At the Mercury Press launch earlier this week, I was able to pick up a copy of the power to bend spoons; interviews with Canadian novelists, ed. Bev Daurio (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 1998). An interesting companion piece to the Dream Elevators book they did two years later, interviewing Canadian poets (both of which were on the book table at the event, but no-one actually purchased), there simply aren’t enough opportunities for good interviews out there in Canadian literature anymore; am I just looking in the wrong places? In this collection, the interviews collected come from the now-defunct Paragraph: The Canadian Fiction Review that Daurio used to publish, with reviews, essays and fiction by, and interviews with, Canadian writers (at one point even edited by the infamous Daniel Jones), with contributions by Jeannette Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais, Dionne Brand, Nicole Brossard, Carole Corbeil, Frank Davey, Timothy Findley, Douglas Glover, Janette Turner Hospital, Joy Kogawa, Steve McCaffery, Michael Ondaatje, Althea Prince, Nino Ricci, Mordecai Richler, Veronica Ross, Gail Scott, Makeda Silvera, Audrey Thomas, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Jane Urquhart and M.G. Vassanji. As editor Daurio writes in her introduction:
THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK is borrowed from the title of the first piece in culture critic Frank Davey’s essay collection, Canadian Literary Power. Davey, in turn, was quoting bpNichol:To look back over the past ten or twenty years of Canadian publishing, especially for literature not entirely in the mainstream, is to realize just what kind of effort and effect Mercury editor/publisher Bev Daurio has been making since merging with Glynn Davies’ Aya Press (founded in 1978) in 1985, and has provided some rare lines of continuity that don’t often appear in small Canadian publishing, especially for a “small” literary publisher (Karl Siegler at Talonbooks since 1972 providing a rare exception), and even to look at simply the anthologies that Daurio herself has edited over the years seem to provide an impressive list of books that help to build a kind of infrastructure around the culture of the individual book and further into the conversation of writing and books, from Love and Hunger: New Fiction (1987), Ink and Strawberries: Quebec Women’s Fiction (with Luise von Flotow, 1988), Vivid: Stories by Five Women (1989), Sex: An Anthology (with Anna Rumley; 2000) to the brand-new The Closets of Time: A New Fiction Anthology (with Richard Truhlar; The Mercury Press, 2007). Although with only three titles of her own over the years, from her Justice: Fictions & Prose Poems (ST. Catharines ON: Moonstone Press, 1988), Hell & Other Novels (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1990) and single poetry collection If Summer Had a Knife (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 1987), will we ever seem more writing out of Bev Daurio?
… all we have is the power to bend spoons…
which presents a complicated, metaphysical view of what writing can do. Is fiction an illusion, a complex of insiders’ prestidigitory tricks? Or is writing actually a strange, dirigible force, the focus of winds of ideas and emotions that must be reckoned with in the real world? Here is Frederick Philip Grove, one of Canada’s most mysterious modernist novelists, describing quite definitely what he believes about fiction:
Novel[s]… deal with socially significant things from the main stream of life… both characters and happenings must be more or less typical for a given society. They must be normal, natural growth of given conditions actually existing in our midst. In reading them, we must be living the lives depicted as if they were our own.
[emphasis in original] (“The Novel,” It Needs to be Said, 1929)
Trends and attitudes may dive and flutter, but a country’s literature is built, layer by layer, over time. The Canadian novel, from its beginnings in the disguised-identity story Wacousta (1832), trudges across the landscape of a fairly dreary hundred-and-twenty years until it meets the magic of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (1959), the novel that dug out the last roots from the colonial tree and liberated Canadian fiction, at last, to begin to become itself. Although the Canadian novel wobbled in the interim, from the wonderous (Sharon Riis’ The True Story of Ida Johnson, for example) to the unambiguously stilted and tenebrous (Auntie High Over the Barley Mow, a scraggly fat volume from the 1970s McClelland and Stewart lists is surely down with the lows of this period), it was around 1990 that the Canadian novel seemed to solidify in presence and strength. Suddenly, a selection of powerful, varied novels was being published every year. (pp 7-8)
One of the interviews I found particularly interesting was with Toronto writer Michael Ondaatje, that appeared in Paragraph: The Canadian Fiction Review in 1990, putting it almost directly between his In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992). Considering my own personal interest in working the lyric novel, as well as my preference for Ondaatje’s earlier works (pre-The English Patient), I find it extremely compelling to hear the uncertainty in his voice, given the strengths of his books The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1970), Coming Through Slaughter (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1976), Running in the Family (1982) and In the Skin of a Lion.
CARY FAGAN: Looking back at the novels, it’s possible to see a progression in the use of historical material. Billy the Kid is a collage, but that same kind of material gets more and more assimilated into the books by the time of In the Skin of a Lion.Another fragment that gave me pause was at the beginning of the interview Janieta Eyre conducted with Marie-Claire Blais, originally published in 1995:
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Yeah, with each book I’ve felt more confident with how I’ve put everything into the text. In the first book I had no concept of form. I wrote poetry. I wrote prose. I had photographs. I was very involved with the shaping of the thing, but that came later. What happened with In the Skin of a Lion was that I had enough of a voice to incorporate all the bits and pieces. It’s not a feeling of assurance because I don’t really have that. I felt very nervous and tentative when I was shaping the book. In In the Skin of a Lion I wanted a kind of seamlessness, because there are so many shifts and characters, a voice to reach over the gaps. And partly because it’s more historically set around us, as opposed to a fantasy or something like that. It had to be more believable.
EYRE: I’m curious to know what your feelings are about Quebec-Canada relations. Do you consider yourself a separatist?related notes: Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers by Janice Williamson; poets talk, conversations with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen and Fred Wah by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy;
BLAIS: As an artist, I’m wary of any kind of fanaticism. I think we have to be careful not to become too nationalistic, as this is often our problem. If independence is the democratic wish, it will have to be so. My real concern, however, is the fate of our artists. Will we take care of them? This worries me a great deal because at the moment much-needed funds for all kinds of cultural activities are being cut. And as a writer, I think we need writers, painters, and musicians in the same way we need food. I think it’s important to recognize that it is artists who are making the future, although the only people we talk about are our politicians. Politicians are not that interesting. They make too much money, they don’t care about the poor or about the ethnic preoccupations of this country. Which is why it would be tragic if artists were stripped of their voices. In the time of Mr. Lévesque, we had a voice. He thought we were interesting. In the time of Mr. Trudeau, we had a voice. He thought that artists were important to this country. But now there is this indifference being shown towards the culture of our country.
EYRE: But hasn’t this disinterest in culture always been true of Canada? Culture has never been important to Canadians and their sense of identity.
BLAIS: I was at a Canadian Studies conference in Italy a few weeks ago with some other writers from Quebec and Canada. Many Canadian artists were thinking as I do, that we are in the background. But they thought also that it has always been like that. It is often when we go abroad that we really complain about this. In Venice, it was interesting to see that the Italian public was very interested in Timothy Findley, Susan Swan, and the rest of us. Many people came out to our readings, listened to us and indicated they wanted to translate our work. It’s all around that we see this interest in our culture, and I think it’s important to take pride in it. A writer is a kind of ambassador, a poor one but one with a great vision, great insight. It’s strange
that in Europe they understand this, but we don’t here yet.