Archive for the ‘KfC’s 2013 project’ Category

KfC’s 2013 Project: Island: The Collected Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

December 18, 2013

Personal collection

Personal collection

When it came time to select the books for this project more than a year ago, one decision was easy. While my reading of short stories is more guiltily conscientious (“I really should”) than avid (“I can’t wait for the next collection”), two story writers demanded inclusion: Alice Munro (I’ll get to her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, next month to conclude the project) and Alistair MacLeod. I am not alone in facing that decision, incidentally — when Carmen Calill and Colm Toibin in 2000 picked the 200 best English-language “novels” since 1950 for the Modern Library, they stretched the rules to include collections from both Munro and MacLeod.

So when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few months back, I was delighted to see my judgment reflected by a far more credible source. And a part of me was just a bit disappointed that a short story writer who, for my taste, is every bit as outstanding was left on the sidelines yet again.

Munro and MacLeod do have much in common. They were born only five years apart (Munro in 1931, MacLeod 1936) and neither published a collection until they were approaching age 40. Both are acutely aware of their Scots heritage — Munro devoted a memoir-like volume (The View From Castle Rock) to her ancestral story, MacLeod’s ancestors (like those of many of his characters) came to this country in the 1790s.

So why is Munro known and loved by readers around the world while MacLeod’s global reputation seems restricted to academic and publishing professionals, rather than readers? I’d suggest it is due to two factors:

  • MacLeod simply does not publish very much: two seven-story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth The Sun (1986) (collected with two additional stories, “Island” and “Clearances”, in this volume published in 2000) and one novel, No Great Mischief (1999). Indeed, you can purchase his entire fiction catalogue at Indigo online for $31.76 and read his complete oeuvre in a weekend (although I certainly would not advise that).
  • Like the “Munro country” of southwestern Ontario, MacLeod has his space: Cape Breton Island. Anyone who has ever visited Cape Breton knows how spectacularly beautiful it is but you only have to be there for a few days to appreciate how difficult it would be to live and survive on the island — there is a reason why the Scots ended up here. The resources that kept Cape Bretoners afloat (fishing, lumber and coal-mining) have all been in decline for more than half a century and the painful results of that are a constant in MacLeod’s stories. His characters are every bit as human and humane as Munro’s are — the environment they live in is much bleaker and far more punishing. The joy that often shows up in a Munro story to offset the sadness simply is not present in MacLeod’s excellent work.
  • The 16 stories in Island are presented in the order in which they were written and, for this reader at least, the result reads like two novels, each with an overriding theme, followed by a coda in the final two stories.

    All change, be it of choice or of necessity, involves loss — even if the end result is overwhelmingly positive, what the individual first experiences is that loss. It is that sense of what is about to be or has been lost that permeates the seven stories first published in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.

    While there is nuance and subtlety in how that is presented in most of the stories, I’ll focus on one, “The Vastness of the Dark”, where it is presented directly. James, the narrator, comes from a mining family — both his grandfather and father were Cape Breton miners but even in his father’s era the coal mines were running out and miners needed to head to Quebec, Ontario, the West or the U.S. to practise their trade, speeding home to family in crowded cars with fellow miners whenever they could for a few days or weeks.

    James knows that won’t work for him and the story opens as he awakes on his eighteenth birthday on June 28, 1960, the day he has set for his departure. After a few pages of backstory sketching James’ family and, most particularly, his discovery of his own pre-marriage conception (which closed off his father’s chance to escape Cape Breton), MacLeod quickly brings James’ challenge to a head:

    But after today, I will probably not think about it any more. For today I leave behind this grimy Cape Breton coal-mining town whose prisoner I have been all my life. And I have decided that almost any place must be better than this one with its worn-out mines and smoke-black houses; and the feeling has been building within me for the last few years. It seems to have come almost with the first waves of sexual desire and with it to have grown stronger and stronger with the passing months and years. For I must not become as my father whom I now hear banging the stove-lids below me as if there were some desperate rush about it all and some place that he must be in a very short time. Only to go nowhere. And I must not be as my grandfather who is now an almost senile old man, nearing ninety, who sits by the window all day saying his prayers and who in his moments of clarity remembers mostly his conquests over coal, and recounts tales of how straight were the timbers he and my father erected in the now caved-in underground drifts of twenty-five years ago when he was sixty-two and my father twenty-five and I not yet conceived.

    That seems powerful enough reason to get out, but the sense of what he is about to lose is quickly hammered home. He has risen early, he tells his mother in the kitchen, so he can depart before his younger brothers and sisters are up:

    “It will be easier that way.”

    My mother moves the kettle toward the back of the stove, as if stalling for time, then she turns and says, “Where will you go? To Blind River?”

    Her response is so little like that which I had anticipated that I feel strangely numb. For I had somehow expected her to be greatly surprised, astounded, astonished, and she is none of these. And her mention of Blind River, the centre of Northern Ontario’s uranium mines, is something and someplace that I had never even thought of. It is as if my mother had not only known that I was to leave but had even planned my route and final destination. I am reminded of my reading in school of the way Charles Dickens felt about the blacking factory and his mother’s being so fully in favour of it. In favour of a life for him which he considered so terrible and so far beneath his imagined destiny.

    His father’s response is equally unsettling:

    My father turns from the window and says, “You are only eighteen today, perhaps you could wait awhile. Something might turn up.” But within his eyes I see no strong commitment to his words and I know he feels that waiting is at best weary and at worst hopeless. This also makes me somehow rather disappointed and angry as I had thought somehow my parents would cling to me in a kind of desperate fashion and I would have to be very firm and strong.

    “What is there to wait for?” I say, asking a question that is useless and to which I know the all-too-obvious answer. “Why do you want me to stay here?”

    “You misunderstand,” says my father, “you are free to go if you want to. We are not forcing you or asking you to do anything. I am only saying that you do not have to go now.”

    James also stops at his grandparents on his way out of town. His grandmother gives him two letters sent more than two decades earlier to his father (then working at the mines in Kellogg, Idaho). One is from his grandfather, urging his father to come back to Cape Breton (“The seam is good for years yet. No one has been killed for some time now. It is getting better.”) The other, written the same day, is from his grandmother (“If you return here now you will never get out and this is no place to lead one’s life. They say the seam will be finished in another few years. Love, Mother”)

    James’ grandfather shows him to the door and supplies the exclamation point to the painful goodbyes that are reminders of what is being lost:

    “Don’t forget to come back, James,” he says, “it’s the only way you’ll be content. Once you drink underground water it becomes a part of you like the blood a man puts into a woman. It changes her forever and never goes away. There’s always a part of him running there deep inside her. It’s what will wake you up at night and never ever leave you alone.”

    James does escape and we follow his route for some pages before MacLeod returns to his overarching theme at the end of the story (I should note that, again like Munro, MacLeod is great at closing lines). He’s been picked up by a carload of miners outside Springhill, Nova Scotia (a mainland coal-mining town) on their way to (surprise) Blind River:

    “I guess your people have been on the coal over there for a long time?” asks the voice beside me.

    “Yes,” I say, “since 1873.”

    “Son of a bitch,” he says, after a pause, “it seems to bust your balls and it’s bound to break your heart.”

    That theme of hopelessness and loss is also present in the seven stories from As Birds Bring Forth The Sun, but MacLeod adds another constant thread. He looks at the impact of time and the changes that it brings, particularly as one Cape Breton season moves to the next — the titles of three successive stories (“To Everything There Is A Season”, “Second Spring” and “Winter Dog”) are indication enough of one thread that he introduces.

    And finally, there are the two coda stories where MacLeod underlines that his Cape Bretoners are not merely the product of generations but of centuries. Virtually all of MacLeod’s stories feature family characters from three adult generations — “Island” and “Clearances” emphasize that this thread extends back to the original departure from Scotland. In “Clearances”, a Cape Bretoner who is serving in the Canadian forces in World War II heads to northern Scotland on furlough and runs into a shepherd. “You are from Canada? You are from the Clearances?” the shepherd asks — the Clearances being the eviction of Scots from the land in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. “Yes, I guess so” is the response.

    This review is already far too long and I fear that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to convey how good MacLeod’s writing is. Even on first read, but particularly on second and third, you come to understand why he only produced one short story a year — every word and phrase is perfectly chosen, every character is fully developed, all in 25 or 30 pages. While I normally urge people to read only one or two stories a day from a collection, with MacLeod I would say the best approach is to plan on reading one a week — that allows for the multiple readings that the author both deserves and rewards.

    I’ll leave the last word to Douglas Gibson, the legendary Canadian publisher who edited No Great Mischief and this compilation. In the chapter on MacLeod in his memoir, Stories About Storytellers, (hilarious in its own right on what it took for Gibson to finally pry the manuscript of the novel from MacLeod’s hands — variations of the story are like urban legends in Canadian publishing), Gibson includes the following:

    Since Alistair is busy giving speeches and accepting prizes around the world, he is not doing much writing, dammit — or, to be precise, he is not admitting to me, when I ask, that he is doing much writing.

    Given that it has now been almost 15 years since we last saw a new work, I take that sentence as a hopeful sign — maybe, just maybe, we may yet see another collection from this truly exceptional writer. In the meantime, if you have not yet read him, spend the $31.76 and discover how good one of the best writers I know really is — you will not be disappointed.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan

    November 21, 2013

    “The trouble with this whole country is that it’s divided up into little puddles with big fish in each one of them. I tell you something. Ten years ago I went across the whole of Canada. I saw a lot of things. This country is so new that you see it for the first time, all of it, and particularly the west, you feel like Columbus and you say to yourself, ‘My God, is all this ours!’ Then you make the trip back. You come across Ontario and you encounter the mind of the maiden aunt. You see the Methodists in Toronto and the Presbyterians in the best streets of Montreal and the Catholics all over Quebec, and nobody understands one damn thing except that he’s better than everyone else. The French are Frencher than France and the English are more British than England ever dared to be. And then you go to Ottawa and you see the Prime Minister with his ear on the ground and his backside hoisted in the air. And, Captain Yardley, you say God damn it!”

    maclennan2While the phrasing might be somewhat crude, that paragraph effectively describes the challenge that author Hugh MacLennan set for himself in 1945 when he wrote Two Solitudes.

    The speaker is Athanese Tallard and he represents the secular French side of the challenge. His family has resided for more than a century in St. Marc-des-Érables, an agrarian community some miles down the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. As the largest landowner, Athanese is effectively the “seigneur” of the settlement, the secular influence who offsets the power of the local Catholic priest. The words are spoken in 1917, shortly after the federal government imposed conscription on Quebec and began drafting French youths into the armed forces. As the area’s MP in Ottawa (a Tallard family member has been the MP for as long as anyone can remember), Athanese now finds life even more solitary — he supports the “Anglo” policy that is denounced by a large majority of his fellow Quebecois for sending their youth off to die in a foreign war.

    Captain Yardley represents the Anglo solitude. A seagoing captain from Nova Scotia, his wife wanted the family to be as English as possible. Yardley is now a widower and, in retirement, has made a decision from his side of the solitude barrier that, like Athanese, isolates him even more — he has bought a farming property in St. Marc, something that “the English” just don’t do.

    In a brief, apologetic foreward, MacLennan has already supplied a somewhat less vernacular description of the underlying conflict that he is trying to describe:

    Because this is a story, I dislike having to burden it with a foreword, but something of the kind is necessary, for it is a novel of Canada. This means that its scene is laid in a nation with two official languages, English and French. It means that some of the characters in the book are presumed to speak only English, others only French, while many are bilingual.

    No single word exists, within Canada itself, to designate with satisfaction to both races a native of the country. When those of the French language use the word Canadien, they nearly always refer to themselves. They know their English-speaking compatriots as les Anglais. English-speaking citizens act on the same principle. They call themselves Canadians; those of the French language French-Canadians.

    Athanese and Yardley may find themselves on a very shaky bridge between the two solitudes (they take an immediate liking to each other), but MacLennan uses the opening scene of the novel to introduce examples of much more hard-line positions.

    Yardley is accompanied on his first visit to the property by Huntly McQueen “whose name was well known in the financial circles of Montreal”. He knows Athanese from meetings in Ottawa and has offered to introduce Yardley to him (since no land purchase in St. Marc can be made without Athanese’s approval), but the wealthy Anglo industrialist has a bigger fish to fry. A tributary flowing into the St. Lawrence at St. Marc has a cataract of significant height — McQueen wants to put a power station on it to fuel a textile factory that will bring industry to the community (and many dollars into McQueen’s pocket).

    For Father Beaubien, the local Catholic priest who holds almost as much, perhaps even more, power as Tallard in the settlement that is something that simply cannot come to pass. It is easy for him to exert authority over farmers and their workers — factory men are much more likely to forego participation in the Church for secular pursuits and the influence of the priest shrinks accordingly.

    While MacLennan uses those four characters to illustrate the conflict of the two solitudes in the 1917-18 period, its continuation in the post Great War era is developed through the stories of the offspring of Athanese and Yardley.

    The seigneur has two sons, by two different mothers. Marius’ mother was French, bore Athanese a son and then retreated into isolated religious contemplation before her early death. He remarried an Irish woman, much younger than himself, who gave birth to Paul. As Marius approaches maturity (he is conscripted and flees from the draft in the 1917-18 section), he becomes even more radical a nationalist, to the point where he refuses to acknowledge he can understand English. As a child of mixed Anglo and French blood, Paul finds himself from the start in the same no-man’s land between the two cultures as his father — but in his case, it is a product of birth not choice.

    Yardley’s two granddaughters are the English side of that coin. His daughter, Janet, married into a wealthy Montreal Anglo family. Her eldest daughter is truly more English than the English, married to a Brit industrialist. The younger, Heather, finds herself in much the same uncertain world that Paul does — not really comfortable in either of the cultures.

    The timeline in Two Solitudes extends to 1939 and the latter portions of the book focus on the story of Paul and Heather. Having said that, Paul is very much his father’s son and Heather her grandfather’s granddaughter — the way the author develops the two characters provides ample proof of how the conflict he is portraying finds itself extended into future generations.

    It is also well worth noting that the French-English solitudes are not the only ones that MacLennan develops in the book. The period between the wars was one of rural-urban conflict as well (that troublesome textile mill in St. Marc, the forces of economic power in Depression-era Montreal) — one that is a troubling reality for the younger characters in the book. Economic development (and the Depression of the 1930s) also brought the “solitudes” of the two sexes into play — the roles that men and women comfortably fell into before the Great War just don’t work in post-War times and become even more confusing as World War II approaches.

    Finally, it is worth noting that the story of this novel itself stands as an illustration of Canada’s two solitudes. MacLennan was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and went on to Princeton, trained in true English tradition as a classicist. His first two novels, set in Europe and the U.S., failed to find a publisher.

    His wife convinced him that he should write about Canada, the country and culture (well, conflicting cultures) that he knew best. While there certainly had been novels set in Canada before, they weren’t really “Canadian” — they were books written about a frontier world by Englishmen. MacLennan’s first novel, Barometer Rising, the story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion published in 1941, is arguably the first-ever “Canadian novel” — Two Solitudes won the first of five Governor-General’s Awards for MacLennan, establishing him as the father of modern Canadian fiction.

    When I first read this novel more than 40 years ago as a youth, I was impressed with the way it described a crucial period of Canadian history. This time around, I was more broadly impressed, not just with the history, but even more so with the way that MacLennan captures the pressures of the two solitudes on succeeding generations — first with Athanese and Yardley and even more powerfully with Paul and Heather. Having lived as an adult through half a century of ongoing French-English tensions in Canada, I can say with certainty it portrays conflicts which continue to this day. (And yes the current Quebec government’s proposed Charter of Values brings “Allophones” fully into the fray.)

    I read Barometer Rising immediately after reading Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and that scheduling undoubtedly had an impact on my response to the novel. While Boyden portrays the aboriginal conflict and arrival of European forces, MacLennan’s book from half a century earlier explores the tensions between the “two founding nations” who eventually seized control. Anyone who seeks an understanding of what produced the Canada of today would be well-advised to invest the time in reading both novels.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: Cabbagetown, by Hugh Garner

    September 2, 2013

    Personal collection

    Personal collection

    Before looking at Hugh Garner’s portrayal of Toronto’s Cabbagetown district, let’s consider a contemporary description of the now-trendy neighborhood (with thanks to realtor Susanne Hudson, from whose website I stole this):

    Beautiful Cabbagetown is a very charming ‘village’ in downtown Toronto and has the highest concentration of Victorian homes in North America! Cabbagetown is an engaging part of town and it is a wonderful oasis for the Torontonians lucky enough to live there. Their homes, ‘cottages’, semis and detached Victorians have almost all been lovingly restored. And these cherished homes are the centrepiece of the lives of many interesting professional singles, couples and vibrant young families.

    The row houses sell for about $750,000, the “cottages” over $1 million and you don’t want to know what the Victorian “mansions” cost. How times have changed.

    Garner’s Cabbagetown is the same physical neighborhood. The 1968 volume that I read features chapter break “maps” that define its boundaries, Queen Street on the south, Parliament on the west, Gerrard on the north and the Don River on the east — about two square miles that has been a part of Toronto since the mid-1800s. Originally settled by the Irish, it was an arriving-immigrant neighborhood for more than a century — the gentrification process only started about 35 years ago.

    (EDIT: Thanks to a comment from Bruce, I have to admit the above para is in error. The Cabbagetown of today is on the north and west edges of the neighborhood described in this book — the community that Garner is writing about has simply disappeared from the map. I would argue that makes the novel even more poignant.)

    In spirit, however, Garner’s Cabbagetown is light years removed from the posh contemporary “village”. The novel originally appeared in 1950 in far different form as a “cheap pocketbook” (that’s the author’s description). It was reissued, uncut and unexpurgated, in 1968 — the edition I read — and introduced with a passionate preface from the author:

    Toronto’s Cabbagetown remains only a memory to those of us who lived in it when it was a slum. Less than half a mile long and even narrower from north to south, it was situated in the east-central part of the city [...].

    This continent’s slums have been the living quarters of many immigrant and ethnic poor: Negro, Mexican, Jew, Indian, Italian, Irish, Central European and Puerto Rican. The French Canadians have their Saint-Henri in Montreal and Saint-Saveur in Quebec. Cabbagetown, before 1940, was the home of the social majority, white Protestant English and Scots. It was a sociological phenomenon, the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America.

    That political agenda is underlined by the time frame of the novel. Book One (“Genesis”) opens in March 1929, coincident with the Wall Street crash. Book Two (“Transition”) is confined to June 1932 to October 1933; Book Three (“Exodus”) extends from the 1933 to 1937 — the depth of the Great Depression.

    And having set expectations up for a Canadian version of the (excellent) leftish polemics of Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck, let me say that, in its first two sections, Cabbagetown is anything but. Hugh Garner may be angry about what happened to Cabbagetown, but he is determined to paint a picture of a community where struggling individuals find strength in relating to each other and through that build a vision of hope for the future.

    Ken Tilling is the first and foremost of these. We meet him on his sixteenth birthday as his school principal says goodbye because Ken is heading into the working world:

    He was bitter at his after-school delivery job keeping him from sports and dramatics, and of having to refuse party invitations because of his shabby clothes. He had remained an outsider from the cliques revolving around athletics, the school magazine, the auditorium stage, the possession of a Model T Ford –

    But now all this was past. Tomorrow he would get a job, and the money he earned would give him equality with those among whom he had not been equal before. Getting a job was an easy step in the early months of 1929. Business and employment were climbing to unprecedented heights. Columns of help-wanted ads beckoned to anyone able and willing to work. The store windows were full of the retail manifestations of prosperity: bright yellow square-toed shoes to be worn at Easter, new gray suits, the cumbersome polished shells containing the new wonders of radio. Everywhere were new clothes, iceless refrigerators, Rudy Vallee records, banjo ukuleles, bridge lamps, imported English prams, home-brewing supplies, the new Model A Ford, Amos ‘n Andy’s pictures, sporty looking Chevrolets.

    When you have grown up in a slum, with an alcoholic single mother, that checklist is a version of what the dream of the future looks like. Ken Tilling, a decent, law-abiding Cabbagetown boy, is determined to pursue it.

    There are, of course, other ways out of the slum and Garner is scrupulous in developing them. Crime is one option — Ken does get involved with some friends who choose this path to escape. Aligning yourself with the powerful is another — Ken’s neighbor, Theodore East, opts for this route and casts his fate with the anti-Semitic, fascist forces that were part of Canada’s 1930s. The girls of Cabbagetown have less choice — marrying up is a possibility, but a slim one; trading sexual favors has a quicker return. Ken’s infatuation with Myrla, who makes that latter choice, is a story thread that runs throughout the novel.

    What most impressed this reader on my latest reread was the way that Garner kept his anger in check throughout Books One and Two of the novel. Every one of the characters is searching for a better future — and they are dependent on the “safety net” of Cabbagetown, the community, to help them. And I have mentioned only a few — the novel features many, many more from a number of generations.

    Alas, this is the 1930s, the post-crash era of the Great Depression, and Garner refuses to sugar coat reality. Ken has to take to riding the rails and 20-cent-a-day forced labor camps. Myrla’s easy choices produce predictable results. Crime doesn’t work and ends in violent death. Book Three (“Exodus”) is relentless, harsh realism without succour — the barriers to escaping Cabbagetown are simply too high for even the nicest of people to scale.

    In many ways, I found this revisit of Cabbagetown resulted in two very different novels. The first two Books develop and portray a neighborhood and community of great strength, individuals fighting against the odds and leaning on each other. Whatever route the individual has chosen to get out of Cabbagetown, we want them to succeed. And then, in the final section, Garner delivers the harsh reality: as much as we would like a happy ending, the take-no-prisoners world of capitalist economics refuses to allow it.

    We live in a much more complicated economic world now, so parts of Cabbagetown do have a dated feel. Having said that, the forces that are at the root of Garner’s story — both positive and negative — are still very much in play. Cabbagetown, the neighborhood, may have gentrified, but the support that Garner found there is still very much present. In developing the stories of Ken, Myrla and their neighbors, Garner has put a face to the individuals who have to play that game — it may be 70 years since he wrote the first version, but the rules are still the same.

    I think it is fair to say that Cabbagetown has fallen off the table of Canadian “must reads” — it deserves more attention. I certainly found this reread rewarding.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence

    August 11, 2013

    Personal collection

    Personal collection

    The memory journey that is the story line of The Diviners begins when Morag Gunn awakes in her Southeastern Ontario log home to find a note from her 18-year-old daughter, Pique, on the kitchen table. It opens “now please do not get uptight, Ma” — Pique has left and is headed West.

    The note is like the flipping of a mental light switch to “on” inside Morag’s own head. Now 47, it sparks a memory of Morag’s own youthful departure from Manawaka, Manitoba — only she headed east, not west. It starts with a curiosity about the present: “Would Pique go to Manawaka? If she did, would she find anything there which would have meaning for her?”

    That in turn sends Morag off on a search of her house which sets her journey in motion: pulling out six photographs from her own first five years.

    These photographs from the past never agreed to get lost. Odd because she had tried hard enough, over the years, to lose them, or thought she had. She had treated them carelessly, shoved them away in seldom-opened suitcases or in dresser drawers filled with discarded underwear, scorning to put them into anything as neat as an album. They were jammed any-old-how into an ancient tattered manila envelope that Christie had given her once when she was a kid, and which said McVitie & Pearl, Barristers and Solicitors, Manawaka, Manitoba. Christie must have found it at the dump — the Nuisance Grounds, as they were known; what an incredible name, when you thought of the implications.

    I’ve kept them, of course, because something in me doesn’t want to lose them, or perhaps doesn’t dare. Perhaps they’re my totems, or contain a portion of my spirit. Yeh, and perhaps they are exactly what they seem to be — a jumbled mess of old snapshots which I’ll still be lugging along with me when I’m an old lady, clutching them as I enter or am shoved into the Salvation Army Old People’s home or wherever it is that I’ll find my death.

    Those two paragraphs are effectively a “mission statement” for The Diviners, so let’s fill in just a bit of the detail. Those six snapshots (each of which get described in some detail and context early in the novel) are all that remains from Morag’s life with her biological parents, both of whom died when she was five. Young Morag is adopted by Christie and Prin Logan, who raise her — Christie is the town “scavenger” (rubbish remover) and the Nuisance Grounds is the Manawaka name for the local garbage dump.

    All of that is told in some small level of introductory detail in the novel’s short opening section, “River of Now and Then”. The Diviners is a recollection of a life lived, or at least almost half a century of a life lived. The bulk of the novel (which does weigh in at a fairly hefty 450 pages in the New Canadian Library paperback published in 1978 which is in my collection) comes in three sections:

  • “The Nuisance Grounds” is the story of Morag’s growth into young adulthood, the experience of growing up with Christie and Prin. Christie may just be a scavenger but he is a natural oral historian — his stories of Piper Gunn leading the Scots onto the ship headed to the New World, their arrival on the shores of Hudson Bay and eventual relocation to southern Manitoba are etched indelibly in Morag’s mind. As are the stories he tells of the Metis, the ancestors of the family of Jules “Skinner” Tonnerre, a childhood acquaintance of Morag’s who fathers Pique in a one-night stand and then shows up all too infrequently later in her life. Laurence is also adept throughout this section at bringing into sharp focus the day-to-day life (with all the inherent small-town prejudices) of a rural community.
  • “Halls of Sion” begins with Morag’s “escape” from the repression she feels in Manawaka — she heads off to college in Winnipeg, takes up with and marries one of her professors and ends up moving with him to Toronto. Brooke Skelton (whom we are told in a present-day section has just become a university president) is not a bad man, but he is a traditional one. For Morag, the repression of the small town in this decade of her life is replaced by the repression of a “small-minded” spouse who confines her growth just as much as the town did, albeit in a totally different way. It closes when she flees him — for that one-night stand with Skinner Tonnerre.
  • “Rites of Passage” is the story of the development of the mature Morag, who in the present tense of the narrative is the successful author of five novels. It starts with her relocation to Vancouver (if you have not guessed, Morag’s response to stress is starting all over again somewhere else) as a single mother, includes a stint in London and eventually leads to the purchase of the riverside log house in Southeastern Ontario where Morag is living as she goes through this memory journey.
  • Those who know Margaret Laurence’s work are probably wondering: when is KfC going to get to the real back story? So here you are. Margaret Laurence, whose parents died when she was four, wrote this novel at age 47 when she was living in a cabin on the Otonabee River, just outside Peterborough in Southeastern Ontario. She was born and raised in Neepawa, Manitoba, attended college in Winnipeg, married early and lived in Vancouver and London before leaving her husband.

    Further, The Diviners — published in 1974, the present day of the novel itself — is her fifth and final novel and also book five in her “Manawaka cycle”. The cycle includes four novels (The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966) and The Fire-Dwellers (1969) in addition to this volume) and one story collection, A Bird in the House (1970). Laurence herself described that collection as “fictionalized autobiography” — it is fair to say that applies to the entire cycle, with this novel in particular being the best example of her thoughts on the life she has lived.

    In his excellent introduction to the weathered NCL version that I read (and if you decide to buy the book, it is worth searching for a used copy of that edition because the introduction supplies much context — the more recent publication pictured at the top of this review features an afterword from Timothy Findley), academic and critic David Staines suggests The Diviners is in the tradition of Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (1971) and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) as an exploration of the development of an artist:

    Such portraits of the Canadian writer are a testimony to the self-consciousness and maturity of contemporary Canadian fiction. [It should be noted that Staines wrote the introduction in 1978 -- we have come some way since then.] Like these Canadian novels The Diviners belongs in the long tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel that records the growth, education, and maturing of the individual. Following the pattern of other celebrated members of this tradition, most notably Dickens’ David Copperfield and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Laurence’s novel focuses on the familiar and social environments that surround the young writer. In reliving her past Morag recounts the stages of her artistic growth, and it is not coincidental that “The Nuisance Grounds” ends with her employment on the local newspaper, “Halls of Sion” ends with the public reaction to her first novel, and “Rites of Passage” ends with the completion of her most recent novel, Shadow of Eden.

    I would add another historical element: you don’t have to be an avid feminist to appreciate that the The Diviners is a stunning example of the development not just of a writer, but most particularly a female writer. Throughout my latest reading of the novel, I was struck by how often I was comparing it to Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, the second novel I reviewed in this project, and another example of a woman’s struggle to realize her potential in the twentieth century, even if Shields’ novel appeared almost two decades later.

    While I think Laurence’s reputation remains large with Canadian readers, I don’t think she has captured the international attention of Richler, Munro and Atwood (or even Shields). Following this reread, I am convinced she deserves it — while some aspects of The Diviners do show its age, Morag Gunn is as complete a fictional character (however autobiographical she may by) as any reader could demand.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: The Studhorse Man, by Robert Kroetsch

    June 30, 2013

    Purchased online from The Edmonton Book Store

    Purchased online from The Edmonton Book Store

    When a section of a novel takes place not just in the city where you live, but right at your work site, how can you not read it?

    Way back around 1970, that was how I first came to read The Studhorse Man. I was a Calgary Herald reporter covering Alberta provincial politics in Edmonton and became aware somehow (probably a review) that the Legislative Building where I had my office featured in the novel, published in 1969. Here is how author Robert Kroetsch begins that particular section:

    He had been carried, under the kind lady’s supervision, into the museum. The provincial museum at that time was housed in the Legislative Building. Even today you can ride an elevator to the fifth floor and examine the room, though now it contains the centennial carillon console and a row of twelve chairs. Granted, the Misericordia Hosptial is only a few short blocks distant, but on that stormy night the streets were nearly impassable. The lady in question made a snap decision.

    The “he” of that quote is an injured Hazard Lepage, the studhorse man of the novel’s title. And the “she” is P. Coburne or Cochrane or Cockburn (both Hazard and the biographer who is writing the book that tells his story are uncertain). P.’s specialty is making life-size wax figures of historically prominent Albertans for the museum; the two have sex in “an exact replica of the chief factor’s bedroom as it existed in the “Big House”, the main residence of the Hudson’s Bay post that gave the city its name.”

    I walked past that area every working day on my way to the Leg Building cafeteria (as noted the museum had moved to its own building many years earlier) so I was naturally interested. But by the time I got to that section (the quote comes from page 34 of the novel) I was already hooked on Kroetsch’s book. As were others, it should be noted — The Studhorse Man won Canada’s 1969 Governor General’s award for fiction.

    So let’s go back to the start and find out how the injured, but still sexually capable, Hazard Lepage happened to be carried into the provincial museum, with its “exact replica” bed.

    As the book opens, the studhorse man, devoted to preserving the Lepage breed, needs to get hold of a mare:

    He was a truly desperate man. Extinction or survival was quite simply to be the fate of the breed of horse he alone had preserved through six generations; thus, penniless as he was, and he had been reduced to living on porridge for nearly a month, he had hit on a scheme of somehow buying a mare. With commendable determination he found a neighbor who would sell his single remaining horse for twenty dollars — upon closing his fist on spot cash. “No money, no mare,” the unkind neighbor commented to clinch the deal, as if Hazard might not be financially reliable.

    Fortunately, the war was in progress; the government was scouring Alberta for bones. BONES FOR WAR, the ads and posters read:

    BRING IN YOUR BONES
    WE PAY CASH

    As it happens, Hazard from his travels with his stud “knew where to find every skeleton of a cow, every buffalo skull, even, it must be added, every carcass of a horse” and he has little trouble collecting $20 worth to sell to the corrupt Tad Proudfoot, source of the ad. The collection area is crowded with others on the same mission and Hazard’s “sale” does not go well when he upsets Proudfoot:

    “Okay, okay,” Tad was shouting now, directing his forces, especially the men he had hired to load his mounds of bones into boxcars. “We’ve got to show this yellowbelly.” He waved his cane upright before his own stomach as he led his doughty band. “This pea-soup loafer. This hairy lunatic.” Tad was making the kind of irresponsible remark that absolutely infuriates me. “This maniac who peddles horse cock from farm to farm when nobody wants horses.”

    If you haven’t figured it out yet, The Studhorse Man is a comic novel and it soon moves into high gear. The BONES FOR WAR site turns into a mob scene. Hazard manages to escape with Poseidon, his “blue” stallion, and scrambles aboard a nearby boxcar, part of a train he thinks is heading east. Alas, it is going west and when he wakes he finds himself in Edmonton.

    Worse yet, he (and Poseidon) are in a slaughterhouse stockyard filled with horses. Lepage is up to the challenge:

    It has been argued that to this day a few wild horses survive in the coulees and ravines of the North Saskatchewan River, there in the heart of the city of Edmonton. At any rate, nearly a thousand horses were in the stockpens the morning of Hazard’s arrival, all of them destined for the barrel, can or box, destined to feed the dogs and cats of this fat and ungrateful nation. How many had actually been shot and butchered by noon is undetermined; not more than forty, I would guess.

    [Hazard turns the whole lot loose.]

    It was four o’clock in the afternoon when the main herd of nearly eight hundred hit Jasper Avene at 101st Street [that is downtown Edmonton's main intersection]; thousands of people were beginning to file into the streets, wondering how best to get home through the drifts piled up by the blizzard. The City Police and the RCMP now recognized the need for immediate action; they began by closing off all exits from the center of the city. And yet, while they managed to contain the horses, they had not the means by which to capture them. The mayor asked the army to move in; troops were camped on the Exhibition Grounds, they rolled down Jasper Avenue in troop carriers.

    Escaping that mess is how Hazard ends up at the Legislative Building, only a few blocks from the central intersection. And that exaggerated, fantastic scene had an eerie air of reality to it on my recent reading — while I had scheduled the rereading of this novel more than six months ago, I ended up finally getting to it while “stranded” with Mrs. KfC in Lake Louise, with road closures resulting from the worst flood in a century preventing our return to Calgary. For the first time in the 50 years that I had lived in the city, tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes, the army was called in and troops were camped in the city. Okay, it was water, not horses, but even in Alberta this sort of thing does not happen that often.

    All of the above takes place in the first 34 pages of a 204-page book. Hazard Lepage will move from one ludicrous scene to another as it progresses: taking shelter in a nunnery where there is a never-stopping rummy game in progress (he can’t lose a hand and the Superior won’t let him leave the game); getting shot in the butt at a coyote hunt (with an extended recovery scene of several weeks that still makes me laugh out loud); crossing a flooded river (the novel proved very, very topical, I must say) and a host more. It is not a spoiler to say Poseidon goes along with him, although the two are occasionally separated for varying periods.

    The Studhorse Man is definitely a comic novel, but it is also much more. In another example of serendipitous timing, just this weekend Edmonton author Todd Babiuk had this to say in recommending it in a Globe and Mail Canada Day feature on books to read if you want to understand various areas of the country:

    I once thought Alberta was too new to sustain fiction. This was, of course, stupid. Edmonton has been a centre for trade and ceremony for at least 8,000 years. I was living in Montreal when I discovered The Studhorse Man, a wild and lusty novel that creates an Edmonton and an Alberta of the imagination. The High Level Bridge, downtown taverns, urban forests, even the legislative building are places of mystery and sex and betrayal and heartbreak – as authentic as Saint Urbain Street.

    And if you can find a copy of the University of Alberta Press version that I read (it is the one pictured at the top of this review and Indigo.ca says it can get copies within 3 to 5 weeks), you will find a 16-page introduction from Alberta author, academic and critic Aritha van Herk who was a student at U of A, just across the river from the Legislative Building, when the novel appeared (she notes it was the first novel she read in her first English course which was in Canadian literature). (When Hazard departs the Legislature Building, there is an hilarious scene involving Hazard, a truck driver and passing U of A co-eds at the south end of the High Level bridge, literally right below where van Herk’s residence was.) She opens her essay by casting the entire story as a metaphor for present-day Alberta:

    These horses, imaginary or real, are the legacy of this wildly anarchic odyssey through Alberta. More than any other novel by Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man explores the principles of restlessness and desire, movement madness so much part of Alberta’s DNA. Innocent contemporary readers may need the precise role of the studhorse man explained; in fact, he is the grandfather of all persistent car salesmen. This novel pretends to be about horses but, surrounded by automobiles, these horses symbolize the cusp between their vanishing world and the current world of thoughtless, gas-guzzling highway transportation, the life-blood of this province.

    I’ve offered those quotes from Babiuk and van Herk because when I included it in this project I was uncertain how well this novel would age (or travel) when I read it this time around. Certainly, anyone who wants to understand Alberta and its roots will find it invaluable. And I think the quotes from those two authors illustrate that it would yield results for any reader interested in how “frontiers” (be they Canadian, American or Australian) began developing into the modern, resource-based economic power houses that they are today. For this reader, The Studhorse Man turned out to be one of those very rare novels that had even more to say on a reread forty years after I first read it than it did the first time around. Kroetsch was more prescient than even he might have imagined.

    The Studhorse Man marks the halfway point in KfC’s 2013 project of rereading 12 Canadian novels that influenced me in my youth — and also the end of Phase One of the project. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I met or interviewed the authors of all six of the novels that I have read so far (you can find links to reviews in the right sidebar). Starting next month, we move into more traditional Canadian classics. First up will be Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. Ironically (or perhaps a reflection that I chose well), it too was featured in that Globe article on books to read if you want to understand Canada — author David Bergen (who won the Giller Prize for The Time In Between) says it is the novel that best captures Manitoba.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: White Figure, White Ground, by Hugh Hood

    May 27, 2013

    Personal collection

    Personal collection

    Alexander MacDonald is a painter, a successful one already in 1960s Montreal with his first New York show now being negotiated. Before he can get to that, however, he needs to make a personal journey of exploration to Barringford, Nova Scotia, a fishing village on that province’s South Shore that is his ancestral homeland. Here is the way he introduces himself to his great-aunts, Claire (aged 89) and Blanche (83), in a letter that arrives mere days before Alex and his wife plan on showing up — and staying for the entire summer:

    I was born in Toronto and I’m John Arthur MacDonald’s son and your great-nephew. I know that you knew my father until he left Barringford, and of course his father was your eldest brother and my grandfather.

    I’ve never been to Nova Scotia. I lived in Toronto until I grew up, and I’ve been living in Montreal for eight or nine years. Now I would like very much to take a longish trip to your part of the country, for several reasons.

    My wife and I propose to drive to Nova Scotia in the middle of this month, and we should be in Barringford sometime around the twentieth [the letter is dated on May third]; we hope to pass most of the summer in your neighborhood. I am a painter, a hard fact to explain in a brief letter, and I want to make some experiments with the light and color of the coast. And I also want very much to see the house — your house — in which my father was born. So I have at least two good reasons for visiting Barringford apart from wanting to get to know you.

    Hugh Hood uses that short letter to introduce the reader to two of the three themes that percolate throughout White Figure, White Ground:

  • His father was born in Barringford but left, for reasons Alex does not know, for Toronto as a young adult. Under Scottish rules of primogeniture, that Barringford house is rightly his — but his grandfather disinherited his father. Why? And while Claire and Blanche might be old, their brains are still fine: both suspect that a sub-agenda for this visit might be Alex planning to “reclaim” the house. Under the current circumstances, it will eventually become the property of their young great-niece, Ellen, who is tending them in their declining years.
  • Equally as important is the painting theme. I am not aware that Hood himself painted, but he does know his art — it is a theme he returns to in a number of his other stories and novels. Early on in this novel he makes reference to both Borduas and Riopelle, two Montreal artists who headed to Paris and established international reputations in the 1950s. While Hood never states it directly, Alex would seem to be a creative heir in the spirit of Borduas’ Automatiste movement. Given his interest in light and color, he would also seem to fit well with New York’s color field painters of the era. I won’t try to go into it in detail here, but rest assured that Hood frequently returns to exploring what is going on in the mind of an abstact painter — in this case, one who is finding his inspiration in the distinct versions of “whiteness” that are found in the skies off the North Atlantic coast. The unique “blackness” of the nighttime sky will become an equally powerful source of creative energy.
  • Not stated in the letter, but obvious even to Claire and Blanche (“he’s probably married a Frenchwoman — he probably means to conceal it” is Blanche’s observation), is the third theme: Alex has indeed married a Frenchwoman (Madeleine) and, six years into marriage, the two still have not fully discovered each other. Madeleine is not just any Frenchwoman: she comes from a prominent Quebecois family who originally wanted no part of her marrying a Scotsman from Toronto. That opinion changed when Alex acquired artistic success in Montreal, but was replaced with “and when will there be a child?” Alex and Madeleine get along with the family just fine but with that on one side and Alex’s preoccupation with his painting on the other, they need some extended private space time to fill in the gaps of their relationship — while art will still be important in the Nova Scotia summer, and Madeleine is leaving for six weeks to join her family on summer holiday in Bar Harbor, Maine, they will at least have the chance to do that. Here is an excerpt from early in the book as Madeleine, driving their overloaded, badly-balanced Volkswagen, observes her dozing husband in the passenger seat:

    When she could spare a glance from the corner of her eye, she examined him carefully, the stocky, not very tall, compactly-put-together man, her husband of six years who had a way of looking different depending on your point of view. Sitting back on his hipbones with his legs arc-ing forward into the nose of the car, worn gray trousers and black sweatshirt his comfortable working and traveling costume, his eyes closing and lips moving quietly as he discussed some quiet interior game with himself, with his plentiful coarse brown hair and clear rosy skin, he looked like a much younger man, an athlete in his high noon of activity. Alex was thirty-nine and had been thirty-three when they were married. He’d looked then and he looked now as though he were in his late twenties. He slept well, ate well, lived very comfortably, thought hard and exclusively about what he was doing, never worried, loved her, and nowadays slept with her less often than he used to. Often, but less often. What was the right assessment, she wondered. What was the national average?

  • Hood was a short story writer as well as novelist and I include that excerpt to show the descriptive powers that a short fiction writer brings to longer work. He is not flowery or obtuse, but he is thorough — in every one of the three threads that flow through this book.

    White Figure, White Ground also features a “plot”, although it is more a glue that holds those threads together than an element itself. It comes in the form of Alex’s relationship with Ellen, who becomes his invaluable assistant (he carries the canvas, she lugs his easel and paints to the distant spit where he observes and paints the sky) during Madeleine’s absence in Bar Harbor. In many ways, her life is a reverse image of his search: she knows the ancestral roots only too well and also knows she will find neither a partner nor a life inspiration as long as she remains in Barringford. The two do develop a relationship, but Hood uses it to more to illustrate the tension in Alex’s own set of searches than as a conventional plot.

    How did White Figure, White Ground hold up almost four decades after my first read? I loved it the first time and have to say I liked it even more this time around — although that is probably more an acknowledgement of what I have experienced and learned in those 40 years than it is a comment on the book itself. That definitely colors my opinion and I would add the additional caveat that while I urge Canadians to try this book, I suspect some of its elements may not land as easily with international readers. One particular aspect that impressed me on this read was the way that Hood captured the “Canada” of the mid-1960s. While the South Shore of Nova Scotia has not changed much in the half century since it was written (second generation adults are still regarded as outsiders there), Toronto certainly has — Scots are no longer the immigrant class in that polyglot city. And the picture that Hood paints of the Montreal of the time is a powerful reminder of how dramatically Quebec’s Quiet Revolution has changed that city in the intervening years.

    Setting that caveat aside, I’ll return to what for me was an even more powerful theme: fiction about painters. I admit that I have a soft spot for it (see my review of Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing). As well, Mrs. KfC and I collect art and have a number of works from the Automatistes and those who followed them. Despite the power of those personal influences, I would have no hesitation in saying that White Figure, White Ground is one of the best fictional works exploring artistic creation that I can remember.

    A brief final note: Those who do take my advice will discover that White Figure, White Ground is out of print, but online sources do have copies readily available (the picture for this review is from a hardcover first edition available for $20 from a Regina bookshop listed on AbeBooks). Indeed, since my ancient paperback was falling apart, I wanted to treat myself to a first edition hardback and had little trouble finding a copy at a reasonable price — it will occupy a treasured space on my “favorites” shelf now that this reread has been completed.

    June will mark the halfway point in KfC’s 2013 Project with my re-visit of Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man. It will also mark the end of Phase One of the project since the first six novels were all written by authors whom I had personally met — the remaining six are better described as “Canadian classics” written before my time. I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed (and learned from) this project so far — I look forward to Phase Two every bit as much.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood

    April 22, 2013

    Personal first edition

    Personal first edition

    Margaret Atwood is undoubtedly one of Canada’s best known and most prolific authors. The third volume in her Oryx and Crake trilogy, Maddaddam, is due for publication later this year — it will be novel number fourteen on her resume, published forty-four years after The Edible Woman marked her introduction as a novelist in 1969. At that time, she was already a well-regarded poet — she has continued to publish poetry, children’s books, commentary and criticism throughout her career.

    As one who has read her first 10 novels (she and I parted ways with Oryx and Crake), I would argue that there are three quite distinct groupings of Atwood novels:

  • The early “feminist” books, starting with The Edible Woman up to Bodily Harm (1981), including Surfacing, her second novel, published in 1972. “Feminist” is perhaps too lazy a label — the books do feature troubled, youngish female characters who are facing some difficult choices, not all of their own making. The male characters in the books are definitely part of the problem, not the solution, and society in general seems stacked against the heroines.
  • The “historical” novels, starting with Cat’s Eye (1988) and extending through to The Blind Assassin (2000). These four (The Robber Bride and Alias Grace are the other two) are probably her best known and most critically recognized — they all featured on Booker, Orange, Governor-General’s and Giller Prize short lists. While feminism is still present, they have much broader plots and Atwood doesn’t hesitate to introduce her political leanings (she has been an outspoken activist throughout her career) into her fiction.
  • The “dystopian” novels, presaged with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and fully developed in the Oryx and Crake trilogy beginning in 2003. My distaste for dystopian fiction is profound — I read, but did not much like, The Handmaid’s Tale, and have not even sampled the two most recent works.
  • So before even looking at Surfacing, I should note that this is an Atwood work that may not be familiar — or even representative — to some of her most avid fans. It may well be the least read of her 14 novels (although it is still in print) and at first glance seems an unlikely choice for KfC’s 2013 project of rereading a dozen Canadian authors who influenced me. I’ll extend this introduction further by saying that it does have particular personal significance for me. Atwood also published a critical work in 1972, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, arguing in that volume that most Canadian novels published to that date were brutal stories of how individuals coped with a hostile natural environment. I had some experience with early Canadian fiction at that time and was doing some book reviewing for the Calgary Herald — I remember to this day how a scheduled 45-minute interview with Atwood turned into a two-and-a-half hour conversation. While I have never been a fan of her public persona, I can assure you that face-to-face she was a fascinating, warm, informative subject — a positive assessment that may well have influenced my first response to this novel.

    Indeed, Surfacing itself is as good an example as one can find of the transition from the fiction that Atwood described in Survival to the kind of work that has proved more representative of Canadian writing since the 1970s. To be sure, every publishing season still features some “frontier” works and the challenges that hostile natural elements present, but that has becomes just one of the streams, not the all-pervasive, central one.

    Surfacing definitely has an element of “nature-coping” to it. The first-person narrator is an illustrator who lives in urban Canada (Toronto is suggested, but not named) and who is returning to an island in the rocky Canadian Shield country of Quebec where she was raised, accompanied by her boyfriend Joe and a couple of married friends, David and Anna. She has received word from old friends of her parents that her elderly father (who has retreated, hermit-like, to the rugged island cabin in his retirement) has gone missing — she has persuaded Joe, David and Anna to come along on a two-day trip to see what might have happened.

    Atwood wastes no time in letting the reader know that the conflict between frontier and urban environments will be a feature of the book. It opens:

    I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have a bypass, that’s success.

    I never thought of it as a city but as the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going, an accumulation of sheds and boxes and one main street with a movie theatre, the itz, the oyal, red R burnt out, and two restaurants which served identical grey hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fisheyes, and French fries bleary with lard. Order a poached egg, my mother said, you can tell if it’s fresh by the edges.

    That “survival” conflict will never disappear from the novel — the narrator’s three fellow travelers are all urban people, neophytes in the remote environment who can’t even paddle a canoe, so she is their guide into this remote world. Without giving too much away, as the narrator discovers more about herself the theme becomes even more pervasive and dominates the closing chapters of the book.

    Along the way, however, we get some of Atwood’s more contemporary observations. She’s never been known as a great supporter of America and that thread also gets introduced in the opening chapter:

    Now we’re passing the turnoff to the pit the Americans hollowed out. From here it looks like an innocent hill, spruce-covered, but the thick power lines running into the forest give it away. I heard they’d left, maybe that was a ruse, they could easily still be living in there, the generals in concrete bunkers and the ordinary soldiers in underground apartment buildings where the lights burn all the time. There’s no way of checking because we aren’t allowed in. The city invited them to stay, they were good for business, they drank a lot.

    “That’s where the rockets are,” I say. Were. I don’t correct it.

    David says “Bloody fascist pig Yanks,” as though he’s commenting on the weather.

    And finally, there is the gender tension. Readily-available birth control may have introduced a version of sexual freedom in the 1960s but, in many ways (particularly among pseudo-lefties like these four), it has only increased the dominance of men over women. The narrator and Joe may live and sleep together back in the city, but they are anything but a happy couple. David and Anna may be married, but in no way does that result in Anna being David’s equal. And “sexual freedom” and the remote location supply the excuse for some four-way, male-dominated “play”.

    Of the four novels that I have re-read so far in this project, I would have to say that Surfacing has aged least well. Part of that is certainly my own aging: the tension/abuse between the female and male characters had a present-day reality to it when I first read this novel which simply is only a distant memory now. The anti-American story line seems embarrassingly naïve and simplistic, given current reality. The conflict with a hostile environment (and Atwood does get into some natural spirituality in that thread) is the strongest element but even that did not lead to new insights for me on this read.

    Having said all that, I would say that readers who respond enthusiastically to Atwood’s dystopian works (and there certainly are many of them) might well want to pick up Surfacing for some early indications of where she will be heading in her later writing career. The latter part of the book may have landed flat with me — I suspect there is much more there for readers who find the “naturalism” of Oryx and Crake rewarding.

    As for KfC’s 2013 project, it will be taking a minor detour in the next two months. The first four books have featured well-known Canadian novelists (Robertson Davies, Carol Shields and Mordecai Richler in addition to Atwood) and the last six, while perhaps not so well known to contemporary readers, do have international reputations. My May read is Hugh Hood’s White Figure, White Ground — Hood was my favorite novelist in the 1970s and I would rate him as one of Canada’s most unjustly overlooked authors. And June features Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man, a Prairie novel that I suspect few visitors here have even heard of. If you have found the first four authors of any interest at all, stay tuned — Hood and Kroetsch may not be as well known, but they are well worth reading.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler

    March 17, 2013

    Personal first edition

    Personal first edition

    Including Mordecai Richler in KfC’s 2013 project of re-reading Canadian authors who influenced me was a no-brainer decision from the start. Like any Canadian reader of my era, I have known his fiction well for decades (and interviewed the man himself more than once). It was equally impossible to not be aware of his controversial political reputation — Quebec sovereignists have a one-man category of detest reserved for him. And there is no doubt that he is a special “friend” of the blog: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is easily the most popular archived post here and Barney’s Version holds down sixth spot.

    Having already reviewed those two popular choices did mean that deciding which Richler novel to include provided some challenge. In the final analysis, it came down to St. Urbain’s Horseman or Solomon Gursky Was Here — the first of those two is probably both better known and more typical of his work, the latter is perhaps his most unconventional adult novel. It has been some time since I last read Gursky and memory said that it had been a bit of a challenge — that was spark enough to convince me it was time for a revisit.

    There are a number of traits that are present in all of Richler’s fiction. Growing up Jewish in Montreal is one, for starters. The plot line is always a rich stream, with the author usually enjoying pushing the envelope towards the bizarre. And in every book he uses those two over-arching themes as fertile ground in which to seed acerbic satire and grumpy, but often hilarious, observations on aspects of the current state of play.

    All those threads are present in Solomon Gursky Was Here, but they come in different proportions than in his more popular works. The Gurskys are certainly Jews now living in Montreal, but that element doesn’t come with the usual familiarity of Richler’s St. Urbain Street — in this novel, they have roots elsewhere and have graduated to prominent global capitalism in the present. What is most distinctive in this novel, however, is that Richler pushes his many plots even further into the absurd than he usually does — and that does produce some challenge for the reader.

    The unfamiliar ground is introduced right from the start. The opening takes place “during the record cold spell of 1851″ in Magog, Quebec, 75 miles east of Richler’s usual urban Montreal turf. The patrons at Wm. Crosby’s lakeside hotel (“Refreshments served at any hour of day or night”) observe a sled pulled by twelve yapping dogs emerge from the swirling snow:

    The dogs were pulling a long, heavily laden sled at the stern of which stood Ephraim Gursky, a small fierce hooded man cracking a whip. Ephraim pulled close to the shore and began to trudge up and down, searching the skies, an inhuman call, some sort of sad clacking noise, at once abandoned yet charged with hope, coming from the back of his throat.

    In spite of the tree-cracking cold a number of curious gathered on the shore. They had come not so much to greet Ephraim as to establish whether or not he was an apparition. Ephraim was wearing what appeared to be sealskins and, on closer inspection, a clerical collar as well. Four fringes hung from the borders of his outermost skin, each fringe made up of twelve silken strands. Frost clung to his eyelids and nostrils. One cheek had been bitten black by the wind.

    Ephraim unloads his sled and begins to set up camp — including building an igloo. Just before disappearing into the igloo, he bangs a wooden sign into the snow in front of it: CHURCH OF THE MILLENARIANS, Founder, Brother Ephraim. The scene is stranger by the next morning: three more igloos have appeared and a community of “little dark men” and their families have settled in. For the watchful Crosby Hotel bar crowd, it gets even more confusing:

    When the first evening star appeared they saw the little dark men, beating on skin drums, parading their women before them to the entry tunnel of Ephraim’s igloo. Ephraim appeared, wearing a black silk top hat and fringed shawl with vertical black stripes. Then the little men stepped forward one by one, thrusting their women before them, extolling their merits in an animated manner. Oblivious of the cold, a young woman raised her sealskin parka and jiggled her bare breasts.

    “Well, I’ll be damned.”

    “Whatever them Millenarians is it’s sure as shit a lot more fun than what we got.”

    Finally Ephraim pointed at one, nodded at another, and they quickly scrambled into his igloo. The men, beating on their drums, led the remaining women back to their igloos, punching and kicking them. An hour later they were back, all of them, and one after another they crawled into Ephraim’s igloo.

    Okay, some back story is required here. The conceit is that Ephraim Gursky was a member of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to the Canadian Arctic — while conventional wisdom says no one survived, Richler fiction says not only that Ephraim did but he has moved back and forth between the Arctic and southern Canada ever since. And is the ancestral father of the Gursky empire, a family-run business which is now a major player in the global liquor trade.

    That empire was created by Ephraim’s grandsons, Bernard, Morrie and Solomon, during the Prohibition era. Building off a stake Solomon won by stealing and risking the family “fortune” (meagre savings from his father’s rural Saskatchewan hardware business) in a Prairie poker game (one of his prizes was the deed to the local hotel), they eventually got into the liquor-running business in Western Canada, moved east to the more lucrative Windsor/Detroit run and when Prohibition ended were well-positioned in Montreal to move into the “legitimate” liquor business where they have done exceedingly well ever since.

    (Aside: Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Canadian history of the era will immediately make the connection with the Bronfmans, the family behind the Seagram liquor empire, who started out as rum-runners and went on to become one of the country’s leading philanthropic families. And while Richler wrote Solomon Gursky in 1989, elements of the story that I am characterizing as “absurd” live on in the present day. Canadian Club, the rye whisky brought back to prominence as Dan Draper’s drink of choice on Mad Men, was distilled in Windsor and smuggled into Detroit, on its way to Capone’s Chicago. And one of the current Bronfman heirs is in the news as I write this with a bizarre child custody dispute involving the rapper, M.I.A. Some things really don’t change.)

    Solomon actually disappears from the novel shortly after that poker game — a sled (apparently driven by Ephraim) arrives and takes him north towards the Arctic. A central uncertainty of the plot is whether or not he is still alive and just what influence he has on its various elements.

    That uncertainty provides yet another story line in the novel. Moses Berger is the son of the failed Montreal literary poet, L.B. Berger. As a child, Moses lived down the Mount Royal slopes from the Gursky family multi-mansion estate and becomes obsessed with Solomon’s story from the first time he hears of him. Moses’ lifelong pursuit of that story introduces a whole new set of oddball characters with whom Richler can play.

    All of that is a very rudimentary sketch of the various story lines in Solomon Gursky Was Here. Each features a pretty much independent set of characters (although there is some overlap), each has its own intricate plot developments and each provides the author a platform for digressions into cryptic observation or bitter satire. Richler loves complexity and detail and you can rest assured that he spares none of it in any of the story threads.

    The problem that I had the first time I read this novel was that there is so much going on (and so many people doing it) that I had a lot of trouble keeping it all straight. Richler shifts focus frequently and without warning — particularly in the first half of the book, when he is establishing these widely varied stories, I felt buried in a wealth of detail and characters whom I only vaguely remembered. The parts were certainly interesting and entertaining, but I wasn’t getting much of a sense of the whole.

    That frustration did settle down midway through the book (although, given that it is 557 pages, that involved a considerable investment of time) and I found the latter half much more engaging. I must say I did have a similar experience this time through (my third, perhaps fourth, read of the novel) but had the comfort of knowing that it all does eventually come together.

    The jacket promo of my first edition of Solomon Gursky Was Here refers to it as Richler’s “most ambitious and mysterious novel”. I would certainly quibble with “most ambitious” (Duddy and Barney both have an admirable depth to them) — “mysterious” is fair if you accept that it has both negative and positive possibilities. Richler is generally a very accessible author but that is not always the case with this one. His canvas for this one is truly large — while all the parts show his considerable ability, for this reader the bigger picture does not come together quite as readily as it does in his more popular novels.

    (In April, KfC’s 2013 Project again heads into “different” territory. The author, Margaret Atwood, is certainly familiar. But the novel, her second, Surfacing, tends to be overlooked in current day attention. I remember well reading it when the author was only coming to prominence — I am interested to see how it has weathered the decades since.)

    KfC’s 2013 Project: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

    February 15, 2013
    All she’s trying to do is keep things straight in her head. To keep the weight of her memories evenly distributed. To hold the chapters of her life in order. She feels a new tenderness growing for certain moments; they’re like beads on a string, and the string is wearing out. At the same time she knows that what lies ahead of her must be concluded by the efforts of her imagination and not by the straight-faced recital of a thottled and unlit history. Words are more and more required. And the question arises: what is the story of a life? A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression? The bringing together of what she fears? Or the adding up of what has been off-handedly revealed, those tiny allotted increments of knowledge? She needs a quiet place in which to think about this immensity. And she needs someone — anyone — to listen.

    Personal first edition

    Personal first edition

    That excerpt comes almost at the conclusion of The Stone Diaries, towards the end of chapter nine of ten, as 80-year-old Daisy Flett begins organizing what she knows will be her final thoughts and collected memories of a life lived. For the reader, who is all too reluctantly aware that only a few pages remain in the novel, it is a timely synopsis of the story so far — this is not only a life lived, it is a life well-lived. And we have been privileged to be the “listeners” who were there to share the story.

    Before we get to Daisy Flett’s story, let me supply some context. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: The Stone Diaries has a unique fiction prize history that may never be repeated. Carol Shields was born in 1935 in Illinois and spent her childhood and student years in the U.S. — she met and married Donald Shields in Scotland in 1955 and they returned to his home in Canada, where she took out Canadian citizenship. That dual citizenship made this 1993 novel eligible for the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S., the Governor-General’s Award in Canada and the Booker Prize in the U.K. — The Stone Diaries won the first two (along with the non-citizenship-restricted National Book Critics’ Award in the U.S.) and was shortlisted for the Booker won by Roddy Doyle for Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha. Curses to the Booker jury for denying Shields a triple that I am sure will not be approached in the future (Australians with dual U.S. citizenship are allowed to replace the Governor-General award with the Miles Franklin if they want to take on the challenge).

    The Stone Diaries is book two in KfC’s 2013 project of rereading a dozen Canadian books that influenced me as a youthful reader, so permit me to add some more background. Shields was born only four years after Alice Munro but is far less well known to international readers because of her untimely death in 2003. When this novel appeared, it is safe to say that her literary reputation in Canada rivalled that of Munro’s (and that of Margaret Atwood, born in 1939, as well). An accomplished short story writer as well as novelist, she deserves to be ranked on every count with those two highly-regarded authors.

    The last book reviewed here (The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder) was a “novel-in-stories” which provoked some interesting comments on the technique. The Stone Diaries is very much a novel but if you are looking for an example of the form, it is a classic “novel in stories” — with the additional cachet that Shields chooses to employ some widely varying aspects of her considerable short story writing ability as the story unfolds.

    The novel’s 10 chapters start with Daisy’s birth in 1905 and end with her death in 199- (that’s all the author gives us, although we can presume from the date of publication it is early in the decade). While it is Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s story throughout and is in chronological order, the chapters come at almost evenly-spaced 10 year points in her life — with every chapter, the reader is left to speculate on much of what has happened in the intervening years. The device not only makes Daisy’s story richer it adds considerable depth to The Stone Diaries — this novel is not only a life lived, it is very much an examination of a 20th century North American life.

    Here’s the opening of chapter one, “Birth, 1905″. It offers a flavor of the voice and approach that will appear in a number of the novel’s “stopping points” as the author chronicles Daisy’s life:

    My mother’s name was Mercy Stone Goodwill. She was only thirty years old when she took sick, a boiling hot day, standing there in her back kitchen, making a Malvern pudding for her husband’s supper. A cookery book lay open on the table: “Take some slices of stale bread,” the recipe said, “and one pint of currants; half a pint of raspberries; four ounces of sugar; some sweet cream if available.” Of course she’s divided the recipe in half, there being just the two of them, and what with the scarcity of currents, and Cuyler (my father) being a dainty eater. A pick-and-nibble fellow she calls him, able to take his food or leave it.

    The setting is Tyndall, Manitoba: “a dusty, landlocked Manitoba village (half a dozen unpaved streets, a store, a hotel, a Methodist Church, the Canadian Pacific Railway Station, and a boarding house on the corner of Bishop Road for the unmarried men)”. Cuyler Goodwill works as a stone mason in Garson, two miles up the road — his trade introduces a metaphor that will re-appear periodically as the novel progresses (as well as influencing the title).

    “Birth, 1905″ is very much like a Munro story in that beneath its gloss of the quotidien it includes its share of surprises which serve to define the parameters of the novel. I am about to engage in spoilers which are necessary for that context, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you can’t stand spoilers. Mercy Goodwill has been unwell, but doesn’t know she is pregnant when she collapses in that Manitoba kitchen. Her cries of pain are heard by a travelling pedlar, known as “the old Jew” in the town, who runs to the house of a neighbor, Mrs. Clarentine Flett, who arrives in time for the birth: “Everyone in the tiny, crowded, hot and evil-smelling kitchen — Mrs. Flett, the old Jew, Dr. Spears, Cuyler Goodwill — has been invited to participate in a moment of history.” Mercy Goodwill dies giving birth and Clarentine Flett will take over raising the young Daisy (and have an even greater extended impact, since she becomes Daisy Flett — but I’ll leave it for prospective readers to discover how that comes about).

    On the surface, Daisy Goodwill-Flett’s long life is a mundane one — the beauty of Shields’ novel is how she makes it an extraordinary one. I’ve spoiled enough already so let’s just say that the setting for succeeding chapters will range from Bloomington, Indiana to Ottawa, Ontario to Sarasota, Florida — that geographic range illustrates the “20th century” aspect of the book. It is worth noting that at each of her “stopping points”, the author also supplies a wealth of contemporary detail similar to that recipe for Malvern pudding that opens the book — Daisy’s life may be ordinary but the author is always careful to include details and extended digressions to illustrate what is happening around it.

    I have now read The Stone Diaries during three different decades of my own life and have to say that I came away more impressed with the novel with each reading, influenced by the way that Shields has captured not just Daisy’s life but the times and communities of which she is part at each stage where the author has chosen to pause to look into her life. My first reading when the book appeared 20 years ago focused on the wonderful character whose story is being told. My second, roughly a decade ago, added the element of appreciating how well Shields had captured aspects of the century, at least from a well-travelled Canadian point of view.

    Both those strengths remained in this reading, but I’ll admit yet another element came to the fore this time around: what a tour-de-force The Stone Diaries is in displaying the breadth and depth of an exceptional writer’s craft. Some chapters (like the first) are told in the first person, looking back in time. Others have a conventional omniscient narrator. One consists entirely of letters sent to Daisy as she recovers from the death of her husband and begins a new life — we know her well enough by then that there is no reason to include her responses. Yet another features first-person perspectives from several different family members and friends on what is happening to Daisy at that stage.

    I suspect that that authorly virtuosity had a positive influence on those Prize juries back in 1993 — this is not only a successful novel, it achieves its success through a format that has no comparison in the challenges the author chose to set for herself. Every chapter would stand complete as a short story — taken together, they invite the kind of re-reading again and again that supplies a whole new level of appreciation each time (again, comparisons with Munro at her best come to mind).

    In conclusion, my third reading of The Stone Diaries not only showed that it has withstood the test of time, its impact on me has continued to grow. I can’t wait until the time comes around for a fourth exploration of this exceptional novel — I am certain there is yet still more for me to discover.

    Book three in KfC’s 2013 project is Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler. It is not his most popular title — that would be The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, already reviewed on this site (and by far the most popularly-searched post thanks to its presence on school and university reading lists). Still, Solomon Gursky is well worth the effort. Do join me in the reading (or re-reading) — the review and discussion will be open in mid-March.

    KfC’s 2013 Project: Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

    January 15, 2013

    Fifth Business … Definition

    Those roles which, being neither those of Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organised according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
    – Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

    Available at Indigo.ca

    Available at Indigo.ca


    That’s the epigraph to Robertson Davies Fifth Business (1970) and, unlike many epigraphs, it tells us a lot about what is to come. Most obviously, given the novel’s title, the central character will be one whose purpose is to bring the story along (rather than being a hero or villain). More subtly, this will be an “old style” story, the kind that is a staple for drama and opera companies — particularly those specializing in visiting out-of-the-way towns where they don’t want to pose too much challenge to the audience.

    The novel is told in the first person by the Fifth Business himself, Dunstable Ramsay, and author Davies, in admirable touring company fashion, introduces all the major characters in an incident that takes less than two pages to recount. First we meet the hero (or perhaps villain?) of the story, Percy Boyd Staunton. He’s the son of a well-off doctor (whose wealth comes mainly from shrewd land purchases) and he and 10-year-old Dunny have been out testing Percy’s “fine new Christmas sled” — alas, Dunny’s old-fashioned, well-used one has out-performed Percy’s new acquisition:

    The afternoon had been humiliating for him, and when Percy was humiliated he was vindictive. His parents were rich, his clothes were fine, and his mittens were of skin and came from a store in the city, whereas mine were knitted by my mother; it was manifestly wrong, therefore, that his splended sled should not go faster than mine, and when such injustice showed itself Percy became cranky. He slighted my sled, scoffed at my mittens, and at last came right out and said that his father was better than my father. Instead of hitting him, which might have started a fight that could have ended in a draw or even a defeat for me, I said, all right, then, I would go home and he could have the field to himself. This was crafty of me, for I knew it was getting on for suppertime, and one of our home rules was that nobody, under any circumstances, was to be late for a meal. So I was keeping the home rule, while at the same time leaving Percy to himself.

    KfC's 2013 Project

    KfC’s 2013 Project

    Deptford is a small village and getting home will not take long. Having efficiently sketched his two main characters on page one, Davies sets the plot in motion on page two. As Dunny hurries home, the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his pregnant wife, Mary, are taking their nightly walk on the street ahead of him, a walk that has attracted some critical town attention since pregnant women, especially minister’s wives, are expected to keep themselves in confinement.

    Percy had been throwing snowballs at me, from time to time, and I had ducked them all; I had a boy’s sense of when a snowball was coming, and I knew Percy. I was sure that he would try to land one last, insulting snowball between my shoulders before I ducked into our house. I stepped briskly — not running, but not dawdling — in front of the Demptsers just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head. She gave a cry and, clinging to her husband, slipped to the ground; he might have caught her if he had not turned at once to see who had thrown the snowball.

    The incident puts Mrs. Dempster into labor — a son, Paul, is born weeks premature later that night. He will survive, as will Dunny’s guilt for his “role” in the incident. Mary Dempster and Paul will join Percy as the active characters in the drama/opera — Dunny will always be there, in the role of Fifth Business.

    With the key cast in place and readers already alerted that there will be a lot of plot to the novel, author Davies steps back and supplies context. What we are reading is a document prepared by Dunstan Ramsay (he’s changed his first name for reasons we’ll discover later) upon his retirement at age 71 after forty-five years teaching at a Toronto private school. He was deeply offended by the “idiotic piece” on his retirement that appeared in the quarterly school magazine and is submitting this account of his life to the Headmaster to set the record straight.

    Without giving anything away, here are some of the elements of that life that are relevant not just to Fifth Business but to the following volumes of the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders:

  • Dunny won a Victoria Cross for an action in France in the Great War; for months he was believed killed in the incident. Even in this heroic act, he was the Fifth Business, he tells us, merely reacting to circumstances. While recovering in England, he enters a relationship that supplies a depth to his life that simply was not possible to experience in rural Deptford.
  • The alternating friendship/enmity between Dunny and Boy Staunton (Percy too will change his name) will be lifelong. Since Boy goes on to become one of Canada’s richest men (his speciality is foodstuffs, especially sugary ones), a personal friend (he thinks) of the dashing Prince of Wales (he is devastated by the Abdication) and is touted as a candidate for Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor (the Queen’s representative), the relationship is a “rich” one in both material results and story.
  • Not only does Dunny’s guilt over the incident with Mrs. Dempster remain, it becomes an obsession. As his life unfolds, Ramsay becomes a world-recognized hagiologist (expert on the saints), an author of 10 books on mythic history which have sold more than three-quarters of a million copies. This interest is a flip-side of the coin of his obsession with Mrs. Dempster: he is convinced that he has personally witnessed three miracles for which she was responsible, which he feels makes her a candidate for sainthood herself.
  • He also picks up an interest in psychology and develops an expertise in both Freud and Jung, particularly the latter. While elements of that are more important in the later volumes of the trilogy, both play out here.
  • I’ve offered enough teases about what Boy gets up to (it is worth noting that he never loses the vindictiveness noted in the first excerpt here), but there is an added dimension to his role in the novel. It is fair to say that Robertson Davies had a personal reputation as a snob (he is as close as Canada can come to being the caricature of an Oxbridge don) but he was an academic one — Boy’s success in the world of of commerce and politics supplies the platform for some wonderful comic insights that only an academic snob could produce.

    And finally there is Paul Dempster. In his early teens, Dunny gets interested in the world of magic — Paul is both his audience and student. In fact, at the age of five, Paul can perform card and coin manipulation tricks better than Dunny can. Paul will also change his name (I told you Freud and Jung are present here) several times, eventually settling on Magnus Eisengrim, one of the world’s leading illusionists.

    All of that is only the infrastructure that supports a wealth of incidents and set pieces along the way. Suffice to say that Fifth Business is one of those very rare novels that not only has a continually unfurling series of well-executed plot(s), they are carried out by an equally outstanding cast of exceptionally well-drawn characters.

    I first read this novel shortly after its release and, like most readers then, was very impressed. I think this was my fourth read of the book and, like a fine wine, it has matured and acquired more depth with each reading (and perhaps that is more a measure of my own maturing and appreciation of the subtleties that passed me by on earlier readings). Dunstan Ramsay is one of those rare characters who stays in a reader’s mind forever. If you haven’t met him, find a copy now.

    There is no doubt that Fifth Business sells more copies than the two following Deptford trilogy volumes but it is worth providing a thumbnail sketch of each. In The Manticore, Davies explores his interest in psychology — Boy Staunton’s son, David, is in Switzerland undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis; Dunstan Ramsay is there recovering from a heart attack. World of Wonders is the life story of Magnus Eisengrim, who ran away to join a circus and became the world’s leading illusionist — Dunny is present in many parts of the story. While Fifth Business deserves its reputation as the best of the three that in no way is a critical comment on the other two; rather it is a testimony to how good this first volume is.

    That concludes Part 1 of KfC’s 2013 Project, revisiting 12 Canadian works of fiction that influenced me. Next up in early February is Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries (1993) which ranks as the English language’s most global-award-winning novel of the modern era — it won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award in the U.S., the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in Canada and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the U.K.


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