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July 10th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio: David Mason talks about his memoir The Pope’s Bookbinder

David Mason, with boss in the foreground.

I met with David Mason recently to talk about his memoir The Pope’s Bookbinder. As the Biblioasis website wordsmiths have it:

“From his drug-hazy, book-happy years near the Beat Hotel in Paris and throughout his career as antiquarian book dealer, David Mason brings us a storied life. He discovers his love of literature in a bathtub at age eleven, thumbing through stacks of lurid Signet paperbacks. At fifteen he’s expelled from school. For the next decade and a half, he will work odd jobs, buck all authority, buy books more often than food, and float around Europe. He’ll help gild a volume in white morocco for Pope John XXIII. And then, at the age of 30, after returning home to Canada and apprenticing with Joseph Patrick Books, David Mason will find his calling.”

“David Mason boldly campaigns for what he feels is the moral duty of the antiquarian trade: to preserve the history and traditions of all nations, and to assert without compromise that such histories have value.  The Pope’s Bookbinder is an engrossing memoir by a giant in the book trade—whose infectious enthusiasm, human insight, commercial shrewdness, and deadpan humour will delight bibliophiles for decades to come. “

Listen to Part l of our conversation here:

 

Play
July 3rd, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Brilliant Ads

 

June 22nd, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Authors are particularly candid in admitting the faults of their friends

“And pray,” said I, “how is a man to get a peep into those confederacies you speak of? I presume an intercourse with authors is a kind of intellectual exchange, where one must bring his commodities to barter, and always give a quid pro quo?

“Pooh, pooh! how you mistake,” said Buckthorne smiling; “you must never think to become popular among wits by shining. They go into society to shine themselves, not to admire the brilliancy of others. I once thought as you do, and never went into literary society without studying my part beforehand; the consequences was, that I soon go the name of an intolerable proser, and should in a little while have been completely excommunicated, had I not changed my plan of operations. No, sir, no character succeeds so well among wits as that of a good listener; or if ever you are eloquent, let it be when tete-a-tete with an author, and then in praise of his own works, or, what is nearly as acceptable, in disparagement of the works of his contemporaries. If ever he speaks favorably of the productions of a particular friend, dissent boldly from him; pronounce his friend a blockhead; never fear his being vexed. Much as people speak of the irritability of authors, I never found one to take offence at such contradictions. No, no, sir, authors are particularly candid in admitting the faults of their friends.

from Tales of a Traveller, by Washington Irving – the uber literary tourist – chapter entitled Literary Life.

June 20th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Why Shakespeare is the greatest

   

This from Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism, by Jean H. Hagstrum:

How, then, does art instruct? It instructs by performing its essential function, that is by imitating nature in its tow large aspects. Art instructs by representing lifelike and particular reality, extensive in its range and various in its forms; and by representing, or at least implying, moral and psychological truth, which is general, rational, and normative. Johnson considered Shakespeare the greatest English poet, for he was above all others “the poet of nature” both particular and general. The plays of Shakespeare exhibit “the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumberable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another…”Such are his representations of reality, rich in particuarlity, complexity, and contradiction. At the same time he was supremely the poet of general nature. He “thinks only on me” and presents “the genuine progeny of common humanity,” who “act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion.”

By Johnsonian standards Shakespeare must be, in spite of occasional and incidental lapses from the strictest morality, the most moral of poets precisely because he is the most natural. Only a poet of nature allows the mind to “repose on the stability of truth”:”he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies, by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” In this Johnson’s central conception of the way in which art instructs, morality is neither a kind of didactic appendage, artificially attached to the work, nor any kind of direct homiletical appeal. Art is moral because it is the mirror of life, which in its variety and reality is always instructive; and because it is a representation of general nature, which is itself morally constituted into “standing relations and general passions.”

(Johnson quotes are from Preface to Shakespeare and Life of Butler, Poets, l)

June 19th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books, Vienna

Feud wins Vienna Photo Book Award for 2014

FEUD by Olga Matveeva


The book will be available September 2014 and can be pre-ordered for 33 Euro (instead of 39 after July 31, 2014) here

Feud is about fraternal wars in which opposite parties can’t explain root or prime causes, where old sacral actions reproduce themselves; where it’s difficult to be stand outside of the situation, difficult not to react to provocations,  news items; Lenin’s monument falling down for example; where strategic lies generate aggression, and inevitable involvement.
where the dissonance between common sense and reality is beyond comprehension.

Feud provides intimate space, in which bedmates  who share a common past, suddenly become real enemies. Who started this provocation and what is the source of its nature? You become dependent on it, like some kind of a drug. You feel yourself as an animal in a cage, and you can’t get out. War and hate here looks like passion, where you define yourself in terms of your counterparts. 

For more information on Feud, the Vienna Photo Book Review and the Vienna Photo Book Award visit this website
June 19th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Stunning Scarborough Cover

If the contents of Michael Lista’s The Scarborough (Vehicule Press, 2014) are any where near as horrorshow as the David Drummond cover, this book is going to be some special package. 

June 8th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Look at your life as a garden

I’m reading bear hunt: earn your living by doing what you love. Here are some wicked quotes for the chapter entitled ‘You are what you Believe’(no reference to Voltaire interestingly):

“I said to her ‘You know, Freud wrote a paper in 1912 for young analysts just starting out in their practice, telling them how to begin the treatment, and he said to tell the patient to imagine that you are both on a train – he used the word “imagine” – and that the patient was looking out of the window and describing to you everything that he saw in the countryside as it passed by.

‘You know, he gave the rule of free association as an image’ – and that occurred to me, it had never entered my mind before, but there it was in black and white.”

“You unfold through the calling that you follow in your life.”

“if you believe it – good. What you believe you will create”

“It seems that what you see is what you believe, and what you believe is what you are, and even your body can take on board this message.”

“He is adamant that all of us can step out into the unknown, if we have absolute faith in what we are doing.”

“What we give out is what we get back, says the Gospel, and the universe is around to be there for you all the time. What she taught me was how to make contact with it.”

“Imagery is effectively a belief system given form. In a state of consciousness you create a belief.”

“What you believe you will manifest as your outer experience.”

“In other words, if you use an image to create a new belief for yourself – for example, that you are going to be successful in earning your living by doing what you love – your mind and body will begin to take action to make the belief into reality.”

“We are saying that what I believe becomes my experience and my reality.”

“In [Dr. Gerald]Epstein’s analysis, it is all very simple. Look at your life as a garden that needs to be tended. You are a life-gardener entrusted with creating your own ‘reality garden’. To create a new reality for yourself, you have to attend to three functions: weeding, seeding and harvesting.”

“Negative beliefs and emotions must be cleared away, if any new seed is to grow properly. Mental imagery can be used to create positive beliefs and emotions, so that new seeds can be planted in fertile ground.

Now we can establish and nurture our new seeds by visualizing our new reality. If you want success, how does it look; if you want contribution, how do you see it? What does a life that you can love look like?

Epstein’s advice is to spend a short time revisiting this image every morning for 21 days, then taking 7 days off, then beginning the cycle again. This cycle parallels a biological rhythm that is present in all of us, particularly women, who experience the cycle of three weeks of hormonal regulation, followed by a week of menstruation.”

“We make our beliefs reality and our reality becomes our experience. In Epstein’s words:

That’s  all. You’ve planted a seed, nurtured it watered it. Now the seed has to take fruit and grow. That’s how it works.”

“There are four things to do to prepare the mind for mental imaging work:

Intention:

“Always begin by defining and clarifying the intention – what you want to achieve for the exercise. For example ‘My book [Literary Tourist] is going to be a massive success and a valuable tool for thousands of people.”

Quieting

External and internal. You don’t need to go into a monastery to do imaging, but do get away from jarring sounds. Some sounds, such as birdsong or the gentle lapping of the sea, can actually be helpful. Internal quieting is about achieving a relaxed state. Not too relaxed – you don’t want to go into deep relaxation – you want to achieve a state of ‘heightened wakefulness.’ Take a deep breath and breathe out two or three times consecutively.”

Cleansing

“According to Epstein, ‘every moral or ethical indiscretion is registered in our bodies and can adversely influence the workings of our physical and mental lives.’

We have to make a conscious effort to ‘clean up our act’ in order to properly open the imaginal eye. We need to look inwardly at ourselves, be honest, get rid of our delusions and consider how we relate to others.”

Changing

“Holding on to something that is impermanent but pretending it is permanent can only lead to trouble and, according to Epstein, ‘most often the form the trouble takes is a physical ailment.’

Openness to change is one of the keys to the way of the imaginal. “

“Great leadership and achievement can be brought about by the of the imaginal. When Martin Luther Kings took to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963, he didn’t say ‘I have a strategic plan,’ did he?

He had a dream – a waking dream. Adream that he described as an image:”

“He [Dr. Gerald Epstein] is living proof that if you are truly passionate about something and you maintain your faith and belief, you can earn your living by doing what you love – even when you are selling the ‘waking dream’, an  extraordinary concept that hardly anyone has ever heard of before.”

June 7th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Of a Smallness in the Soul: An essay by André Alexis

Of a Smallness in the Soul
André Alexis

for George Elliott Clarke
I don’t like to be thought of as a “black writer”, largely because I refuse to accept that my race provides a royal road to understanding the fiction I write. Once one has been labelled, reviewers (and readers) almost inevitably comment on the label as much as they do on the work. To be a feminist writer, a magic realist, a surrealist, a member of the avant-garde … all these designations lead to the same thing: a prejudgement that clogs up important channels between writer and reader.

That’s not to say that I believe no writer should call him or herself “black”. Blackness – whatever the sense and implications of that word – is at the heart of Lawrence Hill’s work, for instance. In Hill’s novels, blackness is examined, questioned, played with. Hill’s approach seems to me honourable, but I wonder if it doesn’t unavoidably lead to a misdirection. What makes Lawrence’s work good is not his willingness to deal with blackness but, rather, his handling of the idea, his artistry which, after all, he has devoted his life to acquiring.

There are other approaches I admire. I’m grateful for artists like Anthony Braxton or Ralph Ellison who are not content to allow any particular definition of “black” to guide them. They take in and are influenced by whatever Art moves them, in effect broadening the vista for black musicians (Braxton) or black writers (Ellison). Still, I tend to ignore or avoid the label entirely, to write as if it had no bearing on my work and to discourage others from using it where my prose fiction is involved.

One’s principles and preferences have, of course, no bearing on how one’s work is received. I was surprised, recently, when an interviewer insinuated (politely) that I was a black writer who only pretended that race doesn’t matter. I had become, in his mind, a kind of hypocrite, a man who uses an identity (“writer who doesn’t care about race”) that downplays the importance of race while simultaneously relying on the force of the idea of race. I objected that this is not true. I have never denied the importance of race in the world. What I have longed for is a place where my aesthetic concerns might be given precedence. For the sake of the art I practice, I would almost prefer to have no race at all.

But I am African-Canadian. I have the genetic markers that manifest in what is called “blackness”. And the self that allows the writer in me to exist, the self that lives and breathes in a world where race is often significant, where one has to be careful in which neighbourhoods one walks, in which bars one drinks, etc: that self – which is, for the most part, un-tormented by my race – sometimes wishes to speak up, to point to things that are important or disturbing or cause for thought. That is why I have written essays on the subject of race. It seems to me that the essay – as opposed to fiction – is the proper venue for serious thought about the nature of citizenship. Every once in a while, however, the citizen in me and the writer of fiction wrestle over something that is significant to both of them, something that is problematic for both. The most recent conflict of this sort came about after I’d read David Gilmour’s The Perfect Order of Things.

A little background, to begin with …Some time ago, I wrote a review of Mr. Gilmour’s novel A Perfect Night to go to China. I thought the novel was a poor imitation of Ian McEwen’s The Child in Time and it seemed to me that, in Gilmour’s version, the child’s disappearance was little more than a pretext for the author to wallow in emotion, turning his protagonist’s grief into something unpleasantly literary. As sometimes happens when you publicly say that you don’t like a book, the book’s author was furious. So much so that, six years later, in his next novel (The Perfect Order of Things), Mr. Gilmour created a character named “René Goblin”, a black reviewer who has given his protagonist/narrator’s novel a bad review. In The Perfect Order of Things, the protagonist achieves revenge on the black reviewer by slapping the reviewer’s face.

From the text alone, the reader would not know that “René Goblin” was meant to be “André Alexis”. But Mr. Gilmour made a point of saying so to the journalist Mark Medley, in an interview with the National Post. Mr. Gilmour made it clear that, in effect, the chapter in The Perfect Order of Things called “The Pigeon” is meant to be his revenge on an actual reviewer named “André Alexis”.

After being figuratively slapped for doing nothing wrong – and, of course, it is not wrong to give one’s considered opinion about literature – I returned the favour. I created a character named Gilbert Davidoff – a mediocre novelist and compulsive womanizer – based on Mr. Gilmour and put him in a novella called A. (To be clear, “Gilbert Davidoff” is not David Gilmour any more than “René Goblin” is me. I don’t know Mr. Gilmour. Mr. Gilmour does not know me. For my part, I based Davidoff on Gilmour’s protagonists.)

That should have been that, but “The Pigeon” is a very strange bird, so to speak. I find it offensive in ways Mr. Gilmour may or may not have intended, ways that are problematic for my civic self. It seems to me that “The Pigeon” is an obviously racist bit of writing and the more or less polite creation of “Gilbert Davidoff” began to seem like an inadequate response. That is, I began to feel that I had given a literary answer to a question that should have been answered by my social self, by the self that is black, lives in Canada and has to figure out his society’s workings in order to feel at home.

So, how is “The Pigeon” racist?

“The Pigeon”, a short chapter in The Perfect Order of Things, concerns the revenge exacted on a reviewer by a novelist who has received a bad review. The reviewer is black and is named “René Goblin”. (He is a spook, you see.) Mr. Goblin is described as a “deposed African tyrant” with greying dreadlocks, pink gums flashing when he smiles, who wears thick, dark glasses. The narrator asks “why are all those men always so ugly?”. (Flirting aggressively with “They all look alike”.) As one would expect from a spook, René Goblin embodies an inexplicable malevolence but, significantly, he does not act on his own. He is a deposed tyrant, after all. He is hired by a man named Avery Lynch. Avery Lynch is a vicious and unpleasant caricature of the Globe and Mail’s former book section editor, Martin Levin.

As depicted by Gilmour, Lynch is a pervert, a “pink-faced man in his late fifties who fancied himself, la grande littérature aside, quite the ladies man and detoured the conversation in that direction whenever he could.” And: “[Lynch] liked to turn up with his girlfriend with the little chain around her neck and talk to people with his arm around her. She was quite a bit younger than he was, his “lover”. Code for, “I’m fucking her,” of course.”

Having established that the book editor and his hireling, the ugly black reviewer, are morally degenerate and ill intentioned, it comes as no surprise that the narrator’s book is given a negative review that sends him into paroxysms of hurt. Here, Gilmour depicts his narrator as a suffering, powerless victim. It is not fair that his novel has received a bad review. His work cannot be second rate. The review must be the product of ill-will directed at him personally. (A pause: it’s worth noting, here, that Mr. Gilmour was himself a reviewer of books and films, and that he has given his share of unflattering notices. In other words, Mr. Goblin is accused of doing to the narrator – a stand-in for David Gilmour – something that David Gilmour has done to others, something that David Gilmour is entitled to do though René Goblin is not. Also worth noting: Mr Gilmour has, when interviewed, insisted that there is little difference between his fiction and “reality”. In the case of “The Pigeon”, this is demonstrably untrue. In fact, “reality” is systematically distorted in the chapter. Mr. Gilmour does not tell the truth, though it may be that he sees himself as one of his own protagonists.)

Much of the rest of “The Pigeon” ramps up the hurt the narrator feels, his humiliation at having his work denigrated in the Globe and Mail, his desire for revenge. The narrator’s torment is overwrought and absurdly overwritten. At one point, he compares a bad review to child abuse, at a stroke turning Mr. Goblin into a child molester as well. Eventually, after entertaining fantasies of assaulting the reviewer, the narrator calms down, somewhat. His anger abates, somewhat. He begins to come out from the shadow of a review that has spoiled his book for him.

Then, one day, the narrator is walking on the street when René Goblin passes him. Goblin glances at the narrator. That is bad enough. But then Goblin actually looks at the narrator’s reflection in a store window. This looking is a transgression too far. (The crime of looking at a white person the wrong way had a name in the American south, pre-civil rights. It was called eyeballing. So, Mr. Goblin eyeballs the narrator.) The narrator strides over to the reviewer and slaps his face, knocking the ugly glasses off and knocking the reviewer to the ground. The reviewer pleads to be spared further violence and the narrator – who mawkishly compares the reviewer to a pigeon with a broken wing – gives him his glasses back.

To this point, the racial politics of “The Pigeon” have been, to be polite, ill considered. But Gilmour goes further. Not only are there no emotional, legal, or ethical consequences to the assault on the black reviewer but the reviewer himself is, by the end of the story, portrayed as happy. Having been put in his place by the white narrator, René Goblin can at last enjoy his proper station: subservient, un-entitled, a drone working at the CBC, surrounded by a “young crowd of producers” – not by adults.

“The Pigeon” reads like a white supremacist fantasy in which “inferiors” are taught their place: slapped, lampooned, punished. It is a piece written by a privileged, white male (David Gilmour) whose narrator/stand-in makes himself out to be a victim – utterly devastated by a reviewer who has been “recreationally cruel”! He plays the victim in order to justify the vivid (and, as the narrator suggests at the end of the chapter, remorseless) pleasure he takes in a re-assertion of the socio-political order.

I was starkly reminded of “The Pigeon” recently when my attention was directed to a more recent interview Mr. Gilmour gave to Mr. Medley. This newer interview was conducted shortly after Gilmour admitted that he did not teach books by women, because he does not love fiction written by women. (Though I myself think that Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is one of the greatest short stories written by any human being, I think Gilmour’s attitude is reasonable. “Love” is the best place to start from, when teaching. It seems right, however, to question what this inability to love says about Mr. Gilmour’s sensibility.) Talking to Mr. Medley, Gilmour was naturally defensive, having inadvertently offended a number of people, but the sentence of Gilmour’s that stuck with me was this one: “I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body, and everyone who knows me knows it.”

That last sentence is not demonstrably untrue, if we’re speaking of Mr. Gilmour’s fiction. If “racist” is taken to mean “possessed of an active hatred for those of a different race”, it’s almost impossible to tell from a fiction writer’s work if he or she is or is not racist. Fiction involves the exploration of attitudes not necessarily held by its author. There is no doubt, however, that “The Pigeon” uses childishly obvious, racist tropes: an ugly, jazz-loving and dreadlocked spook – given his marching orders by a moral degenerate named “Lynch” – ends up happy once he’s put in his place for dissing and then eyeballing an endlessly appalled white man. Really? It’s difficult not to wonder who, aside from Mr. Gilmour, thought this chapter was racially inoffensive.

Thinking this way, I wondered if any of the reviews of The Perfect Order of Things had noted what I take to be “The Pigeon’s” racism. None that I found had. Instead, the reviewers – among whom were Aritha van Herk, Susan G. Cole, Candace Fertile, James Grainger, Michel Basillière, and Philip Marchand – seemed to find the chapter vivid, if they mentioned “The Pigeon” at all. Still others – in the land of blogs – expressed pleasure at the reviewer’s humiliation (“I cheered” says Christian MacPherson) or, in the case of Alex Good, joked about the fact that Martin Levin had been depicted as a letch. (“Martin! Say it ain’t so!”).

Was the racism unperceived by critics? Was it un-troubling? Did the book’s white reviewers respond positively to its message of white entitlement? Or was it, rather, that none of them wished to discredit an otherwise worthy book by mentioning a flaw that, however vile, was limited to a single chapter within it? Or was it perhaps that the reviewers having read (or guessed) that “René Goblin” referred to “André Alexis” believed that “The Pigeon” was a settling of personal accounts and, so, not truly racist at all? This last one seems a credible reason but it brings us back to the question of naming. If Gilmour had not (unprompted, according to Mr. Medley) asserted that René Goblin was meant to be “André Alexis”, the reader would no doubt have been made uncomfortable by Gilmour’s degrading depiction of a black man. In effect, it was a good move, on Mr. Gilmour’s part, to associate Messrs Alexis and Goblin. But is a depiction any less degrading and racist because of the object of the author’s scorn?

My own reactions to “The Pigeon” are, as I’ve suggested, the result of conflicting perspectives. To begin with, if René Goblin is meant to be me personally, the chapter can best be described as Gilmour’s attempt to punish me while still talking about his favourite subjects: himself and his suffering. As such, it calls for no response, really, aside from the one I gave it: Mr. Gilmour meet Mr. Davidoff. Calling David Gilmour “racist”, under those circumstances, feels a little like “playing the race card” in order to attack him for what is a personal failing, a meanness that is due to his personality as opposed to any deep seated race hatred. That doesn’t change the fact that “The Pigeon” gleefully uses racist tropes, however. I may not know what is in David Gilmour’s soul, but his soul and his motivation aren’t of particular concern to me. Whether or not Mr. Gilmour has “a racist bone in his body”, the fact that he feels justified in using racial stereotypes in order to provoke contempt for a character – in order to justify violence against a character – is despicable, plain and simple. More importantly, it points to a type of thinking that exists in Canada – a race-based echelon, a contempt for racial minorities – that needs to be addressed whenever (or wherever) it shows itself.

In effect, “The Pigeon” is addressed to two “André Alexises”, to the writer/reviewer and to the black Canadian. Mr. Gilmour, evidently, has contempt for both of them. But his contempt has different implications for the reviewer than it does for the black man. This is what has made it difficult to decide how or whether to respond to “The Pigeon” directly.

live in Parkdale. A few years ago, I got on the 504 at Dundas West Station, heading home to Jameson and King. The streetcar was crowded. It was late afternoon. The weather was grey. (At least, in my memory, it was grey. Almost certainly Autumn.) I was sitting in a seat near the back doors. In the centre section of the street car, directly in front of the doors, was a man of Arab descent. I can’t tell you what country he’d come from. His accent was middle-eastern, though. After we’d been out of the station for a bit, he became visibly upset and, suddenly, began to berate a young man of East Asian descent (say, seventeen or eighteen) who had kissed a young woman of South Asian descent (same age as her boyfriend). In fact, he seemed more angry at the young woman. He said things like

– We don’t need your lessons in kissing!
He rebuked the couple for their public display of affection, getting more and more angry as he went along. No one on the streetcar said anything. No one spoke in the young couple’s defence. We were, as passengers, non-descript, unmemorable: a cluster of citizens. The man went on with his tirade for some ten minutes until, finally, at Jameson and King the young couple got off at their stop.

Throughout this episode, I felt a mounting anger. I don’t live in the middle-east. I don’t wish to live in the middle-east. The customs and social practices of Arab men and women hold no attraction to me. The display I had seen, a tirade by someone who’d come from another country trying to change acceptable modes of conduct in my own, made me resentful. And yet, I – and all the other adults on the streetcar – kept quiet. I did not defend my country’s values (as I understand them to be). I did not speak up for the right of seventeen year olds to kiss in public.

For days afterwards, I felt a kind of repugnance for myself.
– Well, said my friend Roni, when I told him what had happened, how do you know the man wasn’t crazy? What would you have gained by arguing with him? Would you have changed his mind? Could he have changed yours? Were the teenagers in any way hurt?

My answers: I don’t know, nothing, no, no and no.

What would I have changed by speaking up? Nothing. Yet I felt as if I had betrayed a thing I believe in: Canadian democracy, let’s call it. I also felt a kind of distress at not knowing when the proper time is to defend the customs of my country. In my helplessness, I reacted with anger towards some sad and ultimately powerless man on a streetcar in a country in which he did not feel at ease. Thinking about it now, I find myself almost grateful to him. In effect, the man did me a favour because, for one vital moment, I thought I knew what my country stood for and what – if called upon – I would choose to defend.

There were, obviously, other forces that kept me from speaking up. There are always a million reasons to keep quiet. I wasn’t quick enough or glib enough. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I could contain my anger. And then there was the fact that none of my fellow passengers spoke up, though they must have been feeling as I did, no? I thought I could feel them making the same mental calculations I was making: maybe this isn’t as significant as I think. Maybe this will all blow over (it did, actually) and we will all be fine (we were, actually). The social pressure to say little at moments like this is strong. So, I said nothing but because I am an intellectual I worried about my silence for months afterwards. When is one to speak up, in these situation? What is one to say?

Mutatis mutandis, the racist fantasy that is “The Pigeon” is rather like that Arab man promoting his version of order, rebuking young people for their public displays of affection, except that … well, in fact, no. No, it’s not. Novels are – among other things – where ideas go to die or to be tested or to be played out. David Gilmour, even if one of his chapters is bigoted, is doing something of what he is meant to do: expose his murky inner life.

Critics and reviewers are like the passengers on the streetcar, however, save that they’re supposed to answer back. They’re meant to examine the worlds held in the pages of a novel and expose them to some sort of consideration. At least, that is what criticism does when it is engaged with form and content. In maintaining a silence about the (aptly titled) Perfect Order of Things’ racism, Aritha van Herk, Susan G Cole, Philip Marchand, Michel Bassilière, James Grainger, et alia, not only fail to do something important – that is, question the assumptions of power – they allow bigotry to pass, as if it were acceptable.

Well, no. That isn’t right, either. There are nuances and extenuating considerations. If, as I said at the beginning of this essay, a writer should be allowed a place where his or her aesthetic concerns are given priority, how can I criticize reviewers for concentrating on Gilmour’s aesthetic performance? We live in a time when newspaper book sections are disappearing, when book reviews are routinely given less and less space. No reviewer can hope to address all the issues brought up in any reasonably complex work of literature. Anyone reviewing The Perfect Order of Things who chose to mention “The Pigeon’s” racism would have had to spend most of his or her space explaining why and to what degree “The Pigeon” is racist. The reviewer would have been forced to turn the review into a kind of indictment.

In a word, reviewers sometimes have their reasons. Their silence is not necessarily part of a conspiracy to hide the mechanisms of social power. The matter isn’t so simple. If we’re comparing reviewers to passengers on the 504, then Gilmour’s reviewers did speak up. It’s just that none of them spoke of the subject that I would have wished them to speak of: racism. In the end, they did not do my speaking for me.
And yet, my civic self takes no more satisfaction in pointing to what is racist in “The Pigeon” than my writerly self does from making fun of Mr Gilmour. There is something that niggles, still. Mr. Gilmour (or his protagonist in The Perfect Order of Things) represents something petty and despicable in Canadian society, something it is useful to point out.

And yet …

The irritant is something I alluded to at the beginning of this essay. I have been, since I began writing, split in two. On one side, my writerly self. On the other, my civic self, the aspect of me that is black, Canadian, living in Toronto in 2013.
At the beginning of my writing life, this split served me well. It allowed me to think about aesthetic matters to the near exclusion of all others. The question I asked first, when reading novels or stories, was: how was this done? It mattered less to me what was done. When I first read Death on the Instalment Plan, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, I failed to notice its obvious anti-Semitism, because I was caught up in Céline’s voice and his sense of humour. Reading Flannery O’Connor, I was untroubled by the racist elements in some of her stories, because her odd use of Christian symbols, the ever-present sense of threat and O’Connor’s clean writing were deeply impressive. Reading Henry Miller, the diction – over which he didn’t always seem to have full control – was amusing and sometimes poetic in the best sense: memorable speech. His disregard for the women his narrators were fucking didn’t strike me until much later. Actually, not until I read Gore Vidal’s great essay on Miller, the essay in which Vidal, commenting on Miller’s interminable trilogy (Sexus, Nexus, and Plexus) writes:

For a man who boasts of writing nothing but the truth, I find it more than odd that not once in the course of a long narrative does anyone say, “Henry, you’re full of shit.” It is possible, of course, that no one ever did, but I doubt it.

At which point, I began to pay more attention to what Miller was saying.
The benefits, for the young writer, of paying attention to how things are done are fairly obvious. For one thing, it is useful to be sensitive to style, to ways of saying that aren’t one’s own. Style, voice, characterization and diction are inter-related, so it is crucial to be sensitive to all of them. But it has to be said that the benefits do (potentially) come at a cost. If you’re like me, you can become slightly contemptuous of writers who mean things. (There is a clumsiness to “meaning things” and it’s this that a writer like Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, catches and mocks.) Worse, when “how it is written” matters too much, you can become afraid to mean anything too obvious or anything at all. As Isaac Babel – a very great writer indeed – said of Nabokov “He writes well, but he has nothing to say”. I’m not convinced this is unarguably true about Nabokov, but it points to a pit into which Nabokov was certainly willing to jump.

For my younger self, fear of meaning something took the form of a fear of “speaking for”. I mean: yes, there’s a difference between “speaking as” a black Canadian and “speaking for” black Canadians, but the border is sometimes difficult to discern and I have been wary of it, wary to the point of paranoia.
I was recently made more aware of this icicle in my soul by reading the work of someone I admire deeply. I have been reading Anna Akhmatova since I was in my early twenties. The writers of the so-called Silver and Bronze Ages, in Russia, have always held a fascination for me. From Tolstoy to Zoshchenko by way of Bely, Mayakovsky, Mandelshtam, Pasternak, and Zamyatin, I’ve read them all as if reading of some marvellous world that was mysteriously crucial to me. In fact, I studied Russian at Carleton University, in the hope that I might learn the language well enough to read the work I love in the original. So, I first encountered the poetry of Anna Akhmatova over thirty years ago. I’ve read her often, in the years since.

While writing A, I read her again. In particular, the poem “Requiem”, her long poem about waiting before a Leningrad jail for news of her imprisoned son, stayed with me. It stayed with me because I was aware of the two readings of the poem that lived within me. When I was younger, I was mostly aware of the poetry. If I thought about the subject matter, the waiting for news of an imprisoned child, it was with a kind of jealousy that she – and her contemporaries – had the fortune to have subject matter that was, on the face of it, important. Catastrophe, misfortune, genocide … these were subjects that I might have called God-given, in the sense that I thought them a kind of favour. I’m exaggerating my callousness, but not out of all proportion to the real. Reading about catastrophe allowed me, in a way, to think less about catastrophe and misfortune than about the ways in which they could be used to create art.

The anecdote Akhmatova has in lieu of preface to “Requiem” may suggest a willingness to use catastrophe. At least, it can be read that way.

During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there)
– Could you describe
this?
And I answered
– I can.
It was then that
something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had previously
been just a face.

[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]

It’s as if Akhmatova were taking on the task of “speaking for”, almost as if she were bragging that it is within her powers to write this indescribable feeling. And, having boasted that she can write this “waiting in the cold for news of a loved one”, you’d expect that “Requiem” would be about that waiting. But it isn’t or, at least, it isn’t only about that. It describes her own grief. It describes the grief of the women who shared her fate. It speaks of the Virgin Mary’s devastation at the loss of her son:

Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciples, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
Into her hidden eyes. No one dared.

The poem is all grief and no grief. It is a refusal to look at grief too directly. It is not a mastery of “grand ideas” or “big themes”. It is a particular way of bearing witness. When Akhmatova admits that she can describe what the women are going through waiting for news of their husbands and sons, it is not because her art permits her access to some point beyond the women who share her fate. It is because, despite her artistry and fame and command of language, she is there in that place: only one of them. She can describe the feelings because this is the small gift her art permits. She can bear true witness to her own life and emotion. And by the time she came to write “Requiem”, she could do it with simplicity.

Quietly flows the quiet Don;
Into my house comes the yellow moon.

It comes with its hat askew.
The yellow moon sees a shadow.

This woman is sick
This woman is alone

Husband in the grave, son in jail.
Pray for her.

It takes the greatest art to get to the place where “speaking as” and “speaking for” are, however temporarily, one and the same. (When it comes to writing, the demands of the “the writerly self” and the demands of “the real” are both ridiculously difficult to meet with grace, precision and simplicity, let alone to have them met in one and the same work.) Just as importantly, Akhmatova’s “speaking for” does not exclude. It goes from the nameless woman whose lips are blue with cold to the mother of God. It is a “speaking for” anyone who will listen, a “speaking for” anyone who shares the humanity of the women who wait.

If as a young writer I spent so much time envying those who wrote about “great themes”, it was because I did not yet know my own life, the world around me, the things it has been given me to witness. Now that I am fifty-six, I have begun to see them a little more clearly. The smallness of soul I’ve alluded to in the title of this essay is, in fact, mine. I realized, on re-reading “Requiem” as a middle-aged man, that I have been too steadfastly unwilling – too frightened – to allow both sides of me to speak: the side that loves language and the side that has lived in Canada, from 1960 to the present.

The challenge, then, is to overcome the split within, to bear witness: which is to say, to speak of my world – as well as my being-in-the-world – with all that I’ve learned of Art and simplicity, to be faithful to my situation. It seems odd to have to admit – so far into this life – that I have so far yet to go. Odder still that I have been shown the distance by work I thought I knew well: “Requiem”, a poem written by Anna Akhmatova.

1. Two words are overused in “The Pigeon”. One is the word “ugly”, which is associated with Mr. Goblin. It is important to Mr. Gilmour that the black reviewer be seen as physically unattractive because in Mr. Gilmour’s moral code the “good” is beautiful while “evil” is ugly. One can’t help wondering, though, why when he has named a character “Goblin”, the author feels compelled to repeat the word “ugly” five or six times over the space of five or six pages. The other word monotonously repeated is “appalling”. It means “to cause to grow pale” in consternation or dismay. It’s a lovely word, but Mr. Gilmour uses it to qualify everything in sight: a person’s gums, a cheese tray, a wave of “shame and hurt”, a nightclub (or “boîte”, as Mr. Gilmour has it), a gesture of vulnerability. The novel’s narrator almost literally turns white at the drop of a hat.

June 5th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books, Toronto

Audio: Andre Alexis accuses David Gilmour of Racism

A - Fiction by André Alexis

I met with Andre Alexis last fall to discuss his latest novella, A (BookThug, 2013). During our conversation we hit, among other things, on literary criticism, book reviewing, ‘Good’ and ‘Baddeley’ literary critics, and David Gilmour and his GG Award winning novel A Perfect Night to go to China, and Alexis’s contention that racism is contained in the chapter in this novel entitled “The Pigeon”.  

Please note that, as a condition of making the recording of this conversation public, Alexis’s essay titled “Of a Smallness in the Soul” is being made readily available (as it is right here) to visitors to this web page…and that the point is being made, clearly, that this essay is Alexis’s argument for (or demonstration of) the racism contained in …David Gilmour’s chapter entitled “The Pigeon”, from his novel,The Perfect Order of Things.”

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June 4th, 2014 • Posted in Authors and Books

Publish On Demand Global Hosts Inside Tour for Its Authors @ Book Expo America 2014

Publish On Demand Global (PODG) Hosts Inside Tour for Its Authors at the #1 Book and Author Event in the US: Book Expo America 2014 (via PRWeb)

PODG rolls outs the red carpet for its authors at North America’s premier publishing event in the publishing capital of the world, New York City. CEO Robert Fletcher gives authors the insider’s tour of BEA (PRWEB) June 04, 2014 Book Expo America (…

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