Sunday, October 28, 2007

James Lasdun on Raymond Carver's Stories

James Lasdun on the prospect of a new edition of Raymond Carver’s stories that would restore them to their pre-edited state:

If the restorations of Carver improved what we have, I'd be all for them, but in my opinion they don't. What Lish's editing brought forth from Carver's writing was very, very good. What I've seen of the material Stull and Carroll want to restore is, frankly, pretty awful. It's the kind of thrashing around writers do when they want to force meanings on their stories that aren't in fact supported by the stories themselves.

To read the rest of Lasdun’s article which does us the service of setting an original and an edited ending of one of Carver’s stories side-by-side for comparison, click here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

October Fictitious Reading

The next Fictitious Reading will take place tomorrow night (Sunday, October 28th) at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street, Toronto). This month’s featured writers are Derek McCormack and Trevor Strong. The evening will include readings by these talented writers, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. I'll serve as host and Stuart Ross will conduct the interview.

Derek McCormack's last novel, The Haunted Hillbilly, was named a best book of the year by both the Globe & Mail and the Village Voice. It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best International Gay Fiction. His newest novel, The Show That Smells, is forthcoming from ECW Press in 2008. He will be reading from the new novel for the first time at the Fictitious Reading Series!

Trevor Strong is a writer/singer/comedian. As one third of the music/comedy group The Arrogant Worms, he has toured across the world, performed with symphonies, and had one of his songs used to wake up astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour. He has also published a self-help book -- Get Stupid! with the Ignorance IS Bliss Method! -- that has helped dozens of people reclaim their inner idiot, and had some of his Very Grimm Fairy Tales printed in This Magazine. He is currently working on his first novel, Edgar Gets Going: the rise and fall and rise and fall of a fairly decent bass player. He lives in Toronto with his wife, two kids, a good cat, and a bad cat.

Join us for fabulous fiction and sweet Halloween treats!

For more information on the series, see the Fictitious web site.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Law and Literature: Two Questions

I'm in the midst of creating a syllabus for the course in "law and literature" that I'll be teaching next term. A voluminous body of scholarly literature on the subject has developed in the last twenty years or so and I've been filtering through it with great interest and enjoyment. But the part of the process that is most fun for me is contemplating which literary works to include in the course materials. I've been perusing favourites from my own bookshelves and also consulting a number of anthologies that helpfully collect together much law-related literature in one place: Trial and Error: an Oxford Anthology of Legal Stories (edited by Fred R. Shapiro and Jane Garry), Legal Fictions: Short Stories about Lawyers and the Law (edited by Jay Wishingrad), and Law in Literature: Legal Themes in Short Stories (edited by Elizabeth Gemmette), for example. But I would be remiss if I didn't also call into service the vast knowledge of the book blogging world. Are there any literary works with legal themes that you would recommend I consider for inclusion? I'm interested in literary works of all sorts whether they fit within the rubric of classic, contemporary, popular, detective fiction, children's literature or any other category. I'm most interested in short stories and poems simply because I don't think it's realistic to expect my students to read multiple novels given the time-constraints they'll be operating under, and I'd rather have them read complete works than excerpts. But if novels spring to mind, I'd like to hear about them as well. Please share with me your suggestions, either via email or the comments section below.

The other related endeavour with which I would very much appreciate assistance is the compilation of a list of poets and fiction writers who studied or practiced law. My purpose is two-fold. First, I think such a list might provide inspiration to law students who write and are anxious about their capacity to continue their literary pursuits alongside their legal ones. (Though admittedly some examples, such as Kafka who despised his legal work, or Robert Louis Stevenson who was reputed to have attended his law lectures only when the weather was poor, might cut the other way!) Second, I want to invite them to consider if and how the legal training of particular writers may have influenced their literary work. So again, please share with me the names of any lawyer-writers that occur to you.


Update: With respect to my second question, it seems that James Elkins has already done a very thorough job of cataloguing lawyer-poets the world over. Check out his extraordinary list here. Please keep the names of the fiction writing lawyers coming though...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Halloween Book Giveaway

During last month's book sale madness, I bought a second copy of Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (sequel to his delightful Parnassus on Wheels). I did not do so for the pleasure of having two copies nestled together on my shelves, though I confess that I have been known to hoard multiple copies of favourite books in the past. I picked it up because I suspected that there are fellow Morley fans out there in the blog world who might like to have a copy of it. Though not a particularly spooky tale (the haunting is perpetrated by "the ghosts of all great literature" that take up occupancy in bookshops and libraries the world over), the title seemed to me to make it the perfect book for a giveaway on the eve of Halloween.

If you want The Haunted Bookshop, let me know either via email or in the comments section below. While you're at it, if you fancy doing so, please share the story of your happiest recent book sale find. If more than one person expresses an interest in the book, I'll do a draw on Friday. I'm happy to send it anywhere in the world, so don't let your location prevent you from entering your name. After the draw, I'll contact the winner for his or her mailing address.

Happy book hunting and book haunting!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

More Reviews of All In Together Girls

Two more positive reviews of my short story collection, All In Together Girls, appeared this past week, one in my hometown newspaper, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, and the other in exceptionally cool lit mag subTerrain. Click here to read the former, and here to read the latter. (Be forewarned that the Star Phoenix review gives away the endings of a couple of the stories. If you haven't read the book and you don't like spoilers, you'll want to skip over the middle paragraphs.)

A Single Time and Place from a Multitude of Angles

Have you ever found what you thought was random reading unexpectedly coalescing into a focus on a single time and place?

In the past I have deliberately set out to explore particular places in particular decades, notably Paris in the 1920s and New York in the 1950s, through multiple sources: fiction, histories, memoirs, biographies and so on. But this time around, there is no deliberation about it. I have inadvertently read myself into the streets and flats and clubs of London in the immediately aftermath of WWII.

I think it began with Muriel Spark and this arresting passage from her novel The Girls of Slender Means:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind's eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.

Not long after I left behind the girls of Spark's May of Teck Club, I found myself viewing it all from a different angle, knocking about 1950s' literary London in the company of the likes of Kingsley Amis and John Osborne via Humphrey Carpenter's group biography, The Angry Young Men.

When I ordered David Kynaston's gargantuan history of the period, Austerity Britain 1945-51, I rationalized the purchase by telling myself that it was background research for the novel I'm writing. But this is patently untrue. A couple of my characters spent time in London during WWII, but they decamped for Canada immediately thereafter, and the action doesn't begin until they are ensconced on this side of the Atlantic. No, clearly I am simply pursuing a fascination with post-WWII London, to no particular purpose.

This was underlined for me last week when I decided to read some Doris Lessing in honour of her Nobel Prize win. Originally I had intended to return to The Golden Notebook, but ultimately I couldn't resist volume two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade 1949-1962. It opens with her arrival in London, and documents her move from one bomb-damaged flat to another, as she struggles to simultaneously care for her young son and get her writing career off the ground. And yesterday, as I trolled the aisles at the latest big university book sale, I noted that the surest indicator that I would buy a book after idly perusing its back cover was whether that back cover made mention of postwar Britain. This is how I wound up bringing home Stevie Smith's The Holiday ("Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949, and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt...") and Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room ("...describes the state of literary life in postwar London").

Having now recognized this pattern in my reading choices, I resolve to pursue it more systematically. I'm not conceiving of this undertaking as a challenge; I want it to be more flexible and open-ended than that. So call it a reading project instead.

I have two questions for you, in connection with the foregoing:

1. Can you recommend any books to me, fiction or non-fiction, on post-WWII London?

2. Have you ever engaged in such a project, deliberately or inadvertently, and, if so, what time and place was your focus?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another Book Sale Binge

I blame Danielle. If not for her praise of Elizabeth Taylor's novels and her general enthusiasm for Virago books, I might have been able to resist the four pristine Virago editions of Taylor’s novels and short stories. Mind you, there's plenty of blame to go around. It's on account of a review by Dorothy and excerpts posted by Terry that I've long had my eye out for copies of Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe and Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt respectively. It was a mention by Litlove that piqued my interest in the work of William Maxwell. Before Imani's Outmoded Authors Challenge, I'd never even heard of Olivia Manning. And, of course, it's Sharon's Russian Reading Challenge that has Dostoevsky in the front of my mind. You're enablers of my book buying habit, every last one of you, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it!

Here's a complete list of today's acquisitions:

Elizabeth Bowen, Pictures and Conversations;
A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays;
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground;
Alasdair Gray, The Book of Prefaces;
Graham Greene, Travels with My Aunt;
Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade 1949-1962;
Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy;
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow;
Mary McCarthy, The Groves of Academe;
Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish a Room;
Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie;
Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography;
Stevie Smith, The Holiday;
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Scottish Stories & Essays;
Elizabeth Taylor, Angel;
Elizabeth Taylor, The Devastating Boys;
Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season;
Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness;
Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life; and,
Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays & Reviews.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sending Reserves to a Successful Sector of the Battlefront

Doris Lessing on the military mindset of publishers:

In certain military academies there is this exercise: The examinee is to imagine that he is a general in command of a battlefront. In one area his troops are only holding their own, in another are being routed, in a third are driving back the enemy. With limited resources, where is he to send support? The correct answer is: to the successful sector; the rest must be left to their fate. It seems few people give the right answer; they mislead themselves with compassionate thoughts for the less successful soldiers. This is how publishers think. An already successful or known author gets advertisements, but struggling or unknown ones are expected to sink or swim. When the public sees advertisements for a novel on the underground, they are seeing reserves being sent to a successful sector of the battlefront. They are seeing a best-seller being created from a novel that is already a success.

From Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography 1949-1962 (1997).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Shared Reading Experience

Eric has been quoting Dostoyevsky to me all morning. This is a bit of a surprise as he's one of those men who, though an avid reader, rarely reads fiction. But it turns out that of the novels he has read, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is his all time favourite. When pressed, he says simply: "That book changed everything." How could I not have known this about him already? After all, I’m the sort of book-mad person who will eye up new friends' bookshelves before taking time out to coo at their babies or pat the heads of their beloved dogs.

The upshot of this revelation is that next year, when I read Dostoyevsky's The Idiot as part of the 2008 Russian Reading Challenge hosted by Sharon of Ex Libris, Eric is going to join me. A live, in-person, right-here-at-home shared reading experience to run alongside the virtual, international shared reading experience among bloggers that the challenge represents. I'm looking forward to this on both counts.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

O Canada

John Mutford's Canadian Book Challenge calls on participants to read thirteen books by and/or about Canada between now and Canada day (July 1st) and to blog about each one along the way. I confess that this challenge is a bit of a cheat for me. I read an average of 100 books per year, and usually at least a quarter of those are by Canadian authors. So committing to reading thirteen over the next eight months doesn't feel like a challenge. I don't diligently blog about each book read though. So I'm going to take that part of the challenge seriously and make sure to talk up any Canadian book I read that proves worthy of praise.

Why thirteen books? Because Canada is comprised of ten provinces and three territories, and one of the options John outlines for the challenge is to pick one book from each province and each territory. I think this is a cool idea in the abstract, but I'm feeling a bit conflicted about the embrace of regionalism at the moment, so I'm not going that route this time around. My thirteen picks don't coalesce around any particular theme. They are united by two things only: all were published or are forthcoming in 2007, and all are books that I'm really keen to read. They represent a range of genres: novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. Some are by well-known authors, others are first books. Half are published by small, independent presses.

I'm listing the books I intend to read below, along with a description of each one cribbed from catalogue copy or back cover blurbs, to give you an idea of what piqued my interest, and perhaps to pique yours.

1. Gil Adamson, The Outlander (Anansi): "In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand.... As the young widow encounters characters of all stripes—unsavoury, wheedling, greedy, lascivious, self-reliant, and occasionally generous and trustworthy—Adamson weds her brilliant literary style to the gripping, moving, picaresque tale of one woman's deliberate journey into the wild."

2. Elyse Friedman, Long Story Short: A Novella and Stories (Anansi): "Elyse Friedman's fiction, described as 'part Kafka, part South Park' (Toronto Star), is as funny as it is fierce, as witty as it is empathetic." And is "Long Story Short" not the best title ever for a collection that includes a novella and a handful of short stories?

3. Salvatore DiFalco Black Rabbit and Other Stories (Anvil): "Existential and reflective, brutal and honest, these are stories that will leave you questioning the essence of existence, your own humanity, and that of those around you. This is deft storytelling from a talented new voice."

4. David Gilmour, The Film Club (Thomas Allen): “Written in the spare elegant style he is known for, The Film Club is the true story about David Gilmour’s decision to let his 15-year-old son drop out of high school on the condition that the boy agrees to watch three films a week with him. The book examines how those pivotal years changed both their lives."

5. Helen Humphreys, The Frozen Thames (McClelland and Stewart): "A groundbreaking, genre-bending new work from one of Canada’s most respected writers. In its long history, the River Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.... The Frozen Thames contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1142 and 1895."

6. Robert Kroetsch and John Lent, Abundance: The Mackie House Conversations About the Writing Life (Kalamalka Press): Captures on the page “five days of strange, elliptical conversation” about the writing life.

7. Roy MacSkimming, Macdonald: A Novel (Thomas Allen): "In the grand literary tradition of Gore Vidal's novels about American political history, Roy MacSkimming has conjured an extraordinary novelistic recreation of the last days of Canada’s indomitable first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald."

8. David McGimpsey, Sitcom (Coach House): "Mischievous, generous and side-splittingly funny, this collection of wry soliloquies and sonnets begins with a milestone birthday and finds itself—through antic turns and lyric flips to demi-mondes as varied as the offices of university regents and the basic plot arc of Hawaii Five-O—to a sincere contemplation of mortality and the fashion sense of Mary Tyler Moore."

9. rob mclennan, ed., Decalogue 2: Ten Ottawa Fiction Writers (Chaudiere): "The ten authors that make up this collection highlight both the range of style and the strength of writing happening around the current City of Ottawa, ranging from roughneck prose to lyric exploration to a more straightforward kind of narrative storytelling. Rather than giving you a list of authors you've already heard of, this collection focuses on the works of authors you might not have heard of yet, some of whom have only recently come up on the national radar."

10. Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero (McClelland and Stewart): "From the celebrated author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion comes a remarkable new novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time. In the 1970s in northern California, near Gold Rush country, a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is riven by an incident of violence — of both hand and heart — that sets fire to the rest of their lives."

11. Jessica Westhead, Pulpy and Midge (Coach House): "A hilariously deadpan, wincingly funny take on one office innocent's workplace coming-of-age." (That blurb comes from Lynn Coady, herself a brilliant comic novelist, so I'm inclined to take her word for it.)

12. Zoe Whittall, Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant): A queer coming-of-age novel set in Montreal in the lead-up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

13. Michael Winter, The Architects are Here (Penguin): "Michael Winter's eagerly anticipated new novel The Architects are Here features the unexpected return of Gabriel English, the popular and controversial protagonist of three of his previous critically acclaimed books. Prompted by a near death experience involving a wayward billboard Gabriel is forced to come to terms with the disappearance of his enigmatic girlfriend Nell. After packing up the shattered remnants of his Toronto apartment Gabriel sets out on an impromptu road trip with his roguish friend David Twombly to Corner Brook Newfoundland, their childhood home and the site of a recent accident involving David's father in which Nell may be implicated. Along the way they encounter all manner curious characters from their shared past including a good many familiar faces from the Canadian literary community."

As usual, I reserve the right to make substitutions at will, particularly when spring rolls around and I find myself distracted by shiny, new books from 2008...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Richard Pevear on Collaborative Translation

Richard Pevear on collaborative translation:

I'll take an example of what that collaboration can produce from Tolstoy's description of the Russian Army crossing the river Enns. After a good deal of confusion, the hussar captain Denisov finally manages to clear the infantry from the bridge and send his cavalry over. As the first riders move onto the bridge, Tolstoy writes, "On the planks of the bridge the transparent sounds of hoofs rang out." The Russian is unmistakable — prozrachnye zvuki, "transparent sounds" — and I find its precision breathtaking. It is pure Tolstoy. To my knowledge, it has never been translated into English. What we find in other versions is the "thud" or "clang" of hoofs, and it is likely that I would have done something similar if Larissa had not brought me back to what Tolstoy actually wrote. His prose is full of such moments of fresh, immediate perception. Coming upon them and finding words for them in English has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work.

To read the rest of Pevear's article on the experience of translating Tolstoy's War and Peace in collaboration with Larissa Volokhonsky, click here. Their new translation is due to be released this week. I must get myself a copy!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Multiple Translations of Tolstoy's War and Peace

I did a compare and contrast exercise a while back with different translations of one of Chekhov's short stories and concluded that I preferred the most recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. So, upon learning from a newspaper article that the publication of a Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace is imminent, it struck me that now would be a good moment for me to tackle that classic tome. Reading further into the article though, it becomes apparent that choosing between translations, at least as far as War and Peace is concerned, involves more than different turns of phrase. There are, it seems, multiple, quite radically divergent versions of War and Peace floating around, and different translators are working from different originals:

Ecco's book [translated by Andrew Bromfield] has one possible selling point for a novel infamous for its length: It's more than 400 pages shorter than the so-called canonical version, in part because it lacks many of the philosophical digressions and historical observations Tolstoy added later. Also, its story has some twists, since Tolstoy changed the fates of some characters, including killing off several between drafts.

Faced with this sort of choice, my inclination, at least for my first go round, is to go with whichever version the author regarded as the final work. But according to an expert quoted at the conclusion of the article, Tolstoy himself never expressed a clear view on that point:

"There is no definitive edition," says New York University's Anne Lounsbery, assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the department of Russian and Slavic Studies. She adds, "Tolstoy himself didn't take much interest in it after he wrote it. He allowed interventions by all sorts of people."

I'm still inclined to think that the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is the one for me, but perhaps I ought to undertake a bit of research before making the final call. Certainly the foregoing indicates what a complicated business selecting a translation can be.

Philip Roth on Reading While Writing

Philip Roth on reading while writing:

I read quite a bit. I just finished two books by Milan Kundera - essays called The Curtain, and a novel called Ignorance. Before that, I read a new biography of Joseph Conrad. Before that, a long book by Tony Judt called Postwar, a marvellous, epochal book of the history of postwar Europe. Usually I don't read fiction when I'm writing fiction. I read the Kundera because I'd read the book of non-fiction. And he's a friend. The problem is, the book of fiction you're reading is finished and polished and expert, and what you're writing is so crappy that you get doubly depressed. Best to avoid it.

To read the rest of Johanna Schneller's interview with Philip Roth which appeared in today's Globe and Mail, click here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A New (To Me) Book Meme

Seachanges has tagged me for a book meme and of course I can't resist...

Books I possess:

Or is it books that possess me? I've never done an official count. Some day I'll upgrade my LibraryThing account and catalogue them all properly. But it's safe to say, scanning my bookshelves at home, my bookshelves at work, the errant stacks of books tucked away underneath chairs or in the corners of rooms, and dimly remembered boxes of books secreted in the backs of closets, that my personal collection currently exceeds 4000 books.

Last book(s) read:

I'm always reading several books at once but the last one that I finished reading I read in one evening cover to cover. Dora Bruder is a slim, non-fiction book by French novelist Patrick Modiano and it’s extraordinary. It is, as described on the back cover, "part memoir, part memorial." It's also part quest narrative, part detective story, and part a lot of other things. I will write a proper post about it soon. It's the first bit of Patrick Modiano’s writing that I've read but it most certainly won’t be the last.

Last book(s) bought:

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano (see above). It's a rare thing for me to buy a book and read it immediately like that, but this one hooked me from the minute I flipped it open on the subway on my way home from the bookstore. I bought it on a whim after I came across it on the remainder table at my university bookstore and it proved a great discovery.

Just to mix things up a little, though, let me also share with you the last books that I checked out of the library. Yesterday I stopped in at the library on my way home from work and picked up Honeymoon and Night Rounds, both novels by Patrick Modiano (see, I told you that Dora Bruder wouldn't be my last encounter with his work!), and Devastating Boys and Other Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (this will be my first exposure to her work and I'm looking forward to it after hearing her praised on various blogs, and how could I resist a collection of short stories titled Devastating Boys?).

Five meaningful books:

I could list a lot more than five, of course, and in singling out these particular titles I'm repeating some things that I've said in previous blog posts. But I'll give myself marks for consistency on that score, instead of deducting them for lack of originality!

1. Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace:
Regular readers of this blog know that I mention Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books at every opportunity. There are several books from the series that I could single out as particularly meaningful to me. There's Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown in which 12-year-old Betsy makes her first visit to her town's brand new Carnegie library and learns that she has to read good books if she wants to write them. There's Heaven to Betsy at the end of which 14-year-old Betsy concludes that if she abandons her writing altogether for the social whirl of her new high school friends, her talent might wither. And there’s Betsy in Spite of Herself in which the recurring theme is "to thine own self be true." But ultimately my favourite in the series is Betsy and the Great World in which 21-year-old Betsy leaves behind her Minnesota home to spend a year alone in Europe. By this stage in the series, she's sold a few stories and she's beginning to find her voice as a writer. She sets off from Boston harbour in January of 1914 in search of adventure and story material. Betsy's journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me in childhood and adolescence. As a world traveller, an independent woman, and a writer increasingly dedicated to her craft, Betsy was a heroine to emulate.

2. Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe:
Man Descending was the first book of short stories I ever read. It was my final year of high school, and in the years leading up to it I'd read the odd short story from the literary anthologies that served as texts for English class. But Man Descending was my first sustained exposure and what a great place it was to begin. Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant writer and reading his stories sparked in me an enduring love of the short story form. The fact that Vanderhaeghe is from my home province of Saskatchewan and set many of his stories there gave his work added impact for me. It was a clear demonstration that world-class writing could and did happen right there at home. So, as well as being a wonderful reading experience, Man Descending also served as an inspiration to me in my early attempts to write fiction.

3. The Comforters by Muriel Spark:
I was sufficiently intrigued by the back cover description of this book that I stole it from my older brother. It was required reading for a class he was taking on "The Modern British Novel." I don't think I made off with it until after he'd written the final exam; I hope not. I was immediately drawn into The Comforters by Spark's wit and the sharpness of her use of language. But it was the meta-fictional aspect of the book that really dazzled me. The protagonist, Caroline Rose, suspects that she is a character in a novel. She hears voices narrating her experience accompanied by the clacking of a typewriter. She begins to copy it all down in a notebook. Is she the author of a novel or a character in one? The Comforters provoked me to think more deeply than I ever had before about how a novel is constructed.

4. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco:
In my youth, I was obsessed with literary life in Paris between the wars, in particular, with the work of expatriate writers from the U.S. and Canada. I immersed myself in memoirs, biographies, literary histories and criticism, novels, stories, and poems. I read Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together, Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris, Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank, Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, Janet Flanner's Paris Was Yesterday, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, and Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight. But of all of these marvellous books, I think that Glassco's memoirs had the strongest impact on me. I fancied myself a poet then and I fear I was overly earnest about it. Glassco's irreverent memoir of the two years that he spent on the fringes of that celebrated expatriate community cut through a lot of literary pretensions including my own. I realized that I had rather more in common with the eighteen-year-old John Glassco who drank more than he wrote in Paris than I did with the more famous literary luminaries with whom he hung about. At the same time, it was reassuring to know that Glassco had eventually buckled down and made a name for himself as a poet, as well as transforming the experiences of his dissolute youth in Paris into a very entertaining book.

5. Ali Smith's The Whole Story and Other Stories:
This is a book of stories about stories which nonetheless succeed as, you guessed it, stories. It's a difficult balance to strike and Smith achieves it brilliantly. These stories cracked wide open my perception of what a short story could be. I read the book three times in a row, then immediately went off and transformed a poem that I'd been trying to write for years into a very odd little story. Although my writing is nothing like Smith's, I can point to her as my most direct literary influence in recent memory.

I think that this meme has been making the rounds for a while, and I'm not sure who is left to tag. If you haven't done it yet, and you'd like to, I would be most interested to read your responses to these questions!

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Books Live On

I thought that I had read all of Madeleine L'Engle's fiction. But in the midst of a recent listserv discussion in the wake of her death, someone mentioned And Both Were Young as a favourite L'Engle novel, and nothing that she said about it sounded familiar to me. Off I went to the library to rectify this gap in my reading.

And Both Were Young is one of L'Engle's earliest novels, first published in 1949. Though, interestingly, the edition I read was a 1980s update to which L'Engle had restored the material that her editors had insisted she take out of the original edition because they deemed it inappropriate for a young audience: material which unduly emphasized death (hard to do in a book set in Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII, one would think), or too explicitly referenced sex (I'm not sure which bits these were; certainly nothing jumped out as even vaguely salacious to this contemporary reader).

The novel tells the story of Philippa Hunter ("Flip"), an American teenager sent unwillingly to a Swiss boarding school by her artist father to free him to travel about Europe to conduct his work and be wooed by a woman who Flip emphatically dislikes. Flip is miserably homesick for America and her father. She is sure that she will never fit in among her more sophisticated classmates, and she's not sure that she wants to. Ultimately, however, a chance meeting with Paul, a French boy with a mysterious wartime past, flowers into a forbidden friendship that offers her some solace.

I certainly wouldn't count And Both Were Young among L'Engle's best books. It's clear that it's an early novel. The characterization is a bit thin, and the plot rather melodramatic. Yet glints of the L'Engle magic are present nonetheless. Flip is a clear precursor to later stormy, stubborn, her-own-worst-enemy characters like Vicki Austin and Meg Murray. And Paul similarly presages mysterious, wounded characters like Zachary Gray. On the strength of that, I read And Both Were Young with great interest and enjoyment. And, of course, I could not then resist returning to the other L'Engle books that it brought to mind. I've begun with a couple that feature Polly O'Keefe, not as well-known as Meg or Vicki, but perhaps my favourite L'Engle heroine.

I've now taken a look at a complete bibliography of L'Engle's work, and it seems to me that there are still more fiction titles listed there that I haven't yet encountered. And I already had a couple of volumes of her autobiographical writings sitting on my shelf as yet unread. So though Madeleine L'Engle is gone, a number of her books are still out there for me to discover, and all of my favourites are available to be reread. The books live on, and L'Engle's interesting mind and extraordinary empathy within them.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Vote for this month's Story Selection at A Curious Singularity

It's time to vote on which story will be the focus of the October discussion at A Curious Singularity, due to begin next week. Five stories have been nominated, most of them, appropriately enough for October, rather creepy ones. There's excellent potential for overlap here for those of you also participating in Carl V.'s R.I.P. II Challenge, or The Literate Kitten's Horror Short Story Challenge. Please let me know, in the comments below this post or its duplicate at A Curious Singularity or via email, which of the following stories you would prefer to discuss this month.

Wilkie Collins, "Mrs. Zant and the Ghost" (1879);
Rudyard Kipling, "The Phantom Rickshaw" (1885);
Guy de Maupassant, "The Horla" (1887);
Jean-Paul Sartre,"The Wall" (1939); or,
Edith Wharton, "Kerfol" (1916).

Thanks to Heather, John, and Pauline for these excellent suggestions!

A Simple Story: Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father"

(Crossposted at A Curious Singularity.)

I've been mulling over Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father" for weeks now. It's a very short story but there's a great deal going on in it: not just the contrast and conflict between the narrator and her father within the confines of the story but also, on a broader level, competing ideas about what constitutes a story, and about the relationship between real life and fiction.

The story begins with a request from the narrator’s father who is 86-years-old, ill, and confined to bed:

"I would like you to write a simple story just once more," he says, "the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next."

And this is the narrator's response:

I say, "Yes, why not? That's possible." I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman..." followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

Now, I'm not very well acquainted with de Maupassant's stories, but I'm an avid reader of Chekhov and it seems a wilful misrepresentation to suggest that his name denotes that sort of starkly plot-driven fare. Indeed, the narrator’s father says as much after he's read her first attempt which she describes as "an unadorned and miserable tale:"

"But that's not what I mean," my father said. "You misunderstood me on purpose. You know there's a lot more to it. You know that. You left everything out. Turgenev wouldn't do that. Chekhov wouldn't do that. There are in fact Russian writers you never heard of, you don't have an inkling of, as good as anyone, who can write a plain ordinary story, who would not leave out what you have left out..."

If the narrator does indeed want to please her father, why does she deliberately misunderstand his request, transforming it into one that she cannot satisfy? Is this an extension of an ongoing battle between them, or is she playing out an internal struggle of her own here?

Ultimately, the dispute between father-reader and daughter-writer boils down, at least in his view, as they quibble over whether the end of her revised story is truly the end, to her unwillingness to recognize tragedy. She wants to believe that the fortunes of her character could still change; he thinks that she’s deluding herself. In his post about the story, John perceptively notes that this is not simply a matter of differing literary aesthetics. The tragedy that the narrator’s father wants her to face is not just that of her character, but also that of his own looming death.

I agree, but I think that the narrator is also struggling with something more here, as a writer and as a human being. Throughout her attempts to write "a simple story," she appears to be in conflict not just with her father but also within herself, particularly when it comes to the relationship between fiction and real life.

Initially, she expresses no distinction between fiction and real life as far as her philosophy goes: "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." And she grounds her first attempt at a simple story in real life: "I thought of a story that had been happening for a couple of years right across the street." But when her father takes issue with the unmarried status of the mother at the centre of her tale, she insists on a distinction between her stories and real life, purporting to exert control over such details in fiction:

     "For Godsakes, doesn't anyone in your stories get married? Doesn't anyone have the time to run down to City Hall before they jump into bed?"
     "No," I said. "In real life, yes. But in my stories, no."

Before long, though, she's stepping back from this, speaking of characters that outwit writers, and of the need for negotiation between writer and character:

     "Actually that's the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic, you think they're extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they're just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person's a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can't even think of an ending good enough."
     "What do you do then?" he asked. He had been a doctor for a couple of decades and then an artist for a couple of decades and he's still interested in details, craft, technique.
     "Well, you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero."

In the end, the narrator insists not simply that her character's destiny could change, but that it is her responsibility to make it change, in part because of the connection between the story and real life: this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She's my knowledge and my invention. I'm sorry for her. I'm not going to leave her there in that house crying...

The narrator's father is not convinced by the alternate ending. But, perhaps paradoxically, this is precisely because he has been so utterly convinced by the story that she has written, a story of the sort that he previously concluded she is incapable of writing.

The narrator is at this point, I believe, thinking not only of her character's destiny, or of her father's destiny, but also of her own. We don't know much about her life, but I think she's struggling here with her capacity to change it. How much control does a writer have over his or her story, and how much control does a person have over his or her own destiny? "A Conversation with My Father" raises these questions and leaves them swirling in the air.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Nancy Huston's Fault Lines

The review of Nancy Huston's novel Fault Lines that I wrote for the September issue of Quill & Quire is now available online. My review wasn't as enthusiastic as most others that I've come across, but I do think that the novel is well worth reading. To read my review of it, click here.

The Novelist's Gift of Clairvoyance

Like many writers before me, I believe in coincidence and, sometimes, in the novelist's gift for clairvoyance—the word "gift" not being the exact term, for it implies a kind of superiority. No, it simply comes with the profession: the imaginative leaps this requires, the need to fix your mind on points of detail—to the point of obsession, in fact—so as not to lose the thread and give in to natural laziness—all this tension, this cerebral exercise may well lead in the long run to "flashes of intuition concerning events past and future," as the Larousse dictionary puts it, under the heading "clairvoyance."

From Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (1999) (translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

W. Somerset Maugham on Henry James

W. Somerset Maugham on Henry James:

I don't think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, "So much the worse for them." Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist. Though I do not know that it is a fact, I surmise that he regarded Madame Bovary with horror. On one occasion Matisse was showing a lady a picture of his in which he had painted a naked woman, and the lady exclaimed, "But a woman isn't like that": to which he answered, "It isn't a woman, madam, it's a picture." I think, similarly, if someone had ventured to suggest that a story of James's was not like life, he would have replied, "It isn’t life, it's a story."

From W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (1958).