Archive for January, 2010

The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin

January 30, 2010

Copy courtesy House of Anansi

The time is autumn 2000. Eric Siblin has recently ended “a stint as a pop music critic” at the Montreal Gazette. He is in an hotel in the centre of Toronto, sees an ad for a classical music concert at the Royal Conservatory of Music next door and is enticed to attend: “The Top 40 tunes had overstayed their welcome in my auditory cortex, and the culture surrounding rock music had worn thin.” Siblin goes to the concert: three of Bach’s Cello Suites, played by Laurence Lesser, a Boston cellist, and discovers a new passion. The next several years of his life will be dominated by a search centred on the Cello Suites and their history; this book is its result.

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction and review even less on this blog; indeed, except for essays, this is the very first review of a non-fiction work on KevinfromCanada. On the other hand, almost always when I am reading there is music in the background — classical or soft jazz — and I am a sucker for books that explore mysteries in the literary, art and musical worlds. Siblin’s book may be non-fiction, but it is written in a form that every novel reader welcomes; a detective story, this time about a musical suite, told in an entrancing fashion.

Bach’s Cello Suites number six and have long been a source of musical fascination. From Siblin’s early pages:

It was in the small German town of Cothen in 1720 that the Cello Suites were said to have been composed and inscribed by Bach’s raven-quill pen. But without his original manuscript, how can we be certain? Why was such monumental music written for cello, a lowly instrument usually relegated to background droning during Bach’s time? And given that Bach regularly rewrote his music for different instruments, how can we even be sure that the music was written for the cello?

That paragraph defines part one of Siblin’s story: an intricate composition, with no original manuscript version, known to serious musicians but regarded merely as etudes, all from a composer somewhat overlooked in his time as he bounced from one minor German court to another, but now one of significant prominence in the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) with societies, conferences and festivals that celebrate his work. Oh, and this section is not without gossip potential. Bach’s patron at the time the cellos suites were composed played the viola de gamba (a kind of cross between the viola and cello which is now almost unplayed); perhaps the suite was written for cello, rather than viola de gamba, because he knew that it was too complex for his patron to play?

Enter part two. A young Catalan, Pablo Casals, has been attracted to the cello as an instrument. He has been sent for training to Barcelona and, at 13, Pablo and his father are wandering the streets:

Father and son made their way through the cramped streets to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop. As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music, some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black lettering: Six Sonatas or Suites for Solo Vionlincello by Johann Sebasitan Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal Bach composed music for cello alone?

It would be 12 years before Casals would ever play one of the suites in public, some years more until they were first recorded — almost two centuries after they were composed. What a commercial miss. While no composer’s manuscript exists, ever since the iTunes store opened, a version of the Cello Suites has never been out of the classical top 20.

Each of the six Cello Suites has six movements — a prelude; followed by an allemande, a courante and a sarabande (originally dances, transformed even by Bach’s time into instrumental effects); a “modern” dance movement (minuet, bourree or gavotte); and a closing gigue (yes, that is related to jig). Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Siblin’s book is that he structures it to reflect the structure of the suites.

The Cello Suites has six chapters, each of which are divided into six sub-sections, reflecting the structure of the suites themselves. The first two or three movements in each chapter are devoted to telling Bach’s story. Regardless of his reputation now, it was not so great in his lifetime. He not only composed, he lived — drink, tobacco and fathering children (20 by my count) were also part of his life. While he apparently wanted to assure he had a legacy, his papers and memories were spread around by his inheritors — the absence of an original manuscript for the suites is not all that is missing from Bach’s history and pieces are still being found in shoeboxes.

The second part of each chapter is devoted to reporting on Siblin’s search of Pablo Casals and his story. If you like cello music at all, you know Casals — were it not for him, the Cello Suites would probably still be in some dusty drawer. But Casals was more than that; a Catalan, he rebelled against Franco Spain, bitterly resented the refusal of both the U.K. and U.S. to dethrone Franco after the war and refused to appear in either country until the United Nations persuaded him that the nuclear threat was worth a return to the stage. Casals story in Spain is a musical reflection of the authors and architects of his national colleagues who have, perhaps, attracted more attention. His Barcelona is every bit as real as Gaudi’s, but it is heard and not seen. Siblin’s explorations of Casals’ life are a major attraction of the book.

The final section of each chapter is devoted to Siblin’s personal story as he searched the history of the Cello Suites, their composer and the musician who brought them to prominence. Yes, they read like an article from Vanity Fair, but they are every bit as much a part of this story as Bach’s or Casals’. The author was entranced, set himself a goal and these reminders of persuing that goal in the modern world are every bit as much a part of the story as Bach and Casals.

The result is an intriguing work; one that I have no trouble recommending, particularly if you have any interest in literary, artistic or musical detective work. Siblin heard, and was impressed, by a work and went in search. He is no academic or musicologist and makes no claim to either distinction — he is someone who likes music, heard some and set himself a task. He has delivered admirably. The story is both fascinating and reasonable; there are 30 pages of footnotes (which I did not read) for those who want to explore it further. And there are some musical references in an appendix which did end up costing me money when I read them (see below). I am sure that academics will grumble about the book; I am equally sure that it will inspire more readers to investigate Bach and his Cello Suites further than any of their articles. The book is not perfect — the story of the suites came relatively early in the lives of both Bach and Casals and some of the latter chapters here read as a tidy-up of history, but I was more than willing to forgive that.

A final admission: I received a review copy of this book from House of Anansi Press yet this “free” book may turn out to be one of the most expensive volumes in my library. Because of references in this book, I have bought yet more versions of the Cello Suites (I did already own Casals); cello works by Mischa Maisky and yet another version of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Casals started each morning by playing a few sections, then moved on to a few from the suites). In short, if you like your reading with music, don’t overlook this book. I’ve been listening to a couple of those purchases while I wrote this review and that experience has only confirmed how good this book is.

Hecate and Her Dogs, by Paul Morand

January 27, 2010

Translated by Christopher Moncrieff

It is a masterpiece because of the way the language — a polished, naive and neo-classical language, almost dusty with chalk — adapts to some of the most disturbing descriptions of sex in the history of literature, making the author’s coevals and fellow-nationals Genet, Jouhandau, Cocteau and Gide look like writers for school girls. It is a masterpiece because of the constant omissions, the candid and malicious admissions, the silences — Tangier, for example, the city where the story is played out (and the only one where it could have been played out), is never named.

Purchased at Chapters.ca

That description of Hecate and Her Dogs comes from Umberto Pasti’s afterword in the new Pushkin Press edition of Paul Morand’s novella. I make no apologies for borrowing the excerpt — I couldn’t begin to approach a summary that would be as good. Depravity, brutishness and sex (cold, not erotic) are what the book is about; yet it is all done in prose that is as delicate as you will find anywhere.

Paul Morand was born in Paris in 1888 and mixed with signifcant names — Proust, Malraux and the legion of American writers who called Paris home in the early twentieth centry. He was a literary star but his career suffered a severe setback during the war when he collaborated with the Vichy regime as an ambassador. I’ll go no further into his history — Max at Pechorin's Journal provides an excellent extended version in his review of Morand’s Venices.

Morand wrote Hecate and Her Dogs in 1954 when he was still under that shame (his reputation would eventually be restored). It is hard not to conclude that the bleakness of the novella and his exploration of evil is at least in part a reflection of his own circumstances.

The unnamed narrator is introduced while on unscheduled stopover in (unnamed) Tangier, some 30 years after he was posted there by the bank he worked for in the 1920s. The book is a first-person memory novella and he recalls his earlier arrival:

Methodical, accustomed to plough my life in straight furrows, I had sketched out a plan of action, with dates, before I left Paris — I would disembark on 3rd November; I’d give myself until 16th December to find a house: then three months to furnish and arrange it to my taste, one month to train up my Arab servants, and all winter to instil a sound routine in the staff working in my office.

Spring should find me ready. I would then assign myself the job of becoming acquainted with a sector (the word came in with Foch) with which I’d had little contact: that of pleasure, all the pleasures — lawful pleasures, it goes without saying. To this end, I should need a partner; I meant a mistress.

In fact, the world unfolds more quickly than the narrator’s plan. By January 1, all is done, except for finding the mistress. Shortly thereafter at a reception he meets Cotilde, the wife of a French military man who is on permanent assignment in Vladivostock and who never returns home:

In that kingdom of the vacuous, she seemed at first just another blank; everything about her lacked lustre. She wore a beige suit — simple, perfect. Her movements, so contained, barely initiated, that slightly broken voice, the uncertain colour of her eyes, the delicacy of her physique, all gave her an air of orphaned vulnerability. Women thought her ravishingly beautiful because her looks happened to conform to the current fashion: turned-up nose, eyes like a cat’s, head too small for her body, round shoulders, no hips, flat chest, long Merovingian feet, slender arms which did not spoil the line of her jackets, slim thighs which enhanced the hang of her skirts. Few men would have dared think that, made as she was, she was actually rather ugly; but bodily grace does far more for ugly looks than it does for beauty, and Clotilde was grace personified.

Those quotes are rather long (sorry about that) but it is the only way to convey Morand’s prose. Like Proust (only a half century later), his sentences both build and cascade; detail is piled upon detail with the detonation of the real subject saved for the end of each observation. And, it should be noted, at 143 small Pushkin pages, there are thousands fewer thank taking on In Search of Lost Time, although it is impossible not to make comparisons.

We know from the start that the time in Tangier was not ultimately a happy one for the narrator, but the first third of the book is focused on the affair and sex. The depravity and brutishness arrive simply:

Our courteous manners did not prevent my mistress from loving me. In any couple, there is invariably one of the two who loves more than the other or, at least, who is the first to love; that one was she. I can say this today without vanity, because it was so.

And because subsequently it was the other way round.

That about-turn was my tragedy.

From this point on, the novella is steeped in ambiguity and uncertainty. Cotilde is an active sleeper; she may (or may not) be masturbating. She talks in her agitated sleep; the words may (or may not) reflect depraved dreams. Or they may (or may not) be memories of an evil and depraved reality.

The narrator becomes obsessed with where these nighttime scenes come from — and the reader soon realizes that his observations can no longer be trusted in any form. Whether Cotilde’s descent into evil is real or not, he chooses to mirror it. Morand’s prose does not change; it remains formal and without emotion. The world he describes becomes ever more horrid.

Classics and mythology are not my strong suit, so I won’t try to link the Hecate myth (she’s three-headed, eats dogs and, yes, Cotilde is Hecate) to the novella. Those who know the myth well will probably find an entire layer of meaning that passed me by. For me, the only disadvantage of the Pushkin volume is that the excellent William Blake painting of Hecate on the cover is only a little larger than a postage stamp.

I agree with Pasti’s conclusion that in many ways Hecate and Her Dogs is a masterpiece — certainly as a short work, there are few that can compare, although I was periodically reminded of Theophile Gautier’s The Jinx ( reviewed here ) in the way that both authors capture “dread”. The novella is about evil and if that makes you uncomfortable, you won’t agree with my assessment. Equally, if you don’t like novels based on ambiguity and unreliable narration, this won’t fit your tastes. But if those caveats don’t trouble you, Morand has produced an exceptional work.

A Meaningful Life, by L.J. Davis

January 22, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

A Meaningful Life is proof positive why serious readers are glad that NYRB Classics exists. First published in 1971, it promptly dropped from sight and remained there until this edition was published last year. John Self at the Asylum discovered it (and his review includes details of the novel’s history and and some background links that I won’t repeat here) and loved it so much that the book made his year-end best list — that was recommendation enough for me to give it a try.

Here is Davis’ introduction to his central character:

Lowell Lake was a tall man, rather thin, with thin sandy hair and a distant, preoccupied though amiable disposition, as though the world did not reach him as it reaches other men and all the voices around him were pleasant but very faint. His attention was liable to wander off at any time and he was always asking people to repeat things. He gave the impression that people bored him, although not in a bad way: actually, they seemed to lull him. He was frequently discovered half-asleep at his desk, gazing vacantly out the nearest window.

We meet Lowell not long after his thirtieth birthday. He is in New York, the managing editor of “a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly”, a job that he has held for nine years and seems destined to hold for life, perhaps with a promotion to editor when the incumbent expires. While “managing editor” might sound impressive, it is anything but — the editor is terrified that someone competent will replace him and promptly dispatches any staffer who shows competence; Lowell’s non-threatening passiveness is his greatest on-the-job asset.

Davis explores Lowell’s history. Idaho-born and raised, his parents ran a “hotel” that was pretty much a brothel, a convenient site for local worthies to conduct their assignations. Lowell is good enough at school that he is accepted at Stanford University, but without a scholarship. He writes a letter to one of the worthies, a judge, wondering whether there are any state aid programs for which he might qualify; the worthy, convinced he is being blackmailed (a thought that never crossed Lowell’s mind), promptly comes up with the cash and Lowell is off to one of the West’s better universities.

He met his future wife at the beginning of his sophomore year and immediately nicknamed her Tex, for reasons that were obscure even to himself, but the joke, whatever it was, soon wore off and eventually he came to call her by no name at all, or at least none he could use in public. When he wanted to attract her attention in a crowded room he usually called her “dear”, which admittedly was a pretty lame expedient and one that always embarrassed him. Her real name was Betty and she came from Flatbush.

Lowell and Betty eventually fall into a decision to get married, although that brings its own problems. The in-laws are not impressed with Lowell or the wedding plans (“I’m not sure I like this” is the mother-in-law’s response to everything from the chapel to the arrangements to the prospect itself; the father-in-law is a garment-trade cutter with no opinions about anything). In one of his few conscious decisions in the book, Lowell decides to run from the marriage and the night before the wedding takes off for Idaho — he gets just past Sacramento before deciding this too is wrong, turns around to return and discovers he is being trailed by his own parents on the way back to Stanford.

A decisive moment of the book comes when Lowell “decides” that rather than taking up a grad fellowship at Berkeley (it is too threatening), he and Betty will head instead to New York where he will write a novel. There is a wonderful moment on the way when they come to the Mississippi;

“Do you realize that I’m the first member of my family to cross this thing in a hundred years?” said Lowell as they bridged the Mississippi at Saint Louis. His emotions were strange and sinking, but not precise enough to put a name to.

“Big deal,” said his wife.

They came to New York at night, hurtling through a hellish New Jersey landscape the likes of which Lowell had never dreamed existed, a chaos of roadways and exits, none of which made any sense, surrounded by smoke and flashes and dark hulking masses and pillars of fire a thousand feet high, enveloped in a stench like dog’s breath and dead goldfish.

(Aside: Those who are fans of the Sopranos series have reason to wonder if creator David Chase — or at least the guy who did the titles — read this book. This particular section is a precursor of the whole Sopranos intro.)

It is night time, Lowell and Betty are confused and they actually overshoot New York and wake up the next morning in Brooklyn. The bulk of the novel explores their experiences there. Lowell, as is to be expected, is hopeless at writing a novel which is how he ends up at the plumbing-trade weekly. Shortly after the opening scene quoted above, he decides to make another life-change. He and Betty buy a decrepit Brooklyn brownstone (a Puerto Rican rooming house when they buy it, but the promise is that it will be delivered empty) and he sets to work restoring it:

Lowell shrugged pleasantly and went about his work. He had a long row to hoe, but he was industriously hoeing it. His marriage was a shambles and the house was a mess beyond his wildest dreams, but the odd thing was that, though surrounded by wreckage, he felt he was actually getting somewhere for the first time in his life. Where exactly he was getting or what he would do when he got there were matters of conjecture, but there could be little doubt that he was on his way at last. He was struggling against forces and odds. He was pulling a load. He was thinking. He was actually thinking. Using his brain, he was attacking problems that were not only relatively coherent but in some cases capable of rational achievement. He’d actually solved some of them.

Davis was himself a “Brownstoner” (as novelist Jonathan Lethem, a childhood neighbor of Davis, points out in the intro) and, despite the short shrift I am giving it here, it is that experience that provides the real strength of the book — the humor of the first half turns into a much more sombre contemplation of just what is involved in introducing “change” in Brooklyn. It is to the author’s credit that, as the book approaches its fortieth anniversary, A Meaningful Life bears fruitful comparison with two of the more popular novels of 2009.

The first is Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here) and not just because both books are set in that New York borough. Like Toibin’s central character, Eilis Lacey, Lowell Lake is motivated by following “the path of least resistance”. Like Eilis, that produces more disasters than successes, despite its passive appeal — also like Eilis, the conscious decisions that Lowell does make tend to produce even worse results. The two may have arrived in Brooklyn from opposite directions, but they have much in common.

Davis’ portrayal of Brooklyn also brought back memories of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin (reviewed here), another 2009 novel which has received a lot of praise. Like McCann, Davis explores New York’s underside and the difficulty that new arrivals to the city have in coping with it. The streets weren’t paved with gold in 1971 when Davis wrote this book or across the river in New York City proper where McCann’s novel is set in roughly the same period and they aren’t paved with gold now either.

A Meaningful Life is one of those excellent novels that deliberately takes some time to establish and fill out its central character, which Davis does with significant amounts of humor. That done, he turns the passive Idaho boy loose in one of the world’s most urban environments — and that’s when the real story begins. If you liked Brooklyn, Let The Great World Spin or both, make time for A Meaningful Life; in many ways, it is a better novel than either of them.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy

January 18, 2010

Purchased from Chapters.ca

A few nights ago I sat down with Maile Meloy’s new collection of short stories, intending to read one or two and then move on to something else. A couple of hours later, having read eight of the 11 stories, I forced myself to close the book and save the last three for later. Now it is true that I am notoriously undisciplined when it comes to short stories — no matter how firm the resolve to space out the reading, I hardly ever succeed. Despite that, my “Meloy” experience is a testament to the readability of this collection. I’ve reread all 11 since and am happy to report the (somewhat more disciplined) second approach confirmed my initial positive response.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It has received significant critical attention and may well get more in the next few weeks as American fiction prize season moves into high gear. It was one of five fiction works on the New Yorks Times 2009 Top 10 list and a Los Angeles Times Best Books of 2009. Tony's Book World included it in his year-end top 10. Meloy is also no stranger to prizes, even though this is only her fourth book — her initial collection, Half in Love, won a PEN-Malamud award and she was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for her first novel, Liars and Saints.

As you might gather from my experience, Meloy is a highly readable writer. Her prose is direct and accessible. She is a realist, but that is not her strength — it is the curves that she plants in her realism (and there is often more than one in any given story) that make her work so seductive. That is a trait that I particularly appreciate. Ian McEwan does it in his best books and the two do bear comparison.

Consider this excerpt from “The Children”, which supplies the title for the book. Fielding is opening up his cabin, but is obsessed with how he will tell his wife that he is leaving her for the young woman (now 32, it must be said) who as a 17-year-old taught their children how to swim. Another young woman, a friend of his children whom he has also dallied with, shows up to says the truth is known. And then his wife arrives (we know she is smarter than Fielding) and effectively traps him into promising he will stay:

She watched him, his eminently intelligent wife. He pulled her closer to make the scrutiny stop, and feeling her head on his shoulder was reassuring. He was doomed to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar, wrap it around him like an old bathrobe. He seemed to be none of those things, and could only deceive the people he loved, and then disappoint and worry them when they saw through him. There was a poem Meg [his daughter] had brought home from college, with the line “Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?

“Doomed to ambivalence and desire” is a condition that could be ascribed to most of Meloy’s central characters, whether they find themselves caught in a relationship that seems to be lacking something or whether they are considering entering a relationship. These 11 stories are not linked but the frustrating desire to have it both ways is a uniting theme.

Meloy was born in Montana, the state immediately south of Alberta where I live, and sets a number of her stories there. I admit that added to the appeal of this collection for me — Montana’s mix of prairie, foothills and mountains is not dissimilar to my home territory.

One characteristic of this part of the world, for those who don’t know it, is that things are a long way apart, a trait the Meloy puts to good use in the opening story “Travis, B.” The B. of the title is Beth Travis, a young lawyer in her first job in Missoula, who has signed up to teach an evening course in school law in Glendive. The problem is that Missoula is on the west side of the state — Glendive is an icy eight-hour drive across state, near the North Dakota border. A tough commute for a two-hour class.

The other main character in that story is Chet Moran, a ranch hand marked forever by the polio that afflicted him when he was two. He had a job in Billings but:

That winter, he took another feeding job, outside Glendive on the North Dakota border. He thought if he went east instead of north, there might not be so much snow. He lived in an insulated room built into the barn, with a TV, a couch, a hot plate, and an icebox, and he fed the cows with a team and sled. He bought some new magazines, in which the girls were strangers to him, and he watched Starsky and Hutch and the local news. At night, he could hear the horses moving in their stalls. But he had been wrong about the snow; by October it had already started. He made it through Christmas, with packages and letters from his mother, but in January he got afraid of himself again. The fear was not particular. It began as a buzzing feeling around his spine, a restlessness without a specific aim.

Chet wanders into Travis, B.’s class, takes a seat and falls, kind of, into love — well, infatuation anyway. If the commute is a problem for an evening class, you can imagine the challenge it poses to a relationship, particularly for two people who are not very experienced at relationships anyway.

It is hard to adequately describe a Meloy story without providing spoilers. Those two are reasonable examples of what the collection has to offer. In every story, the author finds a wrong note or jarring chord and then plays it to perfection. Her realism supplies the framework, the off-chord is explored in detail to provide the compelling aspect of the story.

I haven’t read Meloy’s other books, but the titles alone (Half in Love, Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter) would seem to indicate that this is the territory she does like to explore. She does it well enough here — and I certainly recommend this collection to anyone who likes the short story genre — that I look forward to my own future exploration of her work.

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

January 14, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Charles Bukowski (1920-94) published more than 45 books — and until a few days ago I had not read one. In addition to the ambitious publishing schedule, Bukowski is known for his determination to keep the work of John Fante in the public eye. That cause did attract me although I was only vaguely aware of his role; the four-volume Saga of Arturo Bandini was on my top 10 list for 2009. Stewart at booklit used that selection to remind me that I should read Bukowski. And I had just ordered a copy of his second book, Post Office, when Max at Pechorin’s Journal checked in with a review. With this review added to the mix, I’d say the blogging world is doing all it can to encourage people to read Bukowski.

Post Office is not what you would call a subtle read. Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, hires onto the U.S. postal service as a substitute mailman and begins what will become a 12-year career, although “period of torment” might be a more accurate description. Even in the early days, he does not find it particularly rewarding:

“Chinaski! Take route 539!”

The toughest in the station. Apartment houses with boxes that had scrubbed-out names or no names at all, under tiny lightbulbs in dark halls. Old ladies standing in halls, up and down the streets, asking the same question as if they were one person with one voice:

“Mailman, you got any mail for me?”

And you felt like screaming, “Lady, how the hell do I know who you are or I am or anybody is?”

At first glance, working for the U.S. post office seems to be a not-bad job. It is steady, outdoor work for those who like that and so on. Bukowski is determined to show us the other side of the coin. All systems have power structures and the less power that there is in the system (say, the post office) the more cruel the abuse. Chinaski’s demon is the “soup” (that’s Bukowski for superintendent), one Jonstone, known to those who work for him as The Stone, and someone who is determined to exercise his power, such as it is, in the most ruthless way possible:

We sat an hour or so. A sub was assigned to Matthew’s case [that's the compartmentalized wall unit where mail gets sorted]. The other subs were given other jobs. I sat alone behind The Stone. Then I got up and walked to his desk.

“Mr. Jonstone?”

“Yes, Chinaski?”

“Where’s Matthew today? Sick?”

The Stone’s head dropped. He looked at the paper in his hand and pretended to continue reading it. I walked back and sat down.

At 7 a.m. The Stone turned:

“There’s nothing for you today, Chinaski.”

I stood up and walked to the doorway. I stood in the doorway. “Good morning, Mr. Jonstone. Have a good day.”

He didn’t answer. I walked down to the liquor store and bought a half pint of Grand Dad for my breakfast.

That excerpt provides a representative sample of Bukowski’s straight-forward prose style — he doesn’t let elaboration get in the way of his point. And it introduces us to another of Chinaski’s issues: He drinks a lot, he often drinks late and that makes a 4:30 a.m. wake-up to get to the postal station to report for work on time an issue. Without getting too sexist about it, he doesn’t drink alone and there always seems to be a “shackjob” — Chinaski’s term for the girlfriends whom he shacks up with — on hand.

There is not much more to Post Office, but don’t treat that as an indictment of the book. Bukowski is committed to portraying the demeaning nature of much of the work that we take for granted and, imperfect as Henry Chinaski is, the novel does exactly that. The author makes no attempt to place this in some grander scheme (Henry’s non-post-office option for making a living is betting on horse races, something he is actually quite good at).

Bukowski and Fante do come from the same space — and I have to say that Fante does a better job. Despite that, I’m glad I read this book — I’m not sure how many of the other 44 will eventually hit my reading agenda. Some definitely will.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler

January 11, 2010

Sorry about the bargain picture -- click to get to the bargain

“A man without land is nothing.”

Utter that sentence to any serious reader of Canadian fiction from a certain generation (say mine) and the response is entirely predictable: “Oh, you’ve been rereading Duddy.”

Yes, I have, and what a rewarding experience it was. First published in 1959, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was Mordecai Richler’s fourth novel, but the first to gain widespread attention. In the half century since it was published, it has never disappeared from bookstore shelves and with good reason — it is as timely now as when it was first published.

Indeed, I would put forward the argument that The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz marks the beginning of the modern era in Canadian fiction (I know someone is going to dispute this with an equally good example, but that’s what comments are for). When it was published, iconic Canadian authors like Morley Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan were still writing, but their best work was behind them. Robertson Davies had published the Salterton Triology, but it was more English than Canadian — the even better Deptford Trilogy was yet to come. Richler’s Montreal-based colleague, Brian Moore, was building a bridge between Irish and North American fiction (his influential The Luck of Ginger Coffey would appear in 1960) but had not yet hit his stride. Margaret Atwood’s first volume of poetry would not be published until 1961; her first novel (the excellent An Edible Woman) not until 1969. Alice Munro’s first short story collection, The Dance of the Happy Shades, would not appear until 1968.

With this influential novel, Richler also, I would argue, presented a contribution to a very significant North American trend. J.D. Salinger had published A Catcher in the Rye in 1951, the novel that I think bears the most direct comparison to this one. Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus would be published in the same year that Duddy was. Bellow, Updike and Cheever were also publishing in the U.S. — Richler does not fall short in comparisons with any of them. If you like those American authors, you should also read Richler.

That is a very long introduction to a review of this novel, but I do think it is worth it — The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is an important book in the development of North American fiction and deserves to be recognized as such. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Duddy is a child of St. Urbain Street, Jewish Montreal, at a time when that ethnic group represented the immigrant class and St. Urbain was the neighborhood that would be home to Richler’s fiction for the rest of his writing career (although he does take some detours to “boulevard” Montreal). When we first meet him, Duddel is only fifteen and already developing his entrepreneurial “skills”, besetting a hapless teacher at Fletcher’s Field High School:

Since he had first come to the school in 1927 — a tight-lipped young Scot with a red fussy face — many of Mr. MacPherson’s earliest students had, indeed, gone on to make their reputations in medicine, politics, and business, but there were no nostalgic gatherings at his home. The sons of his first students would not attend Fletcher’s Field High School, either. For making their way in the world his first students had also graduated from the streets of cold-water flats that surrounded F.F.H.S. to buy their own duplexes in the tree-lined streets of Outremont. In fact, that morning, as Mr. MacPherson hesitated on a scalp of glittering white ice, there were already three Gentiles in the school (that is to say, Anglo-Saxons; for Ukrainians, Poles and Yugoslavs, with funny names and customs of their own, did not count as true Gentiles), and ten years hence F.F.H.S. would no longer be the Jewish high school. At the time, however, most Jewish boys in Montreal who had been to high school had gone to F.F.H.S. and, consequently, had studied history out of The World’s Progress (Revised) with John Alexander MacPherson; and every old graduate had an anecdote to tell about him.

Richler uses that section to introduce The Boy Wonder, Jerry Dingleman, who will become both the inspiration and curse that Duddy will face throughout the novel. The Boy Wonder proves that Jewish boys can make it, but they have to skate close to the edge — and occasionally cross it — to be able to do that.

“A man without land is nothing” may be Duddy’s inspiration but he did not invent it — the thought came from his shoemaker grandfather. It lodged, however, and nothing that the hero will do in the remaining pages of the novel will digress from it.

Teen-age Duddy heads into the Laurentians as a waiter at a resort (a Canadian version of the Catskill resorts) and discovers a lake surrounded by farms that may be coming up for sale. Land! He also finds a resort camp that he is convinced he can replicate — with improvements — on this land. He sees not just a camp, but an entire village (with appropriate development revenue), including a synagogue — remember, this is Roman Catholic Francophone Quebec. It would be a home, not just for his grandfather, but for his family. His older brother, Lennie, has beat the odds to become one of the few Jews in med school at McGill University. Duddy has found a passion that not only serves his own interests, it will become an essential part of the family history.

To accomplish this, Duddy needs to raise capital and it is in these sections that Richler’s salty humor comes to the fore. Our hero’s first effort is to produce videos of bar mitzvah’s, filmed by an alcoholic Englishman. He also imports pinball machines from the U.S., introducing the character of Virgil, an epileptic who is obsessed with the idea that Blacks and even gays have formed movements to forward their cause (remember, this is 1959 — Richler was ahead of his time in many ways), but the Health-Handicapped have been left on the sidelines.

Visitors to this site have a right to expect quotes and they are going to be disappointed with this review — you can open Duddy at almost any page and find wonderful Richler prose. Trust me, this is a book that rewards reading on every page. And as you become enrolled in Duddy’s quest (“A man without land is nothing”), you can’t help but join the journey.

Okay, I tested that hypothesis by opening the book at random — got page 138 — and here is an excerpt:

He phoned Yvette and told her he was sending her a check for three hundred dollars in the morning. He said he was making the movie for Mr. Cohen, but he didn’t tell her that if Mr. Cohen didn’t like it there was no deal. He was so happy about Seigal, too, that he didn’t realize until he got home that the Seigal bar-mitzvah was six weeks off and even if got paid right away it would be too late. He still had to raise twenty-five hundred dollars to pay Brault and twenty days was all the time he had. In the next three days Duddy visited eight potential clients. They were interested. Nobody showed him the door exactly, but first they wanted to see one of his productions.

I read virtually all of Richler’s novels when they first appeared and will admit that he had more passionate fans than me. He was a high-profile character across Canada and I never quite joined that group. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is book two in my Richler re-read project (Barney’s Version is reviewed here) and it is a project that I intend to continue. Mordecai died in 2001 and, in some ways, has slipped from the radar since then. Barney’s Version is now being filmed and that will soon, deservedly, change. He is an important voice in the development not just of Canadian, but North American, fiction. And there is no better place to start than with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — a man without land is truly nothing.

A final note. I don’t usually promote buying books but there is a very worthwhile deal now available for those interested in Canadian fiction at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca. McClelland & Stewart was the publisher that brought modern Canadian fiction to the world and, to celebrate their centenary in 2006, they produced some very handsome hardback volumes of eight major works from that period (the picture at the top of this review is from that group — the covers have a similar pattern). The book trade being what it is, Chapters is now selling those volumes they still have on hand at a major discount (price is $10 Cdn a book). If you want a starter set of great Canadian fiction, there is no better place to go — I’ve read them all, reviewed a few and can recommend (and will be re-reading) the rest. The chosen books are not necessarily the best for each author, but are representative. Some are already sold out and others will follow soon, but consider a purchase — if you want a Canadian starter set, buy as many as you can find. The list:

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
No Great Mischief, Alistair MacLeod
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
Such a Long Journey, Rohinton Mistry
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler
Away, Jane Urquhart
The Book of Secrets, M.G. Vassanji

WinterWood, by Patrick McCabe

January 8, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I am breaking convention here by posting the title as WinterWood instead of Winterwood, but my look at the cover of the book says that the second “W” is also a capital. These are the kinds of dilemmas that author Patrick McCabe loves posing for readers. And it is only fitting that a novel that requires readers to make some choices about what they believe to be “real” as they explore the content of the book should start with a choice of just what the title is.

The very first post on the KfC blog was a review here of McCabe’s The Holy City, one of my favorite reads from 2009. McCabe is Irish, but not the Irish of the “troubles” — he comes from the Irish of the Celtic Tiger, albeit with references back to the troubled past. Last year’s book was a very interesting study of a society in economic transition and provoked comments from trusted sources that said WinterWood was his best book — it has been sitting on a shelf awaiting winter for some months. I am glad that I finally got to it.

Redmond Hatch has been a wanderer all of his life, seeking some kind of destiny, and has wandered into media (which was my trade when I had a day job). He has returned to the “mountainess” territory of Slievenagheea (these are mountains if you are Irish, they are hills to those of us in the shadow of the Rockies) and has stumbled into an acquaintance with Auld Pappie Ned, a fiddler who has some local acclaim. Hatch is on assignment for the Leinster News, a not very good newspaper, and it is his first visit home in some years:

And was more than glad that I did, as it happened, for quite unexpectedly it turned out to be festival week, with a ceilidh starting up as I drove into town. On a crude platform in the square a slap-bass combo was banging away goodo, with a whiskery old-timer sawing at his fiddle, stomping out hornpipes to beat the band. He must have been close on seventy years of age, with a curly copper thatch and this great unruly beard touched throughout with streaks of silver. He slapped his thighs and whooped and catcalled, encouraging anyone who knew it to join in the “traditional come-all-you”!

That is the second paragraph of the book and it is author McCabe’s invite into the volume. If you are willing to come along for the ride, please join in — if not, discard the novel now and move on to something else. The fiddler is Auld Pappie Ned, who may or may not be real and may or may not be related to Redmond. He has stories to tell and he tells (and sings) them but one of the challenges for the reader is to figure out just how much of what he tells (sings) is real and how much a figment of his, or Redmond’s, imagination.

It is convenient to describe books like this as centring on an “unreliable” narrator and then focus on that unreliability. I think that is a mistake with this book — Redmond is a narrator who does have a clouded memory, not just of what happened, but also with his own part in it. He is not so much unreliable as uncertain and part of the reader’s journey is to help figure out how to deal with that uncertainty.

It doesn’t just involve Auld Pappie Ned, it also concerns his love affair and marriage with Catherine Courtney, a liaison that eventually produces a child, Imogen. We know early on that the relationship has dissolved, but don’t know why since we read about it only from Redmond’s point of view — and we know we can’t trust that. And we become aware of his obsessiveness with Immy. Midway through the book, Auld Pappie contemplates his own failed relationship as he and Redmond share some “clear” (moonshine):

Oh, sure, once upon a time there was a little sweetheart I had a dalliance with all right — a lovely little girl by the name of Annamarie Gordon, as I recall. And I have to admit I might have been that little bit soft on her. But sure what she want with an old mongrel the like of me? In the end, anyway, Redmond, she went off and married a doctor. Lives in England or someplace now, I hear. But a lovely girl she was all the same. Now where in the divil did I put that jug of clear?

It was a masterful performance and there was no doubt about it. He could simply, effortlessly, run rings around me. And I know that, although maybe it’s not something to be particularly proud of, there have been many times since that day I called to the house and collected Immy when I would have given anything to have possessed even a fraction of Ned Strange’s formidable resourcefulness. The tiniest percentage of his linguistic dexterity, the meagrest portion of his adroitly evasive, exculpatory strategies.

Auld Pappie spins yarns for Redmond. And Redmond spins yarns (perhaps not quite as convincingly) for himself, those around him and we readers. And McCabe spins yarns that we are free to believe — or to reject. Incidentally, the sentence fragments and the abrupt and unexplained change of voice in that quote are also typical of McCabe. An important aspect of his style is to maintain an uncertainty not just of what is real and what is not but also just where you are as a reader at any given time. It is somewhat disconcerting at first, but becomes a worthwhile part of the experience once you get used to the technique.

The Winter Wood of the title is this novel’s version of a Greek temple, where all the conflicting streams come together. As in The Holy City, McCabe sets this novel in the expanding Ireland that is, finally, joining the global economy and that is a very important thread for the book — the contrast between traditional and modern worlds is every bit as important as the contrast between faulty and realistic memory.

It is to McCabe’s credit that WinterWood would fit a number of genre descriptions. In one sense, it is a thriller (people do die in this book). In another, it is an “Irish” novel, exploring how the changing world affects those who live there. And for those readers who are interested in “unreliable” narrators, Redmond is as unreliable as you can get.

Above all, however, WinterWood is a good read. McCabe creates interesting characters, puts them into even more interesting situations and ends up with a highly readable volume. He is probably capable of better work, but that judgment in no way is a negative reflection on this novel.

The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

January 4, 2010

Purchased at Hatcherd's, Piccadilly

Undine Spragg may not be the most selfish central character in English-language fiction, but she certainly deserves a place on the short-list. Since her childhood in Ajax City, somewhere in the American mid-West, her entire life has been devoted to upward social mobility.

Her parents have fed this obsession. Her father, a successful business manipulator in Ajax, has, at Undine’s demand, summered at Great Lakes resorts and then in Virginia and neither of those two spas met the cut for his daughter — he now finds himself ensconced in the Hotel Stentorian in New York City, as Undine trolls for bigger fish. She has known since childhood that the way “up” was to hitch yourself to higher-flying stars but now she is in the City and opportunity blooms:

Undine, as a child, had taken but a lukewarm interest in the diversion of her playmates. Even in the early days when she had lived with her parents in a ragged outskirt of Apex, and hung on the fence with Indiana Frusk, the freckled daughter of the plumber ‘across the way’, she had cared little for dolls or skipping-ropes, and still less for the riotous games in which the loud Indiana played Atalanta to all the boyhood of the quarter. Already Undine’s chief delight was to ‘dress up’ in her mother’s Sunday skirt and ‘play lady’ before the wardrobe mirror. The taste had outlasted childhood, and she still practised the same secret pantomime, gliding in, settling her skirts, swaying her fan, moving her lips in soundless talk and laughter; but lately she had shrunk from everything that reminded her of her baffled social yearnings. Now, however, she could yield without afterthought to the joy of dramatizing her beauty. Within a few days she would be enacting the scene she was now mimicking; and it amused her to see in advance just what impression she would produce on Mrs. Fairford’s guests.

That quote from the early pages of the novel is instructive. Undine knows what she is good at (mainly being beautiful) and knows what she wants (more, more and more is a fair summary). And while she is aware of her weaknesses (they all come down to a lack of exposure) she is more than willing to learn — and learning, for her, is to gain access to the company and experience of people whom she can exploit.

I make no secret of the fact that Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors — one of her other great novels, The House of Mirth, was one of the first posts on this blog and her novella, The Touchstone, followed some months later (links to both posts here). Her best works capture and amalgmate two themes — the transition of New York from “old” to “new” money as the twentieth century dawns and the forces that play on upwardly mobile individuals in that changing society.

The Custom of the Country is arguably the best of her novels, rivalling The Age of Innocence — I think this one would get my vote. Wharton herself was born to old money and married, disastrously, into new. This novel was written in 1913 after Wharton had moved to Europe and, not coincidentally, the year of her divorce from Teddy Wharton. The “custom of the country” of the title has more than one reference in the book — one is the notion of divorce as a needed tactic for those who want to move up the social scale, the other is the idea that the American way to achieve self-interest is to exploit all the social opportunities that are around you.

Undine’s life journey is, perhaps, captured in her strange first name. Those with a classical background will know that she is related to the nereids, the classical sea-nymphs. But that was not what inspired her parents. Rather, as her mother explains, it was the source of the family fortune: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born…it’s from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.”

Undine learned early on that the shortest way to her goals was/is through marriage. Her first, back in Ajax, is to Elmer Moffat; it is quickly to be undone by her father, but will remain a powerful force throughout the book. As we first meet her in New York, she is angling for her second and sets her sights on Ralph Marvel, the symbol of “old” New York money, which in this book comes down to a lot of “old” ethics and not much money, a sign of the times.

Old New York is comfortable and wants no part of the smart New York money, represented by Wall Street. Undine discovers, too late, that she has married into the the wrong class. Ralph takes her to Europe (finally, in her estimation) but all the wrong Europe — dreadful, boring Italian mountain towns with art and history, instead of the glamor of the cafes of Paris (only patronized by Americans) or even, horrors, swinging London.

Undine finds a useful amusement when she returns to New York in the form of an acquaintance with Peter Van Degen, the avatar of “new money” in this book. Societally well-married, and very rich, Van Degen wants nothing more than an affair with Undine. Alas, despite the custom of the country, or perhaps because of it, that is not on in Undine’s complicated moral world. She is willing to follow Peter to Paris and let him subisdize and entertain her, but anything more is not allowed.

Which is where Wharton introduces her own European experience and values — she had been spending more than half her time in Europe for close to a decade before writing this novel. As Charles Bowen, an older American who is a sort of amanuensis in this novel, observes:

To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people who give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

Undine does marry into French tradition and money — and does discover that her reach has finally exceeded her grasp.

I’m sorry to end my thoughts there, but Wharton’s ending deserves not to be spoiled. She has created a marvelous cast of characters (my concentration on Undine is an understatement of what the book has to offer — Ralph Marvel, in particular, is fully developed) who serve her overriding theme.

The Custom of the Country is one of the best novels ever written in English. Wharton develops a number of important themes and succeeds with each of them. It is truly a book that should be treasured.

Running, by Jean Echenoz

January 2, 2010

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by Linda Coverdale
KevinfromCanada’s blog is coming up to its first birthday (Jan. 9) so I thought I would approach the end of year one and start of year two with reviews of books from some authors who have links to the initial 12 months of this blog. Edith Wharton ( The House of Mirth ) and Patrick McCabe (The Holy City ) were the first two authors reviewed here; two shorts novels by Jean Echenoz ( Ravel and Piano ) were among the pleasant discoveries of the year.

Running is Echenoz’s most recent work, just released in translation here in North America. Its central character — indeed, almost only character — is Emil Zatopek, the incredible Czech distance runner who for more than a decade was unbeatable at his chosen distances (he owned nine world records at one point). Awkward in his running form (“absent of form” would perhaps be more accurate), he was almost painful to watch, until he crossed the finish line first, took his victory lap and celebrated yet another triumph.

A digression: The 1988 Winter Olympics took place in Calgary. As the newly-appointed city editor of the Calgary Herald in 1976, one of my first tasks was to select the reporter who would cover Calgary’s attempt to get the rights to bid for the Games to come to Canada. For the next 12 years, much of my day job was involved with Olympic coverage. There is a lot to criticize about the Games (the IOC may be the most pompous organization in the world) but they are a truly special experience to witness firsthand. The 2010 Winter Games are back in Canada, this time in British Columbia, so the chance to read some athletic fiction, from an author whom I admire, sent me into this volume with high hopes.

Zatopek may have been born to be a world champion but it took him a while to discover it. In post-WWII Czechoslovakia, a job was what he needed and he found it in the Bata shoe factory (another Canadian connection there, since the Batas lived in Canada). The new nation is searching for an identity, competitions are important to companies like Bata and Emil, the non-athlete, finds himself almost forced to take part:

Against all odds, he soon starts to enjoy himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1500 and 3000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.

It is at this point that Echenoz begins to develop a parallel story. When Zatopek has his original successes, the Germans are still in control — they will soon be replaced and the Czechs will be under the thumb of new Soviet masters. Emil cares nothing for politics, only running, but the political masters need heroes and he, as a runner, needs support. From here on in, this novella (126 pages in my edition from The New Press) will address both those concerns.

The global concerns echo the Cold War, and while there are destructive weapons on both sides, the “action” of the Cold War often tends to be played out through athletic contests. At the Olympics in London, Emil is to face Heino, a Finn from the “other side”:

Emil is the favorite, of course, but there’s still Heino, who is there saying nothing yet thinking nonetheless. The man of the deep forests has a thirst for vengeance and no desire to let Emil have the last word. So Emil and Dr. Knienicky, whom he has for once allowed to advise him, come up with a race strategy. It’s really rather simple. When the doctor, sitting in the stands, feels it’s time for Emil to accelerate, he will just wave a red jersey, Emil’s spare: he runs only in red, representing his country at athletic meets exclusively in the color of the proletarian revolution, although whether by choice or by fiat is anyone’s guess.

Things get more complicated for Emil, but he, a runner, remains removed. He, and his reputation, are important to the state — he is just a runner and, while promotions in the military have their own rewards, he doesn’t care that much about the state. Until the arrival of the Prague Spring.

And I will stop this review right there. If you have read Echenoz and like him, this is an entirely worthwhile book. In his spare, concise style he takes global and personal conflicts, elevates and compresses them, and does a superb job of it. If you have not read Echenoz, I would not start here — both Ravel and Piano are better entry points to this author’s work. Having said that, I want to put in a final recommendation for Echenoz. He is an author who understands and communicates the pressures of the time, but he does it through the exploration of individual characters. Don’t start your Echenoz reading here, but don’t pass it by either.


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