TGCU! Week 6: Adam Gopnik

Winter Gopnik

We continue with the great catch up and skip ahead a little bit by not mentioning a couple of books I don’t want to discuss here, and talking instead about Adam Gopnik’s beautiful book Winter. But first, news! It has been announced that two British writers I greatly admire, David Mitchell and Ian McEwan, are both coming out with new novels this September. This is extremely exciting, as I’m a big fan of both David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet surprised and engrossed me, Cloud Atlas blew my mind, and Black Swan Green broke my heart) while Ian McEwan is one of those writers whom I got into when I was younger and had a crush on Keira Knightley and now feel obliged to read all of his new books and work my way through his backlog (which is great fun, as he’s brilliant). Mitchell’s new novel is called The Bone Clocks, Ian McEwan’s is called The Children’s Act. So two things to look forward to. 

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Adam Gopnik’s Winter came into my hands when I saw its lovely white spine pop out in a local second hand bookstore here in Vancouver. I bought it at the end of the summer and read it in the fall, which is an odd time to have read it because usually in the fall you’re kind of dreading the season to come. However, since in Vancouver there is no winter as I’m used to them in Montreal, it was thrilling to read about the season I would only get a glimpse of over the holidays, and from an author who also grew up in Montreal. (As it turns out, I would get more than a glimpse of winter over the break—temperatures reached -45 degrees celsius in early January when I was there, it was fucking awful.)

Gopnik’s book is part of the CBC Massey Lecture series, which is quite a big deal here in Canada (illustrious people like Alberto Manguel and Ronald Wright and Doris Lessing have all given then). The deal is that the writers give a number of lectures around a certain theme, and then those lectures get turned into a book. Gopnik explores the theme of Winter, clustering his essay around five big ideas of the season: Romantic Winter (about the early to late modern artistic and ideological interpretations of winter), Radical Winter (mainly about polar expeditions), Recuperative Winter (about the holidays), Recreational Winter (about Hockey, which Gopnik writes about majestically), and Remembering Winter (about how we deal with the season today, how we remember it, and also about Montreal and its underground city).

The book is very good, and I found it a charming and, sometimes, even an engrossing read. But then, I am a sucker for personal essays, when writers meld personal experience and anecdote with reflections about art and ideas. Oddly enough, I just came across an extremely negative review of Winter at a blog I like, Tales from the Reading Room. The blogger there hated the book and just couldn’t get into it. I see her point, that you sometimes feel like you’re sort of wading through a muck of half-formed ideas and concepts with Gopnik, while he skims over swathes of knowledge and goes in circles or else jumps from one topic to the next, as if he were slightly tipsy. There is a little bit of that, but to me that’s part of the pleasure of the personal essay—the breadth reached by having the speaker rambling on, as if he were sitting by the fire, chatting amiably, glass of wine in hand. By the way, that’s exactly how Gopnik intended the book to be—before he gave the official Massey lectures, he began by jotting down some notes and giving them to family and friends in the comfort and intimacy of his own home. To me, he isn’t quite as crisp a stylist and as fine a thinker as my favourite personal essayist, Anne Fadiman, but Winter was still a delight.

Gopnik, by the way, is a writer I’m very excited to read more of. He had a wonderful piece about bread in a recent New Yorker food-themed issue, in which he tells some hilarious anecdotes about his parents. After reading that, I ordered his book about Paris, Paris to the Moon, and these days I read the essays in that book to G. before going to bed. We’re both enjoying it a lot.


TGCU! Week 5: César Aira

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Although I’d seen his books (they all have gorgeous covers in English) and heard about his genius before, writer Anakana Schofield first got me into César Aira last summer when I interviewed her for PRISM international. Upon her recommendation, I went me to the bookstore and got myself a beautiful copy of The Literary Conference. What a read!

Aira, in case you’ve never heard of him, is an Argentine writer, very much in line with his fabulist predecessors (read: Borges), who writes novella-sized stories that are always published in single, thin volumes. He’s written around 80 of them, and in Argentina he likes to have them published by different independent presses, which means that apparently some of his titles are actually very hard to find. The other thing one should know is that Aira supposedly doesn’t revise his stories: as he writes them, he tries to keep going as much as possible, which can mean writing his way out of dead ends instead of tracking back to avoid getting stuck. That’s probably where many of the fantastical elements come into his stories.

In the first part of The Literary Conference, the narrator, a mad scientist who may or may not be Aira himself, solves the age-old enigma of the so-called Macuto Line, and becomes rich by finding the ancient treasure buried in the sea. If that doesn’t get you scratching your head, the rest of the book will—it will also probably make you smile with delight, and potentially roar with laughter. The narrator then goes to a literary conference in Venezuela, where his goal is to clone Carlos Fuentes… Except the cloned insect-thing he sends to take Fuentes’ DNA lands on the literary man’s tie instead, and things go really bad when gigantic blue worms descend on the city. To find out who the narrator—and Aira himself—gets out of this wild impasse, you’ll just have to read the book yourself.

The Literary Conference is a mad romp, and it was incredible fun to read. It’s rare that you discover a writer whose work seems so completely fresh. So naturally I looked for more Aira, and eventually purchased another of his books, Varamo, which I read in the late summer (remember, last week we were on The Queen Bee of Tuscany and I was searching for a new apartment). I’d heard good things about Varamo in The Millions but I have to say that I didn’t find as much delight in this one as I had in The Literary Conference. Mostly it was the style, which I found more convoluted, more opaque. Varamo is written in a formal, slightly grinding third person, which is apparently Aira’s preferred narrative voice, whereas The Literary Conference is in a buoyant and electric first person.

Where Varamo succeeds is in its clever premise: the eponymous character is a 50 year-old civil servant in Panama, who embalms animals in his free time, and finds himself with counterfeit money at the very beginning of the book and ends the story—as we are told at it very beginning—by writing a poem, which will become a masterpiece of Central American poetry (Varamo never wrote a line of verse in his life before that moment). The novella’s execution, however, just didn’t grab me as hard as my first Aira did.

Aira is becoming increasingly popular in English, and every year more of his books get translated and are always given beautiful covers. I look forward to exploring more his titles in the future—I’ll keep you posted.

 


TGCU! Week 4: The Queen Bee of Tuscany

Queen Bee of Tuscany

Four weeks (time flies!!) into our catch-up of lost months, this series of posts has now acquired an ugly acronym (TGCU) while our writer delves into non-fiction…

I read about Ben Downing’s biography of Janet Ross, unfortunately titled Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross, in The New York Review of Books over the summer, and decided the book under review was exactly the kind of thing I was looking to read and pass the time with as the long summer days were coming to an end. It was August in Vancouver, I had returned to the West Coast after a month spent in Montréal, and I was desperately looking for a new apartment to move in with my girlfriend, who was arriving imminently after a summer spent digging in the Middle East. I was also a little bored and often went down to do laps at the wonderful Kitsilano pool—a gigantic, exterior, heated saltwater pool overlooking the Sea and the city and Stanley park.

I ordered the book and read it joyfully, in long draughts sitting on a bench by Kitsilano beach or in the breezy living room I was about to leave. Janet Ross, by the way, is an absolutely fascinating character, who is mostly famous for her beautiful home near Florence called Poggio Gherardo, where she lived and wrote histories, cookbooks, translations, and autobiographies from the 1880s to the early 20th century. Having never read anything about her before, and having always loved things like British literati, the fin de siècle, and Tuscany, the book was a good fit.

Janet Ross was especially fascinating to me because of the kind of people she was connected to. Ross was a British exilée, who was forced to live in Italy because she couldn’t afford England. She hosted a kind of salon in her Florentine villa, and received some of the most brilliant minds of her generation, who were either expats living in Italy or else traveling on their Grand Tour. Downing’s book, while focusing on Janet Ross, mostly uses her as an excuse to explore an entire era of thinkers and writers and artists and, more specifically, the incredible population of exiled Englishman who called Florence home before WWI: people like Bernard Berenson, John Addington Symonds, and Mark Twain (also, mind you, all people you’re bound to read regularly about in the NYRB). At times, however, Downing’s prose plods on a little awkwardly as he ploughs through the names and parenthetical biographies of Ross’ eminent contemporaries—sometimes one wishes he’d just gone on and written a book about Florence’s English community, instead of trying to pin down Janet Ross’s character which, as it turns out, wasn’t always very gay.

Anyway, it was a delightful read. One of the parts that struck me the most was the life story of Janet Ross’ mother, Lucie Duff-Gordon, a remarkable Victorian woman, a translator and intellectual in her own right who also frequented many of the brightest minds of her day (including the parents of John Stuart Mill) and spent the end of her life in Luxor, Egypt. There, she had many adventures, observed many of the interesting customs around her, and gained the respect of the locals. What really gripped me about Downing’s book was that it teemed with the life of so many fascinating individuals, who were both the products of their time, and yet somehow went far beyond its boundaries.

I should mention that I urged G. to read Queen Bee of Tuscany when she finally did arrive in Vancouver (I’d found us a nice, newly renovated ground floor suite just two blocks away from my old apartment). She loved our apartment but hated the book, which she finished almost reluctantly; she found it too cursory in content and too breathless and inelegant in form. The issue may have been that she was seeking depth where the book offers more breadth—but I would still recommend this book if the subject interests you. Onwards!


The Great Catch-Up! Week 3: James Salter

A Sport and a Pastime

James Salter is the kind of writer whose name you hear every once in a while, like say Richard Ford, or George Saunders before he became a legit literary phenomenon this year, or Doris Lessing, for that matter, before she passed away. What people refer to weakly as a “writer’s writer,” which is a polite way of saying: “an excellent writer who’s a bit of an open secret, who gets amazing reviews and a lot of recognition and often gets named on lists of inspirations, but doesn’t sell nearly as much as she should, and might even have a hard time getting published.” Hilary Mantel was in that category until she won the Booker for Wolf Hall and her career got catapulted into the stratosphere.

So I’d seen James Salter mentioned here and there, and knew about his seminal work, the 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. But the first time I got to read anything of his was in that collection of stories that The Paris Review published last year: Object Lessons. Dave Eggers chose Salter’s story Bangkok (which you can read in full here), a short, brilliant story about two lovers who meet again years after their separation—the woman is a real bitch and the story crackles deliciously with awkward humour, incorrectness, and a kind of sizzling sexual tension. It’s an excellent story, and Salter has written many more (like “Last Night,” which you can read online on the New Yorker’s website.) Salter was also in the news last summer because he published a new book, All That Is, which was quite a feat considering he’s nearly 90 years old. 

So I finally picked up Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which was Salter’s third novel. I’ll put it simply, as Salter would in his spare writer’s voice: this book is a masterpiece. It’s written in a dazzling, carefully crafted prose, and creates one of the deepest and most enthralling textures I’ve ever felt in a novel—all with an extreme level of subtlety. Plus, it’s also certainly one of the sexiest books I’ve ever read; it tackles the subject head on (still pretty edgy in 1967) and offers some of the most romantic, complicated, poignant, and well-written sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Plus, there are loads of them, so this novel is really a masterclass in sex writing. 

But what I liked the most about A Sport and a Pastime was the originality of its narrator. Although the novel, which is clearly situated in the tradition of American literature set in France, tells the story of the (mostly sexual) love affair between a young American and a beautiful but innocent young French girl, the story is told by another American young man, a kind of voyeur who stands at the edge of the main action, in a big lonely house he’s rented in the country. The novel’s singular beauty and melancholy rests on this shadowy point of view; the key to the novel is that most, or perhaps all of the descriptions of the scenes between Anne-Marie and Philip Dean are pure fantasy, created in the aroused mind of our narrator. And so the book is a beautiful elegy of life and love, but also solitude and old Europe. It’s a wonderful read: an absolute must. 

james salter


The Great Catch-up! Week 2: Alice Oswald

Photograph: BBC/Kate Mount

Photograph: BBC/Kate Mount

In which I continue to catch up lost time by making my way down the list of books read. 

I’m actually cheating and jumping ahead a little. After John le Carré’s Smiley’s People I read Hubert Aquin’s Trou de mémoire (an excellent, heady, overwrought, mindblowing novel) which, alas, I found too complicated to write about here (Nabokov’s Pale Fire came out while Aquin was writing Trou de mémoire, and when Aquin read it he decided he would outdo Nabokov—so I’ll let you imagine how many layers of narrative trickery there are in his book). Then I wolfed down Allan Moore’s masterpiece of dystopian fiction V for Vendetta, which I have really nothing to say about other than: it’s good. I found the competent world building, moral complexity, and intriguing characters (especially minor ones) that had initially appealed to me in The Watchmen, and I thought the artwork was great, although I have to agree with Moore: I could’ve easily done without the washed out, pastel colouring.

So, moving on down, we have Alice Oswald’s strange and wonderful book of poetry Memorial, which I bought after hearing Oswald read from it at World Book Night last year. Oswald calls  Memorial an “excavation” of Homer’s Iliad—it’s an homage to Greek epic that unearths and honours Homer’s language by focusing on the dozens of the characters who die in it. Oswald lists the names of the dead, sometimes building a small narrative around a certain character, or giving us some information about where he came from, and picks up Homer’s famous metaphors, puncturing her way through them, like a needle threading through fabric, to give them new life or a whirl into the 21st century. She works in an unfussy language, sharp and modern and intense, and uses repetition of smaller sections to hammer down her images. The result is at once hypnotic and poignant, and even moving. As it goes on, the names and the metaphors start to accumulate and build up more strength, until Oswald hurtles you, expertly, towards the inevitable end. And yes, somehow Oswald manages a complete, distilled version of the Iliad in a poem that’s somehow both strong and delicate, both a translation and a completely original work.

Bonus content: here’s Oswald reading from Memorial


The Great Catch Up! Week 1: John le Carré

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Well, it’s been an intense last 6 months, and I’ve been a very bad blogger. Not a word, I know: zilch, nada, and so on. And don’t think I didn’t feel bad about it, either. Wracked with guilt, I was—to use one of my favourite clichés. I could blame it on my MFA thesis, on my gig as the online editor for PRISM international… I could find all kinds of excuses, but I won’t. Anyway,  I hope you’re not too angry, but it doesn’t matter either way because I know you’ll forgive me; I’m far from being the first or last blogger to go on an unexpected hiatus.

More importantly: did you miss me? I hope you did, because I’m back with a vengeance, and I’ve devised a devilish plan to get us right through to the end of my school year (and my MFA—after that, I guess I’ll have to hunker down and force myself to write about things as they happen). That’s right, I haven’t given up on you yet! Because during all this time I was gone, I wasn’t blogging, but I was reading, you see. Boy, was I ever reading. Okay, I wasn’t reading as much as I should’ve, but I still have a list of books, 20 or so, that I’ve read since last summer and haven’t done anything with essay-wise, and I hereby promise to write a short, blurby review of one of these books every week. Let’s say it’s always going to happen on Sundays, just so you know you have something to look forward to.

And, before we start with our first catch up review, I just want to say it’s been a really terrific last six months in the literary world, and I’m sorry not to have been part of the conversation. I’m very pleased because it’s been a tremendous year for women: Alice Munro (my favourite, as you know) winning the Nobel, Lynn Coady winning the Giller here in Canada, Eleanor Catton getting the Booker (for a very manly book, but still)—plus Rachel Kushner and Donna Tartt (the latter especially) getting all this attention for their new novels. I know there’s still a lot to do to give women the space they deserve in literary arts, but after seeing female writers shine so much recently, the future does seem a bit brighter.

It’s also hard to believe we’ve lost two of our strongest female voices in the last few months: Doris Lessing (whom I wrote about here) and, more recently, Mavis Gallant (whom I wrote about here). These brilliant, phenomenal women will be sorely missed and, I hope, relentlessly honoured and read.

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There’s an added difficulty to what I’m doing now—added to the fact that I’m going to start by discussing books that I read a while back—and it’s that I don’t have immediate access to most of these books; they’re all back home in Montreal and I’m here in Vancouver. But anyway, not having a given book in my hand has never stopped me from discussing it before!

I see on my list here that the book I read after  Barney’s Version was  Smiley’s People. I even remember that I started le Carré’s book on the same day I finished Richler’s; it was during a nice, sunny weekend at the cottage; I just dropped the first and picked the other one up.

JohnLeCarre_SmileysPeople

I’d initially planned on dealing with le Carré in an elaborate post on this blog back in August, talking about how my father had first talked to me about George Smiley some years ago, on a cycling trip in Niagara, Ontario. As we cycled side by side and burned under the sun, my father told me the thrilling story of George Smiley and his doomed quest to find the mole hiding inside MI5, and how much he’d enjoyed both the book and the 80s BBC series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley (the cycling trip in question seemed to pull back all his memories for the first time in years; he subsequently ordered the DVD box set of the BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries and we both watched it with relish). This was some years before the wonderful movie starring Gary Oldman and directed by Tomas Alfredson. Anyway, I never got around to writing that post so I might as well write about Smiley’s People now.

I have to admit first of all that I’ve never actually read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—the only other le Carré I’d read before this was The Constant Gardner, in high school, and I’d found it a little tedious although not uninteresting. What I found really interesting about Smiley’s People was the atmosphere, the thickness of it. Even now, without the book at hand, I can recall quite vividly the different settings: the London park where the initial murder occurs, the dreary Paris apartment where the old Russian émigrée waits for her fate, the wet dreary Hamburg where Smiley’s car gets attacked by gipsy boys, the final moments in snowy Berlin when Smiley faces the true meaning of victory and defeat.

The other brilliant thing about Smiley’s People is that it’s not really about the surprise of how things will end, or even how that end will come about—it’s about seeing how George Smiley will react along the way: what he will do and say and, especially, not do and not say. In effect, Smiley is more or less given all the information he needs to solve the mystery at the centre of the book and catch Karla; what’s fascinating is seeing him dreading what might happen, utilizing all of his skills as a spy, and managing his agents and old friends along the way. My favourite passage in the novel is near the end, when Smiley meets Karla’s henchman, Grigoriev, whom Smiley needs to use to get to Karla through Karla’s daughter (secretly kept in a Swiss nunnery). Le Carré does a neat trick where, instead of keeping the narrative voice quite close to Smiley’s consciousness, he pulls us back from the moment and explains how the interview later became legend in the circus*, and how other agents refer to it later, what they say happened, etc.—it’s as if the novel were narrated from the circus itself, or its communal consciousness.

Le Carré doesn’t have the reputation he has based on facility or luck or, god forbid, a Dan Brownian ease with urging the reader to turn the page. There is an intelligence, a complexity, a deliberateness, and a despondent form of wisdom behind his stories that is undeniable. Le Carré invented the espionage genre as we know it today, and he is a expert at deploying its tropes: exchanges of information, blurry old photographic evidence, the stress of being under watch, visits to old informants, that obliqueness of language that comes when people’s lives are in danger—all the elements are there for a grand time in the company of men and women who would be either incredibly dull or incredibly scary in real life, and yet who are the finest to be with in a work of fiction. Only, of course, in the hands of a master.

Photograph: Jane Brown/The Guardian

Photograph: Jane Brown/The Guardian

*In case you don’t know, “the circus” is what le Carré calls the British secret service in his novels; the equivalent of “The Company” in Robert Litell’s eponymous novel.


REVIEW: Kevin Barry’s There Are Little Kingdoms

there-are-little-kingdomsThis review was originally published on the PRISM international blog.

The Irish author Kevin Barry recently appeared onto the screen of my literary radar, and then I wondered how it was possible that I’d never taken notice of him before. From one day to the next, I went from having never heard his name to thinking of him as a literary superstar. My hunch is that this was true of most readers when Barry won the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin award (as far as I know, the most generous prize awarded for a single book) for his first novel, City of Bohane. By the time he won the prize, he’d already published a new collection of short fiction, Dark Lies the Isle, to critical acclaim.

I’m a fan of Irish short stories and I was pretty excited to discover a new contemporary Irish writer who seemed to put a lot of emphasis on his craft (Barry says he finishes all of the stories he begins to write, but only ends up being happy enough with one or two in ten of them to send them out—here’s a writer who’s not afraid to hold back what isn’t up to his own standards). Instead of going for the two later books, however, I got my hands on Barry’s first collection of stories, There Are Little Kingdoms, which has now been reissued but was originally published by a small Dublin press and garnered some attention when it won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature back in 2007.

What characterizes Barry’s fiction most is his phenomenal play with language. He has a beautiful way with words, and tells his stories with a dark veneer of sheer, unequivocal lyricism. He’s especially good at describing setting, which is often small Irish towns. “Atlantic City,” the collection’s first story, opens with a paragraph dripping with the hazy uncomfortableness of hot summer weather:

A July evening, after a tar-melter of a day, and Broad Street was quiet and muffled with summer, the entire town was dozy with summer, and even as the summer peaked so it began to fade. Dogs didn’t know what had hit them. They walked around with their tongues hanging out and their eyes rolling and they lapped forlornly at the drains. The old were anxious, too: they twitched the curtains to look up the hills, and flapped themselves with copies of the RTE Guide to make a parlour breeze. Later, after dark, the bars would be giddy with lager drinkers, but it was early yet, and Broad Street was bare and peaceful in the blue evening.

Drinking makes up a large part of Barry’s collection, and while the author is mostly interested in familiar kinds of people—young boys and girls drinking, old couples exploring other partners, a couple of middle-aged women trying to sleep with a good-looking hiker, a young woman running away from home on a train, a couple of small-town alcoholics eager for the company of a third drinking partner—he isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of added strangeness to his stories. In “Last Days of the Buffalo,” a peaceful giant can tell when a person was born and how they’ll die with the touch of a hand; in “See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown,” a man wakes up on a bus with six hundred euro in cash and no memory of who he is, and yet enters a tired life as chip-shop owner with ease; in “Burn the Bad Lamp,” the owner of an antique shop summons a genie by rubbing a lamp and asks for a good singing voice, a wish that cannot be granted immediately. In another context, some of these might be labelled as magical realism. Experimentation with form and voice also leads Barry into unusual territory that feels vibrant and new, as in “Party at Helen’s,” where the reader gets a glimpse, in turn, inside the heads of all the guests at a Saturday night party in Galway, like a kind of narrative carousel.

There is also a lot of tenderness and humour in these brave stories. The last one in the collection, “Penguins,” is told from the point of view of a flight attendant during an emergency landing on a Greenland ice field. The recognizable hilarity of “isthisthechicken isthisthechicken isthisthe… chicken???” and “mudwater coffee” make way to even greater (although less recognizable) hilarity when it turns out the “official strategy in these situations” is for the passengers to huddle around in concentric circles and shuffle a little from side to side to stay warm—like penguins. With no food, the attendants pass out mini bottles of alcohol, and everyone is drunk by the time the rescue snowmobiles arrive. Two of the passengers are dead by then, which is, apparently, “an amazing result.”

The truly amazing result in Barry’s early stories is his ability to summon these little kingdoms in just a few pages, and make them ring with their own energy, vibrant and unique. Kevin Barry is a fine writer whose ascension you don’t want to miss.

 


In Which I Go off on Tangents about Mordecai Richler

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In addition to Pale Fire, this summer I also got around to reading a modern classic of Montreal fiction that I’ve been meaning to enjoy for some time: Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler (who else). I bought a generic paperback copy a few years back in a Mile End secondhand bookshop (seems fitting), and it’s been nagging at me from its bookshelf ever since. 

It turns out Barney’s Version is quite the ride. I wanted to read it mainly for three reasons: narrative voice (the book is written as a rambling confession), footnotes (included in the fiction are footnotes by Barney Panofksy’s son, who edits his father’s manuscripts after his death and corrects his father’s failing memory), and vivid descriptions of Montreal. I found all of that, but also a romping read through post-World War France and Montreal, with a focus on a character who is in turn the most detestable and the most charming narrator I’ve ever encountered. When he picks up a bottle of Macallan and starts getting angry, you think, over and over again, that man really is on a path to destroy everything he has an alienate himself from everyone who might love him. And, like Barney, I think I too fell in love with his third wife, Miriam Greenberg—maybe helped by the fact that she’s played by the heavenly Rosamund Pike in the film adaptation. 

It’s true that the book did get on my nerves, at times. Barney’s endless digressions and obvious pleasure in portraying people he dislikes as caricatures can get on the reader’s nerves, like when we get a four-page excerpt of his second wife’s phone conversation with his mother. Twice. We get the point, Barney. Or Mordecai, whoever’s choice that was. Although I’m sure Barney’s exuberant frustration was hard to keep under control, I wonder if the novel could’ve benefited from a slight trim. But then, maybe we would’ve lost all the space Barney needs to really get going.

My own problem is that, a little like Barney when he’s going on about the past, I can’t really talk about Mordecai Richler without going off on a variety of subjects. So instead of offering a tightly structured review of Richler’s last, prize-winning novel, I’m going to offer you a few tangents…

Tangent 1: I’m always interested in author’s tics when it comes to titles. Like this new fad of having these long titles that are effectively strings of unremarkable words—No One Belongs Here More than You, There but for the, May We Be Forgiven—or authors who are obsessed with one-word titles: Solar, Atonement, Amsterdam, Saturday (Ian McEwan); Sula, Home, Mercy, Beloved, Jazz (Toni Morrison). But I digress. What fascinates me about Mordecai Richler’s book titles is his obsession with using his character names in them (John Irving has had the same tic in the past). You’d think one would suffice, like for that one book when you nail a really memorable character. But Richler did it four times, and, notice, always framing the character name within a phrase to give it more life: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Joshua Then and NowSolomon Gursky Was Here, and, of course, Barney’s Version

Tangent 2: Barney’s Version was the only book originally in English defended in the French version of Canada Reads, back in 2008 (for those who don’t know, Canada Reads is a kind the literary Dancing with the Stars of Canadian Radio, where 5 personalities who may know nothing about literature each defend a book of their choosing during a week, with a book getting eliminated every day until there’s only one left standing). Richler’s book was defended by Anne Lagacé Dowson, a lovely person if there ever was one (and, now that I think of it, not so unlike Miriam Panofksy, née Greenberg, who is also a radio host for the CBC in the book), and was shot down by former (pro-independence) prime minister Bernard Landry. Neither here nor there. I don’t know what to say, except that apparently the French translation of the novel is pretty bad (I believe it was translated in France, and therefore loses its Canadian flavour) and that it’s sometimes important to remember our New Critical friends and make sure we don’t confuse authors and their works. 

Tangent 3: Diana Athill, one of my favourite people in the world, was Mordecai Richler’s UK editor. She reveals something about a change of ideology in publishing in her editor’s memoir Stet when she explains that André Deutsch took on Richler’s first books, written in the 50s, which were apparently quite bad, as a kind of investment in the future of the author. They were right, of course; Richler’s breakthrough book was his fourth, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and he went on to sell well and win many prizes thereafter. My point is that, nowadays, publishers don’t take risks like that. We get the impression, rather, that publishers now see first novels as an opportunity to introduce new names and get people talking. A first novel has become a marketing opportunity, a fresh new product. Except that means that if a first book doesn’t create immediate buzz, it’s not worth publishing it, no matter how much potential the author has and how successful he or she may become in the future. We’re lucky Richler didn’t have that problem. 

Tangent 4: Speaking of Richler’s backlog, some of his older novels now bear among the worst covers in Canadian publishing (and that’s saying a lot because Canada has its fair share of book design atrocities). The worst certainly has to be Cocksure, with its unfortunate depiction of steampunk penis privilege and inexcusable use of the playful font from hell: Comic Sans!!

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Nabokov’s Fire

Pale Fire

This is the beginning of a short series of posts on a handful of great books I read this summer. They all happen to be modern classics (published in the last 50 years) by male authors—and they’re all linked in some way to the thesis I’m working on at the moment. To those who wish to see more gender equality in book reviewing, I hear you, and I invite you to take a look at this post in which I express my deep affection for the work of three of the world’s greatest writers, who all happen to be female

The first writer I wan’t to talk about in this summer series is Vladimir Nabokov and his legendary novel Pale Fire. It’s probably safe to say this is his second most well-known novel after Lolita, which I truly admire, especially for the scintillating prose—except maybe I found the second half sagged a little?

In Pale Fire we find similar themes—suburbia, sex, humour, strong use of voice, and metafiction—in an altogether different envelope. Nabokov pushed the possibilities of the novel with this book, which is in fact made up of a 999-line poem entitled Pale Fire written by the fictitious American poet John Shade, which is tucked away in critical material—foreword, running commentary in the form of endnotes, and index—by his friend and colleague, the academic Charles Kinbote. 

What the reader realizes as he or she progresses through the novel is that Charles Kinbote is more interested in telling us his own story that providing a scholarly analysis of the poem he is editing. While Shade’s poem is autobiographical, Kinbote is intent upon convincing the reader that it is in fact heavily inspired by the life and times of King Charles II “The Beloved,” the last king of the distant, vaguely slavic (fictitious) country of Zembla, from which Kinbote also comes. Of course, it doesn’t take the reader very long to figure out that Charles II and Charles Kinbote are one and the same person—and that he is completely delusional. The question is: to what degree?

It sounds awfully complicated but it really isn’t. As always, Nabokov’s rich and vivacious writing leads the reader on smoothly through the different strands of the novel’s story, and cuts right through the different layers of madness and deception. Most of the time, the novel’s sheer hilarity urges you to read on. 

Pale Fire does ask one intriguing question, however, and that’s: how are you supposed to read it? I’d attempted to read the novel a few years ago and abandoned it at the time. I just wasn’t in the mood, and I got bogged down in the poem (which is in fact quite readable, as far as verse goes). What I did this time was read the Foreword, skip the poem initially, and then read through the notes of one of the poem’s four sections before going back to read that section of the poem. It worked well, since Kinbote’s commentary also provides some background into Shade, which in turn helps to understand most of what he’s referencing in the poem.

I recommend this strategy, but more importantly, I strongly recommend you read the book, no matter what strategy you employ. Pale Fire is not only for English majors, I promise, the ride is simply too much fun. Here’s a classic you don’t want to miss. 

Pale Fire Poem

ENDNOTE: If you’re interested in this book, I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that Gingko Press has published a beautiful edition of “Pale Fire,” the poem, as a standalone. It’s a sexy box set with two booklets, as well as a facsimile of the index cards on which Shade is said in the book to have composed the poem. In response, Giles Harvey, from the New Yorker, wrote an illuminating essay in which he muses on the qualities of Pale Fire when taken out of is primary context


Cuckoo’s Cover

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As we all know (and by now we have also sort of stopped caring since The Guardian publishes an article about it every week) the beloved J. K. Rowling published a novel, the first in a mystery series, last April under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. The book, a hardboiled whodunit, had already begun to sell relatively well for a debut novel, and had received respectable reviews. But when the real author was revealed through a partner in Rowling’s law firm in July, The Cuckoo’s Calling became the talk of the global village, and the book was predictably catapulted at the top of bestseller lists everywhere.

The news was exciting, and even more so because the book has been expected by Potter fans for a long time. Rowling has long talked of her love for the mystery genre—and anyone who has read the Harry Potter series will recognize that they are essentially constructed like whodunits (Rowling has said so herself). Moreover, it was announced a couple of years ago that the editor for Rowling’s book would be David Shelley, who has edited several popular mystery writers. 

But that’s not really what I want to talk about! My interest in the affair grew when I realized how different the cover designs were for the UK and north american versions of the book. It’s a good example of completely different marketing strategies deployed for the very same product. 

The British cover of The Cuckoo’s Calling is classic mystery fare. Every poorly photoshopped element on it, from the flying crows gathering in an aquamarine sky to the silhouette of the lonely inspector in his mackintosh, spells whodunit. An added touch is the distinctly British row of houses and iron fencing. Locale, of course, is always  central to the atmosphere of any respectable mystery novel. In other words, you look at this cover and you know exactly what you’re getting. There is a practical aspect to this design choice, although at the same time it keeps the book from standing out besides other covers in the same genre. 

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The north american cover couldn’t be more different. Instead of focusing on the detective at the heart of the story, it represents the opposite end of the narrative by portraying the novel’s victim, a model named Lula Landry. The model is viewed from the back, a foreboding pose, but what catches the viewer’s attention the most is the multiple, sparkling camera flashes and the loopy, hand-drawn (almost scratched) font in which the title is written. 

This cover certainly packs more of a punch—it is immediately recognizable, and it’s certainly effective at conveying the world in which the novel’s detective will be investigating. But, somehow, I have some issues with it because I also find it misrepresents the book. This image, to me, does not spell out “hardboiled crime plot.” Rather, I would expect this on a chick-lit or gossipy YA novel about the underside of wealth and fame, à la Gossip Girl.

So, while I find the aesthetics of the North American cover more pleasing, I still think the British cover is more effective because it taps into a specific tradition, and will speak directly and immediately to fans of that genre. However, the advantage of the North American cover is that it may draw a different, and broader, audience to a novel such readers might not otherwise be attracted to. 

What are your thoughts? 

If you liked this post, check out my post about Harry Potter cover designs around the world. 


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