Saturday, June 10, 2006

Adele Wiseman

I was thrilled to learn, thanks to a review in today’s Globe and Mail, that a biography of Adele Wiseman has recently been published: The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman by Ruth Panofsky.

Reading the review sent me straight to my bookshelves in search of Wiseman’s marvellous essay “Memoirs of a Book-Molesting Childhood.” She covers a lot of ground in the essay, recounting experiences of teachers and librarians as gatekeepers, the myriad ways her older siblings influenced her reading, how it felt to find herself as a Jewish child in a gentile world “so much of a negative presence” in the books she read, and how reading served as training for writing. It’s a tour de force. Here’s an excerpt:

Long before I had reached what was considered, by some arbitrary decision understandable only to librarians, the appropriate age and school grade, I was eager to move up from the downstairs children’s library to the senior library upstairs. Fiercely the librarians barred the ascent. I was not the first, nor no doubt the last who was sinfully precocious in this matter of wanting to read books they considered too old for me. I don’t really believe the librarians knew whether they were protecting us from the books or the books from us. The felt attitude ran something like this: 'Oh no you depraved little creature, we will not let you get your filthy little paws on this certifiably dirty book about real life that’s fit only for adults, who will read it with the avid contempt and disgust it deserves. We’ll keep your nasty little mind pure in spite of you if we have to man the stairs ourselves and fling you back into the world of the Bobbsey Twins where you belong!'

And another:

Unlike many writers I’ve met, I did not write constantly as a child. I kept no diaries, did not try to imitate what I was reading. I absorbed and pondered and dreamed and prepared myself. I put myself through a training with words and the way I felt about them. There were certain words that had such strong feelings attached to them that I had a hard time using them. But I knew that if I was going to be a writer I would have to have the whole world of words at my disposal, in spite of how my upbringing had taught me to feel about them. I could not go on being shocked at the words some people said so easily. So I stood in front of the mirror and practiced saying 'shit' out loud, 'shit Shit SHIT', trying not to cringe inside.

I don’t think I’ve ever read Wiseman’s first and most acclaimed novel, The Sacrifice. But I vividly recall being stunned by her second, Crackpot, when I read it in my late teens. And later being inspired by her non-fiction, Old Woman at Play which is at once a memoir of her mother and a meditation on the creative process, and, of course, the aforementioned Memoirs of a Book Molesting Childhood and Other Essays.

If you are not yet acquainted with Adele Wiseman's work, I urge you to pick up one of her books. She was an uncompromising writer who was way ahead of her time.

The new biography sounds promising. It appears to maintain a resolute focus on the work (a must for me in any literary biography), including, according to the catalogue copy, a “compelling story of the intricate negotiations and complex relationships that exist between authors, editors, and publishers.” I’m off to track down a copy.


Julie said...

Sounds great; thanks for another interesting recommendation. And god bless the librarians of my childhood, who wouldn't have dreamed of barring the gate!

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for introducing me to Adele Wiseman. Her profile is low to nonexistent in the US and she isn't in the attenuated version of CanLit that makes it below the border, so I had never heard of her.

litlove said...

I'd never heard of her and she sounds wonderful.