High Points for LitWits

Just a few more (lately logged) comments on the Ottawa International Writers Festival, among which will not appear a re-opening of the debate about whether there should be an apostrophe at the end of “Writers” (except to say that it’s an adjective, not necessarily a possessive one, and with the ridiculous littering of apostrophes where they ought not to be, leaning toward exclusion where it can safely be justified is fine by me, so there!) (Was there ever a debate?)

• Especially for those who remember well the Air India disaster, and the Canadian implications in other explosions of religious extremism, Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call will be very interesting reading. It dances between Indo-Canadian communities and the murderous background of Sikhs versus Hindus in the Punjab. Sounds good.

• High school English teachers can having a writing life. Brent Leo Robillard (Houdini’s Shadow) has proved it. (Unsure whether to praise or curse him.)

• English professors can write with humour, irreverence and sauce. Randy Boyagoda’s Governor of the Northern Province skewers several Canadian complacencies, institutions and sloppily held ideals.

• While I am impatient with the partisanship and constant posturing that is built in to our governing system, I do have time for the characters in the play. Found Eddy Goldenberg (How It Works) and his discussion of his decades as “back-room boy” to former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien interesting. He tells a funny story of Mr. Chrétien’s first social visit with George Bush, where the President’s attempt at small talk (okay, do I know any Canadians?) began with his admiring view of Conrad Black, sworn antagonist to the PM who wouldn’t agree to a Canuck being allowed entry into the British House of Lords. There were several Bush anecdotes, at least one of which is getting some play in Washington (his reference to stringing the source of government leaks up by the thumbs, “just like we do at Guantanamo Bay”.) Interesting from an insider point of view, and also for the sake of humanizing a government process that can seem foggy and far away.

• I had known of Michael Redhill as the editor of Brick, a literary magazine, and as a playwright, but my knowledge of theatre is pathetic. Hearing him read from his latest novel, Consolation, has put a new entry on my must read list. (This may not be a compliment these days, but he reminded me of Mel Gibson a few months after firing his personal trainer.) I enjoyed his turn of phrase as a writer, and found his comments incisive and intelligent. And a bit of a caution: “All writers have diseased egos – and in awards season, it metastasizes”; and “Why publish? I find myself quite perplexed about why I do this.” This is someone I’d like to know.

Slowed by a Brick in the Road

I’m not accustomed to being this current in my reading, especially with something other than the occasional sports page, but yesterday I launched into the summer ’06 edition of Brick, a literary journal published in Canada. (While it’s still summer. Imagine.) It is far from alone in deserving (and needing) a wider readership, and in bringing something just a little loftier to minds ready for more than stock quotations and Red Sox scores; that is to say, to most educated adults. The rewards are many.

Here are two of them. First, I read the transcript of a radio interview I’d heard last spring with Leonard Cohen. Five of his songs were being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame; he was humble, charming, intelligent. (I wrote about it here in an earlier entry.) It was a pleasure to stumble upon such a rare treat again.

Second, I was introduced to literature’s Mr. Roth, not the American novelist Philip but the Austrian writer Joseph, a little-known figure that scholar and translator Michael Hofmann has made it his life’s work to know and love and advocate. “My Life with Roth” gives scant detail about its subject – surprisingly few traces remain, though he lived until 1939 – but recounts Hofmann’s rather random discovery of Roth and the ten subsequent translations he has done of his novels and letters. He had already convinced me to scribble down The Radetzky March on my burgeoning list of Books I Will Get To Someday, but Hofmann sealed the deal by concluding his essay with the following selection from Roth’s greatest novel. Like much great writing, it is more true now than when it was written. It pierces our nearly omnipresent conviction that efficiency and sheer pace are the hallmarks of our cultural greatness. He echoes Gandhi’s famous dictum that “there is more to life than increasing its speed”. Roth wrote,

In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.

 This was my ouch for the day.

(You’re welcome.)