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.

Academia or Life? Joanna Cannan’s High Table

Joanna Cannan, Persephone Books

I’d never heard of Joanna Cannan until I saw her in the Persephone catalogue, but she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters and almost single-handedly invented the pony books genre which I devoured as a youngster. She is also a typical example of what has been called the ‘furrowed middle-brow’ type of literature which was so popular (and so well written) back in the 1920s and 30s.

My librarian thought I meant Joanna Cannon, whose books were readily available, but we finally managed to find one of her books in the deepest recesses of the cellar. The book is High Table, which is predictably about the Warden of a fictional Oxford college. Joanna Cannan herself was the daughter of an Oxford warden, so she knows her stuff.

Theodore Fletcher is the (anti?)hero of this book. A wimpy, self-conscious, anxious little boy of the late Victorian age – clever but not exactly brilliant at school, not any trouble either.

…his accuracy, his copperplate memory and lack of intellectual imagination were admirably suited to the precise demands of schoolwork. He was popular with his masters, for he gave them no trouble and looked like doing them credit, and the worship of the athlete had not then reached the later disproportionate stage.

He is of course the perfect target for bullies – not so much at school, but with the landed gentry in the village where his father is the rector. He is constantly reminded that of his inferiority in social status, social and physical skills, even looks. Luckily, he has the world of books as his refuge and I’m sure many of us earnest and bookish children labelled as ‘swots’ in our youth can relate to that:

All around the room in the shelves stood the books, waiting for you, not criticising you, you needn’t wonder or worry over what they were thinking, they didn’t care if you lost races or cheated at games, they didn’t whisper that you were short for your age or snigger at your spectacles; quiet and brown and learned… they waited for you, and you only had to open them and they’d each a world to give you, not a hot, hurrying, jeering world full of races you couldn’t win and balls you couldn’t catch and trees you couldn’t bear to climb, but the cool, slow, smooth world of the mind…

He goes to study at Oxford, but a holiday fling with a girl socially his inferior (but whose mind he would like to improve) results in a pregnancy. Horrified by what he has done, he shirks responsibility. The girl gets married to a farmer and moves away from the home village, while Theodore continues his academic pursuits in Oxford. On the eve of the First World War, he becomes the Warden of his college. The great pride he feels in his appointment is considerably diminished when he realises that he was in fact the compromise candidate, despised by his fellows but designed to keep other, more controversial although brilliant candidates out:

And now there’s nothing to come, nothing to hope for. I’ve got years and years before me… of being Warden and keeping Haughton out, and all of it to be spent with these men who’ve used me, who put me in this place when they had to find someone for it, because they thought, we’ll be able to manage Fletcher; he’s as weak as water’ he’ll be wax in our hands.

Bitterly disappointed, he then faces another challenge: seeing his beloved college and Oxford itself decimated by the war – or rather its young men disappearing. Gradually, he starts questioning the superiority of intellectual life, which has become meaningless in a world at war:

We’re not waiting. We’re left behind. Oxford’s no use in this, any more than scholarship or literature; a heap of earth out there that a man can take cover behind is of more use than the loveliest of our buildings… this ghastly feeling that your world had been nothing all along but an illusion, that everything you had lived for had been useless, impotent all this time?

Just about at this stage in his disillusionment, fate brings Lennie into his life, the eldest son of his former love, the result of his only amorous adventure. Suddenly, he feels he has been given a second chance to reconnect with life, real life.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, but it is charmingly written, with many astute observations which keep it just this side of sentimentality. And, for all its Oxford setting, it is not strictly speaking a campus novel, although it shows quite clearly the disconnect between Oxbridge and real life. You cannot help but feel sorry for poor Theodore, infuriating though he undoubtedly is – the very illustration of ‘old fogey’. Overall, an enjoyable read but one which also raises questions about ivory towers and just how much we can bear to engage with the mess of the real world.