February in Canada: Carol Shields

Carol Shields: Mary Swann, Fourth Estate, 1990.

This book has a similar premise as The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos – the unexpected legacy of a simple person from the countryside, whom nobody believed to have literary ambitions – but goes in a slightly different, although equally funny direction. While Foenkinos mocks the Parisian publishing coterie, Carol Shields mocks the academic world trying to build up all sorts of theories about Mary Swann and her poetic influences.

Mary Swann was a (fictional) uneducated farmer’s wife, living on a remote smallholding in Ontario. She diffidently brought her poems in a paper bag to a small local publisher, a mere few hours before her husband brutally murdered her. Only a small number of her limited edition of poems published in 1966 are known to exist – but her fame is beginning to grow (as the book opens) and Sarah Maloney is a Chicago-based academic who is planning to organise a symposium dedicated to the life and work of this niche poet.

As everyone prepares for the symposium, we see Mary Swann and her legacy through the eyes of Sarah Maloney, feminist scholar, Morton Jimroy, insufferable would-be biographer, Rose Hindmarch, the librarian in Mary’s hometown, said to be Mary’s closest friend, and Frederic Cruzzi, the publisher. The final section of the book takes place at the actual symposium and (although the action and denouement turns a bit silly and far-fetched) is the funniest description of pretentious academic conferences that I have ever suffered through.

What the book brilliantly conveys is how we want to find something deeper, more meaningful in people’s lives (and literature) and how we are ready to deceive ourselves and others in the desire to improve upon reality. There is a wonderfully funny passage where the biographer tries to force his fanciful interpretation of Mary Swann despite the more down-to-earth explanations of those who knew her.

‘…in Swann’s work the spiritual impulse shines like a light on every detail of weather or habit or natural object. The quest for the spiritual. The lust for the spiritual.’

Spirituality from Mary Swann? That rough-featured woman who never once went to church?…

‘You don’t suppose that Swann felt her spirituality was, well, less explicit than it was for regular churchgoers in the area. That it was outside the bounds, as it were, of church doctrine?’…

‘I see what you mean, Mr Jimroy. Morton. But I really think, well, it was probably a question of not having the right kind of clothes.’

It is not a book for mystery fans (we never really discover what happened to get Mary killed), nor for those expecting a tight plot or character development. It is a book that will appeal mostly to those deeply steeped in the literary world.

Along the way, we encounter extremely recognisable characters (I have known a few Morton Jimroys and Willard Langs in my time), and witty observations (whether true or not, they are very revealing of the character that utters them) such as:

Clever men create themselves, but clever women… are created by their mothers. Women can never quite escape their mother’s cosmic pull, nor their lip-biting expectations of their faulty love…. I have all her little judgements filed away, word perfect… women carry with them the full freight of their mother’s words.

Or this about literary biographies (worth noting that Carol Shields was a novelist, poet, playwright, literary critic and biographer, so she was familiar with the entire range of literary figures and hangers-on that she portrays in this book):

Jimroy detests the popular fallacy that biographers fall in love with their subjects… so easy, so coy… such an invitation to sentimentality… Writing biography is the hardest work in the world and it can, just as easily as not, be an act of contempt…The longer he spent closeted with the Pound papers… the more he desired to hold the man up to ridicule… When a line of Pound’s poetry failed to yield to analysis, he left it for the stubborn little nut of pomposity it was. Let Pound be his own hangman… Why should a biographer be expected to explain, justify, interpret or even judge?

I loved the description of the librarian Rose gorging on her favourite genre: spy thrillers.

What Rose Hindmarch appreciates in most tales of espionage is the fine clean absence of extenuating circumstances… the way the universe falls so sparely into two equal parts, good on one side, evil on the other. There’s nothing random about the world of espionage… Rose postpones a trip to the bathroom, though her bladder is burning.

There were some passages, particularly in the section dedicated to the publisher, where the long lists of people and actions became repetitive and tiresome. Carol Shield’s best known work is The Stone Diaries, and this is not at that level, but it was a very enjoyable read nevertheless. I’d previously read some of her essays and quotes, and was lucky to find this novel at the second-hand shelves outside the Waterstones Gower Street (which I still call Dillons, as it was when I first moved to London), but I will certainly try to find more of her work.

8 thoughts on “February in Canada: Carol Shields”

  1. It sounds like a very interesting look at the literary life, Marina Sofia, even if it wasn’t perfect. And I have to say, I do like the wit in the small bits that you’ve shared. Interesting, too, that it doesn’t seem to fit neatly into one or another category of novel. Some books are all the more appealing for not being easy to define.

  2. A terrific review! I went on a real Carol Shields binge of reads and rereads last year (six in total) and I’m going to continue that this year — A Republic of Love and this (as “Swann”) are being reissued by World Editions. I know that at least for the former I’m going to be on the blog tour, so I’m getting a chance to reread a novel that didn’t particularly stand out for me on a first reading. The same was true of Swann, but I think these days I’d get more out of the winking references to literary biography (e.g. I’m rereading The Biographer’s Tale by A.S. Byatt).

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