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Literary Laughter: Klein-Muskrat Tells All

1926708857For some time, I’ve been bored with much of the lacklustre fiction that I come across in literary journals. While technically and formally accomplished, too many stories feel bland and generic, scrubbed clean of either energetic language or the grit and specificity of real life.  Worse (and I can implicate myself here!), almost no literary fiction laughs at anything.

Now I wouldn’t bother complaining about this unless I’d found an antidote, and I have. It’s Sharon Abron Drache’s new pseudo-memoir, and even the title is funny.  For those old enough to remember the wave of Canadian cultural nationalism in the Seventies, Barbara Klein-Muskrat Then And Now will echo not only Mordechai Richler’s wit but a weird cultural pretentiousness which Drache skewers throughout the book. The narrator of these linked tales, a literary critic of some substance, has changed her married name — Muskovitch — to Muskrat, in an apparent (but unspoken) effort to elevate a homely ethnic name to an even more homely — but more status-laden — Canadian moniker. And that’s only for starters.

The fictitious tales cover thirty years in the life of this prominent critic and fiction writer who grew up in Toronto, then moved with her (now) ex-husband to Ottawa. Specifics?  City streets and hangouts of the well-heeled and wannabes are everywhere. It’s fun to travel through Drache’s personal Mapquest of both Toronto and Ottawa; more so if you’ve lived in or spent much time in either city. Names are named in Klein-Muskrat’s menagerie: Richler; former McClelland and Stewart publisher Jack McClelland; former Globe and Mail book review editor Jack Kapica all make guest appearances, along with a coterie of mildly irritating (but witty) relatives. Barbara’s mother, awash in the budgetary details of her upcoming fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, would like the grandsons to bring dates. When Barbara notes that her son Michael is only fourteen and also gay, mama snaps: “So let him start early to find a nice Jewish boy,” ranting that this state of affairs would be a great improvement over Michael’s big brother and his shiksa girlfriend.

Readers will list their own favourites from a collection peppered with wisecracks, but for rampant (and truly funny) political incorrectness, my personal pick is the epistolary segment, “Dear Benjy.” Maybe it’s the state of the world right now that knocked the breath out of me as Barbara unfolds her tale of woe to her brother, who just happens to live on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, in Israel in 1989 (on what is now the hyper-dangerous Syrian border). If that weren’t enough free-association for today’s reader, poor Benjy’s lost his wife to a real estate agent visiting the kibbutz from Florida, allowing Barbara to describe how her own husband Ian ran off with his boss and her good friend, accordion-playing Yolande, “the (gasp!) first half-Native person to rise to the highest echelon in Canada’s civil service.” The other half of Yolande turns out to have been Jewish. Yet it’s not only the unravelling of her ethnicity that’s so very funny; it’s the tossed salad of oddball tidbits spiked with whoa-this-letter’s-going-to-the-Middle-East that sends it over the top.

Drache’s writing is crisp and wry and chuckle-generating throughout, and its use of detail makes both Jewish-Canadian  and literary culture entertaining and absolutely real. For better or for worse, it’s also worth noting that she’s recreated a vanished moment in Canadian history, evoking aspects of a literary and publishing world that no longer exists  (The time when one could pick up the phone and connect with Canada’s foremost book publisher — or even with his personal answering machine — is long gone, if not unimaginable). Even so, her humour brings an entire world (and subculture) to life, and may yet encourage the rest of us to lighten up a bit.

Barbara Klein-Muskrat Then and Now by Sharon Abron Drache is published by Inanna Publications (Toronto: 2012).

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A Family Writ Large: Genni Gunn’s Solitaria

In the world of books, there’s nothing more satisfying than a novel that you can’t put down. Genni Gunn’s novel Solitaria (the recluse) is a gripping and beautifully written work that deserves to be a bestseller.  Gunn is a Canadian writer born in Trieste, Italy and the author of eight books. For reasons I can’t explain — or excuse — she’s managed to evade my notice.  It’s fortunate that awards juries aren’t quite as dozy as this reviewer. The novel was selected for the 2011 Giller Prize longlist.

Solitaria is Gunn’s third novel, and it’s built of an admirable combination of depth, language, and compelling storytelling. It concerns the discovery of the body of Vito, eldest brother in a large Italian family, a man murdered in the 1950s and thought by his siblings (and his abandoned wife, Teresa) to be living in Argentina.  It’s clear that contact with Vito was not a priority for his brothers and sisters, but neither did they draw close to big sister Piera, who narrates much of this story. Seen by her siblings as bossy, domineering and sharp-tongued, she nonetheless eased the family out of poverty by a marriage of convenience to a wealthy man. Her sole confidant is her nephew David, a professor in Canada who spent summers with his aunt in Italy while his mother Clarissa — Piera’s sister and a world-renowned opera singer — traveled the globe.  He feels close to his aunt, who responds to the discovery of her brother Vito’s body by taking to her bed and refusing to speak to the family members who’ve gathered for the funeral.

The family saga unfolds as Piera shares a cache of old photos — and well-worn memories — with her nephew David. As we learn about the impoverished life of Piera’s family during the Second World War, we wonder whose version of events is true: Piera’s view of herself as long-suffering and generous, or her siblings contention that she’s brought them nothing but misery. It’s this tension — and the seamless shifts in point of view — that propel the story along. Yet delusions abound in this family, and the first to shed them will be the one to confront the secret of Vito’s murder. (I’m happy to report that my whodunit hunches proved wrong).

Solitaria rushes toward its ending at a fast clip, but it does so with depth.  A metaphor of railway tracks and travel runs through this book; through it, we understand the peripatetic family whose father worked for the railroad, the scattering of siblings across continents, and David’s struggle to situate himself in the world. The story hints at the many dimensions of identity and belonging, from the personal and familial to the social and cultural.

In reviewing Solitaria, I should admit my bias; I’m of Italian descent, and I find that family passions writ large in the Mediterranean style — tales of honour and personal sacrifice, love and vengeance, retaliation and even redemption — are irresistible. In this context, I’m reminded of the novel’s power to show us that, whatever the particulars of our cultural background, we are not strangers to the human condition and we are not alone in the world. That said, you don’t have to be Italian to enjoy this reflective page-turner. It’s a wonderful, engrossing read.

Solitaria by Genni Gunn was published in Winnipeg by Signature Editions in 2010.

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A Gem: Dawn Promislow’s Jewels

More often than not, I’m put off by plain, bare-bones, minimalist writing, and here’s why: simplicity of language should point to clarity of thought, but too often it signifies nothing but the desire to be — well, bare-bones and minimalist. Flip through literary journals, and you find a bland sameness to much of the prose, tepid language that  avoids passion and serves no literary end.  So imagine my surprise when I encountered the pared-down prose of Dawn Promislow’s first short story collection, Jewels.  It’s the text equivalent of seeing straight to the bottom of a very deep lake.  Its writing is spare in the service of clarity, each sentence shaped by the effort to see truth and bring it to light.

Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa; she’s lived in England and now resides in Toronto, but her subject-matter is the disfiguring quality of life as it was lived under apartheid in her homeland. While bringing the particulars of her characters’ situations to life, she also illuminates universal themes: the human awakening from innocence to knowledge, the awareness that much of life is beyond our control, the truth that everything passes and nothing abides. There are fourteen brief and understated stories in this slender book, many of them told from the point of view of genteel, middle-class white women who slowly become aware of apartheid’s corroding horror as it leaches into their gardens and homes.

In the opening story, “Pool,” the author skillfully overlaps the points of view of a young girl and her family’s house-servant (Ficksen) who cleans their pool. Ficksen is the centre of the story (the only one named), and he’s never been in the water. The ending is no less powerful for it being expected. Likewise, in “Secret,” the white first-person narrator describes life in a placid rural town where she’s employed in a shop; a black man, Philemon, comes looking for work. When the police chase him down, the woman awakens to the fact that her world is awash with cruel secrets that no one has ever revealed to her.

Equally poignant are stories told from the point of view of black South Africans. In “Bottle,” a nanny, Bella, brings joy to her husband as she shares with him some ocean water collected from her first visit to the sea with her white employers.  The first-person voice of a servant, Ester, is beautifully rendered in “Just a Job,” when she finds a position with a kindly couple, only to witness the breakup of their marriage.

Yet for a glimpse at moral catastrophe, nothing matches “Wan,” a story that packs a lifetime of guilt, remorse and devastating secrecy into six short pages.  It’s told by an artist preoccupied with painting a canvas of pure space (a bit obvious, perhaps, that it’s white); she’s haunted by the fact that her husband’s given shelter to a colleague on the run for political reasons. Distressed by his presence and unable to work, she embarks on a desperate course of action, bringing herself face-to-face with the reality of the police-state that was the guarantor of her lovely home and the peace of her artist’s studio. “But my canvas,” she says at the end. “…It’s perfect, as I envisioned it… I did it, I did it, and you can see it, you can see it, you can see it…” In her agitated words, we hear the voice of madness trying to crush the voice of a guilty conscience, and it’s Promislow’s gift that allows us to hear both.

Jewels is a work of beauty, hard-won honesty, and the quiet unfolding of insight.  It’s also, as the title suggests, a gem.

(Jewels by Dawn Promislow was published in Toronto in 2010 by Tsar Publications).

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Amos Oz in Verse: The Same Sea

Novels come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s always a delight to discover an unusual way of telling a story, one that shows us what’s possible beyond our usual expectations of plot and character, beginning, middle and end. The Same Sea by Israeli writer Amos Oz is a novel written in both verse (blank, but occasionally rhyming) and prose-poetry. It’s haunting,  beautifully told and laid out in such a way that the blank space on the page opens us to the meditative silence that is so much a part of this reflective tale. This novel was such a pleasure to read that I felt I couldn’t do it justice unless I read it a second time. Having done that, I’d be more than happy to read it again, both for its depth of insight and for the sheer beauty of its resonant language.

The story’s narrated by several characters: Albert, an accountant; his wife Nadia (who at the time of the story, has died of cancer); their son Rico who’s left home to find himself in Tibet; his flirtatious girlfriend Dita, who comes to stay with his father, a lonely man infatuated with her; Albert’s widowed colleague Bettine who offers him companionship and dislikes these goings-on with Dita. It’s the kind of situation that in lesser hands might have been predictable: a love-triangle, a few messed-up kids, a father-son conflict, a busybody neighbour. Yet this story aims much higher.

Because the novel’s driven by language, words resonate with metaphors that enlarge the story beyond its immediate concerns. Much of its poetry echoes the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. Love is longed for and remembered in the language of the Song of Songs (in one striking example, the dead Nadia puts a new twist on Solomon’s poem); the Narrator ponders the meaning of his work with words that recall Ecclesiastes and the psalms. The very presence of a Narrator whose characters dispute his storytelling contains an echo of the Judaic God — a dialogue-partner who signed off on a covenant with the Chosen People, one who can be confronted by his creatures for breaking it.  Likewise, the text does riffs on the Beatitudes and the Magnificat in the New Testament with both devastating and spectacular results.

Don’t worry — even if these references go whizzing by, you’ll still enjoy this beautiful work which reflects at multiple levels on love, family, sexuality, politics and the frailty of human life. “It turns out that something that never was and never will be is all that we have,” says Bettine to the Narrator. Perhaps she’s referring both to his fictional creations (including herself) and to our illusions. This poignant insight doesn’t slow her down.  “Just sit down and get on with your writing,” she tells the scribe, as if both she and the author know that in the beauty and truthfulness of language, there is hope and peace for the spirit.

The Same Sea by Amos Oz is translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, in collaboration with the author. It was published in New York in 2001 by Harcourt Books.

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Postscript: James Agee’s A Death in the Family

If you’ve been following my series Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002, you’ll know that in the wake of 9/11, I began reading James Agee’s novel, A Death In The Family, only to find it too painful to complete.  Last week — ten years later — I decided, with some trepidation, to give it another try.  This time, it was a joy to read. Agee’s work, published posthumously, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958, and it’s no wonder. The novel is tender, exquisitely written, and at times almost prayerful in its evocation of a broken family and a lost world.

The story’s set in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915, when Jay Follet, husband and father of two, is called out in the middle of the night for what may be a last visit to his dying father. The visit turns out to be a false alarm, but on the way home, Jay has a driving accident and is killed instantly.  He leaves behind his wife Mary and two children — six-year-old Rufus and four-year-old Catherine, as well as their grandparents, an aunt and an uncle and many other relatives and friends.

Agee tells the story through multiple points of view, allowing us many vantage-points from which to understand the dead man, his relationship to his family, and his past drinking problem; we are then left to puzzle over the fatal accident which left almost no visible wound. Yet Agee’s real subject is an enormous grief as ancient as humankind and as random as a meteorite as it crashes into the Follet household.  He gives us a remarkable portrait of shock and incomprehension; in one scene, Mary’s brother is trying to explain the circumstances of the accident to their almost-deaf mother. Every grim detail has to be repeated twice for her benefit until it becomes almost unbearable for the reader. It’s a stunning reconstruction of human reality: shocking news can’t be borne, won’t sink in, needs repeating over and over until we get it straight. The woman’s deafness is our own.

Likewise, Agee dramatizes indifference and empathy by juxtaposing the visits of the aloof Father Jackson and the kindhearted family friend Walter. Young Rufus lets us know that he doesn’t like the priest and his admonishments. Not long afterwards, Walter’s presence warms the chill space and his heartfelt emotion draws the children close to him. No comment from Rufus;  that’s more like it, says his silence.

For modern readers, the death in this novel goes beyond Jay Follet and includes the death of the simpler, yet problematic world of 1915. Almost a century later, we’re still close enough in time to recognize the artifacts of daily life (the telephone, the primitive auto), yet distant enough to understand how constrained the lives of women were (not to mention African-Americans). Mary Follet’s self-effacement and her sometimes cloying piety create sparks of drama with the skeptics in the family. In one of the book’s most moving dialogues, her father tells her she’ll need to have “gumption” in the face of suffering. “You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged;” he says. “The axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.” His words leap across the century and into our time.

Faith and doubt and mystery thread their way through the language of this novel; the introductory prose-poem, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” bears reading out loud, along with many other passages, including Uncle Andrew’s beautiful meditation at nightfall. “Upon their faces the air was so marvelously pure, aloof and tender; and the silence of the late night in the city, and the stars, were secret and majestic beyond the wonder of the deepest country.” This book is worthy of such poetic language.

I would add that I haven’t read the “updated” edition by Michael A. Lofaro (A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text) which subtracts the preface and adds some ten chapters to a novel left unfinished when the author died. I’m happy enough to have read the old edition which sat on my shelf for ten long years until I was ready to receive what it had to offer: a work of art that’s wondrous and alive.

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Re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

Summer’s the time for slow and meditative re-reading of old favourites, and at the top of my list is Virginia Woolf’s visionary 1927 novel, To The Lighthouse. I’ve just finished reading it again, meandering through sentences in which the reader drifts from one lucid thought to another, Woolf’s beautiful replication of the conscious mind at work.  The novel illuminates the passage of time in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, friends and visitors at a summer house on the Scottish coast. Endless waves break on the shore; everyday life continues with its small, quotidian pleasures and miseries; change touches everyone, and with it, grief, wonder and puzzlement over the mystery of being alive.

What’s wondrous and unique about this book is its sense of interiority, of deep and reflective consciousness. For these characters, time doesn’t advance in the usual way; it hovers, moves in circles, looping back and then ahead. It’s not the straight-ahead time of an energetic plot but subjective time as we experience it fragmented in the act of thought and memory.

The book’s first section explores a summer where hope and possibility are alive in the Ramsay children: young James who longs to visit the lighthouse (but is disappointed by his father’s crushing refusal) and Minta, who will soon be engaged; then Lily Briscoe the artist as she hopes to create a thing of beauty.  Hope culminates in Mrs. Ramsay’s sublime moment of happiness in the beautiful dinner scene which ends this period of time.

Yet in the second section, the house has been deserted; the First World War intervenes, the interior voice fades and we glimpse desolation imposed from without. “So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk and a thin rain drumming on the roof, a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness …”  Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children are reported dead.

Remnants of the family return, along with Lily the artist in the novel’s final section, structured as a kind of dialogue between two different but related efforts: the lighthouse-journey of James Ramsay (now a youth) with his father and sister, and Lily on the shore as she struggles to paint while reflecting on her own life and on the Ramsays’ losses and sorrows. Lily’s thoughts are eloquent; having lost her friend Mrs. Ramsay, her outraged grief is worthy of Job. “Was there no safety?” she cries out. “No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?” In re-reading this book, its sense of mourning struck me; how Lily’s  cry of anguish voices the suffering of the human condition as it has always been and always will be.

Her words also echo the metaphor of the artist trying to bring form out of chaos, one that no doubt parallels Woolf’s own struggle to give shape to life through writing. “What is the meaning of life?” asks Lily. “The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…”

In the end, this lovely and visionary book is beyond analysis. It is luminous, alive with revelations great and small. It is, in its own way, a vision.

 

This edition of To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in New York by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2001.

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On Vacation

See the banner on top of this page? It’s a photo I took of the Cape Cod National Seashore, where we’re headed on holidays tomorrow.  While there, I’m hoping to go on “writer’s detox” and unplug from the wired world as much as possible, leaving room and time to fill up on old-fashioned books — not to mention sun, surf, sleep and buckets of clams. In any case, I’ll be back blogging in a few weeks, if not sooner.  Happy reading — enjoy these warm summer days.

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