"In Other Words" posts, Globe Books
by Linda Leith
writing and recession
January 14, 2009
Some good news to
counter the general gloom. The French daily Le Monde argues that culture is not in crisis, at least
not in France, and cites strong December book sales, notably of the Stieg
Larsson's Millénium trilogy
(Actes Sud), along with cheering examples from other arts.
Some dark clouds
notwithstanding, the article stresses the social aspect of the arts. The
literary festival has an important role in hard times, when people are apt to
feel the need to congregate and share experiences with others. Festival-goers
(Avignon is an example cited) may find themselves limiting the amounts they
spend, but they will attend and spend what they can afford.
And then there's the
public response to arts funding cuts. In France, people rise up in support;
we've seen that happen here, too, during last fall's election campaign.
writing and daring
January 19, 2009
How daring do we
want a writer to be? Do we really want the author bare-naked? This question is
prompted by Charlotte Roche's first novel Wetlands,
which has taken feminist daring to a whole new level.
Roche, 30, was
born in England and grew up in Germany, where she is the queen of popular
television in her role as host of a late-night talk show with international
celebrity guests. As The Economist reported when her novel came out last year, "She
particularly likes asking her female guests about their sexual fantasies,
believing that women are generally far too coy about expressing themselves on
this subject. 'Women have no language for their desire,' she riles. 'When it
comes to their bodies, women are uptight.'"
("Wetlands" or "Damp Parts") is a literary sensation, the
first German book ever to top Amazon's global bestseller list. France's Le
Nouvel Observateur headlined its article, "In Angela Merkel's prudish country,
Charlotte Roche's pornographic book is creating a scandal and breaking
Due to be
published in the UK next month by Fourth Estate (and here in Canada from
HarperCollins in March), Wetlands was
the subject of a feature in The Guardian over the weekend. As described by the Guardian,
the narrator is 18-year-old Helen, who is in hospital as a result of an
accident shaving her intimate parts, and the book takes place on the proctology
ward where she ruminates on her hemorrhoids and sexual proclivities, asks her
male nurse to photograph her wound, tries to seduce him, and hides under her
bed to masturbate.
reflects, "is not a major concern of mine." When she uses public
toilets, she likes to rub her vagina around the lavatory seat, and she has
experimented with "long periods of not washing my pussy" to
investigate its erotic impact -- dabbing her own personal pubic perfume behind
her earlobes. "It works wonders from the moment you greet someone with a
kiss on each cheek."
Though Wetlands has been
criticized as pornographic, there's humour here as well; and there's a whole
lot to be said for a sense of humour. And for cheekiness. Some of the
fascination in Germany has focused on how closely Helen's sex life resembles
Roche's own. When people ask her what Helen looks like, she smiles wickedly and
says, "Exactly like me!”
pleasures of reading, and the death of John Updike
January 28, 2009
I have been
reading John Updike for decades, in awe of the brilliance and superhuman
exuberance of a writer who shaped my experience of reading. Two pieces come to
"A&P," a 1961 short story about a kid called Sammy working
in a grocery store one summer, when "in walks these three girls in nothing
but bathing suits." It was the freshest, most dazzling piece of writing I
had read. It had the vigor, the voice, the testosterone, the idealism, the
innocence, and the Americanisms of an American kid on the eve of what were to
be the sixties.
The other piece
is a personal essay on his psoriasis published almost 30 years later by a more
reflective Updike, a more human Updike, an Updike for whom I was astonished to
find myself feeling sympathy. Not that I hadn't loved "A&P"; I
had, but I loved it as thing apart, for the young Updike was a godlike figure
who moved in a different realm from any I had any hope of knowing. There were
abundant pleasures in the essay, which I read with fascination. But these were
quieter, deeper kinds of pleasure than any in "A&P," and it was
the essay that made me feel I too might become a writer.
And now John
Updike is dead, and all his boundless energy and exuberance are, unimaginably,
gone. It is cause for sorrow for me in all ways but one.
My working life
involves reading books by writers I may (or may not) be able to invite to
participate in my festival, and I have found myself, over the past few years,
consciously dividing the books I read for Blue Met from the books I read purely
I therefore have
a particular interest in dead writers. Jane Austen is a great favourite, for
this and other reasons, and I have recently reread Dostoevsky with the same
private pleasure. Obviously I cannot can't invite a dead writer
to Montreal; I don't find myself wondering about their availability, pondering
what event I might include them in, or deciding on an appropriate
interviewer. Their unavailability allows me the purest of pleasure in
It will be a bittersweet
joy, now, to read and reread John Updike, who has always been at home in the
realm of pleasure.
Vive la différence
February 2 2009
The new season is in full swing, here in Montreal, with
titles from some of the best, and best-known, of Quebec writers as well as from
younger writers of la relève. No
shortage of literary activity – that much is true across the country – but some
of the differences between the literary cultures of Quebec and English Canada
are telling. A list will provide an idea of the liveliness of the scene and the
range of work coming out this Spring, and I’ll make a few comments, questions,
and asides, as well, for what is a list without comments, questions, and
The great Jacques Poulin’s new
novel is L’anglais n’est pas une langue magique (Leméac). Poulin is
loved and admired in spite of – or is it in part because of? – his refusal to
take the public stage to promote his work. Nor is he the only major Quebec
writer of whom this is true, for Réjean Ducharme (author, most famously, of L'avalée
des avalés in 1966,
remarkable winner of the Prix Goncourt)
is a legendary recluse. Is there a major Canadian writer alive from outside
Quebec who never speaks into a microphone? I can’t think of one. Can you?
One of the most popular giants of
contemporary Quebec fiction, Yves Beauchemin (best-known in English Canada for Le
Matou, translated as The Alley Cat), is coming out with a fable with
talking animals: Renard bleu (Fidès).
Hélène Rioux’s Mercredi soir au Bout du monde (Wednesday Night at the End of the World)
propelled her to greater recognition as a novelist last year, when she won the
Prix France-Québec for a story set in an all-night restaurant called Le Bout du Monde; Rioux is also the
translator of several English-Canadian writers including Yann Martel, Lucy Maud
Montgomery, Bernice Morgan and myself. Hélène Rioux’s Spring 2009 title is Ames
en peine (XYZ)
The prolific Governor General’s
award-winning novelist Andrée A. Michaud’s new novel is the succinctly titled Lazy
Bird (Québec-Amérique). Michaud, like Rioux, is a translator by profession,
a métier rare among English-Canadian
writers outside of Quebec, but unsurprising here. In this, as in much else,
French Quebec has more in common with continental European literary cultures –
and with English Quebec, which also features notable writer-translators such as
Erin Moure, Jeffrey Moore and David Homel – than it has with the rest of the
The young stars of Quebec’s
literary scene have been busy, as well:
Dickner, after hitting the ground running with his first novel Nikolski
in 2005, is launching Tarmac (Alto);
Dompierre, Quebec’s answer to Douglas Coupland, is publishing the pirate
story Morlante (Coups de têtes);
Bismuth’s Êtes-vous marie à un psychopathe? (Boréal) is a
collection of short fiction;
And Patrice Martin is a hopeful
newcomer with a first novel entitled Le Chapeau de Kafka (XYZ), which
includes nods not only to Kafka but also to Paul Auster, Calvino, and Borges –
a combination that intrigues Le Devoir’s dependably
literary columnist Danielle Laurin in her recent round-up of the season’s
Kafka, Calvino, and Borges all have their English-Canadian
admirers, as indeed does Paul Auster. The adulation for Auster in French
Quebec, though, where he walks on water – as indeed he does in France and
elsewhere in Europe – is another measure of the distance between Quebec’s
literary milieu and that of English Canada.
Vive la différence
February 3, 2009
How to explain the adulation for Paul Auster in French,
which so far, at least, eludes him in English? It helps that Auster himself
speaks French fluently and that he has translated work from French into
English, but there is a lot more to it than that, for he seems to have a French
sensibility. Being a “French” writer who happens to write in English may be a
mixed blessing when it comes to sales of his books in the United States and
elsewhere in the English-speaking world, but it’s all good news in Montreal, as
it is in European centres.
When we awarded Auster the Blue
Metropolis International Grand Prix a few years ago, he was a choice far more
popular among francophone audiences, who read him in translation, than it was
among anglophones, who scarcely knew his work. Never have I seen the
writer-as-rock-star as I did with the largely French-speaking throng waiting in
line patiently to see Paul Auster at Blue Met. Until, that is, Leonard Cohen
(another legendary recluse), and came home for a series of sold-out concerts at
Place des Arts last summer. Among the writers who travel well across linguistic
divides – and who walk on water – Leonard Cohen is king.
So yes, things are different here
in Quebec, and vive la différence.
Not only in French, either, for things are different for those of us who speak
English here, as well, and this is how the différence
has most of its effect on English Canada. We take to Rawi Hage more than
English Canada does: sure, his novels (De
Niro’s Game, Cockroach) get
short-listed for English-Canadian prizes (the Giller, the GG, etc.), but they win prizes in Quebec, both in French (Prix des libraires du Québec) and in
English (three Quebec Writers’ Federation prizes to date), not to mention
Dublin, where Hage tucked the Dublin IMPAC Prize into his hip pocket last
summer and went whistling into the night. And then there’s the extraordinary
case of Nancy Huston. I could go on.
Vive la différence
February 9, 2009
The differences between the
writing scenes within and outside of Quebec were the focus of my last two
posts. Two would suffice, I thought, when I sat down to write. It wasn’t in the
plan to consider how Anglos fit into the picture, but that is where these
reflections now lead me. And why not? The resurgence of English writing in
Montreal may be the story of the decade in Canadian literary history.
So here goes Part III, on the
unique position of the Quebec writers who work in English, most of whom live in
Montreal. I’m talking about Yann Martel, Rawi Hage, Heather O’Neill, Jeffrey
Moore, Colin McAdam, Mark Abley, Elaine Kalman Naves, Taras Grescoe, Louise
Penny, Peter Behrens, Daniel Levitin, Adam Leith Gollner (who – full disclosure
– is my son), Saleema Nawaz, Miguel Syjuco and a bunch of other writers who
work in English – and who have been winning literary prizes and landing book
deals in New York and London as well as with the big Toronto houses.
Such success is all the more
remarkable after all those dismal decades when Anglo writers here, with
justification, felt invisible both in English Canada and in French Quebec. Not
since the heyday of the literary Montreal of Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant,
A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, F.R. Scott, Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, Brian
Moore, and the many others who flourished here in the post-war period has there
been anything like what has been happening here in the wake of Yann Martel’s
2002 Booker win for Life of Pi. There
are great differences, of course, between what is happening today and what was
happening then – differences in the state of Canadian publishing as well as
social, political and demographic changes that have rocked Quebec; the
similarities are less widely recognized.
Montreal writing is a topic that
has featured in several Blue Metropolis festival panel discussions, and Blue
Met has been fostering Montreal writers and putting them on an international
stage over the past eleven years. The host of one recent event did her best to
draw Montreal panelists out about connections between their work and their
lives here in Montreal. One by one, the younger writers denied any connection
and insisted they could be living anywhere. And indeed these were writers who
spent their formative years in other cultures and other regions; writers influenced
by international literary models, not necessarily in English; writers connected
more closely with francophone Quebec and immigrant communities than with
anything that could be considered “English.” The Anglo literary tradition
having indeed been largely invisible for most of their lives, it’s not
particularly surprising that none of these writers showed any awareness of
being part of it.
The great writers of the post-war
period had no such awareness, either. Some of them (MacLennan, Gallant, Moore)
had spent formative years outside of Quebec. Most of them published their work
in New York or London rather than in Toronto. All were influenced by
international literary models, not necessarily in English. Some (Scott,
Gallant) were connected with francophone Quebec and some (Richler, Cohen,
Klein) with immigrant communities. None of them, it is safe to say, had any
sense of creating or being part of an “Anglo” literary tradition. The very idea
of such a tradition would have seemed absurd. The notion of an English-language
community was far in the future, a by-product of the independence movement here
in Quebec, substantial out-migration, and the loss of political clout. The word
“Anglo” had yet to be coined.
It isn’t only the history of our
writing that is invisible to its new stars; its more recent tradition of
invisibility is itself fading into history, into invisibility. But whether they
know it or not, whether they even like it or not, these younger writers are
part of a tradition. It’s a tradition that’s increasingly connected not only
with Toronto and points west but also internationally and to French Quebec.
It’s a tradition connected to the Kafka, Borges, Calvino and Auster who so
intrigue Le Devoir’s literary
columnist Danielle Laurin, whom I referred to in my last post. And, whether
today’s Montreal writers know it or not, it’s a tradition connected to Gallant,
Richler and Moore.
out thought and the imagination
February 13, 2009
I'm on your team, Martin. I'm all for a billion dollars, give or take,
for the ailing book industry. And your Wednesday post "A Modest
coincided almost exactly with a Blue Met event featuring the Iranian author
Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in
Tehran (one of the best titles ever) and now Things I've Been Silent About (Random House Canada).
Jian Ghomeshi was
supposed to host the event but fog kept him in Toronto, so I introduced Azar
Nafisi, and then she simply took the stage to talk about how she came to write
this second memoir. At the end of her 40-minute talk in front of about 600
Montrealers, a hundred or more of them Iranian, most of them young, all of them
impressed, Nafisi concluded with a plea for reading and writing in these
bailing out the banks," she said -- she lives in Washington, D.C.,
where she teaches at Johns Hopkins -- "and the auto industry. How
about bailing out thought and the imagination?"
The crowd loved
that. I loved that. As the founder of an organization dedicated to fostering
thought and the imagination, how could I not love that?
It may be, as you
suggest, that the literary world is a sector from which the Conservative
government is unlikely to derive political benefit, but that has everything to
do with what the government chooses to do. Here in Quebec, Harper had
substantial popular support until he made the mistake of cutting the ProMart
and Trade Routes programmes that used to support the promotion of Canadian
culture abroad. He's doing it again, now, losing even more support here over
the Canada Prize for the Arts, which would cost the government a mere fraction
of a billion: just about as much, it appears, as the dollars saved by axing
international programs. A sector that can deprive him of political benefit can
also bestow political benefit.
So yes, Martin, I'm on
your team. Let us persuade Stephen Harper to bail out thought and the
February 15, 2009
Elizabeth Bowen: An
Anglo-Irish Insider-Outsider, or is that Outsider-Insider?
Canadian diplomat and diarist Charles Ritchie was the
Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen’s lover for more than thirty years. She
was married and 41, and he was single and 35 when they met in wartime London,
where he was working in a junior position at the Canadian High Commission. When
he married his second cousin after his return to Canada and was later posted to
other Canadian missions abroad (Bonn, the United Nations, etc.), they met when
they could and corresponded when they could not meet.
Charles Ritchie’s letters to Bowen were returned to him
after her death in 1973, and he either lost or destroyed them. Love's
Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith
Robertson (McClelland & Stewart 2008) intersperses Bowen’s letters
to Ritchie with entries from his diaries. (See The Times review here
and Charlotte Gray’s Globe comment
here) I will comment on that in a later post.
This is not the first time, though, that Victoria
Glendinning has focused on Elizabeth Bowen – and, in the process, on Charles
Ritchie. So I have been inspired to read Glendinning’s Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, published in 1977, a fine
and very literary biography with excellent material on Bowen’s sense of being
displaced and belonging nowhere.
Bowen was Anglo-Irish to the foundations – and to the
foundations of her ”Big House” in County Cork, Bowen’s Court, which was
demolished when she was finally forced to sell it in 1959. Her mother had died
when she was 13, and her father suffered from mental illness, so she was raised
in England by “a committee of aunts” and had a sense of being neither Irish nor
English: of being an “insider-outsider.”
She lived in England most of her life, spending long
stretches of time at Bowen’s Court, where she entertained dozens of her
friends, none of whom she allowed to pay for anything while they were her
guests. She became a distinguished writer, a Commander of the British Empire,
she counted among her friends most of the distinguished English writers of her
day (Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, etc.), and despite a
lifelong stammer, she lectured in the United States and Europe for The British
Council. She never lost her ambivalence about England.
This was a point in common with Charles Ritchie. They could
both “pass” in England on the very highest level but, as Glendinning reports,
were “secretly different, like spies. They were citizens of everywhere, and of
nowhere.” Charles, in The Siren Years
(winner of the 1974 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction), describes
himself as an “outsider-insider.” This “outsider-insider” aspect of Canadian
literary relations with the UK may well inform the work of more recent writers,
Elizabeth wrote to Charles “I think we are curiously
self-made creatures, carrying our personal world around with us like snails
their shells, and at the same time adapting to wherever we are. In a queer way
I am strongly and idiosyncratically Irish in the same way that you are
Canadian: cagey, recalcitrant, on the run, bristling with reservations and
arrogances that one doesn’t show.” Complex people, she had written in an essay
on ‘Manners,’ “are never certain that they are not crooks, never certain their
passports are quite in order.”
One reason for writing, she said in Why Do I Write? (1948) was to work off “the sense of being solitary
and farouche. Solitary and farouche people don’t have
relationships: they are quite unrelatable. If you [she was addressing V.S. Pritchett]
and I were capable of being altogether house-trained and made jolly, we should
be nicer people, but not writers.”
Her relationship with her dependable husband, Alan Cameron,
was not a sexual relationship, and she had affairs with several men, most of
them younger than she, and with at least one woman. When disappointed in love
with Goronwy Rees, who had taken up with Rose Macauley instead during a stay at
Bowen’s Court: “She was as she had said ‘a writer before she was a woman’ and
chalked these things up to experience. She said of another friend of whom she
was briefly enamoured that he was ‘one of those people who do not understand
that affairs have their natural termination.’ ‘One wants to say,’ she remarked
on another occasion, ‘break my heart if you must, but don’t waste my time.’”
Which may be an admirable attitude. The exception, here as
in all else, was the one who mattered. Bowen
claimed not to mind when Charles Ritchie married, but of course she did (''like
a cancer’’), and she made a scene on a visit to him and his wife in Bonn.
Victoria Glendinning describes Bowen’s writing as
“contortionist” and leaves it to the reader to ponder how her
“insider-outsider” status and the various other complexities of her life (and
her love life) might have contributed to a convoluted style.
In The Heat of the Day,
the wartime novel she dedicated to Charles Ritchie, Bowen wrote, “In the street
below, not so much a step as the semi-stumble of someone after long standing
shifting his position could be, for the first time by her, heard.” Would an
editor today let that pass?
Bowen’s editor at Cape was Daniel George, and he wrote four
pages of notes on The Heat of the Day,
which he admired for many good reasons. One of the Bowenisms in the novel that
he questioned was this sentence: “’Absolutely,” he said with fervour, “not.’”
Daniel George comment on this particular Bowenism is witty,
and Glendinning rightly immortalizes him for it in her biography. He wrote,
“Far, I diffidently suggest, fetched.”
Bowen was stubborn as well as generous (and sui generis). She did not amend the
Charles Ritchie and
February 23, 2009
Elizabeth Bowen’s letters to Canadian diplomat Charles
Ritchie are voluminous and passionate (Love’s
Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries 1941-1973,
edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson, McClelland & Stewart,
2008), while most of his diary entries are laconic and some are coldly
analytical. His letters, which must have been more loving than his diaries, for
they delighted Bowen, have not survived.
Bowen was married when she and Ritchie became lovers in 1941
and, much to Bowen’s distress, he himself got married on his return to Ottawa
at the end of the war. Though living in different countries most of the time,
Ritchie and Bowen met when they could, occasionally in his wife Sylvia’s
presence. For indeed Sylvia knew about Bowen. On one occasion, at least,
Ritchie consciously left a letter of Bowen’s in view where Sylvia would be sure
to see it. “With me love for a woman is always linked with a need to betray
that love; a compulsion which I dread and desire.” And perhaps Sylvia knew
about some of the other women Ritchie had affairs with; his life was not only
double, but often triple.
For much of this book, his affair with Bowen looks cruelly
one-sided. Widowed just a few years after Ritchie married, Bowen is lonely,
middle-aged and struggling financially; she addresses Ritchie as “my life.”
Ritchie is, in comparison, a fortunate man. His marriage is a good marriage,
mostly because Sylvia has willed it to be so. He works alongside men he admires
such as Vincent Massey, Mike Pearson, and George Ignatieff (a close enough friend that, when
Michael Ignatieff is born in 1947, Ritchie is the boy’s godfather). He becomes
Canada’s Ambassador to Germany, the United Nations, the United States, the
United Kingdom, and France, among other illustrious postings.
He can be emotionally remote even when he and Bowen are
together. After one dinner, he wishes they were “just friends.” “Any woman who
kept me in a state of anxiety could keep me permanently,” he comments
peevishly. “It’s so simple but they none of them will.” In the course of
another “desolating evening,” he tells Bowen he does not love her and, in his
diary, expresses the hearty wish that she show more indifference towards him:
“A little indifference goes such a long way with me – indeed my system requires
it, like the need for salt.”
Bowen has a card up her sleeve, however. She is “a witch;”
Ritchie uses the word half a dozen times at least in these diaries. She is also
a writer with a considerable circle of friends, including Isaiah Berlin,
Maurice Bowra, Iris Murdoch, Rosamond Lehmann, Molly Keane, Eudora Welty, C.
Day Lewis, T.S. Eliot and (she herself is not entirely candid with Ritchie) a
lover or two of her own. She has the literary gifts Ritchie admires and the
unconventional life he envies. He is a talented diarist, certainly, but she is
an important novelist. She longs for him to leave Sylvia and marry Bowen
herself, but though he is tempted, his desire for Bowen is no match for his
need to lead – or to be seen to lead – a conventional life.
It is when he feels anxious that Bowen might marry another
man – it is the late 1950s by this time, and she is nearly sixty – that Ritchie
finally becomes more attentive. Nothing comes of the marriage idea, but Ritchie
starts sending Elizabeth lavish presents, and his diary entries become less
grudging of her hold on him. She starts to seem a tad indifferent, or so
Ritchie imagines. He harbours doubts about Bowen’s love for him. It is only
now, in his doubt and his anxiety, that the reader finally comes to believe in
the depth of Ritchie’s love. Perhaps it is only then he fully believes in it
When Bowen dies, in 1973, Ritchie is “rudderless.” He reads
the obituaries and decides the best description of her is that “She was a
witch, but a good witch.” Seeing other friends of hers, talking about her, is
no comfort, for those who loved Bowen are vying with one another to prove how
close they were to her. Ritchie yearns for some acknowledgement of how special
was his relationship with her, and wonders, “If I had had the title of
‘Husband.’” He is still suffering almost a year later: “I need to know again
from her that I was her life.” By this time, his concluding words come as no
surprise: “If she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is
Censorship Debate (Part I of III)
March 3, 2009
The inaugural Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature
took place this weekend, and it included the last-minute addition (announced on
Friday, February 27th) of a Censorship Debate organized by EAIFL in partnership with International PEN on
February 28th with the following
His Excellency Mohammed al-Murr, Vice-Chairman of the
Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority;
Margaret Atwood, International PEN Vice-President (via
video link from Toronto, Canada);
Nelofer Pazira, President of PEN Canada (via video-link
from Toronto, Canada);
Rachel Billington, novelist and past president of English
Saudi fiction writer Rajaa al-Sanea;
Ukrainian novelist Andrea Kurkov; and
Ibrahim Nasrallah, the Palestinian-Jordanian author
shortlisted for the Arab Booker Prize.
The session was to be chaired by Eugene Schoulgin,
International Secretary of International PEN and was to explore the issue of
censorship and the different cultural preconceptions which we hold regarding
the acceptable limits of freedom of expression.
Given the dramas of the past couple of weeks, I would
love to know how that went. I have searched the web, hoping for a video on
U-tube, but no, nothing. Might we hope that Atwood and Pazira will tell us?
According to its director Isobel Abulhoul, the Emirates Airline International
Festival of Literature in Dubai was created in the hope of bridging the
gap between the East and West. A worthy goal indeed. How appropriate that
Atwood agreed to attend the festival. And how crushing it must have been to the
organizers when, in mid-February, she decided to boycott it instead.
The reason for her change of heart was what she
understood to be the censorship of a British writer named Geraldine Bedell who
has written a novel set in the Gulf. On February 17th, Bedell quoted from a letter Abulhoul
addressed to Bedell’s publisher, Penguin, listing the reasons why she would not
be invited to participate in the festival. “The only objection,” Bedell wrote,
“that made any sense at all, from their point of view,” was that a minor
character in her novel, “Sheikh Rashid, is gay and has an English boyfriend.”
Atwood acted in good faith. The problem, as she
herself was to realize within a few more days, was that she was not aware of
the whole story.
We’ll get to how it all looked to her tomorrow. First,
though, the response of the first-time festival director, Isobel Abulhoul, to
Atwood’s withdrawal from the festival:
very disappointed and not a little surprised that it has taken so long for
anyone to reconsider their position - particularly if this reconsideration is
linked to Geraldine Bedell's position which, while communicated to her last
September, has come to the public's attention only now and around the
publication of her novel," Abulhoul said in a statement about Atwood's
decision to withdraw.
ambition behind setting up the festival is fuelled by our heartfelt belief in
actively engaging and helping to bridge the gap between East and West,"
said Abulhoul. "I would hope that anyone informed and interested in the
differing cultures around the world would both understand and respect the path
we tread in setting up the first festival of this nature in the Middle
East," she added.
Anti-Censorship Woman (part II of III)
March 4, 2009
Atwood had accepted the invitation in a spirit of
goodwill. As vice-president of International PEN she was naturally dismayed,
however, to read the piece in The Guardian on February 17th,
in which Bedell listed the reasons that Dubai festival director Isobel Abulhoul
had given for banning and censoring her book.
was a case for Anti-Censorship Woman!” Atwood wrote in The Guardian on Feburary 23rd. “I nipped into the nearest phone
booth, hopped into my cape and coiled my magic lasso, and swiftly cancelled my
own appearance; because, as a vice-president of International PEN, I could not
give my August Seal of Elderly Writer Approval to such a venue.”
she spoke with Abulhoul in person, though, the plot thickened. Atwood learned
the offending letter to Bedell’s publisher, Penguin, dated back to September,
for a start, which raised questions about why it was being publicized in
February. There were other puzzles, too, including the fact that Bedell’s book
is not due out until April 2009 (two months after the end of the Dubai
festival). Atwood concluded that she couldn’t be sure that the terms “banning”
and “censorship” were applicable. Atwood,
in short, acquitted herself well, as we would expect, and while she did not go
to Dubai, she agreed to appear at the festival on video-link.
The story does not
quite end here, though, for the boycott had an effect on English and
International PEN and on some of the English authors invited to Dubai. The novelist Rachel Billington,
a vice-president of English PEN, is one of the writers participating in
Saturday’s discussion at the inaugural literary festival in Dubai: "The
question for those of us who believe in freedom of expression is whether
turning down this as yet unpublished novel (directors of festivals routinely turn
down hundreds of proposed books) amounts to censorship and whether other
writers should boycott the festival," she said.
may well be guilty of ill-advised candour and naiveté in her communications
with Penguin. If there are good reasons for tarring this new festival with the
brush of censorship, though, I have yet to hear them.
my initial concerns,” Billington concludes, “I eventually decided that staying
away was to close the door on an important engagement with writers and readers
not usually available to the West, and I determined to go. I believe that this
kind of discussion in an Arab country is to be celebrated and I shall be
there." Right on, Rachel.
Horowitz and Lauren Child, who, following Atwood's withdrawal, had both said
they were considering whether or not to attend the festival, later decided to
go after all. "Anthony has now had the opportunity to talk to the festival
organizers and feels sufficiently reassured not to pull out of the trip, but to
discuss the issues arising out there," said a spokesperson for Horowitz.
PEN said in a statement that while it "greatly regrets the festival's
decision not to include Geraldine Bedell on the basis of the content of her
novel," it accepted that the book had not been banned in the region, and
had never been included in the festival programme "therefore it was never
withdrawn.” Which sounds both silly and obvious, like something out of a Monty Python skit.
Dubai 2009: A Reminder of
Montreal 2009 (Part III of III)
story about the inaugural literary festival in Dubai reminds me in one
important way of the inaugural Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival,
which got off to a rocky start in April 1999.
issue here in Montreal was quite unlike the situation in Dubai. There, the
uproar was about the supposed “banning” of a novel that included a character
who was gay, though in the end it became unclear if there was really any issue
of censorship at all. In the case of Blue Met, the issue was language.
the festival director in Dubai, I was inexperienced – I had never even attended
a literary festival in 1999, which may help to explain why Blue Met is so
different from other literary festivals. Since Blue Met had no funding at all
at the outset, I was working on a volunteer basis (which I very much doubt is
the case in Dubai) and without assistance until two months before the festival.
I made a mistake or two, as well, and inadvertently angered UNEQ, the
francophone writers’ union.
pretext doesn’t matter today, but the underlying reason was serious. Blue Met
angered UNEQ because it included
both French and English. (It subsequently came to include other languages,
too.) We didn’t mean to anger
UNEQ, in fact we were hoping to partner with them, but they wanted nothing to
do with us, or with English.
nationalists would not have cared much about a festival that took place
entirely in English, but they saw bilingualism as a threat to the French
language and culture of Quebec. So one famous nationalist novelist described
Blue Met in 1999 as “a federalist plot,” which came as a surprise to me. Some
members of UNEQ believed that I personally was in the pay of then-Heritage
minister Sheila Copps. (This rumour proved surprisingly persistent and appeared
in print five years later in a book entitled Le Referendum vole, Les Intouchables, 2004, in which the
nationalist author Robin Philpott laments the fact that no evidence has ever
turned up of financial (or indeed any) support from Heritage in starting up Blue
was that all. Stéphane Dion was the most despised man in nationalist circles in
those days, when he was notorious for a series of carefully-argued open letters
he had published in the Quebec press in 1997-98 arguing for a clear question in
the event of another referendum. It was therefore a particular insult when
these same nationalists referred to me as “the Stéphane Dion of the literary
milieu.” They also did their best to convince the funding agencies not to
support Blue Met.
was pretty brutal at the time, even though, in retrospect, there is something
Monty-Pythonesque about it, like the story of the Office de la langue française summoned in 1996 to investigate the
case of the Montreal-area pet shop with an English-speaking parrot. (I have
long suspected that parrots never really recovered from Monty Python, a
suspicion confirmed by the Tories’ attack ads during the last federal election.
But I digress.)
am reminded of the early days of Blue Met not because of any great similarity between
them and the uproar in the lead-up to the Dubai festival, but mostly because
both stories confirm the meaning and importance that a literary festival can
have, for better and sometimes for worse.
have a stake in a festival, they understand exactly what a festival means –
different festivals have different meanings – and they care about it. Margaret
Atwood clearly cares about the festival in Dubai, or she would not have
bothered either to accept or to withdraw on what looked like an important point
of principle – or indeed finally to participate in the Saturday panel on
censorship. Its other participants and its public care, too. It is a vital
bridge and you don’t want to see it take a wrong turning.
Quebec nationalists know the importance of Blue Met. That famous novelist knows
what Blue Met means, and he doesn’t like it, even today. Everyone else gets it,
too, and most of them love its inclusiveness and look forward to the festival
fact that these festivals mean something – and that they matter to people – is
worth remembering when we’re feeling discouraged by what Tom Mole describes on this
site as the demise of a shared literary culture -- and by the fact that
newspaper after newspaper is cutting the space devoted to book reviews,
bookstore after bookstore closing. More on this in another post.
One cheer for
March 1, 2009
While much that Tom Mole (Globe Books) has to say about book reviews thriving in their
new habitat on the Internet is undoubtedly true, I am less taken with his
conclusion, that “What is endangered is the shared sense of a literary public
culture that book reviews helped to create in the first place.”
Yes, we are losing the shared literary space of the
newspaper book review as newspaper after newspaper reduces the space devoted to
print book reviews. However, most are upping the online space devoted to books,
including book reviews, and when the dust settles, there will likely be some
agreement about which are the best of these sites, the best book blogs, the
best literary e-zines, etc.
The “literary public culture,” however, is livelier still,
as I think the proliferation and popularity of literary events and festivals
indicates. This is where there are opportunities to showcase writers who might
in the past have been featured in books sections, and this is where people get
together physically in a room, a hall, an auditorium, to listen to readings,
panel discussions, talks, etc. And, not only this, but to respond with
questions and comments of their own in that same public space and in
conversations with the author and other readers.
There are opportunities here, as well as dangers. The world
of books is clearly changing, and we can all find reasons for doom and gloom
(and not just for literary reasons) in some of the changes we are witnessing.
What Mole appears to lament is the power that a few arbiters of taste have had
in the past to influence a shared literary culture.
How the interactivity of the virtual world – and of public
literary events – will impact reading and writing and a shared literary culture
is, I would suggest, a more interesting topic than Mole’s piece suggests. It is
also one we are each of us is in a position to influence, which was not the
case in the past.
Atomized may be one word for this. Or, how about simply
“democratic”? It may be too soon for “Two cheers for democracy,” but it is not
too soon for one.
Art, Life, and the
Ghost of Festivals past
March 25 2009
The programme for this year’s
Blue Met – which will take place April 22-26 – is at the printer, and the press
conference will take place on March 30th, when tickets go on sale
and the publicity begins. In this ten-day lull I have been focusing on raising
some of the funding that is still needed – this has been a tough year for
fundraising and there are miles to go before I can rest – and reading The Children’s Book, the new novel by
A.S. Byatt we will be launching on Opening Night, when she will receive this
year’s Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand prix. I will have more to
say about that in a later post, and will here remark only that a Byatt novel
provides a good opportunity to observe the interplay between art and life.
Running a festival provides such opportunities in more ways
than one, and the lead-up to one festival inevitably prompts memories of
festivals past including the year when the legendary French writer Alain
Robbe-Grillet came to Montreal.
I met Alain Robbe-Grillet at the
Belgrade Book Fair in October 1993. I was surprised, I have to admit, to meet
the father of the nouveau roman. He
was 81 that fall, and grizzled, and though he was in Belgrade as a writer –
France was the guest of honour that year – he seemed to me less a contemporary
writer than a figure out of literary history.
He had already seemed like a figure out of literary history, in fact, when I read
him as a student in the early 1970s. His early novel Les Gommes (1953) created a fiction with no clear relation to
reality, a new kind of fiction that allowed him to toy with his readers’
expectations and which some dismissed as a joke. His influence culminated in
the screenplay for Last Year in Marienbad
in 1961 and Pour un nouveau roman in
1963. His mind-testing “later” novels La
Maison de rendez-vous and Projet pour
une revolution a New York had been published at the end of the 1960s. He
died a year ago at the age of 85.
Over glasses of wine in the
French embassy in Belgrade, I invited this living legend to come to Montreal to
participate in Blue Met. He seemed interested, but I had enough experience of
inviting writers to Montreal to know that not all invitations issued over
glasses of wine work out. And he was sardonic, with a reputation for the
unexpected, so I was surprised to learn that he was still interested when I
followed up after my return to Montreal.
We bought him a ticket on Air
France and then here he was, all of a sudden, in the lobby of the Festival
hotel, chatting with Alberto Manguel and me, telling the story about his
arrival at Montreal’s Trudeau airport.
“I went up to the customs
officer,” he began, “a young man in uniform, who took my passport and studied
“Alain Robbe-Grillet,” this young
customs officer said, seemingly amazed.
I could imagine. If I myself had
been amazed to meet Alain Robbe-Grillet a few months before, so it did not
surprise me that a customs officer just out of college would marvel.
“This does happen to me,”
Robbe-Grillet explained to Alberto and me, “so I thought nothing of it. I
nodded helpfully. It never hurts to be civil, especially with customs
“There’s a French writer called
Alain Robbe-Grillet,” the young man said.
Robbe-Grillet nodded again. “And
this time I smiled at him. ‘You are quite right,’ I said.”
I don’t know if Robbe-Grillet was
impressed, but I certainly was impressed that a customs officer in Montreal had
read some of his literary work.
“That’s it!” the young man now
exclaimed. “There’s a dead French writer I read in college who has the very
same name you do!”
Alberto’s eyes widened, and we exchanged
glances. This was really funny. But did Robbe-Grillet see it that way? It was
hard to tell. Neither of us laughed.
Robbe-Grilled shrugged in that
inscrutable French way. “The young man looked extraordinarily pleased with
himself,” is all he said. “I just put my passport back in my pocket and went on
I watched Robbe-Grillet’s face,
to see what he thought about this, but he wasn’t giving anything away.
Was he amused? Was he upset that
a young man thought him dead? Was he disgusted that the young man had not
recognized him? Or was he testing us to see how we would respond to his story?
I couldn’t read his face. He was telling a joke, and he himself was the butt of
his joke, or so it seemed to me, but he had told the story dispassionately, as he
might have told the story about someone else.
And then he smiled a little, so
Alberto and I allowed ourselves to smile a little, too. I don’t think either of
us will ever be sure if we were smiling for the same reason as Robbe-Grillet.
The Battle of the
March 30, 2009
A battle of the books took place last week in a
Radio-Canada studio here in Montreal, and the winner was the work of a Lebanese
immigrant, as defended by a member of Quebec’s anglophone minority.
The occasion was Le
Combat des livres, the French-language equivalent of the CBC competition Canada Reads. Combat is le mot juste. There’s a whole lot more
politics – and rather more irony – in what goes on here than in Canada Reads. For better and sometimes
for worse, there is simply more at stake.
In last year’s contest, former Parti québécois premier Bernard Landry
reignited a storm of controversy over Mordecai Richler, attacking him on the
grounds that he never learned French; bilingual CBC Radio host Anne Lagacé Dowson, who was defending Barney’s Version, later left the CBC and ran for the NDP in the
2008 federal election. http:/www.radio-canada.ca/radio/christiane/combat2008/livre_3.shtml
This year’s winner was the French translation of Rawi
Hage’s first novel, defended by anglophone journalist Brendan Kelly. The win
for De Niro’s Game, translated as Parfum de poussièreby Sophie Voillot(Alto), makes for a double first: the
first time a book originally written in English has won the competition, and
the first time a book defended by an anglophone has won.
As with Canada Reads,
there were five books in contention. The others were La fabrication de
l'aube by Jean-François Beauchemin (Québec
Amérique), defended by actor Emmanuel Bilodeau; Vandal Love ou
Perdus en Amérique,
de D.Y Béchard (Québec-Amérique), defended by television newscaster Esther
Bégin; Borderline by Marie-Sissi Labrèche (Éditions du
Boréal) defended by actor, author
and playwright Janette Bertrand;
and Mistouk, by Gérard Bouchard (Éditions du Boréal).
Bouchard, who is
the brother of former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, is a respected academic;
he was co-chair, last year, of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable
Accommodation set up to examine the treatment of immigrants and minorities in
Quebec society. Mistouk, which is his
first novel, was defended by
priest and former Bloc québécois
Member of Parliament Abbé Raymond Gravel.
The stage was set
for a new “Battle of the Plains of Abraham” this time around when Mistouk
was the first book to be voted off. (La
Bitterly disappointed at losing out – especially to Vandal Love - Perdus en Amérique, a novel he dismissed as « Une histoire de fuckés » -- Gravel turned
In Kelly’s account, Gravel “suggested I couldn’t
appreciate Mistouk, which recounts in
wearying detail the history of the Tremblay clan in the Saguenay region,
because I am an anglophone.” Kelly reminded
Gravel that he was defending a book set in Lebanon, a country he had never set
foot in, and he rejected the view that he had been unable to appreciate Mistouk because he is an anglophone. “I find that depressing, frankly,” Kelly
said. “I am Québécois, and if I didn’t like this book, it’s because I didn’t
like it, not because I’m an anglophone.”
In the end, after
Hage – and Kelly – had won, the language tensions eased up, and Gravel
apologized to Kelly on-air in the final minutes of the Combat. “Just call it a little bit of reasonable accommodation.”
April 13, 2009
I've had a
lifelong love affair with Leonard Cohen, whom I have never met. I read his
novels as a young woman, and I was intrigued. I have a well-thumbed copy of The Spice Box of Earth on my bookshelf
to this day. In fact, I have a whole library of words and music by Leonard
My love affair
with Leonard has something to do with Montreal, with Suzanne by the river in
all those rags and feathers. It has something to do with Leonard himself,
crossing the floor of McGill's McLennan Library in a well-made suit, sitting
alone at a restaurant table on the Main, a couple of decades later, and
then -- another 10 years had gone by -- showing up for Irving
Layton's funeral, uncertain and thin. It has a lot to do with intimacy, and a
lot to with humility, not to mention humour.
He has always
been such the most literary of songwriters, a poet first and last. That's a
minority taste. My taste. It felt as though he was mine alone, my secret lover,
and if he wasn't in fact mine at all, well, you know, we weren't lovers like
that, and besides, it would still be all right.
I knew, of course,
that I wasn't exactly alone in loving him. From time to time, I'd meet another,
always a woman, and he was her secret lover, too. I could tell. We would
recognize each other at parties. It wasn't a bond, exactly. More like meeting a
Last summer was
the beginning of the end. I bought tickets to see Leonard at Montreal's Place
des Arts. The concert was everything I could have hoped for. Leonard was
everything I could have hoped for. Along with everyone else in Salle
Wilfrid-Pelletier that night, I got to my feet time after time to give him a
standing ovation with each new song. The people next to me, all around me, were
smiling, laughing, marveling, and Leonard, in person, seemed to be mine, even
then. So why was I starting to have doubts?
Cohen is everywhere. I can't turn on the radio any more without hearing Hallelujah or Famous Blue Raincoat or So
long, Marianne. He's on Tom Allan every time I tune in, and there he was
again, on Easter morning, on Molly Johnson. In French -- he's loved every
bit as much in French as he is in English -- he is Lé-o-nar-co-Henn, with
the accent on the Lé and on the Henn. There are sold out concerts in London, in
New York. He's on primetime television. He's in Open Da Night when I stop by
for an allongé. He's in Ogilvy's when I need an umbrella. Outside, in the
drizzle, a young woman is singing The
Sisters of Mercy with her eyes closed. The newspapers publish photographs
of a boyish Leonard in well-made suits, recent photographs of this new Leonard
with his signature hat. Leonard has gone mega.
I should be happy
for him. He needed the money. I should be glad he has this way of making up
what was taken from him. But I'm not happy, not at all.
Is this jealousy?
Hardly. I can't feel jealous of the adoring crowds, certainly not of the young
woman on the street with her eyes closed. I felt the same joy as everyone else
around me in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier last June; I bear no ill will to anyone.
It's just that Leonard mattered more to me when he was mine alone.
I'm disappointed, that's
what it is. We had something special, Leonard and I, and now he's gone and
shared it with the world.
A City of Dreams or,
Why Blue Metropolis is Blue
April 19, 2009
It is the lull before the storm as I write this, the Sunday
before the opening of the literary festival I called Blue Metropolis. I could
never have predicted that I would found a literary festival – I scarcely knew
what a literary festival was, never having been to one before the first Blue
Met – but it makes perfect sense that I did so. Blue Metropolis brings two of
the great passions of my being together: reading and writing.
Blue Met is a blow-out party for
more than 16,000 people that goes on for days, like a Latin fiesta or a Greek
country wedding: a carnival of words. And if it does so in 166 different events
taking place in two or more different languages, and if it manages to bring
people of different backgrounds together in the process, well, that makes
sense, too. This is Montreal, after all, and I am a Montrealer who happens to
have been born in the divided city of Belfast which, in spite of its dear,
funny, lovely people, has come as close to dystopia as any city I have known.
It makes perfect sense, as well,
that I called this carnival of words Blue Metropolis, for Blue Metropolis is
Utopia, an imaginary island city. It’s the city I want to live in, the place I
want to be. I love a city – Basel as a child, London, Montreal, Paris,
Brussels, Budapest – and the city I want to live in is inclusive and diverse. It
has room for us all, no matter who we are, no matter where we’re from, no
matter what language we speak.
And why is it Blue? I get asked
that a lot, for Blue Metropolis is an intriguing name, which is the best reason
I know for using it.
Blue goes back to On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, a short book published by the American
writer William Gass in 1976. What impressed me most about this book, and what
remained with me, was the list it provides in its opening pages of dozens,
hundreds, of different ways in which the word blue is used – blue chip, blue
collar, blue skies, the blues, Bluenose, blue ribbon, Blue Peter, blue movies –
all different, often contradictory.
Blue goes back to the Famous Blue Raincoat, too, Leonard. I
imagine you in the Famous Blue Raincoat.
I had one myself for a while there. And blue is not green, or red, or orange or
just about any other colour: we would all know what to expect from a Green
Metropolis or a Red Metropolis. Jon Paul Fiorentino in Stripmalling – which will be launched at Blue Met this week –
writes about a launch at a Montreal literary festival called “Red Cosmopolis;”
which is one for my growing collection of books that comment on Blue Met. An
Orange Metropolis might have one meaning to a Ukrainian; it has a closed and
sectarian meaning to a woman born in Belfast.
A Blue Metropolis is open to
interpretation, open to all. It is the very image of desire. Oscar Wilde
considered that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth
even glancing at.” At Opening Night of one of the early festivals, then-Mayor
of Montreal, Pierre Bourque, asked me why Blue Metropolis is Blue, and when I
told him, he nodded and said, “A city of dreams.”