NOTA BENE BOOKS BLOG

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Reading the biographies of Cities

While researching an article on literary tourism for the upcoming issue of Ontario magazine, I got to meet some stellar Canadian authors at sites across the province that feature, variously, in their works. Here, it’s Michael Redhill and his novel Consolation. We’re in downtown Toronto.

Photographing the photographing

Tim Campbell is photographing Michael who holds an image of what the same street corner looked like back in 1855 (the year in which much of the novel is set).

The piece should be out within the next few weeks. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here, from some years back, is Michael in conversation with another Michael, Medley, about cities, literature and mythos :

“MM: Toronto takes centre stage in Consolation. What novels, or short stories, or poems, or plays, do you feel do the best job of capturing our city?

MR: We don’t really have a city literature, I don’t think. There are some writers who have used Toronto in their work – sometimes as backdrop, sometimes as a character – authors like Atwood and Ondaatje have used the city quite consciously; Joe Fiorito has just written a marvelous book about the city; and authors like Cary Fagan, Pier Giorgio DiCicco, and Barbara Gowdy seem to suffuse their work with the city. But I wonder sometimes why a central mythos about Toronto has never developed, the way you get ongoing images of cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and a few other New World cities coming out over generations of literary work. You can piece together a certain kind of biography of these cities, decade-by-decade, simply by reading books written by people who lived through those times. Not so in Toronto. I can’t think of the Toronto of the thirties or forties in our national or civic fiction. Montreal, absolutely; Toronto, no (with the possible exception of some of Morley Callaghan’s work). This may simply be that we’ve internalized what we perceive (accurately or not) as a hatred for this city, and resist any call from within to speak of it in art. Toronto resists art—there, I said it. Recently (very recently), there seems to be a reversal at work here – the generation after mine, especially visual artists, seem to be opening their eyes to this place. This awareness of where they are is in their work, and it’s celebratory rather than apologetic. This awes me, having grown up in a place that celebrates itself, if at all, with its eyes pointing downward.”

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