Monday, March 31, 2008

An Unconventional Memoir of a Life in CanLit

Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit is, as its subtitle indicates, a memoir of Robert Lecker’s life as a professor, critic, and publisher of Canadian literature. But who is this Dr. Delicious character? In the introduction, Lecker explains that after a student told him that his surname means “delicious” in German he began to reconceive himself:

The idea of being Dr. Delicious instead of plain old Professor Lecker made me think about the kind of writing I would have done if I was really the tasty version of myself. Professor Lecker would be reluctant to tell stories about his own life. He would resist the temptation to make his life in Canadian literature personal. He would not gossip. He would write scholarly articles and books that no one would read. But Dr. Delicious would lead a completely different life. He would delight in his classroom experiences. He would take liberties with his life story. He would talk about the ups and downs of being a Canadian publisher. He would bring in music, painting, hypochondria, malt whisky, deranged students, government grants, questionable authors, bank debt, termite infestations, a teaching stint in Brazil, lawsuits, the pleasures of hot sauce. He would write about his passions, his failures, how the whole business of CanLit drove him crazy, lost him sleep, drove him on.

I can appreciate how the idea of Dr. Delicious helped Lecker to abandon academic convention in embarking on this book, but in the early going I found the Dr. Delicious persona off-putting. To me it smacked a bit of an aging professor trying too hard to be cool. (No doubt my sensitivity to this stems from my own fears of venturing into that territory as a professor just past forty and no longer as conversant with my students’ pop culture references as I once was.) It was only when Lecker shucked off the Dr. Delicious veneer to describe the unabashed passion for the study of literature that he developed in graduate school that I was hooked by the narrative. The jaded academic is a familiar figure in the public imagination, and Lecker does go on to catalogue many of the frustrations of academic life with great insight and humour. But the passionate scholar is all too rarely represented, and it was a great pleasure to encounter one here.

Ultimately it is not a sharply drawn Jeckyll & Hyde conflict between what Lecker refers to as his “multiple book personalities” that makes this book so interesting, but rather their mostly peaceful co-existence. That Lecker is deeply suspicious of the CanLit canon in his critical work, yet contributes to its formation in what he chooses to teach in his professorial guise and what he chooses to publish as co-founder and long-time partner of Canadian small press ECW. That he is a champion of Canadian fiction and poetry, yet opts to devote a substantial amount of time and energy to the publication of dubious non-fiction titles (a low-carb cookbook, a glossy biography of Jennifer Lopez, WrestleCrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling) to keep his press afloat. These are, of course, the realities not just of Lecker’s professional life but of academic life and small press publishing more broadly. And thus Dr. Delicious is a very satisfying read for anyone who is interested in the pleasures and frustrations of academic life, of small press publishing, or in the formation of and challenges to the CanLit canon. It was a bulls-eye on all three counts for me. Indeed, I was sufficiently intrigued by the snippets about the CanLit canon to buy a copy of Lecker’s previous book which is wholly devoted to the subject, Making it Real: The Canonization of English-Canadian Literature.

So, although I was not so keen on Dr. Delicious the persona, I highly recommend Dr. Delicious the book.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Space and Place in James Joyce's "Araby"

James Joyce’s “Araby” is a marvellously evocative short story. It is a very interior sort of story; the action, such as it is, occurs almost exclusively inside the narrator’s head. Of course this is not uncommon in coming-of-age stories as they generally track changes that occur within the protagonist. But this quality is heightened in “Araby” as the changes that the narrator undergoes are provoked by the quiet dissolution of a fantasy rather than by any dramatic external catalyst.

The interiority of the story is underscored for me by the way that Joyce uses space and place within it to highlight contrasts and mark transitions. The houses of North Richmond Street are associated with stuffy, respectable adulthood while the street itself is the terrain of childhood. The houses, in contrast to a vacant one at the end, are described thus in the opening paragraph: “The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” But the street itself can be a more raucous place:

When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.

The back lane is more adventurous territory still, not theirs but navigable nonetheless:

The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.

Back on the front street, the narrator and his playmates still opt for the shadows beyond the light thrown by the kitchen windows. They duck out of view when the narrator’s uncle comes past on his way home, or when his friend Managan’s sister calls him in for his tea.

But when the narrator becomes smitten with Managan’s sister, despite never having so much as exchanged a word with her, he confines himself more often to his house. He lies on the floor of the front parlour where he can watch through the window for her to appear on her front doorstep. He ventures into the back drawing room where the previous tenant, an old priest, had died, to vent his desire in privacy. Finally, after Managan’s sister speaks to him at last, and he begins to anticipate a real connection between them, he goes to the top of the house, distancing himself further from the “child’s play” he now disdains:

I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high, cold, empty, gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discretely by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.”

The connection that the narrator anticipates has to do with a planned visit to Araby, “a splendid bazaar.” When Managan’s sister spoke to him finally, it was to ask if he was going to Araby. She can’t go herself as she is to attend a convent retreat that weekend, and he tells her that if he goes he will bring her something back.

Araby is associated with neither childhood nor respectable adulthood; it’s another space entirely. The very name “cast[s] an Eastern enchantment over” the narrator. He nearly doesn’t make it there when his uncle forgets to return home in time to give him money to go. But finally, after an anxious train journey, the narrator arrives at the bazaar at ten minutes to ten on Saturday night.

I found myself in a big hall girded at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.

He listens to the stallholders counting money and gossiping to one another. Even those few stalls that are still open are clearly not keen for his business so late at night.

What better place than an exotically named bazaar a train journey from home to represent a fantasy just out of reach? And what better place than that bazaar at closing, its gaudy facade let down, its aisles empty of revellers, to bring home the recognition that the fantasy is out of reach and remains just that, a fantasy?

The story ultimately is masterful in taking not just the narrator but also the reader from the space of childhood (the bracing chill of the dark street ringing with boys’ shouts) to the awkward in-between (confining oneself to private corners of the house then railing against that confinement) to young adulthood (and the sharp moments of disillusionment it inevitably brings).

“Araby” is the third of fifteen stories contained in James Joyce’s collection The Dubliners. But it’s such a perfect coming-of-age story that I’m thinking of the collection now as book-ended with “Araby” at the beginning and “The Dead,” a masterpiece of a story about, among other things, aging and death, at the end, and I’m very keen to read the collection from start to finish to see what I make of it as a whole.

Drop by A Curious Singularity to read what other bloggers have written about James Joyce's "Araby."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

The votes are in, and the story selected to serve as the focus of the next short story discussion at A Curious Singularity is James Joyce's "Araby". Click on the title to access the story online. This is the second story from Joyce’s collection The Dubliners that has been discussed there. For a look back at what group members had to say about "The Dead" in September 2006, click here.

The discussion will begin tomorrow, March 25th. Members of the group are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you're not yet a member of the group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. New members are always welcome! Of course, anyone can contribute to the discussion through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Novelistic Take on the Spitzer Scandal

I hadn’t given the Spitzer scandal a great deal of thought until I read this opinion piece by novelist Richard Russo in The Washington Post. Not only did it prompt me to think more deeply about Spitzer, but also about the construction of novels. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Exploring the Novella

I’ve stumbled upon another reading challenge that I can’t resist. The Novella Challenge, hosted by Trish, calls for participants to read six novellas between April and September. This challenge appeals to me for two reasons. First, there are a number of books of the required length that I had already planned to read or reread in the near future, a few with a view to including them on next year’s Law & Literature syllabus. Second, I’ve long been puzzled by the novella form.

What exactly is a novella? One website that I came across defined it as being “longer than a long short story but shorter than a short novel.” Not very helpful, but very much in line with the general tendency to define the form primarily by reference to length. In setting out the terms of the challenge, Trish defines the term novella as encompassing works of between 100 and 250 pages. Elsewhere, I’ve seen a span of 60 to 130 pages delineated. My own conception of novella length falls somewhere in between, perhaps 75 to 175 pages. Of course, all that these divergences demonstrate is how arbitrary it is to define a literary form simply by length.

I note that there are a number of books on my shelves that appear to be novella length, but which the authors and/or publishers have explicitly, via a subtitle, proclaimed to be novels, for example, Every Eye by Isobel English (152 pages), and Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (145 pages). I recall, as well, that there was some debate as to whether Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (167 pages) ought to qualify as a contender for the Booker prize given that the rules of the competition restrict eligibility to “full-length novels.” My own perception of On Chesil Beach is that it is indeed a novella by virtue of both its length and its scope. But many others disagreed, including the Booker committee and judges who included it on the 2007 shortlist. On the other hand, I’ve seen Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie referred to as a novella and, while it clocks in at a mere 127 pages, I would count it as a novel by virtue of its complex structure. I have also seen James Joyce’s “The Dead” labelled a novella and, given that it’s a story of only 40 odd pages which anchors a linked short story collection, that just seems nutty to me. To my mind, it’s an exemplar of the short story form.

All of which is to say that it’s got to be about more than page count. I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking and reading about the formal distinctions between the short story and the novel. Does the novella have more in common, formally speaking, with the short story or with the novel? Or is it its own creature, with its own formal attributes? Participating in The Novella Challenge will be a fine kick-start for me in exploring these questions.

To meet the challenge, I plan to read (or in some cases, reread) at least six of the following classics:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart;

Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease;

Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece;

Albert Camus, The Outsider;

Henry James, The Aspern Papers;

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice;

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivner;

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café; and,

Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine.

I would also like to read some contemporary novellas. I don’t have many specifically in mind though. My sense is that it’s even harder to get novellas published than short stories these days and that, when novellas do get published, they’re generally buried within a short story collection so that they may not attain an independent identity in readers’ minds. A new Canadian small press that is bucking this trend with a novella series is Quattro Books, and I will definitely be checking out some of their offerings. I also have A Bright Tragic Thing by Elyse Freidman on my TBR list (a novella published as part of her recent collection Long Story Short). Other suggestions of contemporary novellas for me to read are most welcome.

Finally, to help me muse on the formal attributes of the various books I’ll be reading, I plan to delve into the following academic studies that I picked up at my university library:

Judith Leibowitz, Narrative Purpose in the Novella;

J.H.E. Paine, Theory and Criticism of the Novella; and,

Mary Doyle Springer, Forms of the Modern Novella.

Here too, I’d welcome recommendations of articles or books on the novella form.

Thanks to Trish for hosting The Novella Challenge and starting me off on a grand new reading project, and also to Eva who brought the challenge to my attention.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Mysteries


In my latest foray into crime fiction in translation, I finally made the acquaintance of Inspector Kurt Wallander. My dad has been recommending Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books to me for years, but it was only last week that I began with an audio version of the first instalment in the series, Faceless Killers (first published in Swedish in 1991 and in English translation in 1997). I’m generally not keen on audio books as I tend to drift when I’m listening rather than reading. But I’ve found that a suspenseful mystery can hold my attention and render my commute bearable. Faceless Killers did better than that, keeping me riveted through a variety of weather-related subway delays that stretched my commute to nearly three hours one afternoon. I was so thoroughly hooked that the minute I reached the end, I picked up the second in the series, The Dogs of Riga, this time in book form, and made short work of it as well. And, having listened to the first book, I had the benefit of having the proper pronunciations in my head so that I didn’t stumble over the Swedish names when reading for myself.

So what’s so good about this series? It begins with the central character, Inspector Kurt Wallander. In many respects, he is an embodiment of the conventions of contemporary crime fiction. Wallander is a disaffected, angst-ridden police officer. He drinks too much (mostly whisky), is passionate about music (opera), and his personal life is in shambles (his wife has just left him and he is estranged from his teenage daughter). He frequently winds up battered and bruised from the physical risks that he takes in the course of his investigations. And yet he subverts a myriad of conventions as well. He falls in love at the drop of a hat, but he’s not the least bit suave with women and his feelings are rarely reciprocated. He may drink copious quantities of whisky of an evening, but he’s apt to order a glass of milk with lunch. His stomach knots under stress and he finds himself searching for a toilet at inopportune moments. He worries about his weight. He telephones his elderly father nightly, concerned about his drift into senility. He gets on rather well with his boss. He doesn’t fight doggedly over his turf when he comes into contact with other branches of the police service but rather hopes they might take a difficult and disturbing case off his hands. He makes a lot of mistakes, and many months may pass before he manages to resolve a case. He does his job well and has a strong sense of duty, but he is constantly tempted to quit the police service for an easier life. All of which is to say that though he has many of the requisite characteristics of a crime fiction hero, he remains gloriously human.

Mankell’s Wallander books also appeal to this literary tourist for their vivid evocation of Sweden. After only two books, I already have a strong sense of the landscape and the progress of the seasons in the southern province of Sweden in which the series is set. And I have learned something about Swedish society, politics, and history as well. I recognize, of course, that fiction isn’t the best source of information about such things. But I relish a novel that sparks my interest in a new subject sufficiently to send me off in search of non-fiction about it, and these books have done that for me. Faceless Killers opens with the brutal murder of an elderly Swedish couple. The woman survives for nearly a day but wakes only long enough to speak the word “foreigner” before she dies. After a leak to the media, simmering tensions around Sweden’s immigration policy ignite resulting in further crimes and many complications for Wallander and his team in their quest to solve the case. This scenario offers not just a suspenseful mystery but also a glimpse into an aspect of Swedish society that runs counter to the general perception of the country as a bastion of tolerance. The Dogs of Riga opens with the bodies of two men who have been tortured and executed washing up on the Swedish coast in an unmarked life raft. The victims are traced to the Baltic state of Latvia, then in the midst of violent political turmoil stemming from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The rather apolitical Wallander must travel to Latvia and learn something of its history and politics in order to solve the case. Again I found myself riveted by the plot (formulated by Mankell before the outcome of the Latvian quest for independence was determined), and also moved to learn more about the recent history of the Baltic states than I had gleaned from following the news at the time that the events to which the book alludes were unfolding.

Utterly satisfying books both, and I am very much looking forward to reading my way through the rest of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

In Praise of Harriet the Spy

Click here to listen to a radio tribute to the central character of one my childhood favourite books, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I think that I'm overdue for a reread of this one.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

All of the pre-publication buzz about The Calling, a crime novel by Inger Ash Wolfe, has focused on the identity of the author. When advance publicity revealed Wolfe to be the pseudonym of a well-known North American writer of literary fiction, the guessing games began at once. Speculators constructed a pool of likely prospects drawn from writers who share an agent with Wolfe, have the requisite knowledge of the part of Ontario in which the novel is set, and have been long enough between books to have completed a new one. I confess to some curiosity about this. But now that The Calling has hit store shelves, I’m content to turn my attention to the more important question of whether it’s a good book.

It has a couple of significant flaws. First, despite the occurrence of a murder within the first ten pages, The Calling gets off to a slow start. As is too often the case with a book that is to be the first in a series, there’s an awful lot of back-story shoehorned in in unwieldy chunks in the early chapters. Second, there’s just too much plot for one novel. More than once, upon encountering yet another twist in the plot, I found myself eyeing up the pages still to be read and asking in a peevish “are we there yet” sort of tone what could be left to uncover.

But there is much that warrants praise as well. The cast of characters is a fascinating lot, each of them very interesting in his or her own right, and so too are the dynamics of the relationships between them. At the centre is Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, acting chief of the Port Dundas police detachment, sixty-one-years old, recently divorced, and fighting a reliance on the painkillers with which she soothes her bad back and the carefully concealed bottle of whisky with which she washes them down. Serving alongside her is Detective Sargeant Raymond Greene who, despite an outlook much more conventional than Hazel’s, appears content to answer to a female boss. And then there are the recent additions to Hazel’s team: Detective Constable James Wingate, a young, technologically-savvy officer, newly arrived from Toronto, and Detective Sargeant Adjutor Sevigny, a French-Canadian officer of intimidating size on loan from the Sudbury police, both of them with personal secrets that they must strive to keep concealed. This diverse group is thrown together to pursue, with little experience and few resources, a serial killer who is dispatching terminally ill individuals, one after another, in gruesome fashion.

A second strength of the novel is the sense of place evoked within it. In highlighting this facet of the book, I’m not referring simply to the vivid depiction of the landscape of the bit of Ontario where the fictional town of Port Dundas is located, but also to its relationship to the rest of Ontario and to the rest of the country. The novel brings to life the contrasts between rural and urban policing, and, as the scope of the case broadens with the identification of more victims, the tensions not just between rural and urban Ontario, but also between Ontario and other parts of Canada.

Finally, there’s the plot. I noted that there are a few more twists and turns to it than fit comfortably in a single novel but, nevertheless, it was altogether riveting for long stretches, and ultimately it wound its way to a very satisfying conclusion.

The Calling is not a great crime novel, but it’s a good one. And I very much hope that it is the beginning of a series because I suspect that, with the initial hiccups of establishing a series out of the way, the second book will be even better. I could very happily spend several more books in the company of Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Stone Angel Then and Now

I was fifteen when I first read Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel and it made an enormous impression on me. I welcomed the opportunity to reread it when it was voted this month’s selection by the Slaves of Golconda, but I was a bit nervous as well. What if it fell flat for me so many years later? I need not have worried. The novel has retained all of its power for me, and this time around I had the added pleasure of being better equipped to understand the source of that power.

What I recall most vividly about my teenage response to the book was that, after reading it, I never looked at my grandma quite the same way again. My grandma was in her late seventies then and was nothing like Hagar Shipley, the ninetysomething narrator of The Stone Angel. My grandma survived into her nineties as well and must have had a ribbon of steel at the core of her. But she chose the path of least resistance always whereas Hagar runs headlong at every obstacle no matter how fruitless her opposition may seem in any given circumstance. Nevertheless, witnessing Hagar showing the face of a rather meek and sentimental old lady to the world on the bus home from the doctor’s office, yet knowing the passion and anger and regret that roil within her all the while, I couldn’t help but realize that a great deal more than I could know must also be going on beneath my grandma’s cheerful old lady facade and, indeed, in the hearts and minds of random old ladies that I encountered on buses.

I also clearly remember from my teenage reading of The Stone Angel how strongly I identified with Hagar throughout. The conventional wisdom of those who market books to teenagers seems to be that to get kids reading you have to give them characters that they can “relate to” which much of the time translates into giving them characters of roughly their age who are grappling with what are thought to be universal teenage problems. Perhaps then my firm identification with Hagar was surprising. But, then again, perhaps not. After all, that sense of being at the mercy of others, of being perfectly capable of making decisions for yourself but being prevented from doing so, is something shared by the young and the old. Although the primary source of frustration for the young teenager is being thwarted while on the very cusp of independence, whereas for the very elderly it must run much deeper, having once had that independence and now being deprived of it with no prospect of ever regaining it. I think that Laurence plays on this identification directly, albeit briefly and subtly, in the relationship that develops between Hagar and the girl in the next hospital bed near the end of the novel.

That was The Stone Angel then. What about now? What did I see in the book as an adult reader that may have escaped me as a teenager? I think that this time around it was much more apparent to me how skilfully Laurence structured the novel and depicted Hagar’s character such that the reader is drawn fully into her head yet can simultaneously see her from the outside. She’s such a strong character and the reader can’t help but stand with her and rail against the indignities she suffers by virtue of her failing body, and also the wrongs that have been done to her by unsympathetic characters throughout her life. But at the same time, the reader can’t help but recognize how impossible she is, how difficult she must be to care for, and also to recoil at the wrongs that she has perpetrated against others throughout her life. Hagar is a thoroughly unsympathetic character herself who nevertheless generates much sympathy. This double vision is made possible and made incredibly vivid, I think, by virtue of the fact that Hagar shares it. And ultimately that’s the chief tragedy of the book. She has gained enough self-knowledge over the course of her life to be able now, at least periodically, to see herself as others see her, but she can’t go that step further to change how she behaves, even toward those that she loves most deeply.

The other facet of the novel that I was very much struck by this time around was the earthiness of it, both in the depiction of Hagar’s physical decline and in its evocation of sex. Sex and sexual desire are described euphemistically, as one would expect given Hagar’s vintage and character, but never coyly. The enduring sexual desire that she felt for her husband that she was never able to communicate even to him seems to me another of the great tragedies of her life. This aspect of the novel may have been somewhat controversial when it was first published in 1964. I’m not sure about the history of this novel in particular, but I know that several of Laurence’s novels were banned on the basis of sexual content and that this caused her much anger and pain.

This has been a rather rambling post, but rereading The Stone Angel sent my thoughts spinning in a number of directions. I relished the experience and I’m keen now to reread the rest of Laurence’s Manawaka novels. For those of you new to Laurence’s work, she set several novels in and around the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar’s hometown. But each focuses on different characters from different segments of the town’s population and they range across different time periods, so you may catch glimpses of characters from one novel in another, but only peripherally. For example, the Tonnerre family with whom Hagar’s son John gets up to no good is mentioned only in passing in The Stone Angel but plays a central role in The Diviners. I would recommend any of Laurence’s novels, but the ones that stand out for me particularly are The Diviners, which I consider her masterpiece, and A Bird in the House, which is an early exemplar of the linked short story collection.

To read what other bloggers have to say about The Stone Angel, head over to the Slaves of Golconda, and to participate in a discussion of the novel, drop by the Metaxu Cafe forum dedicated to that purpose.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Karl Marx's Das Kapital

I was pleased to see a book from my own pantheon of greats lauded in this week’s instalment of the Globe and Mail’s “50 Greatest Books” series, and to see it described in terms that very much reflect my own experience of it. Here’s Francis Wheen on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital:

Though many who haven't read it assume that his unfinished masterpiece is an economic treatise, Marx himself regarded it as a work of art, breaking through the narrow conventions of political economy with a radical literary collage that juxtaposes voices and quotations from literature and mythology, from factory inspectors' reports and fairy tales. Das Kapital probably has as many allusions to Shakespeare as to Adam Smith. It mixes satire, melodrama, Gothic horror and reportage to do justice to the irresistible, yet mysterious, force that governs our material motives and interests.

To read Wheen’s case for Das Kapital in full, click here.