February in Canada: Additional Writers

Mathieu Boutin: L’Oreille Absolue (Perfect Pitch), Druide, 2013.

Mathieu Boutin is a Quebecois originally trained as a musician – and in fact worked as a violonist doing private gigs to support himself through law school. He practices as a lawyer and then became an editor of law texts for a publishing house. As if he weren’t busy enough, he also wrote several children’s books on the side, and this was his debut novel for adults. I met him in 2015 at Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, where he was on a writing retreat, gave a reading and of course signed his book for me. I am giving all this background, because in this novel we find all of his knowledge of music, experience of a musician’s lifestyle and the very readable style that is often more present in YA or children’s literature than in literary fiction.

It’s the story of two violonists. Young David is an itinerant musician, competent but no genius, desperate to prove to his family that he can make a living as a musician, but also quite enjoying the various freelance gigs that he gets to do as a member of a quartet (the other members of the quartet all being beautiful young women). Meanwhile, Robert is in his fifties and has a steady job as a violonist in the second row of an orchestra. Although he has the perfect pitch of the title, he is quite content to never quite be the musical genius his glamorous, hugely talented pianist mother had hoped he would become. Now even he has to admit his mother is suffering from dementia, but he can’t bring himself to put her into a home, where she wouldn’t be able to play piano any time she felt like it. He also wants to help David to build a career, but his social skills are poor and he makes David feel uncomfortable.

It is a fun read, especially for those who are fond of classical music. It has many specialist references, some of which were probably way over my head, but which I enjoyed nevertheless. For example, do you know that the Italians and French call the sound-box in a violin the ‘anima’ or ‘√Ęme’, which means ‘soul’, while the English use the more prosaic term ‘sound box’? Then there is a beautiful passage, which reminded me of the description of the circulation of the plague in Hamnet, which links the death of Bach in 1750 with a squirrel dropping acorns in the village of Thoiry in the French Jura, which grow into a beautiful oak tree that then gets cut down and used to make a beautifully-sounding violin that David inherits from his uncle.

Although the ending seems a bit too coincidental, it makes for a refreshing change to read about characters who may appear somewhat strange, but overall are quite nice… and passionate about what they do. And of course there are sharp digs at those who hire classical musicians for various corporate or life events, but treat the musicians like servants and don’t even like the kind of music they play. It’s a shame that Boutin doesn’t seem to have published anything since, because I’d really like to read more by him.

Inger Ash Wolfe: A Door in the River, Pegasus Crime, 2012.

The Canadian author Michael Redhill uses this pseudonym for his Hazel Micallef crime fiction series. I had seen the author talking about his work at Canada House in 2018 and found his literary fiction interesting, though challenging. So I wanted to give his crime fiction a whirl.

Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef herself is quite a lovely creation: middle-aged, divorced, sensible, a pillar of the community in Westmuir County, Ontario, trying to look after her fragile yet stubborn elderly mother. However, the story of women in captivity being forced into prostitution is one of those themes that I’ve become heartily sick of in recent years. Perhaps it would have made more of an impression if I had read the book when it first came out. It is certainly not badly written, and at least one of the victims manages to get out and plan a revenge. (Although she is a killer on the rampage, you cannot help but wish her well – or at least have conflicted loyalties.)

Anne Carson: Plainwater

I’m not quite sure how to describe this volume – it’s a collection of essays, some fragments of poetry, something like travel memoir, flash fictions… a little bit of everything, really. There doesn’t seem to be a unified theme. We have the poems (not sure if they are real or imagined) of Mimnermos, an Ancient Greek hedonistic poet, and also a series of interviews with him. A whole section of poems dedicated to towns: desert town, wolf town, memory town, town of the exhumation, town of my farewell to you and so on. Some sections felt almost trite, and I was unsure whether they deserved to be included,

It’s impossible really to review Anne Carson’s work: half of the time I think she is far too clever for me and I cannot possibly keep up with her. The other half of the time, she makes me want to stop and ruminate, she provides me with so much inspiration and source material for my own poems.

My favourite part was the section entitled The Anthropology of Water, which starts with the words:

Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried.

It is actually about a trip that the narrator makes, a pilgrimage to Compostela, when the pain of seeing the father sink into dementia becomes too much. Although there are place names, historical figures such as El Cid, and descriptions of towns and landscapes and the people the pilgrim meets, it is of course equally about an inner journey.

To look for the simplest question, the most obvious facts, the doors that no one may close, is what I meant by anthropology. I was a strong soul. Look I will change everything, all the meanings!… After all, the only rule of travel is, Don’t come back the way you went. Come a new way.

There is another road trip, this time in the American Mid-West: Indiana, Kansas, Colorado. The voyage also becomes a reason to delve deeper into family relationships and sense of identity – there are very interesting observations here about gender and, as you might expect if you’ve read anything else by Anne Carson, an ambiguous feeling about love, almost a fear of the physicality of it. Everything meaningful should be happening from the neck upwards, the poet persona seems to say – or is that where our greatest power to wound lies?

Humans in love are terrible. You see them come hungering at one another like prehistoric wolves, you see something struggling for life in between them like a root or a soul and it flares for a moment, then they smash it. The difference between them smashes the bones out. So delicate the bones.

February in Canada: A Love Story with a Difference – Bear

Marian Engel: Bear, 1976.

My impression of the 1970s is that they must all have been on drugs for most of the decade – and the films, books and music of that period (perhaps starting a couple of years earlier, from about 1967-68) have that same dreamy, occasionally frenzied and lurid quality to them. At the same time, it must have been an exciting time of questioning, rebelling, reassessing and ‘finding your true self’. Even if the wins of that generation ended up being transient and often illusory.

I can’t help feeling that, in some respects, we have regressed as a culture in the 2010s, i.e. that there is less of a willingness to explore and push boundaries, that it’s all about bestseller lists and celebrities. This is all by way of introducing the novel Bear by Marian Engel, which has been described as ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada’, although at the time it was generally well received by critics and even won the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. Let’s not be coy about it: it is about a woman who develops a passion for a captive bear, and this passion includes quite explicit sex. What surprised me, however, is how much more shocked readers seem to be about this now, in an age when the worst kind of pornography is readily available to all.

Are we in danger of focusing so much on the bestiality aspect of the book that we miss what it is about entirely? Given the vigorous over-reactions, I was expecting something a lot more titillating, but the sex scenes constitute a very small part of the novel. Failing that, I expected it to be a much more surreal type of novel, full of heavy symbolism. It is in fact quite a straightforward narrative, although it does have a fable-like quality about it.

It is actually a novel about loneliness, about feeling alienated from the world, about being a woman in a world where men and career paths and options have proved disappointing. Lou is an introverted librarian in her late 20s who is sent on a mission to assess the estate bequeathed to her institute by the last of the Cary family, an oddly luxurious house with no indoor toilet on a small island on a lake in the remotest reaches of Ontario.

For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclsuion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.

Spending time by herself in this house which seems strangely incongrous with the surrounding landscape, Lou tries to reconcile the rather conventional library of 19th century classics with the bear that ‘has always been there’ on the grounds, captive, yet obviously important somehow to the family. Notes about bear myths and legends fall out of books as she catalogues them. She discovers documents by and about the early settlers in that region, documents which are sometimes at odds with the official history of Canada.

The ones who were most truly romantic perished horribly… Fell through the ice, contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis, died of strange fevers, scurvy, depression, or neglect. Only the hardies survived and their few memoirs. Often the diaires that were left to the Institute broke off when the settlers arrived from England. If you were building your own cabin, making your own cloth and soap and candles, furniture and tools, there was no time to concoct a bottle of ink or find a quill to use it with.

Although she can buy food from the shop on the mainland, in some ways Lou is imitating the lifestyle of those early settlers. Her few interactions with the people in the area prove rather unsatisfactory and leave her feeling more alone than when she is by herself in the house, or swimming in the lake with the bear. It is the bear who provides uncritical companionship.

She loved him with a clean passion that she had never felt before. Once, briefly, she had had as a lover a man of elegance and charm, but she had felt uncomfortable when he said he loved her, felt it meant something she did not understand, and indeed, it meant, she discovered, that he loved her as long as the socks were folded and she was at his disposal on demand… She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.

This is much more a novel about trying to find a sense of purpose, agency and yes, perhaps reconnect with nature. It reminds me a lot of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, with its close observation of the rhythms of nature and with no anthropomorphising of the animal. What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is – a bent towards self-destruction that I have never understood, but which many people seem to experience at some point in their lives.

So, while I’m not sure if this is the greatest Canadian novel of all time (I haven’t read enough Canadian literature to make an informed decision about this), it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing. I am glad this novel has been rediscovered and I hope that it won’t be read and discussed for all the wrong reasons.

I have two more books by Marian Engel on my shelf – I found all three of them second-hand at a bookshop a couple of years ago and couldn’t resist buying all three. The Honeyman Festival and Lunatic Villas seem to feature older female protagonists in urban environments, tied down by marriage and children, trying in vain to recreate something of their past glory and hopes and dreams. Ah, my perfect cup of tea, then! I might continue with one of them for my February in Canada month…

Reading Plans for First Third of 2021

While it is true that I didn’t get to read as much as I planned in the September-December time-frame, I found that having a bit of a plan for the final quarter of the year (or third, to be precise) did give me additional motivation. 2021 doesn’t look like it will be any less busy, but I will repeat this reading planning model for January-April. Of course, I keep it fairly flexible, allowing myself to add random books that capture my fancy, or offer me the thrill of transgression without being too constrained by the rules. Most of these books are on my shelves already, so that gets rid of my ‘far too many unread books’ concerns.

January = January in Japan

I have already read Tokyo Ueno Station but intend to reread parts of it for reviewing. I also plan two further rereads: two of my favourite Japanese books of all time – Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku in a new translation and Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (it was the first novel that I read in the original Japanese all the way through back in my student days). I also intend to read some more by Tshushima Yuko (Dazai’s daughter). The Shooting Gallery is a collection of her short stories. I’ll also read short stories by Higuchi Ichiyo, one of the first professional women writers of Japan, who described the plight of the working classes.

February = Canada

In Canada it will still be lovely and wintry weather in February – real winter, with pure white snow and skiing. Perhaps nicer to read about than to live through it. So I have a nice selection of Canadian authors to hand. Dorian Stuber has been trying to get all his bookish Twitter friends to read Marian Engel’s Bear, so I’ll finally do him the favour! Carol Shields’ Mary Swann is about a latter-day Emily Dickinson who is killed soon after handing her manuscripts over to an editor – and becomes a bit of a posthumous sensation. I love Anne Carson as a poet and look forward to reading some of her essays as well in Plainwater. Inger Ash Wolfe is the crime writing pseudonym of author Michael Redhill, in case I feel the need for a bit of lighter reading. Last but not least, the only French language writer I seem to have from Canada on my shelves is Mathieu Boutin L’Oreille absolue, about two violonists, one young and ambitious, the other midlle-aged and depressed.

March = Drama All the Way

Scene from a production of The Holiday Game at the Maria Filotti Theatre in Braila, Sebastian’s home town.

This month will pave the ground for the next month, so I will be reading plays. Something I very rarely do nowadays, although I was very keen on reading (and performing) plays back in my late teens. I will reread The Holiday Game by Mihail Sebastian (which I am hoping to translate at some point if a friendly publisher decides it’s worth pursuing), as well as two Austrian favourites Arthur Schnitzler and √Ėd√∂n von Horvath. Last but not least, something by Noel Coward, who also falls roughly into that time period. Which time period, you ask? Why, the one that I will be immersed in for April… If there is time, I might revisit Oscar Wilde’s plays, all of which I adored as a teenager, even Salome, which is less well-known.

April = #1936Club

The reading club dedicated to one specific year of publishing only lasts a week, but I intend to extend my reading to the whole month. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that Mihail Sebastian’s play was written that year (although not performed until 1938 – very briefly), and that Horvath also had two plays that appeared that year. Additionally, I also intend to read Max Blecher’s Occurence in the Immediate Unreality, Karel Capek’s War with the Newts and Mircea Eliade’s Miss Cristina, all published in 1936 and all East European. If I have time, I’d also like to read a book about Mihail Sebastian (a novel rather than a biography) by Gelu Diaconu, entitled simply Sebastian.

Events Summary for September

I started off writing a weekly summary of events for this post and then realised that it is the end of September, so a monthly summary might also be appropriate. But first the weekly bit.

Two rather lovely events this week. First, a literary evening as part of the Festival America events across London, with Canadian writers Heather O’Neill and Michael Redhill at the very beautiful Canada House in Trafalgar Square. They even had a throne under lock and key, made specially for George V when he visited Canada.

The main staircase at Canada House.

Both of them are prize-winning authors in Canada, less well-known over here, but there is such a contrast between the two of them. Heather O’Neill has been on my radar since I stumbled almost accidentally across her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals in the McGill University bookshop while I was on a business trip to Montreal. I was so moved by that story that I automatically wanted to read everything else written by O’Neill. Yet when I got to The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I was equally entranced and repulsed by it. Hearing about Heather’s crazy childhood and parents who ‘had no idea how to function in the real world’, it is understandable that her view of the world is a combination of hardcore cynicism and childish wonder. She is extremely entertaining when she talks about her horrific experiences as a child, but she has clearly turned to fiction as a way to process trauma. As she said ‘Children have no language to express the bad things that have happened to them. My fiction tries to give them that language without taking away any of the nuances.’

She also had interesting things to say about literary prizes, having been a judge on the Giller Prize (the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker) this year. She said that most of the books she felt strongly about none of the other judges liked – ever the rebel!

Michael Redhill is a poet and novelist, and seems at first glance to fit very much into the mainstream straight white male cannon. I didn’t quite get what he tried to achieve with Bellevue Square, but I thought it was an interesting and brave attempt, like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. Then you find out that he has also published crime fiction under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe – now I look forward to reading some of those. And there was quite a bit of subversion in the way he talked about literature and literary prizes – in his opinion the books that win most years are the second place vote for everybody. In other words, the book that all the judges mind least if it wins. He said that for him Bellevue Square is a clearing house for humanity, with such an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and he particularly admired how Heather gave such depth of character to the people in her novels – people that we would normally dismiss or avoid or run away from.¬†

Heather O’Neill (left) and Michael Redhill being interviewed by Georgina Godwin.

On Friday I had the unexpected good fortune to go to an evening of ballet at the Peacock Theatre. The New English Ballet Theatre, who are a young, energetic company very much open to innovation, had a double bill of Remembrance/The Four Seasons and I reviewed it for View from the Cheap Seat.

September has gone by even faster than the previous months, so what have been the highlights?

We started off the month in one of my favourite places in England, Cambridge, then continued with another mother-and-sons trip down memory lane to Vienna. Although it is always bittersweet to go back to the places where you were once so happy, I hope that I’ve inspired a future generation to take advantage of opportunities and expand their horizons.

I had the bestest of times singing and dancing along to one of my living heroines, Janelle Monae. I did a short workshop with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias about developing your resilience as a writer, which made me decide to focus more of my energy on submissions once more. I saw another of my writing heroines, Sarah Moss, and was inspired by the Poetry Book and Magazine Fair. And, alongside all that, I’ve been learning a new (and very counter-intuitive) events management system at work and helping roll out a new initiative, getting the boys settled into their new school year and starting contemporary dance classes.¬†

October is set to be just as busy, so let’s hope that this sprained ankle which has laid me low this weekend is nothing more serious (X-ray to follow tomorrow) and won’t slow me down at all.

Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

beautyhusband

By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

LongWayHome

I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret. ¬†Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their¬†marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

www.annpatchett.com
http://www.annpatchett.com

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…