, Blouin himself met the limits of communication when he started angling for a preview of upcoming work. Oyeyemi only revealed that hers was “a novel about disappointment.” Toews: “about three women.”
It took until the penultimate question from the crowd that a woman finally asked about Sartre’s statement on the infernal character of relationships. At this point I, and I suspect the better part of the room, had forgotten the event’s stark title in relation to this friendly exchange. Toews linked it to a question of Dorothy Parker’s—“what fresh hell is this?”—that she recalls being particularly useful in having kids around. Skibsrud admitted the difficulty in people coming together, but affirmed the potential for “intense and meaningful understanding.” Oyeyemi spoke about her novel as essentially a love story for the socially awkward, a call to arms that the attempt is worth it. With that, these three skilled authors affirmed our deep-seated and persistent relational nature, consequent pains be damned.