Full Paper Jacket
April 17, 2013
Sure looks pretty!
February 17, 2013
To read is to travel: both activities open new perspectives on the world. Sometimes this is more literally true than at other times. I have of late embarked on a literary journey through China that started with a Mo Yan short story in the New Yorker (‘Bull’), which led me to his Garlic Ballads, which in turn gave rise to a conversation with a Chinese visitor who put me on to Yu Hua (China in Ten Words; Chronicle of a Blood Merchant) who in turn got me hooked on Lu Xun (or Lu Hsün, or even Lu Sin, as he signed himself in Latin script, against all rules of romanization).
Yu Hua’s account in China in Ten Words of the meaning of literature, of the acts of reading and writing, during the years of the Cultural Revolution are humbling for anyone who has grown up in easy reach of books, but it is his endorsement of Lu Xun’s writings for which I am particularly grateful, for it has led me to discover an author whose works I would have been unlikely to stumble on in a bookstore or even a library (the most recent edition I found dates from the 1970s; most of the translations were done in the 1930s). Nor can it have been easy for Yu Hua to make his endorsement, for Lu Xun turns out to have been the one author of prose fiction who was shoved down the nation’s collective throat in the 1960s and ’70s when works of fiction had disappeared from libraries and private collections, and tatty copies of Dumas were traded furtively by schoolboys, like pornography or drugs. Along with Mao, Lu Xun (though already long dead and buried) became the voice of the party, which is to say of truth: endlessly cited, his fiction was held to unambiguously demonstrate the moral superiority of Chinese-style communism.
This fact is confounding, because – from the half dozen or so stories I have read thus far – he strikes me as a writer with a deep, Chekhovian distrust of anything that could be construed as a moral. From the point of view of his stories it does not come as a surprise to read the following comments which he made to the propaganda cadres at Whampoa Military Academy in 1927. With regard to the use Lu Xun/Hsun/Sin was put to by the Maoist regime, however, they are nothing short of astonishing:
Writers at this revolutionary center are probably inclined to emphasize that there is a close bond between literature and revolution, that literature should be used to propagandize, to advance, to incite, to help carry out the Revolution. But I think this kind of writing will be without effect because good writing has never been produced under orders from other people; good writing is free, an expression of the natural outpouring of the heart. If you first hold a thesis and then try to illustrate it accordingly, your writing will be just like an eight-legged essay. It will have literary merit, but no effect on the readers. So, for the revolution’s sake, let’s have more workers for the revolution and not be in a hurry for “revolutionary literature.” (as quoted in Harold R. Isaac (ed.), Straw Sandals (MIT Press 1974), p. xxiii).
A friend and aspiring writer recently told me that a writing teacher at a well-known Canadian institution disparaged her reading of foreign, passé authors on the grounds that writing has moved on, and recommended that, in her search for inspiration, she focus on successful contemporaries closer to home. I find this advice baffling, and against the spirit of literature. For reading, too, “is free, an expression of the natural outpouring of the heart”. Nor do I think that artistic inspiration – and for that matter literary technique – are best acquired by limiting one’s horizons, culturally, stylistically, temporally. That strategy, too, may result in writing that reads like an “eight-legged essay” in Lu Xun’s wonderful phrase. I, for my part, have never regretted a journey, whether it was conducted in person or by opening the covers of a book, and have been grateful, these past weeks, for the opportunity granted to me by a host of translators, to roam where I have not yet had the opportunity to set a single one of my eight feet.
December 29, 2012.
I am knee-deep in line edits. “Line edits” are that part of the editorial process when all the conceptual, big-picture work on the manuscript has been done and it is time to get down to the nitty-gritty, and scrutinize the language itself. It is the moment when adjectives get queried, and sentence lengths; where every violation of good taste, good style is flagged. We talk about pace, whether a sentence or paragraph will read a beat faster if we remove a word or sub-clause, and we hunt down unintentional repetitions. It is the stage in the editorial process when a writer stands confronted with his or her own ticks, their overused phrases, that word they have been misusing for years. It isn’t the last stage of the process, because the copy edit is yet to come – which has even stricter standards of correct usage, and much less interest in artistic license – but in many ways it feels like the last real chance to improve the book, make it all it can be.
Embarking on it, I was nervous. I had stayed away from the manuscript for several months in an attempt to give myself “fresh eyes”. There was no telling how it would seem to me now, returning to it. There is always the fear that the work will fall apart after yet another reading, that the sentences will seem strange and have lost their power to move me.
Thankfully, this has not been the case. From the first sentence and paragraph, a sense of recognition set in, not just of the characters and scenes, but of the sensibility evident in every word choice and every clause. In fact, the immediacy of the recognition was a shock. It isn’t just a matter of being reassured by the fact that I still like the book. The startling fact is that I can pick out minor editorial interventions – the cutting of a comma, of an “and”, a rearrangement of a sentence so that it starts off with “Three days later…” rather than finishing with the phrase – from a text that, in manuscript, is nearly 500 pages long, and do so at once, unthinkingly, without the slightest hesitation. Interestingly, this sensitivity to change does not seem to be primarily a function of memory. I do not actually remember the comma, or the missing “and”. Rather, what registers is the alien rhythm of the sentence, the sense that someone else’s aesthetic sensibility has been at work. Quite simply, I do not immediately recognize the sentence as one that I would write.
This, in turn, reminds me just how personal the act of writing is. At its best, when one really writes and goes looking for a language beyond clichés and conventions, it appears that the results are as personal as a fingerprint. One writes by the rhythms of one’s heartbeat. Perhaps this is not literally so, but it is a pleasing metaphor, because something so intimate is at work, something so inalienably and naturally mine, that I cannot help but search for it in my physiology.
I do not envy my editor, trying to order, clean up the whispers of my blood.
October 12, 2012
This is a time of writing catalogue blurbs, and giving the new book a face (well, and a backside, too, I suppose). And here it is, the first of The Crooked Maid‘s covers: the Bloomsbury US edition. Don’t she look gorgeous…?
Nova Scotia Mon Amour
Still flushed with the excitement of the WOTS Halifax festival. It reminds me how important it is to meet one’s readers face to face; to talk to colleagues; to step into a community of Canadian writing and reading. I had a blast. I got to gossip with Marina Endicott and to hear Donna Morrissey swear like a trooper on the Tall Ship Silva; chatted with Gary Blackwood and Scott Fotheringham; had sushi with Lauren Davis; heard Jim Williams read; and stood in David Adams Richards’ way.
As for my reading in Tatamagouche: the town continues to be a magic kingdom by the sea; Hanna and Chuck the most gracious, generous hosts; and Fables Club one of the most interesting and invigorating places to read. In other news: Maggie no longer (wo)mans the bar at Fables but runs her own restaurant, the Green Grass Running Water Cafe. Suffice it to say that her fishcakes are as masterly as her Long Island Ice Tea…
Word on the Street
Sept 16, 2012
Only one week to go, and I will be in Halifax, reading at WOTS 2012. It’ll be grand to be back in the Maritimes, see friends, revisit my favourite haunts. And (if I say so myself), it’s a kick-ass line-up: http://www.thewordonthestreet.ca/wots/halifax/authors/all And for those of youwho can’t get enough of their literature, or just want to indulge in the best margaritas north of Mexico, why don’t you come up to Fables in Tatamagouche on Friday night (the 21st), and join me for another little reading. I might even try some new material on the unsuspecting audience. Because (and this is strictly hush-hush), my new book is (almost, very nearly, but yes yes yes, as Molly Bloom would have it) finished… Hope to see you there!
Correction, with apologies
July 2, 2012
And just as I have cast aspersions on the profession of the critic, this fine review reaches me, via my publisher: http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/viennese-waltz_645160.html
“In two books, [Dan Vyleta] has shown that he can take milieux far removed from us—thrilling ones, horrifying
ones—and use them, with care and decency, to examine the limits of just what a human being can bear.”
We are easy to get along with, us writers. Just praise us to high heaven, that’s all… Merci!
June 27, 2012
“[Prostitutes] are like the literary critic of today, who may be compared with them in more than one respect and who attains to a profound unconcern with artistic standards: he has read so many books, forgotten so many, is so accustomed to written pages, has watched so many plots unfold, witnessed so many dramatic climaxes, he has produced so many articles without saying what he really thought, so often betraying art to serve his friendships and his enmities, that in the end he views everything with distaste and continues nevertheless to judge.”
This from a chapter entitled “What constitutes a whore” from Balzac’s The Harlot High and Low [trans. R. Heppenstall]. Not a good book, incidentally, in fact rather a bad one, which may explain the vitriol of this preemptive salvo. All the same, it made me laugh.
And now I will go back to reading David Bezmozgis, whom I am enjoying a good deal more, and who has had little need to bitch about his critics!
June 7, 2012
I wanted to put this up months ago, but it somehow slipped through the cracks: a review (of sorts) of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity that I wrote for Asymptote, a newish (and very stylish) literary magazine. http://asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Criticism&id=31&curr_index=&curPage=search
BBC4′s A Good Read
March 25, 2012
A few weeks’ back Harriett Gilbert made my day by selecting Pavel & I as her pick for Radio 4′s ‘A Good Read’. Within an hour my email inbox had filled with messages from friends all across the UK who had caught the program. That day, Pavel & I broke into the Amazon.uk Top 10… Which is to say, people still listen to the radio when it’s as intelligently presented and pleasant to listen to as Radio 4. Harriett is so generous in her praise, I felt almost embarrassed when I listened to the programme myself. If you are interested, I have uploaded a part of it onto YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDVmrVlCUzo&feature=youtu.be
March 23, 2012
Can it really be that it is the end of March already? And that I have not written a blog entry in all this time? I did manage to guest-blog recently for Writers Read… Check out http://whatarewritersreading.blogspot.com/2012/02/dan-vyleta.html and http://americareads.blogspot.com/2012/02/what-is-dan-vyleta-reading.html
January 28, 2012
I am reading a collection of Icelandic sagas at the moment, on the recommendation of my friend, the Edmonton poet J. Mark Smith (get a hold of his collection Notes for a Rescue Narrative – it’s spectacular). Mark had mentioned to me the hypnotic quality of these sagas. Indeed, their flat, declarative prose manages to provide an oddly moving transcription of the brutality and beauty of Viking life. For someone like myself, who has a special place in his heart for the melodramatic excesses of a Dickens, Balzac and Dostoevsky, the sagas make fascinating, often disconcerting, reading. What touches me most, perhaps, is this: when emotion is allowed to break to the surface, as it does only intermittently, it does so in verse. “Recite this to the king,” says (grim) Skallagrim who has just killed a score of the king’s friends, along with two children who were in the king’s charge: “Halvard’s corpse flew/in pieces into the sea,/the grey eagle tears/at Travel-quick’s wounds.” [trans. B. Scudder].
Shit, man; Vikings!
Droodists of the world, unite
January 15, 2012
I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Dickens’s last, unfinished novel – over the holidays and find myself well on the way to becoming a Droodist, i.e. one of that sizeable group of Dickens enthusiasts / nutters who become obsessed with the book’s possible endings. I catch myself following odd lines of reasoning. For instance: all signs point to Jack Jasper, the villainous choirmaster, being the murderer; hence, he cannot be the murderer (if a murder did indeed take place). Who the hell is Dick Datchery, that “single duffer of independent means” who morphs into something very much like a detective by the end of the novel, and why is such emphasis placed on his resistance to wearing his hat? And how about that charming Mr. Tartar who shows up at a convenient moment and manages to turn Rosa “Pussy” Bud’s head? On the surface, he seems friendly, gallant and fundamentally harmless. Indeed he is conspicuously tidy, which, in a Victorian scheme of things, should guarantee his wholesomeness. The problem is this: the happy ending we are being prepared for, by the rules of Dickensian narrative, sees Rosa marry Neville Landless, her best friend’s brother. Tartar, then, is in the way. Does this mean he is a villain in disguise?
The real marvel, of course, is that 150 years or so after the fact, I (and a great many others) should become so absorbed in the mystery, and indeed that we should bother to read an unfinished novel at all. It says something, I think, about Dickens specifically and about the power of narrative more generally. Reading stories is one of those quintessentially human activities. We are built for narrative and crave for comprehension in the guise of plot.
Other books that have given me pleasure this winter: Manuel Rivas’s Books Burn Badly; Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others; Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows; Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity. It’s been a good season for reading.
28 Nov 2011
The US, UK and Canadian paperback covers of The Quiet Twin:
October 27, 2011
The past two days my fellow WT nominees and I read together, first in Toronto, then in Hamilton. One might imagine a competitive spirit taking hold of us, but it was conspicously absent. Rather a relaxed, appreciative atmosphere prevailed; the writer’s joy of meeting good books. I found it a real pleasure to listen to the others read and to learn their rhythms, the way they vocalise their sentences (everybody reads according to some inner pulse). “Writers are good people,” Hal Wake, who organises the Vancouver International Writers Festival told me a week or two back (though he added a cautious, “for the most part” — I guess he has seen a few things in the course of his career). Judging by the past two nights – and the two weeks of Festivals I have just completed – he’s got it about right. Readers seem to be a very decent bunch also: what great audiences we had, stepping into each book with grace and eagerness, helping us out up there on the podium. Thanks, everyone, for coming out, for loving books and reading them with such passion, for the kind words exchanged before and after. I had a blast!
October 24, 2011
The International Festival of Authors in Toronto is in full swing, and I am here enjoying one of those rare rockstar moments of being a writer: going to signings, readings, panels, hob-knobbing with the great and the good, hopping up to the penthouse “hospitality suite” to take advantage of the array of whiskey placed there for the writers’ pleasure (Q: Would there be more or less booze if we were painters, or composers?), having more or less coherent conversations about books. The writers here seem to have a shared sense of giddyness brought on by the knowledge that what we do, day in day out, is singularly innocent of glamour, which is to say we sit in cafes and basement offices, in public libraries and cluttered studies, tapping away at the computer, the patient, steady yoking of words to our purpose, usually with nothing stronger to hand than a cup of tea. The real rockstars, meanwhile, sit in bathtubs full of controlled substances blowing smoke at the crater that used to house the smoke detector (or so I like to believe). Ah well, I should have learned chords, not spelling, but then again, I am content with my three minutes of glamour, and growing impatient, too, to return to the solitude of my craft.
October 18, 2011
Coming soon: the US cover of The Quiet Twin!
October 17, 2011
I am writing this sitting in my guest room at the Banff Centre which is just as about fabulous as everyone had told me it would be. http://www.banffcentre.ca/ It is the tail end of WordFest, when writers are invited to stay on at Banff to recuperate/discuss their craft/drink in the scenery for a few days. The festival itself was one of those quintessentially life-affirming affairs, was busy, buzzy, readers and writers talking books from morning till night. Landing in Calgary, the city sparkling in the clear, hard light of the prairies, the mountains on the horizon, I tried to reconstruct what my first glimpse of the city might I have been. I placed it at last in a comic book from the late 1970s or early 1980s in which a Canadian superhero team tries to capture Wolverine, that renegade Canuck. I remember some fisticuffs in the shadow of the Calgary tower and then later (in what may be a separate episode) some sort of shenanigans in the mountains of Banff. The names of the costumed heroes who make up the team escape me other than “Sasquatch” whose shaggy enormity must have impressed me as a child. It is hard now even to guess what reactions these characters and settings drew from the Czech-German boy that was I; most likely the one appeared as exotic as the other – the stuff of dreams – hence magical, and cool. I have yet to sight a Sasquatch (I did see a deer, and had a close encounter with a mountain raven, and the odd squirrel), but walking through the woods today, in the shadow of Sulphur Mountain, clapping my hands to attract the attention of bears (the theory goes that they choose to avoid humans; the thought occurred to me, halfway through my lonely walk, that if I did encounter a bear, I might not be given the opportunity to disprove the theory through my own testimony), I did keep my eyes peeled for anything large, shaggy and white. One lives in hope of magic.
Memories of the Future
October 8, 2011
I picked up Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (now there’s a name to drive any marketing department around the bend: “Can’t we just call him Kurt Sigmund or something?”) the other day: saw it, took it off the shelf, started reading the first page, and had that I’ve-just-stepped-off-the-cliff-into-the-unknown feeling that walked/floated me right over to the check-out. It felt like I was re-discovering Borges, or Kafka. The translator, I should add, from respect for her art, is Joanne Turnbull. She and Sigizmund kept me up till late last night…
In other news: the leaves on the sugar maples are turning Canada-red, the Jets are playing their first game since 1996 tomorrow (Guy Maddin must think he’s died and gone to heaven!), I am off to WordFest on Calgary on Friday.
October 6, 2011
Is it undignified to be childishly excited about the fact that the hockey season starts today? I say “childish” for a reason: one of my definitive memories from childhood is watching the Czechs play the Soviets on a too-small TV. Hockey wasn’t very popular in Germany then, but they would show the international tournaments, which are played in the late spring or early summer. I can still hear my dad hollering at the screen, sun streaming through the curtains. Czechs vs Soviets, a miniature 1968 on ice (without the tanks that is). I wish my dad was here tonight, to do some hollering with me.
September 28, 2011
My editor at Harper Collins called this morning with the news that TWIN has been shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It’s been a busy day since then, one of those days when you learn to appreciate the phrase “my phone’s been ringing of the hook” (no hooks these days, but it has been doing that frantic, jerky ringing that’shalf siren call, half fire alarm). Thank you everyone for your support, you’re awesome! PS: And here is the CBC’s take on The Quiet Twin. Wow, mom, I’m on telly! http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/09/fall-fiction-prizes.html
More Life and Fate
September 20, 2011
Readers of this blog know how much I admire Vasily Grossman’s great novel of the Soviet Union in the year of the Battle of Stalingrad. Here is an interesting piece by his English translator, Robert Chandler, whose contribution is in danger of being ignored even as the BBC is launching a dramatization of the book: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2011/09/translation-translator-life
Eden Mills Festival
September 19, 2010
This will be brief and to the point: the Eden Mills Festival rocks. Great atmosphere, great line-up, lovely organisers. And what a place – an entire village that literarally threw open its doors to a horde of writers. And served them home-baked pie. ‘Good goddam pie’, as Agent Cooper used to say on Twin Peaks. Just a fantastic day. Highlights included: watching Jill Murray peel herself out of a polyester-padded Batman suit (one shoe got stuck); listening to Robert J. Wiersema’s rendering of his teenage discovery of Bruce Springstein through the miracle of MTV (I was sure he was going to launch into an air guitar solo right there behind the reading lectern); sitting in a crowded chapel, listening to some of Canada’s best poets read, about English-teaching speed skaters in skin-tight suits (Prsicila Uppal), identities lost and found amongst the street corners of Havana (Dionne Brand), and about Saskatchewan bugs and their soil-churning heroics (Lorna Crozier); watching the smokers bum cigarettes as the supply slowly dried up in the course of the day (no cigarette machines in Eden Mills; I think Nino Ricci was the final port of call). That and the crowds: the streets were full of book-lovers, old and young; teenage Goths and veteran readers, beer guzzlers and prim old ladies, and a whole congregation of eager kids, all there to celebrate stories and the rhythm of words. It did not hurt, of course, that we had beautiful September sun. And pie.
September 15, 2010.
Who has no house now,will not build one any more
Who is alone, will remain so for the longest time
Will stay up, will read, and write long letters
Will walk unsettled up and down in streets, while the leaves are blowing
‘Fall Day’, Rainer Maria Rilke
This has been a summer of grief for me. My father died a month ago. I do not wish to write about this, or at any rate not yet. But it is Fall now, and my blog has lain abandoned; the Festival Season is upon us, I am coming out of my shell to read and to talk about writing. I will do so with sadness, but gladly, too, because it is a fine thing to share one’s work with other people and create a moment of connection, through something as intimate as a book.
Sitting in Judgement
June 10, 2011
I finished my reading tour, recuperated in Prague (though my liver might argue for another sort of verb…), and am now back in the saddle. The tour was fun: always nice to meet people who run their own independent bookstore on the strength of their wit and the familial relationship to their customers, as in the case of Vienna’s Erlkönig. And the Tübingen Book Festival turned out to be the sort of event that takes over a whole city: readings at every corner, a holiday atmosphere throughout its busy streets. I read in the room otherwise reserved for criminal trials in the Tübingen court house; they put me on the judge’s seat. No mallet, as it turns out, the modern world has swapped it for a buzzer, but it was fun declaiming from up high, with a radio journalist sitting where the defendant would usually take his or her place, and stretched a microphone towards me. Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety kept me company throughout my trip: the French Revolution, refracted through a great literary imagination. I am often hesitant about embracing the label “historical fiction” where my own work is concerned: it seems to carry too many assumptions about its aesthetics and aims. But if Mantel’s book is historical fiction, I should lose my ambivalence about the tag.
Climbing the past
May 26, 2011 On a long walk through Vienna today, I found that the city authorities have put a climbing wall into the flank of one of the monumental anti-aircraft towers that were built under the Nazis and continue to litter the city (my understanding is that they are very difficult to remove: their walls are too thick). It is tempting to see in the slow, laborious if joyful ascent of the climbers a deliberate symbol for the country’s attempts (hesitant as they sometimes have been) to come to terms with the past and scale its challenge – a symbol that acknowledges that one will have to make the climb time and again; that every climber must start at the bottom and find his or her own way up. It also, it must be say, looks very cool, rising out of a playground just a few blocks from the Naschmarkt.
News from the Front
May 26, 2011 I had my first Vienna reading last night, after a lovely night in Cologne at Jens Bartsch’s cozy independent bookstore (Buchhandlung Goltsteinstrasse – worth a trip!). Last night’s reading was in Thalia on Mariahilfestrasse, one of Vienna’s busiest shopping streets. I got a little nervous there: it’s odd, after all, reading out my Viennese story in my (northern) German accent (I was reading from the German translation) to an audience of Viennese, many of them born and bred. My listeners were gracious though, and seemed to enjoy the chance to discover their city anew, instantly familiar and yet made fresh by the idiosyncrasies of my phrasing and the discrepancy of accent. I might have stumbled on a new version of the Brechtian alienation effect there… They have put me up, incidentally, in a fabulous little hotel in the 7th district, which features a sort of white leather update on the Freudian couch (see pic). The ceilings are so high I cannot make out the stucco without wearing my glasses… and there’s an Illy espresso machine en-suite. This is as rockstar as it gets for a writer; I must say I am enjoying it!
May 4, 2011 The German language reviews are trickling in. Today this reaches me from Switzerland, a review in annabelle magazine. In brief, for those who do not read German, the review says that the book is awesome… ;) http://www.annabelle.ch/kultur/bucher/dan-vyleta-bose-marchen-16131
April 27, 2011 Liberi di Scivere did a recent interview about the Italian edition of Pavel & I, L’uomo di Berlino. An English version is available, though I like the ring of the Italian. ”Ho difficoltà a scendere dal letto il giorno dopo.” Indeed. http://liberidiscrivere.splinder.com/post/24491216/intervista-con-dan-vyleta
April 12, 2011 Here is a recent interview with Hubert O’Hearn from the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal. Good final question.
25. March 2011 I am making arrangements for a little reading tour through Germany and Austria this May. The German phrase is “Lesereise” – “reading journey”; it de-emphasises the promotional dimension of the trip, and imbues it instead with the possibility of discovery. I am hoping that it will be a journey in this latter sense; that the readings, the questions, answers, the nights spent in hotels, will add up to something that feeds the soul. It is also a chance for me to discover the German text anew, and to test its rhythms: what I typically do, is read a short passage in English (hoping that my audience will pick out the gist, and grow familiar with the sound of my prose), then re-read the same section in German. The real challenge, of course, will be reading in Vienna. My German is a far cry from the musical Viennese, and I am hoping the audience will accept its rhythms. The thing is: returning to Vienna, I feel like I am going home. Reading Dates: Koeln – 24.5. Buchhandlung Goltsteinstraße Wien – 25. 5. Thalia Mariahilferstraße Wien – 26.5. Buchhandlung Erlkönig Muenchen – 27.5. Tschechisches Zentrum http://www.tuebinger-buecherfest.de/start.html Tuebingen – 28.5. Tübinger Bücherfest
Eating Chinese bitterness
March 19, 2011
I read a newspaper piece some weeks ago that described the practice, apparently common now in Chinese job ads, to ask for workers willing to “eat bitterness”. The phrase has stayed with me ever since. It is at once very alien (for is it not a taboo in our culture for the employer to admit that the job they offer is, at bottom, undesirable? – imagine Walmart telling its cashiers to get ready to eat bitterness) and at the same time deeply familiar (for have we not all been called upon to eat bitterness from time to time? And how many men and women have to stand in line somewhere, every day, to partake in the privilege of eating their corner of bitterness?). It is a poetic phrase, in that it is precise and evokes an image that is immediately understood long before it is decoded. I hope it takes root in English; it is important, this poetry of the every day.
Twenty Thousand Streets
March 1, 2011 I am reading Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky from 1935 at the moment. It’s the third Hamilton novel I have picked up, and they all have been good; he reads like an elder cousin of Graham Greene’s and conjures a Britain that is all but gone. It is good to see his books re-issued (I am reading the NYRB edition). Like many other writers I have spoken to, I hold the superstitious belief that a book finds you when you need it. I have, of course, no idea what I need Hamilton for, but that is of no consequence.
Feb 16, 2010 The Guardian published my Top 10 Great Books written by writers who (like myself) came to their language of expression late in life. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/16/dan-vyleta-top-10-books-second-languages Below, is a full version of my essay of how I came to write in English.
Not My Mother’s Tongue
Not every journalist will broach it. Some are too polite, I suppose. Others suspect a trick of some sort, and refuse to play along. It will not have escaped them that I speak with an accent. As accents go, it is a hard one to place. Northern British vowels bump into soft German Vs; my O in “south” has acquired a touch of a Canadian vowel shift; and my wife insists that I have taken to saying “prawblem”, a sure sign of too much American TV. The thing is, I am susceptible to the speech patterns that surround me. Each leaves its mark. I learned my English in a German school. The first class, I remember, focused on greetings. There was a special hand motion to indicate the rise and fall of intonation. We were doing what language teachers call a “group drill”. “How Are You?” we sang in unison. “Fein Sank You.” We had yet to learn how to handle the “th”. To cut to the chase, though: what in the world possessed me to write in a language other than my mother tongue? Strictly speaking, that wasn’t German either. My family are Czech. Bohemians. From Prague. I learned Czech first, then switched, growing up, trying my best to blend in with the German world that surrounded me. Like many an immigrant child I wished above all to belong. It left my Czech stunted, a kitchen language used primarily for fielding my grandmother’s continuous demands that I should eat. Eat more, that is. I was raised on bread, butter and cold cuts. For health, you see. The Czech word for enough is dost. But I still owe you an answer. Why settle on a tongue that is not your own? To write novels, no less. Was it chutzpah, the need to brag? A belated “fuck you” to Herr Menzel who dared to give me a C? The answer is that English is my own, never mind when I acquired it. That I chose it the way one chooses a spouse, which is to say I fell in love with it, courted it, proposed, and was accepted. I wrote my first cheque in English; met my life’s companion in English. I can no longer remember a day when I did not think, and dream, in English. There was never a question in my mind that I would write my books in anything else. Which is not to say that it doesn’t make a difference that I grew up on the rhythms of two other tongues. There used to be, in antisemitic pamphlets of the nineteenth century, the claim that Jews had no organic connection to the language of their “host” nations and hence were unable to produce genuine literature. It was a charge levelled at Heinrich Heine, for instance, the author of some of Germany’s most enduring poetry. A variation of the claim sometimes hovers over discussions of writing by those who, like me, were not born with their language of expression (the technical term is “exophones”; once you start digging you will find we are a dime a dozen, a whole legion of upstarts taking over your tongue!). It is true that for many of us our relationship to our adopted language is not territorial. Mine is an English that I cobbled together from the many places I have lived and the books I have read, a transnational quilt. It limits me in some respects, and opens avenues. The Quiet Twin is set in the Austria of 1939, amongst speakers of Viennese German. My (northern, “Prussian”) German would struggle to capture the time and place. I have spent years in Vienna, and am familiar with its patter; I may be able to imitate it, but it does not belong to me. In English, by contrast, I was free to create a language precisely suited to its purpose, neither British nor Canadian, inflected with the rhythms of German grammar and that joy of expression peculiar those reluctant Habsburg sisters, Austria and Czechoslovakia. In English, then, it came alive, this city of a bygone era, spontaneously and without effort, spilling out with every chapter that I wrote. As a writer, one cannot receive a greater gift than that.
Toronto Star Interview
Feb 13, 2010 Here is an interview with Vit Wagner from the Toronto Star. We met in Toronto last week and compared notes on growing up as children of Czech émigrés… Note my attempt to look fierce for the photo (see Feb 4 blog entry). http://www.thestar.com/article/937514–the-neighbours-are-watching
Go ahead and judge it by its cover
Feb 11, 2011
[Note: I wrote this little piece about The Quiet Twin's cover for The Savvy Reader Blog: http://thesavvyreader.ca/2011/go-ahead-and-judge-it-by-its-cover-by-dan-vyleta/ ] For the most part, novelists do not choose their covers. Günter Grass does, but then again, he designs the cover-art himself and has a Nobel prize for literature sitting on his shelf, so he may not quite count. The feeling is, no doubt rightly, that writers should spend their time writing and leave it to the professionals to choose an image that will serve as the public face of their work. When I send in a manuscript, I am politely asked for my ideas; some months later I receive the first version of a possible cover. If I hate it, the artist goes back to the drawing board. And so a dialogue ensues that in the end produces what will end up on the shelf of your local store. It is an odd business this, waiting for one’s publisher’s art department to dream up the physical incarnation of your novels. After all, it is yours in a way few things in life are: novel-writing is a solitary, intimate art, and in quite a few writers, yours truly included, this intimacy creates an attachment that is resistant to outside intervention. We don’t like others to meddle with our words and be it only to provide them with a protective sleeve. All the same, the cover matters: not just because it represents the novel to its prospective readers; but also because in my own mind cover and book will soon become fused. The novel transforms from a string of sentences into an object whose shape has been determined by someone else. Writers are aesthetes. We want our children to be beautiful. When my editor for The Quiet Twin first raised the question of a cover, therefore, I found myself casting around for pictures to share with the artists involved in its design. It was less the hope of providing a concrete image that prompted my search, than the hope that I would be able to communicate something about the emotional flavour of the book I had written. Almost at once I found myself drawn to a collection of police photographs dating from between the turn of the last century to the mid 1950s which were shut away in a box at the back of my closet. These pictures were amassed during a period of my life when – as a research student in history – I was hunting down all things connected to criminal activity in Vienna prior to the advent of colour photography. I own boxes and boxes of photos and photocopies, along with shelf-fulls of specialist literature, that I take care to hide from view when my landlord visits, who might not care for my mug shots of murderers, nor for the black and white photos of their victims, crumpled on apartment floors, or laid out on coroners’ slabs. Nobody wants a whack-job for a tenant; it might be a struggle to convince him I am merely a writer. Back then I was working on a book that sought to analyse the stories about crimes and criminals that the Viennese told one another a hundred or so years ago. I found the pictures in court files and newspapers, in libraries and archives, and swallowed more than my share of century-old dust. When I dug them up again some months ago to look for ideas for a book cover, I recognized each of them at once and was amazed, in fact, at how accurately I recalled them. Clearly, these snapshots of crime and death had left their mark on me and become part of my pictorial vocabulary. It is not easy to give the reader a sense of the pictures. It would be wrong to describe them as murky. The corpses and crime scenes depicted in them have crisp, hard edges. One can have no doubt as to the reality of the things that one sees. But within this crispness there sits a patchwork of shadows that seem as though stitched on. One wants to pick at them with a fingernail and peel them off; see what lies hidden underneath. There is a voyeuristic quality to many of the pictures. Often the photographer seems to be standing in the doorway, on the threshold of things. One sees what one is not meant to see. Not one of the victims had time to clean up their bedrooms before the police came knocking. Not all these pictures are gruesome. Some show spaces rather than people: the street corner where a robbery took place; the sparsely furnished living room of a murdered prostitute whose washing still hangs from a line; the inner courtyard of a tenement block where a man had thrown his wife out of the window of their third-floor bedroom. This last picture would not let me go: I recognized it as the courtyard in which my story was taking place; recognized the shape and arrangement of its many windows and the plain, dirt-smeared walls. In Vienna, many houses, including some of the council-built tenement blocks for workers, have elaborate facades overloaded with ornamentation, resulting in a meringue of mouldings and statues, of mosaics and reliefs. It is in the buildings’ courtyards that plainer, dirtier walls predominate, strewn with little windows behind which are lived the private lives of ordinary Viennese: in close proximity to one another, and within a context of social diversity ensured by the architecture itself – for the rooms located in the rear and side wings of such buildings do not have any windows out onto the street and consequently command much lower rents than the grandly bourgeois apartments at the front. What the picture in question shows is the squalid facade of such a Hinterhaus. One Therese Bittermann lived here in May 1937 with her husband, Franz, and his mother. Franz had read a story in the papers of a man ridding himself of his spouse by pushing her out the window. The idea stuck. Nobody saw him do it, but many heard Therese’s scream. When Franz approached her broken body in the courtyard he did so without betraying any emotion. All he said was: “She’s already dead.” Franz Bittermann was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted. In 1943, when the Nazi government transferred him from prison into the Mauthausen concentration camp, he fulfilled the intentions of the original verdict by hanging himself by the neck. There is a picture of Franz looking out of the window shoulder-to-shoulder with the investigative judge: he is pointing down into the yard and explaining his deed. He has thick brown hair that he wears combed back from his forehead; a handsome man in a dark suit. I have no image of his wife. There were three other pictures that caught my attention. The corpse of an old crone, lying prone on her back, her throat slit underneath a bloom of flowers that make up the pattern of her oppressive wallpaper. The image of a big marital bed, its silk sheets soaked with blood. And, worst yet, the naked body of a woman floating face-down in the murky water of her bathtub. Her leg has been cut, at the knee, so it bends back at an acute angle. Her skin is pale and slick. Only one buttock breaks the surface of the water. I sent all four of these images, myself not quite knowing why, but sensing dimly that, between them, they evoked a claustrophobic sense of threat that I also found within the pages of the novel. My editor wrote back to say that these pictures were “interesting”. Two months passed and I received the cover. Therese and Franz Bittermann’s backyard had been re-arranged for it, the photographic angle had been changed. For all that, I knew at once where I was, and knew, too, that this one was right for the novel. Everybody who had read the book agreed. We never considered asking the artist for another cover concept. I did not choose the cover of The Quiet Twin, but I instantly recognized it as belonging to my book.
German cover and blurb
Looking mean for the camera
Feb 4, 2011
A long day of meetings and interviews in Toronto today. Everybody is excited that the book is finally out (myself most of all!). I had to pose for a few photos, too, which is always a little awkward, unless you are Naomi or Claudia, I suppose. The photographer for the Toronto Star, Rick Eglinton, insisted I did not look “mean” enough. We worked on some good old frowns; made sure I pushed my woolly hat low into my brow. Serious book, serious author. When my mom sees the picture she will say: “Why aren’t you smiling, you always look so gloomy”. It is hard to please both the critics and one’s mother.
E-vite – Guelph reading on the 7th of Jan
Viennese Love Letter (featured in The Afterword)
January 26, 2011
I am guest editing The National Post’s book blog, The Afterword, this week. To read ‘Viennese Love Letter’, please click: HERE
From Vidocq to CSI: Milestones in the History of Criminology and Forensic Technology (featured in The Afterword)
January 25, 2011 I am guest editing The National Post’s book blog, The Afterword, this week. To read ‘From Vidocq to CSI’, please click: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/01/25/dan-vyleta-from-vidocq-to-csi-milestones-in-the-history-of-criminology-and-forensic-technology/
Birth of Twin (featured in The Afterword)
January 24, 2011 I am guest editing The National Post’s book blog, The Afterword, this week. To read ‘Birth of Twin’, please click: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/01/24/dan-vyleta-birth-of-twin/
First Review of Twin
Jan 20, 2011 The first of the reviews has come in and brings up the age-old question: if a book has a murder in it, is it crime fiction? Personally, I don’t care: a book is a book. It either is interesting, or it is not. I am happy, in any case, that The Quiet Twin has been judged the former… For the review, see: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/new-in-crime-fiction-a-guide-to-the-latest-mysteries-and-thrillers/article1876109/
Full Paper Jacket
4 January 2011
Last Year’s Books
1 January 2011 2010 was another year of reading fat books. I am not entirely sure why I gravitate to books the size and heft of bricks. I suppose the length allows certain things to take place that shorter books struggle to replicate: we spend more time inhabiting that world whose call we have answered, and invest more of ourselves in it. As a boy, I – much like Bastian Balthasar Bux, the hero of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story - dreamed about a book that would never run out of pages. It is a fine thing to discover the inner child in me, now that what is left of my hair is turning gray beyond denial. Of the various fat books I read, a few stand out in particular: Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo with its batshit plot and French colonial overtones; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy whose breadth of invention left me speechless and which filled my head with dreams of the Red Planet; Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove with its patient, level-headed prose and its total commitment to its characters; Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend in which the ageing writer seems unwilling, at times, to hide his anger behind his usual veil of humour. I also read a slew of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, literally reading one after the other, in the intense heat of late summer. MacDonald, who was raised in Kitchener, Ontario, settled in California and spent a life-time observing it with the bemused intensity of the foreigner. Something about the form of the detective novel opened this world up to him and allowed him to describe it. I have not been this hooked on a cycle of crime novels for quite a few years. I also read some shorter fiction: a fantastic collection of German stories which a friend gave me, which included, amongst its obscure gems, Jacob Wassermann’s remarkable ‘Lukardis’; Isaac Babel’s wonderful ‘Odessa’ stories; a string of Alice Munro stories, including one, whose title now eludes me, in which a young girl watches her father share a drink with a mentally unstable and potentially violent neighbour, a story so densely atmospheric and suggestive that an Ontario school board felt the need to ban it from the classroom. As for my New Year’s Resolution, it coincides with the advice I sometimes give to students: Read Much. Read much, read eclectically, following threads so personal they resist the dictates of marketing and fashion, read daily, with pleasure, like a child, searching for stories and books that you hope will never end.
For Pet Lovers
November 19 2010 Gérard de Nerval, who owned a pet lobster and took it for walks around Paris, explained his devotion to crustaceans in the following terms: “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? …or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do.” (trans. Richard Holmes) I find it reassuring that a man can love lobsters in this manner, though it is also true that Nerval had several nervous breakdowns and feared he was insane. I am reading some of his short fiction at the moment, having spotted a collection of his work in the library. My cats, meanwhile, look on, and only intermittently deign to gnaw on my monadic privacy, such as it is.
November 16, 2010
I have been reading lots of Dumas (père) recently, followed by William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, which I picked up on a hunch and enjoyed tremendously. There is not much that would connect the nineteenth century master of swashbuckling adventure yarns to the visionary inventor of cyberpunk, other than a shared love for story, perhaps, and an obvious, heartfelt interest in their characters. Both qualities are notably absent in the kind of narcissistic, solipsistic writing that I keep stumbling over in a variety of contexts, and that its authors are keen to describe as a “sharing of themselves”, a phrase whose purported generosity often masks an act of self-important imposition. Writers, I feel, should take the trouble to interest themselves in lives other than their own. There we have it: an honest-to-God rant, posted on my blog, that theatre of self-publishing most responsible for narcissistic “sharing”. I should shut up now, and go do some writing.
November 13, 2010 My friend Gwyn is cycling the world. He is currently making his way along the western coast of India, heading south from Mumbai to God knows where. Today, on the road, he was followed around by a young man on a scooter. The young man pulled him over, and they waited until a group of further men caught up with them, who then proceeded to present Gwyn with a garland of flowers. I cannot think of a more lovely gesture of welcome made to a total stranger: unprompted, without calculation, the very opposite of the ritual smiles issued by minimum wage workers who greet us at the entrances to certain types of shop. It is a gesture so generous and simple that, in a great many contexts, it would arouse nothing other than suspicion, the vague feeling one was being set up for something. As for Gwyn, he cycles on: flower-clad, followed by children, by moped drivers, the well-wishes of strangers who show him the way. Follow Gwyn’s travels at: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=RrzKj&page_id=171761&v=56
Czech Edition of Pavel
Oct 3, 2010
News arrived today that the Czech edition of Pavel & I – Pavel a ja – has been published. My contacts in Prague (and how smugly cold-war does that phrase sound?!) tell me it is yet to show up on the bookstore shelves, but this seems to be a matter of days. The cover, in any case, is super cool. I don’t have a copy yet, but once it gets here I will make sure to send it on to the wonderful Czech jazz composer who invited me to his home in Edmonton, and told me how much he had enjoyed the (English version) of the book and how closely it conformed to his memories of Berlin in the late 1940s.
Sept. 4, 2010.
I had a nice email this Friday from my Czech publisher, JOTA, asking for some lines outlining my connection to the “ancestral land”. Vanda (the foreign rights manager) had some lovely things to say about Pavel. I wrote back at once, albeit somewhat beer-fuelled, waxing lyrical about my grandmother (who was Czech, and formidable, and rotund, and kind). It don’t think it’s necessarily what they had in mind… Other than that I have been ploughing through the galleys of The Quiet Twin. It looks nice, cleaned-up and typeset, and contrary to my expectations I had fun, reading through the story one more time. This is it then, my final sweep through the manuscript. Always difficult to let go. Only I won’t, because right after I am done, there’s the German translation waiting for me. I like to read through the German version and discuss it with my translator and editor. Perhaps I shouldn’t; it’s a very difficult thing, judging your own prose as rendered in another language and through another person’s sense of style. All the same, it’s hard to stay on the sidelines when something as personal as your novel is at stake.
Matters of Taste
July 17 2010 I was reading Dead Souls and stumbled over this piece of Gogolian wit (and wisdom): “There’s no accounting for taste. Some like the priest, others like the priest’s wife…” I want a T-shirt with that slogan.
June 28, 2010.
Watching the World Cup, with its various referee-induced injustices, I begin to wonder how much of its drama derives from these injustices. It’s a powerful emotion, helplessly watching your team being screwed out of their hopes by a bad call which, once made, cannot be unmade, no matter whether or not the referee has realised his mistake. When is the last time you have watched a play, or a movie, and felt what much of Mexico felt when Tavarez scored his offside goal… ? (ditto for the Lampert bounce, the two disallowed USA goals, etc). The other thing I find intriguing is how great a stake commentators seem to have in declaring that the better side won, irrespective of how the game unfolded. It seems that, retrospectively at least, justice must be declared to have prevailed. Thus every winner has deserved their win. It’s like a Sirk picture where, after all the upset and the mess, the final reel provides reconciliation (though here, subversively, it is the strife, the upset you remember, rather than the tagged on happy end).
“Anybody can write a short story – a bad one, I mean…”
June 14, 2010.
This from the preface to the ‘Biographical Edition’ of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; it made me laugh, but he was on to something. At times a novel does seem just awfully long… “Sooner or later, somehow, anyhow, I was bound to write a novel. It seems vain to ask why. Men are born with various manias: from my earliest childhood it was mine to make a plaything of imaginary series of events; and as soon as I was able to write, I became a good friend to the papermakers. Reams upon reams must have gone to the making of Rathillet, the Pentland Rising, the King’s Pardon (otherwise Park Whitehead), Edward Darren, A Country Dance, and a Vendetta in the West; and it is consolatory to remember that these reams are now all ashes, and have been received again in the soil. [...] Although I had attempted the thing with vigour not less than ten or twelve times, I had not yet written a novel. All – all my pretty ones – had gone for a little, and then stopped inexorably, like a school-boy’s watch. I might be compared to a cricketer of many years’ standing who should never have made a run. Anybody can write a short story – a bad one, I mean – who has industry and paper and time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills. The accepted novelist may take his novel up and put it down, spend days upon it in vain, and write not any more than he makes haste to blot. Not so the beginner. Human nature has certain rights; instinct – the instinct of self-preservation – forbids that any man (cheered and supported by the consciousness of no previous victory) should endure the miseries of unsuccessful literary toil beyond a period to be measured in weeks. There must be something for hope to feed upon. The beginner must have a slant of wind, a lucky vein must be running, he must be in the one of those hours when the words come and the phrases balance of themselves –- even to begin. And having begun, what a dread looking forward is that until the book shall be accomplished! For so long a time the slant is to continue unchanged, the vein to keep running; for so long a time you must hold command the same quality of style; for so long a time your puppets are to be always vital, always consistent, always vigorous. I remember I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel with a sort of veneration, as a feat – not possibly of literature – but at least of physical and moral endurance and the courage of Ajax.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
May 28, 2010 The Quiet Twin has acquired a cover. It’s nice to learn what my novel looks like, part of its transition from the thing I dreamed up in my study, to the thing I want to share with my readers. With Pavel & I, I have gotten used to the various covers and the typeface it is printed in, and now associate both with the the novel; I remember, however, how disconcerted I was when I fist received the proofs and realised that the words looked different on the page. Well, here it is, my first sense of what the new book will look like when it lands on my shelf. I must say it looks mighty pretty.
May 24, 2010. I’ve just spent a week going over the last set of line edits for THE QUIET TWIN. Line editing is a hard-fought contest between the drive to “clean up”, i.e. conventionalise the language, thus producing a manuscript that “flows” without resistance, versus the desire to preserve all that is creative, unique, demanding, and sometimes cumbersome about the style the book is written in. Unfortunately this forces one to read as no-one other than an editor or author should ever be reading a novel: rather than immersing oneself in the story, one tackles the book purely as a sequence of sentences. Needless to say, it nearly did me in. It is done though, and the book a little sharper, one step closer to being finished.
May 14, 2010.
My German editor has kindly given me a copy of a short story collection by Hungarian writer Péter Nádas, recently published by Berlin Verlag (Freiheitsübungen und andere Kleine Prosa — Exercises in Freedom and other small prose). I don’t know whether it has been translated. It’s a slender volume of essays and stories and texts that are neither essays nor stories but some intriguing middle form. I read it on a train and found myself marking passages. Here’s one, about the killings of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena on Christmas day, 1989. I remember the events vividly from my own youth; sat glued to a television, in some Austrian hotel, cheeks flushed from skiing. Nádas describes watching the documentary footage of the execution a near-decade after the fact. He writes: “These films have re-awakened fundemental moral and aesthetic questions in me for which I have not found an answer in the past ten years. Level-headedly, I observed myself enjoying the despot’s murder. I understood that I should feel ashamed for the pleasure I was taking, but all the same I did not feel ashamed. In me there was no mercy, and I did not find any pity for this married couple. I am a supporter of proper judicial procedure. Nonetheless, my conscience remained silent. I am not a supporter of the death penalty. Nonetheless, the brutality of the actions did not violate my good taste.” (my translation) Elsewhere, Nádas describes a character in the following terms: “His metabolism was such, he himself said, that he could survive on air (and a little beer). He was as thin as a thread. Due to his large head, however, it was impossible to thread him into anything.” You get a feeling Nádas is writing about himself.
April 8, 2010
In Montreal, only my second visit to this wonderful city. Finally managed to sample both the smoked meat and the Montreal-style bagels both of which turn out to be fine things (for New Yorkers: here’s a place where you can sample these locally http://www.mileendbrooklyn.com/). Other than being a tourist, I am meeting a pair of very talented translators who have taken a shine to Pavel — there is some talk about a French translation… In the meantime, The Quiet Twin is working its way towards a cover: a strange thing, not knowing what one’s book looks like.
Dickensian Stock Exchange
March 28, 2010
This from 1864, anticipating the crash of 1866: “The mature young gentleman is a gentleman of property. He invests his property. He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with the traffic of Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no idea, no manners; have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blaring images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us’!”
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend.
January 26, 2010
“Up until then, I had attended the workshop four times and nothing ever happened, though only in a manner of speaking, of course, since naturally something always happened: we read poems, and Alamo praised them or tore them to pieces, depending on his mood; one person would read, Alamo would critique, another person would read, Alamo would critique, somebody else would read, Alamo would critique. Sometimes Alamo would get bored and ask us (those of us who weren’t reading just then) to critique too, and then we would critique and Alamo would read the paper. It was the ideal method of ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment.”
Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives, trans. Natasha Wimmer.
January 14, 2010.
Haiti needs help. I am told, by a friend with ties to Haiti, that this is the best agency through which to give donations: donate.pih.org
January 10, 2009
Slowly, something like a publication schedule for The Quiet Twin is emerging. I sold it to Bloomsbury, UK, in the depths of last winter, based on a hundred or so pages, and finished the first draft in April or May ’09, writing like crazy through February and March. This past week, Harper Collins Canada purchased the Canadian rights and by the looks of it the book will be out in both countries (and elsewhere) in early 2011, i.e. in a year’s time, give or take a week. It’s a long road from word processor to bookstore shelf; I find myself growing more impatient with each passing week. What is sobering to learn is that large chunks of the calendar year are off limits to writers of literary fiction, unless their reputations are so firmly established that no book chain can deny them shelf space. In “fall”, a period that for the publishing world starts in the late summer and continues through until Christmas, literary novels (even racy ones) are largely displaced, in bookstores and in review columns, by celebrity bios, coffee table literature, and top-five bestsellers. Why this is I find hard to tell. Do people really Christmas shop in October? Are there so very few people who would want to buy their loved ones a book that looks fantastic even though Oprah did not explicitly recommend it to their tastes? Can it really be that no customer steps past the display tables at the front of the store where space is limited and continues on to the store’s actual shelving where books can be more efficiently arranged? Be that as it may, my only way of coping with the delay is to immerse myself in writing a new book. So here I am, a hundred pages into the next project, while still waiting for the last one to see the light of day; by the time Twin comes out, I will be in love with a new cast of characters and stare at the old ones as though at long-lost friends.
Another year gone, along with a decade. Some part of me is still living in the early ’90s and I’m sure, if I go looking, I will find some BritPop T-shirts at the bottom of my closet. Much has happened since my last entry. In Canada, Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament for the second year running, giving a wholly unexpected new lease of life to a half-forgotten verb (and how nice that it contains the word “rogue”); the roster for the Olympic hockey team has been announced, leaving me to wonder which team I will cheer for when they come to play the Czechs. The UK and American south are under snow (not all that much snow, looking at it from afar, but unexpected); in Iran some very courageous people are standing up for their basic civic freedoms (the word sounds suddenly sincere when used with reference to their context) — I look at their picture in the paper and fear that the Iranian state will use it to confirm their identities. I wanted to make a list of the things I read last year, but I read a lot and long lists are boring. In the past few weeks, I was spellbound by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (what a gift for dialogue!); was touched and depressed by John Williams’s Stoner (academia as tragedy); was thrilled by Stefan Zweig’s Chessnovella (I read it in a single sitting, glued to the sofa); and intrigued by Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (like Graham Greene, there is such a sense of certainty to his voice, as though he alone had a monopoly on natural English usage). David Richard Adams is next (Mercy Among the Children). Other than reading, I have been watching Douglas Sirk movies. One wants to mock them – the colour scheme, the cheesy lines, the over-the-top symphonic crescendos that meet emotional turmoil – but inevitably I end up feeling deeply touched by them. At bottom, they seem emotionally very honest, unlike much Hollywood fare these days, where the emotional landscape feels fake, plastered onto the plot for form’s sake. It seems there is a space for sentimentality in art after all. Happy New Year in any case, thanks for reading this blog, here’s to a kick-ass twenty-ten!
November 20, 2009
A friend of mine drew my attention to this item in the New York Times today, in which Stephen King reviews Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver, the man who along with Hemingway is probably the United States’ most imitated short story writer. King’s argument, other than highlighting the crosses born by Carver’s long-suffering first wife, Maryann Burk, who it seems was treated rather shabbily by her alcoholic husband, is that Gordon Lish’s aggressive editorial strategy, which others tend to describe as integral for Carver’s development as a stylist, amounted to a excision of his stories’ emotional heart and their replacement by an elusive nihilism that might have proven attractive in its aesthetic purity, but is ultimately devoid of any real power to move. I find this interesting. Not true, necessarily, but interesting, and it sends me back to Carver’s stories and their pre-edited versions which have now also been published. It is interesting, because a certain kind of stylistic minimalism tends to be regarded as superior to types of prose overly fond of adjectives, say, or metaphors, or indeed any type of linguistic excess. The tidy tends to elicit respect; the baroque, the messy, the over-the-top is often blamed for its bad taste. This is not a cry to reverse the equation – God knows there is terrible prose that drips in words – but it serves as a reminder that toning down, excising, throwing out the brash, the awkward, and the sentimental, are not always foolproof editorial strategies. There would be no Hugo, if this were true, no Dickens, no Dostoevsky, and half my bookshelf would gape empty. There is no need to push the argument too far. Even the unedited Carver was, I’m sure, a model of restraint. But he may have allowed himself a little more description; some more feelings put into words; an ending that provided something pointing towards closure. Whether or not this was a truer, better Carver, I have yet to discover and decide. It’s nice to think we can revisit the land of his stories, not knowing what it is we can expect.
October 27, 2009.
I am preparing for a reading tomorrow and am musing on the perfect number of drinks to have before I hit the stage. Going by recent experiments (this is an inexact science), one expertly mixed margarita does much to take the edge off, while two are “a bridge too far” (though sipping on the second margarita as one commences the reading is permissible and gives a little improvisatory looseness to the Q&A). Word has it there will be wine at the reading tomorrow (at Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University). I suppose a glass or two won’t do me any harm. Before anyone gets worried: I am, in fact, perfectly capable of reading without any booze in my blood. But it’s nice to raise a glass with your audience (I remember a Jazz concert by Nigel Kennedy where he kept raising a bottle of vodka, and then sent it roaming through the crowd; he also managed to burn his way through the amp and got into an argument with one of the fans over the state of Polish football).
A Few Good Men
I stumbled onto this today, as I meandered through the internet: an 86-year old World War II vet speaking up on Civil Rights. He shares his biography along with his views – the one giving roots to the other. Which is part of the point of telling stories, I suppose, where opinions have faces (and legs, and fists, and pasts).
It’s Labour Day today, a day celebrated by Canadians by getting together for a backyard barbecue or some similar activity. You watch a football game on telly, or maybe the Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s only major league baseball team, being handed yet another tragic loss. It’s a family day, marking the end of summer. The equivalent day in Berlin – the first of May, the “Day of Work” (“Tag der Arbeit”), is marked by semi-ritualised clashes between anarchists and the police. Stones are hurled, people are beaten with police batons, and some cars in Kreuzberg are put to the torch; millions of Germans watch it on the evening news. I am not making a point here, I simply woke up this morning, struck by this fact.
Autumnal Eco Warriors, in Japanese
August 29, 2009
Late August and the weather’s changing; one can sense the coming of autumn. I brewed up a large pot of coffee this afternoon, turned on the heating for the first time since April, and watched Miyazaki’s 1984 feature ‘Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind’ . It amounts to something like a post-apocalyptic, panentheistic retelling of the gospel. There is a special sense of wonder, and a special note of sweetness, that runs through all of Miyazaki’s films. I am tempted to bunker in this week and watch my way through his back catalogue, though term is looming and there is work to be done. Other than that I have been bowled over by the two parts of Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ this week. I find it hard to believe that their release did not make more noise at the time; they seemed to enjoy only very limited distribution and to disappear out of the cinemas in a matter of weeks. In part two, the images of the Bolivian forest are so beautiful that your heart aches to go there and see it for yourself. What the films don’t do is give a “balanced picture” of the man, nor yet a psychological portrait: they shrug off the yoke of exposition, disregard the rules of conventional plotting, and are content instead to capture a series of moments, many of which are quiet, understated, human.
A rose by any other name smells just as sweet
Every time I read a transcript of a Sarah Palin speech or a quote from her Facebook page such as her recent comments implying that the Obama administration’s health care plan would set up some kind of public health court empowered to make life and death decisions about the severely handicapped, I get worried about America. Public health courts were characteristic of the Nazi period. Obama’s health care plan does not advocate their creation. It is not a good sign if a leading member of the Republican Party and a politician who holds ambitions to become the United States’ first woman president will happily feed misinformation to the public she seeks to represent: it demonstrates her contempt for this public whom she deems unworthy of the truth, for her political opponents whom she fails to engage in rational debate, and for the premises of democracy, a system that envisions that we make choices based on good information rather than bad; it shows her contempt, also, for the victims of actual public health courts whose plight is mocked by her words. For the record it is worth remembering that as many as thirty-three states of the Union had some form of compulsory sterilisation legislation during the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, and that proponents of state-enforced eugenic programmes could be found among both conservatives and “progressives” of the day. In short: I created this blog to comment on books and films and think about the process of writing — but bullshit is bullshit, and sometimes it needs to be called by its name.
August 16, 2009 This made me laugh. I think I know people just like this, though they are neither Russian, nor noble… “This was a man withdrawn, closed up in himself. Another trait: he was one of those strange but still surviving Russian noblemen who greatly value the antiquity and purity of their noble lineage and are all too seriously interested in it. At the same time he could not bear Russian history, and regarded all Russian customs in general as somewhat swinish.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons, trans. Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky.
June 20, 2009
I received an irate email this morning from one of Pavel’s readers, complaining that it has been weeks and months since I last updated this blog. This is true, and I apologise. The thing is, I have been travelling, first in Europe then in the United States. That, and it is summer: all I want to do these days is be outside, go for hikes in the country, take pictures of trees. It is not a good season for the pen. I promise I will do better once fall comes around and I get going on a new manuscript. Until then I am planning on doing very little thinking. It’s a luxury, I know, and it would be churlish not to enjoy it. PS: The best book I read recently – by a landslide - was Dickens’ Little Dorrit. It’s not quite clear to me how he manages to be so moving. He’s a satirist, after all, and a sentimentalist, and neither attitude is liable to call forth real emotion. One hates to speak of “genius”, but there it is. The other thing I have been reading are comic books from the late 1970s in some sort of descent into a second childhood… It’s been a fun trip!
Nova Scotian Conversion
April 20, 2009.
Spring has come to Atlantic Canada, revealing an assortment of colours that ranges from the pale yellow of long-supine grasses to the rust-red of future potato fields, their furrows still clogged by long lines of snow. As such it was a pleasure driving to the North Shore of Nova Scotia a few days ago, to do a reading in Tatamagouche’s Fables Club, the regular venue of the Loquacious Book Club which was the subject of a recent Globe and Mail piece on Canadian book club culture. Tatamagouche is a town of a thousand souls; the municipal website proudly announces it as the home of Anna Swan, “the 8-foot Nova Scotia Giantess” whose out-sized effigy can be admired in the soon-to-be-opened museum complex built on the premises of the town’s erstwhile creamery. It is somewhat of a surprise to find in Tatamagouche a state-of-the-art cellar bar that would attract a crowd of nightly revellers in Berlin or London, and is little less than a revelation hidden away as it is in a glorified village on the rugged, stunning shoreline of the Northumberland Strait. Halfway through my first margarita my inclination to do any actual reading was steadily declining; I was content with lounging on the leather chairs, and engrossed in my conversation with Fables’ charming, tireless proprietors, Hanna and Chuck Hunziker. The bar quickly filled up (why wouldn’t it?; where else outside Halifax will anyone find cocktails prepared by a Las Vegas native; hand crafted stain-glass windows; Stella on tap?), I did my thing, and was peppered with questions for a half hour or so by an engaged and articulate audience, at which point I was given permission to withdraw to the comforts of another margarita. The evening ended in the Hunziker’s house, four golden labs scattered across the polished concrete floor, with talk about politics and books and pot-bellied pigs. If all readings were like this one, I should do nothing but. As for Tatamagouche: its name, to locals, seems to encompass not a location but a whole mode of life. They do not proselytise; they do not need to. They serve you dinner and walk you up and down the ice-rimmed beach. Pretty soon you inquire into property prices. It must be something they put in the water. Tatamagouche is a honey trap for those who have a love for life.
1200 pages of Hugo
February 28, 2009
I recently finished reading Victor Hugo’s 1860s classic Les Misérables. It’s what my mother would call a proper “ham”. The book knows no restraint. I loved it – what a wonderful antidote to all that lean, tasteful, stylish writing that trickles along afraid of excess. Hugo went for it with abandon, and the result is a novel that is over-the-top, gaudy, and somehow also deeply moving. One forgives the plot absurdities (“Shall I cut his throat?” – “There is no time!”), the coincidences and moralising, the twenty pages of discourse on the nature of the nunnery: the book has passion, ambition, bad taste. This is what students should read in MFA courses, to balance all those well-judged Carver stories (though I am not suggesting that these are anything but great). I hear that Richard Pevear recently re-translated Alexandre Dumas Sr’s The Three Muskateers, which I read many years ago and remember fondly as another proper ham. Bring it on, I say.
February 9, 2009
It’s been weeks and months since my last post. I have finished my stint as writer in residence at Grant MacEwan College and left Edmonton just before the deep freeze set in (though I miss those endless blue skies). My new novel, The Quiet Twin, has been acquired by Bloomsbury, the paperback and various foreign language editions of Pavel & I are about to be published, and I have shifted my blog over from its old address to this website under my own domain name. Looking over the booklist at the end of my last post, I find that I have read none of these books thus far (though I have every intention to do so), but finished War and Peace some weeks ago, and am now reading Richard Flanagan’s Wanting which I have promised to review. I was pleased to see an article on The High Winds of Jamaica in today’s Globe and Mail which has been sitting on my shelf for a few weeks now, ever since I picked it up in a great second hand book shop in Halifax, on the recommendation of a close friend, and drawn by the funky 70s cover.
November 17, 2008
These days, there seems to be a lively interest in what I am reading. It’s a matter of influences I suppose, and of literary taste. I spent a week at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto at the end of October, and there, too, many of the writers were asked the same question. “I have never met a writer who was not also a voracious reader,” the Bosnian-American novelist Aleksander Hemon remarked in one of the discussions, commenting on the close relation between the reading and writing processes. He went on to mention Salinger, Babel, Le Carré, all of them fondly, face aglow with a love for books. In the past, when asked this question, I have usually mentioned the authors and books I love above all others, and talked about Bleak House and nearly all of Dostoevsky, Portrait of a Lady, Light in August, Cat and Mouse. In the course of a month or year, I will read all sorts of things, however,works that busy me more briefly but often no less deeply than those cornerstones of my relationship to literature. Here, then, a list of recent reads, incomplete and rather random, but perhaps a better window to some sliver of my reading soul. Graham Greene, Loser Takes All. Minor Greene, dated, surprisingly maudlin in its ending. For all that I had a good time with it, loved the dialogue, the Greenisms, the steady diet of coffee and rolls. Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy. Fantastic. A character study of a woman who realises too late that she would be happier, had she married rich. Not a word wasted, I read it through one evening, and couldn’t shut up about it for days. Pete Dexter, The Paper Boy. I love Pete Dexter’s writing. This is not his best, but then, his best is pretty great. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Uncle’s Dream. A 1859 novella, critically little regarded. Turns out there is a good reason for this. I am not sure whether I should be reassured or disconcerted by the fact that a great writer can write a bad book, but there it is. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. An autobiographical graphic novel about a young woman’s coming to terms with her father’s suicide and homosexuality. This could easily have been ponderous, but was moving instead. John MacDonald, The Deep Blue Good-Bye. This is pulp, i.e. a tough-talking, testosterone driven, misogynistic potboiler. Lots of energy. It rails against the use of deoderants. Apparently John MacDonald wrote twenty-one novels featuring sleuth Travis McGee, each of them with a different colour in the title. Anton Chekhov, various short fiction. I have been reading my way through Chekhov’s collected works. He is frighteningly good. I loved “Peasants”, “My Wife”, “Man in a Case”, “In the Gully”, and a good many others. Carver said Chekhov was the best short story writer ever. He might have been. Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Very good, I thought – as did Oprah – but not his best: that would be Child of God for my money, though Blood Meridian has many advocates (now there’s a book that scared the living daylights out of me). Gint Aras, Finding the Moon in Sugar. I read this in manuscript form, the book is about to be published in the US. A Chicago stoner comes of age by traveling to Lithuania. What fuels it is a special sort of tenderness for life; got under my skin. Addendum (Feb 2009): The book is now available at http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Moon-Sugar-Gint-Aras/dp/0741450933; or better yet, order it through your local bookstore! Richard Price, Bloodbrothers. A very raw novel about working class identity in 1970s New York. Price has been writing for ‘The Wire’ more recently, and had a big hit with Clockers and Freedomland. Personally, I like this early novel better; loved the dialogue, in particular, with its oddly Shakespearian bent: every once in a while, a character will stop and deliver a soliloquy about the truth of their situation. Eugene McCabe, Death and Nightingales. Wonderful. One of a sackful of books I took home from IFOA. It’s the language that enthralls, the beautiful rhythms of the spoken word. Think Faulkner, in Ireland. This week’s reading: Isaac Babel, The Red Cavalry Stories. Everybody kept telling me that these stories were fantastic. They are. Some of the imagery seems overcooked, but that’s part of the charm. I might write about these more in a later blog outing… On my list for the winter: David Parks, The Truth Commisioner; Patrick Lane, Red Dog, Red Dog; Evelyn Waugh, Officers and Gentlemen; Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess; Mordecai Richler, Solomon Gursky Was Here; and and and.
Sleepless, in Warsaw.
October 13, 2008
I watched the first part of Krysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue late last night. This is not an advisable thing to do if one values one’s sleep. It would be wrong to say that I was depressed after watching it, nor was I kept up pondering its (ethical, theological) implications. The film’s images simply took hold of me, and I could not shake them until just before dawn, when exhaustion won out. As far as I am concerned, it’s a pretty certain measure that one is dealing with art here. I am, of course, hardly the first person to be shaken by Kieślowski, whose Decalogue series dates from 1988, has won numerous awards, and is generally recognised to be a piece of cinematic genius. But it is one thing to hear or read about art, and quite another to be confronted by it; so for all those who, like me, tend to be late in stumbling onto the good stuff, here is a summary of Kieślowski’s project. Decalogue is a ten-part television miniseries that hales from Poland and is set in Warsaw. Each film is about fifty-five minutes long and explores one of the ten commandments in an oblique and hence interesting manner. The films are not religious in the sense that they are made to encourage participation in organised religion. They were filmed in a country whose devout Catholicism co-existed with a political regime whose ideological underpinnings were explicitly atheistic, i.e. in which the Christian commandments had a specific cultural currency. My guess is that the films would lose little of their potency if watched by someone entirely unfamiliar with Christianity. The first of these films tells the story of a single father whose young son wishes to go skating on the near-by pond. It is December, only a few weeks to Christmas, and the boy, Pawel, has discovered his Christmas present, a pair of new ice skates, in one of the apartment’s cupboards. The father is a scientist by profession and temperament, and uses his computer to calculate whether or not the ice is safe to skate on. Despite his calculations, it comes to an accident, and he is left bereft. The problem of summarising the film in these terms, however, is that it may imply to the reader that it is either boring or hopelessly sentimental (or both), and in any case lacks in originality. And it is true that the scenario that Kieślowski explores seems, in its broad outline, familiar: it rings of rather conventional short story material, perhaps something Tolstoy might have written (it seems too melodramatic in its ingredients to have held much attraction for either Chekhov or Carver). Certainly, as a type of narrative, its model seems to be literature rather than film, which, other than my sleepless night, is the reason I write about it here. Yet, despite its lack of originality and the didacticism inherent in a plot line in which a scientist discovers that he cannot control fate, the actual product is mesmerising. Which is to say, Kieślowski makes great choices in how he tells us his story, in what he elects to show and what he elects to omit. It is through the particular details that are present in each scene and image – and in the things that remain unknown – that the narrative is loaded not only with emotion but with complexity, and through which the schematic is transformed into the haunting. Like most art (I am not yet quite pompous enough to write: like all art) it leaves one with a yearning not to analyse what one has witnessed – which is to say with a yearning to impose retrospective order and meaning on what is meaningful precisely because of its elusiveness – but with a desire to simply hold on to the wonder of the encounter, in all its sadness and depth. Strictly speaking, then, it might not have been Decalogue’s imagery that kept me awake last night, but my own desire not to let go of it. It’s a wonderful thing to pull off: to make the viewer fall in love with his or her own sadness. One day, I should like to do the same to my readers.
A Baltimore Comedy, With Guns
September 24, 2008
I wrote about Grossman last, and the ambition of his novel Life and Fate. I wrote, also, that I do not know of any contemporary equivalent of his project. This remains true, but I forgot to talk about The Wire. For those who have not seen it, The Wire is an HBO television series chronicling life – and death – in West Baltimore. It is billed as a “Police Drama”, but it really is something rather more ambitious (there is that word again): a dedicated survey of the socio-economic structures underlying the drug trade in urban America and of its effect on the lives of a large cast of characters, the majority of whom are African American, a fact worth mentioning in an age where television shows are based on viewer demographics, which effectively means that according to most TV producers’ logic, minorities must remain minorities if a show is to have mainstream success. Like Life and Fate, The Wire is a sprawling work, sixty episodes long. It begins its analysis by introducing us to the mechanics of the drug trade, then turns its attention to the question of drug supply lines (i.e. to the Baltimore port, the entry point of illicit substances, and hence to white, blue-collar labor). Next it explores the connections between politics, “legitimate” business and the drug trade, before turning to a portrayal of the Baltimore public school system, and finally, to the role of the media in this constellation. Lest it be feared that the results are boring, let me assure you that this is by far the most thrilling television I know. It starts out a little slow, perhaps, but by the time you are three hours in you are hooked for good. The only other television project I can think of that compares to The Wire in its patience, scope and interest in both capturing and understanding reality, is the German “Heimat” series by Edgar Reitz, which endeavors to give a portrayal of Germany from 1919 to the year 2000 in fifty-two mesmerizing hours. Reitz’s project has more of an art-house look (he switches back and forth between black and white and color film) and the historical setting might be less intelligible for many viewers than the familiar surroundings of contemporary, gun-toting America. Interestingly, while The Wire depicts a United States that many Europeans and Canadians love to hate (violent, materialistic, torn apart by race and class), it does so with an obvious love for the city of Baltimore and its inhabitants. The result is a very sensitive portrayal, neither fashionably bleak, nor romantic in its tonalities. The thing that makes all this possible, naturally, is good writing: The Wire has assembled a cast of first-rate scriptwriting talent. It numbers amongst its ranks crime writers well known for their commitment to capturing the reality of urban America, such as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. Pelecanos in particular has written half a shelf worth of novels set in Washington DC, which, taken together, add up to something like a crime writer’s version of The Human Comedy, Honoré de Balzac’s great story cycle about post-revolutionary France. The Wire, too, has Comedic proportions: a generation down the road we will be teaching it in school, in History and English classes, debating its authenticity, its narrative devices, its politics. It’s not so often that a piece of literature comes along which is at once important and thrilling. Look it up on the net: it has many apostles, and they all say the same. This one’s art. True that.
Soviet Realism (or how a Russian kicked my ass this summer)
September 10, 2008 This summer, I read Vasily Grossman’s 880 page novel Life and Fate. In some ways I had been reading it all of last year (if you count your years, as I do, from summer to summer, a long hangover from school). I started in the fall, read 200 pages, loved them, then closed the book and hid it away, at the bottom of my shelf. The thing is, I got scared. As a writer, I mean. This happens sometimes. I read a book that’s so good, I wish I had done it. And then I start wondering whether I could do it. Some of the classics do that to me. Bleak House. Portrait of a Lady. Crime and bloody Punishment. They put the chill down my bones. But Grossman’s book is a little different from that. What scared me here wasn’t so much the level of the writing, or the brilliance of its organisation and architecture, though both are far from ordinary. What got to me here was the level of ambition evident on every page. It made me think that everything I was writing – and pretty much everything anyone else is writing, here in what for convention’s sake we call the West, which is to say west of Berlin and north of Houston, give or take – was, to use a Soviet phrase now out of fashion, precisely decadent. Toothless, pampered, apolitical. Pointless. What Grossman does in Life and Fate is try to provide a total social portrait of the Soviet experience of the Battle of Stalingrad. He does not want to portray the battle, mind (though he does some of that). He wants to show what that battle – the turning point of the Second World War, and a turning point in Stalin’s domestic policy – meant for citizens of the the Soviet Union. And since there is no such thing as a “typical” citizen of a multi-ethnic empire that spans an entire continent and contains social and cultural tensions which are the direct product of a revolution and a civil war that took place not even a generation previously, Grossman picks several dozen social actors from all levels of society and juxtaposes their highly individual experiences. He does what novelists are supposed to do: convert the abstraction of history into the particular histories of individuals, and challenge the reader to transcend their beliefs and truths and social positions, by plunging them headlong into a dozen different ways of experiencing the world. I cannot think of a “western” novel written in the last one hundred and fifty years that tries to do what Grossman does. There are a few living writers who have some of his ambition I believe, primarily in the US (Don DeLillo comes to mind, and a small number of crime writers, who work on a smaller scale and within the conventions of their genre, but seem to have a commitment to capturing the social real), but I know of no actual book or body of books that comes even close. One has to reach to even imagine what an equivalent novel would look like in Canada. Pick the country’s most decisive, most transformative moment in the past 30 years. Collect a cast of characters that come from all walks of life and all regions of Canada, and connect them in a plot so wide-reaching that the result is a tightly-knit fabric of social interaction in which the nation – in all its complexity – stands revealed. It boggles the mind. For some, of course, it will be easy to dismiss the whole project as pointless: to say, for instance, that a novel of this type is an anachronism; that it is tied to an outdated model of the nation-state and as such ill-suited to our age; that television can do this better, and more entertainingly. Others will doubt that it can be done at all, and point out that any representation of social reality will end up being skewed, that no writer can reach far beyond their own experience, and should not even try. Certainly there are flaws to Grossman’s project, moments when he fails. But my word, what noble failure, and what a challenge to throw down. It’s what George Steiner says, in his blurb on the back of Grossman’s book: “Novels like… Life and Fate eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the West today.” It’s not an insult when it happens to be the truth. I finished the book, in any case, and am now in coalescence.