Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mere Words -- Lori Ann Bloomfield

_84 Charing Cross Road_; Hanff, Helene

I don’t browse in bookshops as much as I used to. These days, I often have an author or title in mind when I step into a bookstore. But back then – then being twenty years ago, when I was in my late teens – browsing was pretty much all I did. It was while browsing one afternoon that I found 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.

The book began with no preface, no explanation. Page one was simply a letter from Hanff to the owner of the antiquarian bookshop called Marks and Co., at 84 Charing Cross Road, London, W.C. 2, England. She had seen an advertisement placed by someone employed at Marks and Co. in "The Saturday Review of Literature", she wrote, and after admitting the word “antiquarian” intimidated her (equating it with expensive, as I did myself), inquired about a few books she was interested in. It was a warm and funny letter.

The response came on page two from Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at Marks and Co. He stated they had the Hazlitt essays she wanted, but not the Leigh Hunt. While not exactly stuffy, his letter was certainly proper. Certainly English.

I read a few more pages before deciding to buy the book, and took it home with me. At that time, I was living in a Toronto apartment so small I owned only two pieces of furniture: a sofa that converted to a bed and a table with folding legs. In the mornings, I would fold up the bed and unfold the table; in the evenings, I folded up the table and unfolded the bed. It was my own domestic sunrise, sunset.

I read the book in one sitting, which was not that impressive considering it is a scant one hundred pages. What began as a simple inquiry from a poor New York writer with a fondness for old books grew into twenty years' correspondence. Over those years, Helene and Frank’s letters came to include shop gossip, family news and even a pact to cheer on each other’s favourite sports teams, though their book talk was what I enjoyed eavesdropping on the best.

In the homes I visited most often as a child -- those of relatives, neighbours and family friends -- none had a bookshelf and rarely was there any evidence anyone read books. My mother was the only adult I regularly saw reading: she enjoyed paperback romances. In the basement of our house, was a three-shelf bookcase, neglected by everyone but me, holding her old high school textbooks and a few dozen book-of-the-month club selections she’d acquired before I was born.

I read voraciously and indiscriminately, though I longed to read “serious” books, even before I knew what was meant by that secret desire. It was obvious to me Helene Hanff read “serious” books. Everything she ordered from Marks and Co. was by some long-dead author I had never heard of. So I began to read the books Helene read.

Some I found in libraries, others in dusty second-hand bookshops. Fairly quickly, I realized my own tastes ran to fiction, while Helene’s to non-fiction, but without her, I may never have discovered Pepys’ diary, or the Cambridge lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. It is almost certain that without Helene, John Donne would have remained nothing more than the author of a poem about a flea, clumsily explained to me in high school, instead of the man imprisoned in the Tower of London (for love), and later, the man who became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who I now know him to have been. I owe Helene much.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve reread 84 Charing Cross Road. It remains one of my favourite books and the one most likely to be reached for when I am in need of the calming balm only a favourite book can impart. I remember once being so distressed, I crawled into bed in the middle of the day, and took 84 with me. Oddly, I can no longer recall why I was so upset, only the delicious feeling of lying back against the pillows and falling into those letters again. Eventually, I sought out and read most of Helene Hanff’s other books, though 84 remains my favourite.

It turned out Helene and I shared more than a love of books and a peculiar sense of humour: the place we both most yearned to visit was London, England. Not long after Helene’s death in the spring of 1997, I took my first trip there.

After checking into a slightly shabby Bloomsbury hotel, I walked to Charing Cross Road. I knew that Marks and Co. had long since closed, but also knew a plaque mentioning Helene Hanff had been erected where it once stood. When I finally found number 84, it was under construction, being readied for a new tenant. A tarp covered its window while workmen banged away inside. Slightly off to one side, on a stone pillar, was the plaque I had been searching for. It read: "84 Charing Cross Road. The booksellers Marks and Co. were on this site, which became world-renowned through the book by Helene Hanff."

With the unfamiliar noise of London traffic at my back, I read and reread the plaque, reluctant to leave. Frank must have walked by the place I stood countless times, and I knew Helene had eventually made it to this spot, too. It seemed so much more than mere words had brought me to this place, so much more than mere words made me well up with emotion. Yet that’s all they were: words. It is all books are made of. Mere words are set down carefully by writers and received by readers. Mere words can close the gap between centuries, countries, races, sexes, even you and I. Mere words can teach, entertain, or even, for a brief span of time, make us feel less alone.

Mere words, indeed.

84 Charing Cross Road
By Helene Hanff
Avon Books
First Avon Printing, September, 1974

Lori Ann Bloomfield has published several stories in literary magazines in Canada and the US. She is currently working on her first novel.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Books We Were -- Katherine Govier

(first appeared in an expanded form in the 'Ottawa Citizen')

_Wide Sargasso Sea_; Rhys, Jean

I am helping a friend pack up the books in her study. His books are in another room, to be boxed separately. The house has been sold; the marriage has ended. I pull the dusty paperbacks off the shelves, six at a time. These are the books that defined us as university students at the end of the sixties, and as young women in the seventies. James Joyce’s The Dubliners. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades.

“Oh my god, look how young she was!” we say, gaping over the jacket photo. And realize that, at the time, we were even younger. Now we are in our own turbulent fifties. Who could have imagined that this decade of our lives would see us so painfully shaking loose the commitments we made thirty years ago, in love and innocence?

These are the books we were. Having boxed and moved my own library a few times, I recognize them. Joan Didion Play it as it Lays and The White Album. Normal Mailer Armies of the Night. Early tomes of CanLit: Hugh McLennan, Marie Claire Blais, Al Purdy and Margaret Laurence. Judith Rossner, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Lisa Altman, Annie Dillard.

Look at this: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. The book is in perfect shape, with the rest of her titles behind. The alphabetical order is approximate, not obsessive. The books are findable, but they’ve been pulled off the shelf and replaced a few times.

Virginia Woolf, the oeuvre. A Room of One’s Own, our bible. Dusty and stiff, it hasn’t been opened in a decade. Doris Lessing, The Four Gated City. I remember exactly where I was when I read that (Massachusetts, summer of 1971, 23 years old) and with whom (first husband) and how moody I got about it.

Diet for a Small Planet. The Moosewood Cookbook. The Pooh Cookbook. Elizabeth David, the boxed set. Those recipes were incredibly complicated, as I recall. Back to fiction. Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers. Here’s a hardcover first edition, a John Buchan novel. “That’s his,” says my friend. Different box. Different collection, entirely, aside from Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, and Paddle to the Sea.

Rarely are the his and her libraries amalgamated. His would be history, political biographies, books about war. Maybe D. H. Lawrence, the oeuvre. Aldous Huxley, the poetry of Yeats. Maybe Arthur Ransom, the whole Swallows and Amazon series. As these collections will go their separate ways, there’s no chance of merger. How did we ever think we could get along with the opposite sex when we read such different books?

Our Bodies, Ourselves. Now that is a classic. The book looks brand new. I cannot say the same for our bodies. We have some sags and stress wrinkles. Is it possible that we have taken better care of the books we adored, than of our hearts and minds?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Remember her standing on the cobb looking out to sea? So romantic.

Our ideals have been for a rough ride in the last three decades. We asked a lot of our lovers and of our friends too. Which books here even hinted at how much work it would be to make a family that was Totally Different from the one you grew up in? To live up to what these books preached, have jobs, be citizens, and non-authoritarian parents? And which books told you what was next when that work is mostly done, and things fall apart?

Filling the carton is never easy. Timothy Findley’s Dinner Along the Amazon is a completely different size than Seamus Heaney’s North and I end up with a crater in my carton. The books slide around, or they won’t lie flat. I don’t want them to get bent. Taping up the cardboard flaps, I wonder-- when will these books come out again? Freedom comes with less wall space. Is it time to edit the collection, and our notions with it? Fit it to the new reality?

No. Just time to reread.

Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea
W.W. Norton

Katherine Govier has published eight novels and three collections of short stories. Her last novel was Three Views of Chrystal Water (4th Estate, London, UK; Harper Collins, Toronto). Her previous novel, Creation, was a 'New York Times' Notable Book of 2003. Katherine has spoken at the Lahti International Writers’ Reunion in Finland, at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, at Cambridge University, Princeton University and at the Canadian Embassies in Tokyo, New Delhi and London. She has been President of PEN Canada and helped found the new program ‘Canadian Journalism for Foreign Trained Writers’, which is open to refugee and immigrant writers, at Sheridan College. Her work has been published in Dutch, Italian, Serbian and Chinese. Katherine spends her time in Toronto and in Canmore, Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bearing Down on _Midnight's Children_ -- Robyn Read

_Midnight's Children_; Rushdie, Salman

Towards the beginning of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, narrator Saleem Sinai shares the story of his maternal grandfather, Dr. Aadam Aziz. In Kashmir, in 1915, Aadam had one special patient—the woman who would become his wife—whose father insisted she only be examined through the opening of a perforated sheet. This sheet takes on metonymic properties for both the novel and storytelling itself, representing the anxiety to know as much as possible, an anxiety agitated by the inevitable limitations of both life and narration. We resort to reading the world around us in fragments.

I first read Midnight's Children at my maternal grandfather’s cottage. The cottage, a former fishing and hunting camp, is comprised of one main cookhouse that has a kitchen and a large open room for socializing, and a handful of smaller dwellings for sleeping. It sprawls across its own small island in the northern part of Georgian Bay, Ontario, and as a result, my family has always just referred to the cottage as ‘the island.’ The island has its own share of perforated sheets, although, to my knowledge, none of them have ever been suspected of having metonymic or metaphoric properties. There are the sheets that cover the furniture during the off-season that are nibbled at by moths. There are the sheets stuffed in a bucket in the corner of the cookhouse, designated for play time, for painting and crafts, with several predictable fissures made by table edges, scissors, and the eager fists of children. There are the sheets set aside in the boathouse for cleaning fish, stained by blood and guts, with punctures left by filleting knives that do, actually, epitomize a certain gratitude: that it was the sheet that caught the tip of the blade and not someone’s flesh. I suppose I even sat on a sheet of sorts to read Midnight's Children in August of 2005, as I spread out one of the many old beach towels that were piled in a laundry hamper for those who wish to lounge in the sun and not catch their bathing suit bottoms or scrape the underside of their thighs on rough lichen and rock. Although, the towel of my choosing could hardly be called perforated—it was just a little rough around the edges.

I sat reading on the rose-coloured shoulder of the island that jutted out over the water, just to the right of the boathouse and dock. It was a good place to watch for kayakers on the horizon, although not a favourite spot for many ever since my aunt one day discovered that her dangling legs provided the perfect ledge for a very large—and, she assures us, altogether quite nasty—water snake. Incidentally, she had also been reading at the time.

Like the perforated sheet, snakes play a certain symbolic role in the book. Snakes and Ladders is Saleem Sinai’s favourite childhood board game, and is described as a game of “morals”. "The game of Snakes and Ladders captures," Rushdie writes, "as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate."[1]

Over the years, I had become accustomed to encounters with garters, water snakes, even the odd Massasauga rattler on the island. But up until that day, I had never seen the animal that approached me while I was reading Rushdie's story.

The island is the one place where it seems we can, at least once a year, get most of my mother’s family to reconnoitre and spend time together. As a result, at a moment when I was just getting into the aforementioned novel, there happened to be quite the crowd gathered outside the verandah of the cookhouse, hooting and hollering, seemingly in my direction. The most likely possibility was that someone had won the Scrabble tournament. Lacking a nose like Saleem’s—that is, one that itches with telepathy—I could not predict what was coming my way. When I finally turned to see what all the commotion was about, what I found was a great, beautiful, and (in comparison to the creatures I had previously encountered on the island) enormous adult black bear bounding towards me.

My mother would tell me that in the fifty years she had been coming to the island, she had never seen a bear. But there would be more visits in the years to come: one would gnaw away at the pole of our weather vane, revealing an interior absolutely infested with red ants; one would be chased away by my grandmother, pot in one hand, video camera in the other; another would sneak through the weeds beside my canoe, fur weighted down with water, appearing more moose-like than anything, quite abruptly terminating the argument taking place between me and the man to whom I am now married. But this was the first bear.

We named her Wilma.

Wilma came to a halt about five feet away from me. What came to my mind was a fragmented narrative all its own: a) a string of obscenities b) a faint (re)collection of a "Globe and Mail" article I had read earlier that week about what to do when in the presence of a bear—“lay flat,” “make yourself appear large,” “stay quiet,” and “yell” had congealed into one thoroughly unhelpful clutter of advice c) an awareness that flooded my mind with warmth and a certain amount of electricity, that this was the image of survival. This being had not only found food and shelter for an entire lifetime, but had done so unseen—or, at least, unseen by the human, seasonal occupants of the island d) I thought about my final Masters Research Project. While I am not proud to admit that I thought about work when panicked, I also realize that, as a burgeoning academic, and consequently hyper-analytical, it’s probably par for the course.

As part of this project, I had written a short story about a young woman plagued by body dysmorphism who believes she is turning into a bear. My supervisor had encouraged me to go to the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo to study bears in a simulated natural habitat. And now, not separated by the bars of a zoo but in the wild together, here we were: woman and bear standing, existing, as the before and after of the transformation that was the very subject of my story.

That is, until Wilma turned away from me and sauntered off in search of a more scaly supper.

My grandmother called out to me “Your shorts still clean?” and my aunt (who was realizing that she was going to have to up the ante on her snake story) joined me in a canoe, and we followed Wilma—at a respectful distance—as she swam across the bay. Wilma enjoyed a meal of plants and fish. My aunt mentioned something about our own lunch. We both grew tired of watching Wilma.

But I believe my encounter with Wilma has a ramification beyond indicating that I had not thoroughly researched my Masters project; or, more optimistically, that one’s work is never done. Meeting Wilma was an opportunity for me to see in person what I previously could only imagine. And also, to realize what a bear has to do with a snake. Or furthermore, what a bear has to do with a perforated sheet... what a sheet has to do with a snake that has to do with a bear that has to do with a sheet. For, as it is with Snakes and Ladders, it’s "no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is the unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil."[2]

I wasn’t far into the novel when Wilma interrupted my reading. However, I would go on to discover that Midnight's Children presents the reader with what at first seem to be dichotomies, only to subvert these binaries, and open up the narrative to an infinite number of stories and symbols. The novel is a much more complicated organism than it may first appear: there is never just a balance of good and evil, or animal and human, or symbol and bed sheet, but rather always further possibilities for multiplicity, for hybridity, for plurality—for a complicated cropping of theoretical and literal meaning.

That being said, these sheets, these snakes, these bears, they tend to trick you. It appears as though they are only sheets and snakes and bears. However, there is always the opportunity to read a thing, a being, or an encounter in an alternative way. That is, as long as you’re a quick reader—after all, there’s only so much time before anyone, bear or woman, starts to wonder what’s for lunch.

Rushdie, Salman.
Midnight’s Children.
Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1997.

Robyn Read is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. She contributed to "The Orlando Project", an online history of women’s writing in the British Isles, and, as a consultant for the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), wrote profiles of past participants of the Student Refugee Program. Her creative writing has appeared in "Echolocation" and "Carousel", and her work on Judith Thompson in "Canadian Theatre Review", "Theatre Research in Canada", as well as the books Judith Thompson and The Masks of Judith Thompson.

[1] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 141
[2] Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, 141.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

To Ripen Like a Tree -- Maureen Scott Harris

_Letters to a Young Poet_; Rilke, Rainer Maria

In the fall of 1961, I'm seventeen years old and have just started university. There I’ve discovered the huge continent of non-fiction – history, travel writing, letters, essays, autobiography and memoir – provinces I never dreamed existed as I read my way steadily through Zane Grey and Luke Short, with occasional detours to L.M. Montgomery and Rider Haggard. The life of books, and conversations about them, that I’m leading now – in class, sprawled on campus lawns, sitting around cafeteria tables – is my idea of paradise. Here anything seems possible, even the possibility I scarcely allow myself to think: that I might one day be a writer.

I read voraciously, ravished in turn by Andre Gide’s Fruits of the Earth and R. H. Blyth’s introduction to haiku, enlightened and excited by Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, giddy with the French symbolist poets, stricken by T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. None of these are works I’m studying; I’ve gleaned them by chance or from talk with other students.

Some time that fall, I meet an awkward young man whose father is a professor in the German department. I don’t remember our conversations, but through him I find myself one winter morning holding a copy of his father’s translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I’ve pulled it out of my bag as I sit down on the bus that will carry me to the University of Manitoba. I begin to read and am instantly entranced. “Explore the reason that bids you write," Rilke suggests, "find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, ‘Must I write?’. . .” My heart creases with longing and delight – that someone might write such a thing – that such a thing might be possible.

Suddenly I realize the bus isn’t moving. The driver is speaking to me, telling me we’ve reached the campus. I look up and see I’m the only passenger still on board. But I haven’t finished reading. I tell the driver I’m not getting off, and he shrugs as I settle into my seat and keep reading. I ride all the way downtown again, finishing the letters. I remember they left me dazed, but filled with exultation. I don’t remember if I then rode back out to the university and my classes.

What I held in my hand that morning was not a book but a slender pamphlet of forty-six pages, bound in chaste grey cardboard, the author’s name and title printed in a black sans serif font on its front cover. I have it still. On the fly-leaf, in a round hand that bears only a faint resemblance to my current handwriting, are my name and the date, October 23, 1961. I stare at the date and lean into my memory, filled with doubt.

I think it was winter when I sat reading on that bus – the air outside it snappingly cold and clear, snow-covered streets glittering under bright blue sky and winter sun, bus windows frosted over, but not blocking out the brightness. But perhaps it wasn’t snow reflecting sunlight into the bus. Perhaps the light I remember sprang from the pages I was reading. When I return to myself looking down at those pages, light streams up from between the words, making me squint with the brilliance.

Must I write? That question haunts me, even now inducing a mixture of exultation and fear. As it did then, it suggests writing is possible, offering a kind of permission. But I recognize that it also stirs my secret conviction that if I turn and look into myself I will discover that in fact I will not die if I don’t write. I am also haunted by these later words from the letters: “. . .the feeling that one could live without writing is enough to prove that one should not write at all.” At that first reading I kept my fear buried, not admitting that I doubted I could write. But it was there, and grew stronger over the years. It is the case that I have lived without writing for intervals of several years at a time, and that I often write sporadically. My intermittent practice has seemed to me faithlessness, evidence that I’m not really a writer.

Over the more than forty years since I first read Letters to a Young Poet on that bus, I’ve read other translations, and indeed turned to it for reassurance, in spite of its hard question. I’ve also felt as ambivalent about it as I have about writing itself. For several years I decided, somewhat condescendingly, it was a work pitch-perfect for adolescence – when after all, one is ready to die rather than live a life without depth and feeling – but of scant help after that tumultuous time. Today, I want to retract that rather defensive judgment.

When I decided to write about it, I reread my original grey-covered copy of the Letters. Holding it in my hands and staring down at its slightly old-fashioned font, I felt reconnected to my initial excitement. I have been startled to discover how deeply it struck into me. In that first reading, Rilke’s words sounded a note I’d not heard before, a note that drew me slowly towards what has become central in my life: poetry, the reading and the writing of it. His conviction that a life dedicated to poetry was worthy, not irresponsible or foolish; his suggestion that you must learn to listen to your own heart and mind; and his insistence on ignoring the external world and its demands to attend to the inner world of longing and loneliness, seem again true to me, and I feel profoundly lucky to have found this manual of encouragement and belief.

In my rereading I’ve received another gift, a new way of considering that vexed question, "Must I write?" For I see that if I’ve been willing to let go of writing, writing has refused to let go of me. Again and again it has called me back to it, as I write and pause, write and pause, for varying lengths of time. Rilke told me about this, too, if I’d been paying full attention: “To be an artist is this: not to count or to reckon: to ripen like a tree which does not force its sap. . .”

Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet
Translated by K.W. Maurer
Winnipeg Printing & Eng. Co. Ltd.
St. James, Canada
Second edition, December, 1958.

(Translation done in 1943.)

Maureen Scott Harris is a poet and essayist. She has published two collections of poetry-- A Possible Landscape (Brick Books, 1993) and Drowning Lessons (Pedlar Press, 2004), and two chapbooks, "The World Speaks" (Junction Books, 2003) and "The Raven and the Writing Desk: Haiku Variations" (JackPine Press, 2007). In 2005, Drowning Lessons received the Trillium Book Award for Poetry from the Ontario Ministry of Culture. Her essay, “Opening the Griefcase” won first prize in Prairie Fire’s creative non-fiction contest, in 2007. She has been cathected to books since before she learned to read. Harris was born in Prince Rupert, BC, grew up in Winnipeg, and has lived in Toronto for many years. She has worked as a librarian, bookseller, freelance writer and editor, and is currently Production Manager for Brick Books.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Did you say Prada or Osh Kosh? -- Gillian Parekh

_The Devil Wears Prada_; Weisberger, Lauren

Having received the parameters for this project via email, I left my computer running and quickly headed towards my modest, if not that meager, library of collected works I proudly claim to have read (and mostly remembered). The size of this collection is to a large extent due to how few books had managed to survive my frequent moves and undisciplined lending habits. As my eyes glanced across each title, moments came to me --where and when each treasure had been experienced -- either at the beach, on the train, or crammed into the wee hours of the morning between down duvets with squinted eyelids, hours before a pressing classroom review or book club meeting. The selection process, however, came to an abrupt and decisive conclusion when I reached The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger.

I have in fact rarely ventured close to the "ChickLit" offerings of bookstores or libraries and for a long, rather snobbish, period of my life, have refused to delve into any reading material that could not boast of wide critical acclaim. Yet, at nine months pregnant, I found myself in the company of the book The Devil Wears Prada, a novel featuring the ins and outs of the fashion industry, an industry that was as foreign to me as the politics of the trading floor would probably be to a member of a monastery. With the exception of the fashion magazines I flipped through in the checkout line, and the incessant cries of my bride-to-be girlfriends settling only for Vera Wang, my industry knowledge of this enterprise was, well, limited.

This book had been recommended to me by a friend whose advice in reading material I highly value. Taken aback somewhat by its seemingly trivial content, I figured while burdened with a bad case of "pre-baby-brain", a light read was all I could properly digest. I opened the cover and was soon immersed into a life that could not have been more different than the one I was currently experiencing. However, the main character is someone I could relate to fairly well. She is a young aspiring writer who has just returned from India. I, too, found myself still in my twenties, toiling with the pen and had also recently been to India on a whirlwind excursion, although avoiding, thankfully, her episode of dysentery. Thus, an immediate bond was established whereupon I traipsed alongside her enjoying her adventures vicariously in downtown New York, at the clubs, and the swanky parties all from the privacy of my own room.

As the pages flew by, the original fondness for this read was giving way to my own realities. My interest in her struggles with her boss and the grandeur of the parties and the brooding intellectuals she encounters was quickly fading. I was beginning to imagine her slim figure sporting a three thousand dollar pair of Gucci pants in trendy Manhattan while I, with swollen ankles and huge belly, was just fortunate enough to sport pants at all without resorting to the looming decision of switching to a muumuu. With every movement, the roll and kick of the little being inside me anxiously wanting to make her entrance (or, more appropriately, her exit), I realized that all aspirations of the independent life depicted in these pages was soon to be an impossibility. In but a few days, my life would have an entirely new focus, ready or not. And the only type of intellectual stimulation available to me would likely have to come in the form of Raffi or that horrid purple dinosaur that, I swear, is secretly convincing our young to form an entire movement of mind-controlled juvenile malcontents.

Even though I could not boast of a life -- pre-marriage, or pre-baby -- where I was remotely as "cool", accomplished or interesting as the heroine of this story, Weisberger only drove home the point that if I had ever wanted to lead a life swimming in the sea of affluence and unbridled excitement, it was too late. With this realization, I began a period of somewhat pathetic grieving. Here I was, in the prime of my youth, perhaps at the apex of my creative fortitude and my respective pursuits were now being cut short. In the midst of my hormonal nightmare, the life I had never had, or had ever really been all that aware of, was now lost to me forever and would be a pipe dream I could never achieve. (My only fashion-related goal from here on in would be to squeeze myself back into my lululemon yoga pants without the Lycra being stretched so far its sheen would cause corneal damage to anyone who dared look upon them.)

I now held this book as a symbol of my spent youth, my wasted talent and my life as a freethinking individual. I was determined to complete it before the delivery as a representation of my acceptance of my now very distressing fate.

Unfortunately, the stars were aligned in such a way that my little one decided she would prefer to arrive sooner than later and thus thrust my methodical intentions for closure into outer orbit. As I was in bed anxiously timing the minutes between contractions, I would glance at my night stand and see my book with over one hundred pages left to be read in a certain way mocking me in my predicament. When the contractions were precisely five minutes apart, I grabbed my pre-packed hospital bag, and while making a last glance around my room, swiped the book certain I could finish it in the next few hours or so while I endured the discomfort of labour.

The "discomfort of labour" I felt upon leaving for the hospital became the gruelling agony of near torture upon arriving. The next twenty-five, I repeat, twenty-five hours of labour sans medication, despite insistent pleas, were spent in the hospital hallway crying, contracting every two to three minutes, and begging for a swift out-of-body experience. As my husband rifled through my bag, he came across my book. With an empathetic smile, I could tell he knew my labour was not going quite as I had expected. Through my tears, with a blotchy face, runny nose, all I could mumble was “I thought I would at least have been able to read.”

Roughly around seven that evening, the dark clouds of anguish parted with the much-anticipated arrival of the anaesthetist. Within moments of the spinal, I began to regain my senses. I scarfed down a (forbidden) muffin and was told to take advantage of this time to sleep. As my husband arranged my things, my dingers and ringers, my measly glass of ice chips, I requested that he put the book within reach, just in case I couldn’t sleep. He nodded sternly, but reiterated the nurse’s advice to try to nap. As he curled up in the cot at my feet and quickly fell unconscious, I nabbed the book and began my frantic speed-reading. I knew the clock was ticking. I had just a few hours to say goodbye to my old life and embrace the new one bearing down on me with an intensity I could not have predicted. I scrambled through the chapters as fast as could, racing against the growing pressure. With each sound of the door opening, I would hide the book under the covers and feign sleep while the nurses checked the monitors. But with their last examination of my progress, I was pronounced "ready to push" and only moments away from my new life as mother. As the tools came out and the doctor was paged, my husband cleared my bedside table and found the book I had attempted to conceal. He smiled and shook his head as he packed the book, far from finished back, into my overnight bag. I knew I was in no position to argue, but there it was, my unceremonious closure to my previous life, unfinished and crammed into a satchel shared only by feminine products and nursing bras.

Within the hour, we welcomed our new baby daughter into the world and an entire new dimension to our existence began. It was as if someone had added colour to the wind. An invisible force that had once been inconceivable had saturated our beings and had suddenly created incredible new aspects to our lives. It. Was. Wonderful.

The nurses had been right about one thing: I should have slept. The next few days were a marathon or better described as one long day with the occasional nap. Caught up with the newness of our miracle and with the unmentionable post-partum agonies, we were so distracted my hospital bag had remained packed in the corner of our room, untouched for days.

Between the countless visitors and well-intentioned phone calls, baby demands and dinner preparations, I declared the need for an emergency time out and hid in the refuge of the bathroom. I ran the bath with a foggy memory of the bathing rituals of my previous life, retrieved my book from my bag, and set it on the edge of the tub. Sinking into the warm water, I eyed it suspiciously. Should I even bother picking it up? Attempt to finish it? What if I couldn’t even make sense of it anymore? What if the language hidden between its covers only communicated to a single, unmarried, "unbabied" audience and when those who no longer fit the criteria tried to pry open the pages, they would find only words written in hieroglyphs? What if the last few days had changed me so entirely I could no longer relate -- like looking at an old photograph of yourself and having no memory whatsoever of where you were when it was taken?

I pondered for a bit, dried my hands and picked it up. As I sank into the water and allowed the chaos to circulate on the other side of the bathroom door, I opened the pages and began reading where I had left off. The connection between author and reader returned amazingly quickly. I soon realized I had not lost one iota of my previous self. My brain, although somewhat slowed from sleep deprivation, was still delighted by the same humour and I could still, as far as I could tell, read critically. My mind hadn’t liquefied into mush and, not knowing why it came to mind, my disapproval of Barney had remained undiminished. After doing all the necessary checks, so far, so good.

So yes, life as I knew it had completely changed. My ability to experience the "finer qualities" of life had been dramatically reduced. I may have exchanged my push-up bras for nursers, my espresso for decaf, and my Anna Karenin for Goodnight Moon, but as someone who still has a passion for reading and dabbling with the creative word, my core remains unaffected. I’m indebted to Lauren Weisberger for having provided the literary link that grounded me from my frenzied anxieties of losing myself, reassured me that the unique elements that define who I am have remained intact.

The Devil Wears Prada
Lauren Weisberger

Gillian Parekh

I'm a juggler of pursuits, a full-time student, a part-time writer and of course, a full-time mother. Originally from eastern Canada, I was raised on the coast of the Atlantic and, in 2001, moved to the even rougher seas of urban Toronto. I now live in east Toronto with my husband and two baby girls.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ronna Bloom

Harriet the Spy; Fitzhugh, Louise

It was Mrs. Boloten at the Cote St. Luc Public Library who told me everything. I have a sense of being plunked sheepishly before her in my pink, horn-rimmed glasses and asking. No, not asking. For as in the old testament story of Passover, I think I was the daughter (son in the story) who didn’t know how to ask. At any rate, plunked there, I hoped someone would direct me. Tell me where I would find what I needed. And Mrs. Boloten did.

Somehow she knew. She steered me toward books and stacks and card catalogues. Showed me how to work this thing called a brain and what I might put it to. Connected me to the world. For years, I went to Mrs. Boloten and, like a pastry chef bringing out one gorgeous dessert after another, she made my eyes widen. She said, ‘Read this,’ and I did. There was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. But at the peak of that fictional croquembouche was Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. I had no idea what I was getting.

I took Harriet home and began what I now consider my strange relationship with novels. I seldom read them, but when I do, I carry them for months and months reading them bits at a time. I read for five minutes in bed, for ten minutes walking home, for a few on the bus (because that makes me motion-sick). I carried that book around making it last.

I was twelve when I got Harriet the Spy out of the library. I had friends. But they changed or I did. Grade six is a treacherous time for girls. My best friend was hated, by me, on alternate days and vice versa. Not much was safe. In my family, my Dad was powerful. He blazed like a ferocious star with us, these small planets, revolving around him. I was bad at sports and did not join teams. My eyes were crossed so baseball was out of the question. On weekends, my friends went to the Cavendish Mall. I went with my family to the Eastern Townships where there were forests and no guides.

There was some relief out in the country. For though I didn’t trust myself to navigate the strange pathless place, it was a reprieve from the agony of grade six, the shifting alliances and betrayals. The trees stood there and I visited them. One day, I took the book for a walk. It was fall, a cool orange-leafed day, and I didn’t go far. I remember sitting at the edge of the road on a tree stump. The peace of no one meant I could come forward a bit within myself. Surface. It is one of those carved-out moments. Sitting there reading about Harriet, how she carried her notebook around, and wrote in it secretly about her friends and family. This is what she did with her aloneness. She wrote everything down! When they discovered what she had written, it was gasp-worthy. The anger. Shocking. Sitting there, I saw I was already that. I had not yet started writing, but I recognized myself.

Thirteen years later, I sat in a full auditorium and Audre Lorde came out onto the stage. I'd never heard of her. A friend had insisted I come. So I went. Audre Lorde looked small in what I think was the elegant Wigmore Hall in London, England, in 1986. She stood alone on an empty stage. All I knew was that she was a feminist, which meant I was supposed to like her, and a poet. I was worried I wouldn’t get it. And that it would have nothing to do with me. In the same way I stood in front of Mrs. Boloten not knowing how to ask, I sat there, dumb.

It was the year her collection, Our Dead Behind Us, came out and she was reading from it. I don’t remember any of the poems. Only her looking out at the audience with a stark clarity and saying, "Know where your power is." I wasn't sure what she meant, yet I felt it ringing in me. All the doubt that came with bad eyes, fear of asking, a bad sense of direction, led to a feeling of no power at all, all the belief that other people had power -- those who were “political,” which I wasn’t or “wealthy,” which I wasn’t or male, which I wasn’t. Only the quiet absorption of every book and friendship and family tension was mine. Silently, internally mine. And perhaps there was a power in it, in me to do something with it. It was all I had. Was it anything?

I was at least thirty before I started to write. I wrote about what I had begun writing about in the diaries I kept in the days of the Cote St. Luc library, diaries any girl keeps about the unfair and the fickle. I was always writing about David Shapiro and Francine Taras, about the Strawberry Girls, the ones who wore strawberry lip gloss and "Love’s Fresh Lemon Cologne". Who dotted their i’s with hearts. And while the writing changed, Harriet the Spy and that quote by Audre Lorde stayed.

I have taken this writing out of my notebooks and typed it into poems and put it in the world. And yes, people got mad at me. I nearly lost some of them for writing things that seemed urgent and needed telling. The telling is not the hornet’s nest, it is the poking of the hornet’s nest. And everyone got stung, me included.

There was a time the telling was more important than any relationship, the need to speak more urgent. Each time, the decision taken meant asking, "Am I willing to risk this? Am I willing to lose this person in order to write this poem?" If the answer was yes, I went on. That process still goes on. It doesn’t feel as terrifying or as risky. But that’s just this week. Who knows what I’ll write tomorrow. And where it might get me or what it might cost me. I only know that with writing there is always a risk that someone will turn away. But in not writing, or not speaking when I need to speak, there is a turning away from myself. And that’s where I started. That’s where Mrs. Boloten came in.

Ronna Bloom has published three books of poetry. Public Works, published by Pedlar Press, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award in 2005. Personal Effects (Pedlar Press, 2000) was acquired and translated by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Ronna is a psychotherapist in private practice and teaches at the University of Toronto. Her poems have been included in anthologies, textbooks and broadcast on CBC radio. Her fourth book, Permiso, will be published by Pedlar Press in the spring of 2009.

Harriet The Spy
Louise Fitzhugh
Published by Delacourte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books
Originally published by Harper and Row, 1964

Our Dead Behind Us
Audre Lorde
Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1986

Sunday, June 8, 2008

More Than Just the Facts, Ma'am -- Madonna Hamel

The White Album; Didion, Joan

As a child, I wrote before I read. I know that sounds pompous. And it makes no sense. (I didn't say my spelling was any good.) But I really did. I'm sure I felt compelled to wriggle out of, and away from, my singular reality and the way to do that was to try to describe it and thus bring myself into the clear light of a shared day of humanity. I had a small perfectly square orange scribbler (that came in packs of four primary-coloured scribblers) into which I poured configurations of feelings. I didn't read (that is, I didn't actively seek out reading material) because I didn't need or want more of the world pouring into me. Too much information confused and disoriented me. I needed to find a familiar space with easy-to-follow directions and a simple, manageable beautiful view. And that space was between the covers of my perfectly square scribblers.

I didn't realize at the time that I was telling myself stories in order to live. That's a paraphrase of the opening lines to Joan Didion's "cover essay," 'The White Album', from her landmark collection of creative non-fiction essays of the same name. The book came out in 1979, the same year I finally found "my people", a group of mature students who, collectively, specialized in the literatures of Japan, France, the Soviet Republic, Ireland, England, Australia, South Africa, and Canada. My own fascination was with the writers of the American south. I was twenty-one at the time. But I could have used that book when I was eleven.

Growing up in north-central BC, in Prince George, the pulp and paper capital of the world, I knew I had to tell the truth but I wasn't capable of telling it without feeling, or without extensive details that went beyond "just the facts, ma'am." I didn't know that there was a style of writing that was being developed at the time by writers who felt the same way: Truman Capote, Tom Wolf, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion, among them. However, I was developing a growing awareness that stories had a "saving grace-quality" to them: as the years stumbled along, I learned that relationships, vacations, fashions, meals, and many half-baked projects and notions could crash and burn, but at least they made good copy.

What I didn't realize, until I discovered Didion, was that an artist could write about a huge global event right alongside her own little life as if her life, also, mattered. Personal catastrophes could intermingle with social ones and the news quality of the overall "piece" could still retain its integrity. You could be considered both journalist and diarist and no one would think the less of you, or raise an eyebrow at your fanciful rhetoric. As long as the all the decimal points were in the right place, they would still respect you in the morning. Here was a writing style that owned up to myriad influences, be they neuroses, family, alma mater, geography, anatomy, diet or addiction.

Didion's particular personal influences, when writing The White Album, included a looming possible divorce, a "certain organic disorder of the central nervous system", a packing checklist for last-minute flights and the fearful prospect of driving a rented car over the Carquinas Bridge. And these influences were as relevant to the overall text and carried as much literary weight as receiving the news of Bobby Kennedy's death while standing on a balcony in Hawaii, awaiting the arrival of Jim Morrison in a recording studio, discussing the commercial prospects of Soul On Ice with Eldridge Cleaver and his parole officer and hearing the news of Sharon Tate-Polanski's death while sitting in the shallow end of a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

I learned of Sharon Tate's murder from "The Vancouver Sun", the big city paper we only got on weekends. It made front page news, with a disturbingly sexy photo of the "Valley of The Dolls" starlet juxtaposed under the headline. That was my first exposure to the coupling of sex with violence and it packed a psychic punch. I had, at eleven years old, somehow surmised that pretty women were susceptible to violent deaths. I glanced at the article against my better judgment, catching phrases "pregnant. . . dead baby", "the word 'PIG' in blood. . . on the door", "stabbed sixteen times" then left the kitchen, chilled to the bone, despite the August heat. I sat on the back stoop pondering my fate and how, inexplicably, it was intertwined with Tate's. I sat there for the better part of the afternoon, dreading nightfall and the fact that I wouldn't get any sleep because the murderers were still at large and might well be headed for the border.

I'm forty-eight years old and, last week, I was in a Philadelphia bookstore talking with my lover's cousin Cleat about the things we fear and love. I was beginning to believe that we resonate with others based on whether or not we look at the world through enough of the same fear and love lenses. Cleat loves jazz and theatre. I love travel and books. We both fear poverty of all kinds. While comparing phobias and philias, I spotted on a shelf directly over his left shoulder a big book with the title "We Tell Each Other stories In Order to Live". I thought to myself: I know this phrase. It's the kind of thing despairing artists say to talk themselves off the ledge. And walking over to the shelf, I saw it was the title of a new anthology of Didion's non-fiction books. I bought the book with the intention of rereading The White Album, the essay. I wanted to see if it still hit as hard as it did upon first reading back in '79, when it came out, and I was an impressionable "comp lit" student, with my first real boyfriend and a newly-acquired taste for espressos.

It did. Especially section 10 of the essay. (The essay is divided into fifteen sections.) It talks about how, in those days (the late 60's) in LA, "everything was unmentionable, but nothing was unimaginable". There was a "mystical flirtation with the idea of sin" and with "the idea that it was possible to go too far". Her own community in Hollywood was experiencing "the jitters". She claimed that "dogs barked every night" and "the moon was always full". (Which, of course, the latter wasn't, but the image lent emotional colour to the idea that a palpable insanity lurked behind every door.)

And this is the part I remember most: on August 9, 1969, she "was sitting in the shallow end" of her sister-in-law's swimming pool in Beverly Hills, when the phones started ringing with the news of the murders at Sharon-Tate Polanski's home. Speculations flew back and forth regarding methods of murder, number of murderers and the involvement of drugs. And then: "I remember all of the day's misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised".

I've now reread that essay four times and and I'm on the third reading of the book in its entirety. I observe that the story of Sharon Tate's murder has less hold over me now than than Didion's discussion of her marriage. While I appreciate the chill that ran through me reading Didion for the first time when I was twenty-one and was prompted to recall my reaction to the Tate murder when I was eleven, I also appreciate that stories change. Even the ones we think will keep us alive.

Sometimes telling stories discharges their "energy-hold" over us. Sometimes the telling wears the groove deeper and keeps an attachment alive. Stories, the Buddhists remind us, can become crutches, blinders, parentheses around a potentially much bigger reality. Stories can even become noisy melodramas that keep us from a life of simple, momentary pleasures. But Didion knew this, too. After that now-famous first line -- "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" -- she warns the reader not to get too dependent on personal stories: "I am talking about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself... my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear clues and no longer did." Of course, given the events of those last years of the 60's, her reaction was understandable, some would even say, normal.

The White Album still confirms for me that even the most terrible human behaviour can be borne -- if only in a miniscule way -- by telling our stories with all that we love and and all that we fear. But I have also come to believe that, as writers, we should always be a little troubled and relieved by the premises of all our stories. And I am ever-thankful for Didion's stories, which relieve and trouble me still.

Madonna Hamel is a writer-broadcaster and monologist. Her band, "Auntie Maddy", was a regular feature on the Quebec City performance scene for eleven years. She is now based in Toronto. You can visit her website at .

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading Across the Ocean -- A Rite of Passage -- Isabel Huggan

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; de Beauvoir, Simone

In the autumn of 1966, just as I was turning 23, I sailed for Britain on the Cunard Franconia. I’d spent the year after university working as a copyeditor for the Macmillan Company in Toronto and, although my pay was only $75 per week, I’d saved enough to cross the Atlantic. In those days the cheapest fare, whether by air or sea, was around $200: I reckoned that seven days of fun was a better deal than ten hours cooped up in a plane, and booked passage from Montreal to Southampton. On the ship there were several Rhodes Scholars on their way to Oxford: the atmosphere, in the bar or on the dance floor, was giddy, exciting and full of promise, for every one of these confident young men seemed on his way to be somebody. By contrast, I didn’t have a clear goal other than leaving my good-girl girlhood behind.

My father had seen me off in Montreal – my mother was recovering from heart surgery and had stayed back with my sister. On my departure, he presented me with a long-stemmed red rose, which I then threw back to him, rather dramatically, just as the ship pulled free of its moorings. In “Knowing People”, the final story of You Never Know (Knopf, 1993), I made use of this moment in fiction:

"My father had given me a carnation corsage to wear, and I threw it down to him as the ship began to move, in what I imagined was a symbolic gesture. I wanted no connection with my parents. I was off to Europe to free myself at last from their embrace. He caught it and waved it at me, and then began pinning it on my mother’s jacket. She was weeping furiously, as if she knew what was going on in my mind."

During that year at Macmillan’s, I had been befriended by an older woman named Billie who was the first – and for that the most memorable – feminist I’d ever met. Divorced, and bringing up her son alone, Billie was smart, tough and utterly unsentimental in her evaluation of people and ideas. Knowing I had aspirations to be a writer, she gave me a photocopy of Tillie Olsen’s essay “Silences” that had appeared in Harper’s, and bid me think deeply about what I intended to do. Later, she lent me her copy of The Second Sex, which we discussed at length with the other copy editors during tea breaks and, before I left, she suggested the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, to read on the voyage.

“You’ll see yourself in these pages,” she said.

Reading while stretched out in a deck chair, sipping hot Bovril delivered by a steward, I soon discerned that similarities between Simone’s life and mine were not immediately obvious – in fact, the details could not have been more different. For a start, she was born Roman Catholic in Paris in 1908 just three years before my mother was born Protestant on a farm near Lake Huron: the crucial distinctions multiplied as the pages turned, but I began to understand why Billie had wanted me to read the book.

Here was a sensibility to admire! Here was a writer unafraid to examine her life with a fierce and meticulous honesty! Indeed, here was a woman I could learn from and emulate: Simone, who as a child had dutifully obeyed her bourgeois parents and conformed to their religious and social practices, eventually found the courage to follow her own heart and mind. During her early twenties, she blossomed into an extraordinary, unconventional individual – and a prolific writer – seeking only to be true to herself.

Could one want anything less for oneself? This was exactly the kind of person – the kind of writer – I wanted to be: fearless, determined, and fastidious about uncovering and expressing the truth, in life and in art.

I read her Memoirs passionately. Her account of adolescence described how she had felt confined in a cage of expectations, from which it was necessary to escape in order to survive. Amusingly, I believed that I too was liberating myself from middle-class constraints – on a luxury ocean liner (albeit in steerage). I grasped the comic irony even then, but it did not distress me, for Simone herself took years to loosen her family ties, and was still living at home – with a younger sister who was a willing accomplice to adventures into the seamier side of Paris – at an age when I’d long been independent. For years she straddled two worlds, but as she matured, her reading of philosophy (as well as contemporary novelists like Gide, Fournier, Cocteau) pushed her over into the realm of self-determination where she was free.

As soon as I settled in London that fall, I acquired Force of Circumstance, the second volume of her autobiography, which traces Simone’s unusual romantic involvement with existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and her own growth as a writer and intellectual. This book was even more compelling and inspiring than the earlier one, and led me to buy two of her novels, She Came to Stay and The Mandarins. I was initially surprised by what I read, for it seemed that events in her fiction exactly matched events in her memoir: she’d clearly absorbed Jean-Paul’s advice to allow her self to invade her art and to use her own experience, barely disguised, as material. Somehow, this discovery was hugely freeing, as if what Simone had done validated and legitimized the act of transforming one’s own life into fiction, and I saw other writers I was reading then – Drabble, Lessing – in this new light.

I think it is no accident that within a decade I had begun writing a series of stories about a child who felt herself to be unfairly caged by life in a small Ontario town in the 1950s (The Elizabeth Stories, Oberon Press, 1984). In the Gallimard edition (1991), the title is L’Échappée Belle, “the perfect escape”: the French translator understood the heart of the book. Here are a few lines from “Jack of Hearts”, the third story:

By all odds, I should have been dragged down by the life I led as a child in Garten. I should still be there, or somewhere like it, forced under by my upbringing and all the expectations around me. But luck was with me, and small pockets of defiance multiplied beneath my surface, keeping me afloat, preparing me for that final escape.

Reading her in 1966, I was struck by how scrupulous Simone was in her self-examination, exposing inconsistencies, jealousies and weaknesses as well as describing, without false modesty, her great intelligence and ego. I admired her for that, and for openly admitting personal confusion regarding various matters. For example, in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, she told of how she detested the idea of matrimony but at the same time wanted to marry her cousin Jacques; she could hold two opposing thoughts in her mind at once, as I so often did – wanting to stay single, at the same time as longing to love and be loved. Somehow, by writing so honestly, she allowed readers to forgive their own contradictions.

There must be thousands of women like me who read Simone de Beauvoir at a similarly impressionable age, who came to the same conclusions and made the same commitments: we would free ourselves, we would be ourselves. We would live by our ideals. Unlike some of the influential feminist texts of that period, Memoirs was not intentionally “instructive” but simply a record of a life: still, it stayed in my knapsack as a kind of Bible, as if Simone would show me the path.

In the two decades since her death in 1986, facts have gradually emerged about Simone’s adult life (most recently, in Tête-à-tête, the fine study of Beauvoir and Sartre by Hazel Rowley), giving her old admirers a rude shock: indeed, she may not have been as devoted to the truth as we believed. Her autobiographical works presented a certain “face” by leaving out details that would have altered the picture considerably, and her apparent self-criticism was only a literary ruse. Still, no matter what we learn now, what she wrote then, and how we read it, changed a generation of women in a manner not only benign but beneficial. We admired her because she dared to be herself: why then couldn’t we?

Re-reading Memoirs today, my reactions are overlaid with images of Simone gained through her later work and letters, and through biographies which have cast a harsher light on her life than she did, for all her seeming frankness. But, as Hazel Rowley writes in her introduction to the new paperback edition of the Memoirs, “This is the fifty-year-old author smiling at her youthful dreams, but in fact she never lost them and she was right not to. It is impossible to read about Simone de Beauvoir’s life without thinking about your own.”

Just as wise Billie had said.

My life turned out not at all like Simone’s: by 27, although I’d claimed at 23 I’d never marry, I was married, and by 34 I had a child. I have led a conventional life and it would be difficult to find any similarities, except one: I too have written from my own experience – “using what is given” as Bronwen Wallace said about using her own life as material – in part, I believe, because Simone’s work gave me that early “permission”. My last book, Belonging (Knopf 2003) combining memoir with short stories, aimed to make clear the intimate relationship between experience and fiction, sisters in pursuit of the truth.

I have lived in France for nearly nine years, on the edge of mountains where Simone hiked on holidays as a young woman, and not far from the Limousin region where she spent her childhood summers. It is only three hours by train to Paris, the city where she spent her life and where she died, but it has never occurred to me to make pilgrimages to see where she lived (although one cannot sit in a café with a notebook without thinking of her). Still, she stays with me as a kind of guide, and for more than 25 years, wherever I’ve set up a desk, above it I have hung a present from my husband: a framed enlargement of a quote from an interview in which she was asked for advice for a young writer:

"Je lui dirais de lire, d’étudier, d’apprendre, de réfléchir. Je lui dirais, écrivez : c’est un grand bonheur d’écrire malgré toutes les difficultés. Et puis occupez-vous du monde autour de vous, essayez de vous engager dedans."


Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Simone de Beauvoir
First published in its English translation in 1959
First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition published in 2005


Isabel Huggan, author of The Elizabeth Stories, You Never Know, and Belonging: Home Away From Home, spent the first 43 years of her life in Ontario, and has lived abroad for the last 20. She crosses the Atlantic twice every year to return “home” to Canada, and then to go back “home” to France. She has been a mentor in the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program for the past decade, and also gives writing workshops in France and Switzerland.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Larks! -- Terry Griggs

Great Expectations; Dickens, Charles

It’s the late sixties and some of my contemporaries in the big world–lots I suspect–are at this very moment smoking-up and just generally feeling groovy. Me, I’m sitting on a school bus in transit from my wretched new highschool in Strathroy to my wretched new home in Komoka (an embarrassing name that I can’t even say without thinking of grass skirts and Hawaiian guitars). I am not feeling groovy. I am in exile from my sociable, connected, larky life, my big-lake-small-pond existence on Manitoulin Island. My expectations for the move (mad parental decision, don’t ask) had been rube-istically hopeful–an off-island adventure!–but hope had drained rapidly down a sinkhole of Southern Ontario non-joie-de-vivre. It’s only highschool-hell, but I don’t know that yet. Only later do I realize how pitiable are those who cite highschool as being the happiest years of their lives.

So. I’m sitting on the bus, glum and dispirited, with four books on my lap that I’ve ordered from a school book club. This is an unprecedented, possibly desperate, purchase, as to date I’m a casual, take-it-or-leave-it reader, not a besotted one. Ironically, given the situation in which I feel I’m mired, the title of the topmost book on my pile is "Great Expectations". I open this book to the first page and. . . fall. I fall headfirst, headlong, head-over-heels into the rest of my life. A literary life, who would have thought? Which is not to say that I go to lots of parties, conferences, writers’ retreats and pubs (the latter at least is tempting). I don’t, hardly ever. But my life is pretty much defined by a kind of willing captivity, an enchantment, a tumbling into that graveyard with Pip and Magwitch and then not clambering back out, but taking a years-long meander through a purely verbal landscape.

What did I find in Dickens’ work that was so compelling (as opposed to the torture that Dickens apparently was for Evelyn Waugh, subjected as he was to his father’s nightly readings)? I found what was missing: richness, wit, flights of fancy, linguistic prowess, verve, heartfelt and brilliant storytelling. I found an astonishingly lively mind and the absorbing company that mind had so thoughtfully provided. I found what resonated, what mattered most when later I began to try my own hand at getting a few words down. What I’ve written is epigrammatic in comparison with his vast output, puny in accomplishment, but I, too, am much given to extended metaphorical riffs, comic exaggeration, stylistic bravura, and embedding fantasy in language itself.

If, as the Welsh say, English is “the thin language,” Dickens' use of it surely belies the assertion. Even the two words of the title, "Great Expectations", promise a wealth of wordy entertainment for the reader, and worldly education–and grief–for its main character. It’s also one of those books so widely read over the years that it has entered the cultural bloodstream–Miss Havisham in particular, the balked and moldering bride and Pip’s tormentor, has broken free of the text itself and wanders among us. I expect it’s her haunting my own work in the form of a menacing and mysterious elderly female character who determinedly keeps popping up, most recently in a character called Mrs. Havlock (not too obvious, eh). Married at last! Although her husband is suspiciously missing–revenge at last!

I’ve moved a few too many times of late and my library has been shuffled and scrambled and piled here and there. I’m a fairly orderly person, a small-time control freak, but I can’t exactly say where my book club copy of Great Expectations has gotten to. I know it’s buried somewhere in the book midden, a cheap edition with crappy cover-art, the binding held together with masking tape. But it’s one of my treasures, and I would never consider giving it the old heave-ho, as I have, unsentimentally, given many other books during occasional cullings. Would I rip out my own dog-eared and tattered heart?

Kindly Joe Gargery’s catchphrase in the book–“What larks!”–has become something of a catchphrase for me, too, and something of a philosophy. Suits my temperament anyway. I’m all for fun and merriment and for the resilience that an intelligent optimism brings. If one is going to try to wrest a life and a living from writing, then a functioning sense of humour does come in handy. In daily literary practice, business end included, there are of course many expectations that won’t be met, and some that are met in ways one would never expect at all. Not long ago, I discovered that a book of mine was being used as a prop in Sears catalogues. Being the sort of person who always tries to read book titles when they’re used as decorative backdrops in advertisements, I have to admit to being surprised to find my own displayed on chair slipcovers and coffee tables, the colour of the book jacket a perfect match for the décor. Well, books do have their uses, some more prosaic (as it were) than others. Even my younger, bummed-out self might have been amused.

Terry Griggs

Terry Griggs was born and raised on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario, in London. She has published a collection of short stories, two novels, the most recent being Rogues’ Wedding, and the Cat’s Eye Corner series of novels for young readers. Her works have been nominated for various awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, and in 2003, she won the Marion Engel Award. Currently she lives in Stratford, Ontario.