"In Other Words" posts, Globe Books
11 March 2011

"In Other Words" posts, Globe Books

by Linda Leith

Reading, 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.

Reading, 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.'"

Feuchtgebiete ("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 taboos.”

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.

Hygiene, she 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!”

The 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 mind today.

One is "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 for pleasure.

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 reading them.

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 ! I

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 asides?

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 English-speaking world.

The young stars of Quebec’s literary scene have been busy, as well:

  • Nicholas Dickner, after hitting the ground running with his first novel Nikolski in 2005, is launching Tarmac (Alto);
  • Stéphane Dompierre, Quebec’s answer to Douglas Coupland, is publishing the pirate story Morlante (Coups de têtes);
  • Nadine 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 highlights.

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 ! II

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 ! III

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.

Bailing 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 Proposal" 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 difficult times.

"We're 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 imagination.

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, as well.

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 sentence.

Charles Ritchie and the Witch

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 himself.

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 revenged.”

Dubai: The 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 participants:

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 PEN;

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:

"We are 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.

"The 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.

Dubai: 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.

“This 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.”

When 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.

Abulhoul 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.

"After 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.

Anthony 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.

International 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)

March 5, 2009

This 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.

The 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.

Like 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.

The 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.

The 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 Met.)

Nor 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.

This 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.)

I 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.

People 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.

The 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 every April.

The 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 democracy?

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 it.

“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 officers.”

“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 my way.”

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 Books, Quebec-style

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 Presse) Bitterly disappointed at losing out – especially to Vandal Love - Perdus en Amérique, a novel he dismissed as « Une histoire de fuckés » -- Gravel turned on Kelly.

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.” http:/www.montrealgazette.com/Life/Weary+winner+battle+books+Gazette+writer/1437718/story.html

Getting over Leonard

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 Cohen.

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 rival.

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?

Today, Leonard 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.”


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